Control over Education


Click below for more information

Home Page - Index
Authorities Assessed
Old Testament
New Testament
Apostolic Traditions
Church Fathers
General Church Councils
Early Christian History
What Jesus Believed
Who Founded Christianity?
Creation of Doctrine
Origin of Ideas & Practices
The Concept of Orthodoxy
Origin of the Priesthood
Maintaining Deceptions
Suppress Facts
Selecting Sources
Fabricating Records
Retrospective Prophesy
Ambiguous Authorities
Ignore Injunctions
Invent, Amend and Discard
Manipulate Language
Case Studies
Re-branding a Sky-God
Making One God out of Many
How Mary keeps her Virginity
Fabricating the Nativity Story
Managing Inconvenient Texts
Christianity & Science
Traditional Battlegrounds
Modern Battlegrounds
Rational Explanations
Religion in General
Christianity in Particular
Divine Human Beings
Ease of Creating Religions
Arguments for and Against
Popular Arguments
Philosophical Arguments
Moral Arguments
Supernatural Arguments
  • Miracles
  • Revelation
  • Faith
  • Practical Arguments
    Record of Christianity
    Social Issues
  • Slavery
  • Racism
  • Capital Punishment
  • Penal Reform
  • Physical Abuse
  • Treatment of Women
  • Contraception
  • Abortion
  • Divorce
  • Family Values
  • Children
  • Romanies
  • The Physically Ill
  • The Mentally Ill
  • The Poor
  • Animals
  • Ecology
  • Persecution
  • Persecutions of Christians
  • Persecutions by Christians
  • Church & State
  • Symbiosis
  • Meddling in Governance
  • Interference in Politics
  • Abuse of Power
  • Church Law and Justice
  • Exemption from the Law
  • Unofficial Exemption
  • Financial Privileges
  • Control Over Education
  • Human Rights
  • Freedom of Belief
  • Religious Toleration
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Freedom of Enjoyment
  • Attitudes to Sex
  • Celibacy
  • Sex Within Marriage
  • Sex Outside Marriage
  • Incest
  • Rape
  • Homosexuality
  • Transvestism
  • Prostitution
  • Pederasty
  • Bestiality
  • Sadomasochism
  • Necrophilia
  • Consequences
  • Science & Medicine

  • Ancient Times
  • Dark and Middle Ages
  • Sixteenth Century
  • Seventeenth Century
  • Eighteenth Century
  • Nineteenth Century
  • 20th and 21st Centuries
  • Medical Records Compared
  • Violence & Warfare
  • Crusades
  • God's Wars
  • Churches' Wars
  • Christian Atrocities
  • Cultural Vandalism
  • The Classical World
  • Europe
  • The Wider Modern World
  • Possible Explanations
    Summing up
    Marketing Religion
    Marketing Christianity
    Continuing Damage
    Religious Discrimination
    Christian Discrimination
    Moral Dangers
    Abuse of Power
    A Final Summing Up
    Search site
    Bad News Blog
    Religious Quotations
    Christianity & Human Rights
    Christian Prooftexts
    Social Media
    Give me a child up to the age of seven, and I will give you the man.
    Traditional Jesuit Maxim
    Let me control the textbooks and I will control Germany.
    Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945)


    By the time of Jesus, the Greeks had long realised the value of free enquiry. As the philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius put it:

    Suppose a man can convince me of error and bring home to me that I am mistaken in thought or deed; I shall be glad to alter, for the truth is what I pursue, and no one was ever injured by the truth, whereas he is injured who continues in his own self-deception and ignorance.
    Meditations, VI.21

    This was not the view taken by Christians, who claimed to enjoy privileged access to absolute and immutable truths. These truths meant that the prime purpose of education was not learning, enlightenment, or discovery, but indoctrination. Indoctrination is the Church's own word for what it sought to achieve. To prevent free enquiry it was necessary for the Church to maintain a monopoly in the field of education, and to ensure that the only brand of education available was indoctrination.

    Religious indoctrocrination, now widely regarded as a form of child abuse, is still legal throughout the world - and is state funded in most countries, including the liberal democracies.

    This photograph shows Spanish Catholics in the trenty-first century.


    Pre-Christian Greeks had understood the importance of education, and primary schools were provided for both boys and girls. Rich citizens would donate funds for public schools for the children of their fellow citizens. Such philanthropy was part of an accepted public duty of the rich and powerful in the classical world. This could not continue under the new Christian hegemony.


    Establishing the Monopoly

    When writing was first developed it seemed to the uninitiated to possess magical properties. Why this should be so is not difficult to see. The uninitiated would watch as someone with the knowledge of writing suddenly became aware of some important information, not by being told about it, but simply by looking at some markings. Obviously these markings contained great power, and the reader must hold some great magical secret to tap that power. Significantly, in Saxon times, the word rune denoted not only a letter but also a secret and a magical charm. The word spell has a dual meaning of "tell the letters of a word" and "magical enchantment". The word grammar also once had strong magical connotations. Priesthoods of many different religions recognised the potential. Priests and magicians could enhance their own prestige by monopolising the secret of reading and writing. The link is clear in the word hieroglyph, which means "priest-writing". Such a connection was made all around the world, not just by the Egyptians.

    As soon as the Christian Church was in a position to do so, it established a monopoly over reading and writing. The whole system of public education in Western Christendom disappeared during the course of the fifth and sixth centuries. With a few small exceptions, education was now a monopoly of the Church. In English this is reflected in the development of the word cleric. Etymologically it is the same word as clerk. For many centuries all clerks were clerics, since clerics were the only ones permitted to learn to read and write. The only universities permitted in the Dark Ages were those within powerful abbeys. Schools of philosophy were closed down. Scholars were driven eastwards to the protection of the Persian Church and later the protection of Islam. The free exchange of opinions simply could not be tolerated in Christendom. Only those who had themselves been properly indoctrinated were licensed to teach others.

    In Christian times only certain approved people were allowed access to books, so access to books had to be carefully controlled. This was one reason that they were kept locked and chained in monastic, university and cathedral libraries. The Church did not approve of public libraries.


    For centuries the Western Church did its best to stop anyone else from learning to read. Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604, wrote to one of his bishops a letter beginning "A report has reached us which we cannot mention without a blush, that you expound grammar to certain friends". Naturally, the bishop was compelled to stop his wicked practices. Barbarism was positively encouraged. In contrast to the East, reading and writing were popularly regarded as absurd activities to be mocked and abused when practised by the laity. When the Western crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, some of them were to be seen around the city pretending to write. They thought it so absurd, so ridiculous, that ordinary citizens should be educated that they were mocking literate locals simply for being literate.

    For the Western Church the danger with genuine education was that it might have led people to dispute approved Church teachings. All manner of education thus had to be controlled. Every academic discipline became a Church monopoly, from astronomy to herbalism. In 1565 Pope Pius IV decreed that medical doctorates could be conferred only on Roman Catholics. Surgery was also closely controlled, as was philosophy, and much law, as well as most proto-sciences and the teaching of them. At this time no distinction existed between chemistry and alchemy, and similarly no distinction was made between astronomy and astrology.

    The Church consistently tried to suppress the spread of new ideas in western Europe, whether they were developed by heretics within Christendom or leaked in from other cultures. All manner of rational enquiry was considered a potential threat. At best it amounted to interfering with God's works without invitation, at worst it was blasphemy.


    The Bible

    One reason for the Church enforcing a strict monopoly over education was that it minimised the danger of ordinary people reading the Bible. If people could read they might realise how little conventional doctrine is to be found in the Bible. They might find that Jesus never planned a Christian priesthood; they might discover contradictions, expose the errors of Church scholarship, or reveal the forgeries on which Church influence largely depended. An illiterate population confined to looking at stained glass windows could never deduce more than the Church wanted them to know. Neither would they be able to discover how little justification there was for any but the lowest levels of the Church hierarchy.

    The ignorance of the great majority of the population was convenient for the Church in the Middle Ages, and it was clear that as long as ignorance continued, faith in the Church's teachings would also continue. As the Church knew, the key to learning was reading and writing. The Church could not allow people to become literate. From the late eleventh century Church Councils, popes and other bishops forbade vernacular translations of the Bible and also prohibited the reading even of the Vulgate by laymen. Any attempt to make an independent assessment of it amounted to heresy and was sufficient to incur the death penalty.

    Access to books opened up a whole world that the Western Church would rather keep to itself. So it was that, apart from powerful nobles, only clerics were taught to read and write. They alone were allowed access to ancient mysteries, and they alone could interpret scripture. The Roman Church insisted that the Vulgate was divinely inspired and this therefore was the only acceptable version. The fact that it was in Latin was convenient, because congregations throughout Europe could not understand a word when it was read in Church, and they could not therefore identify the many inconsistencies that it contained. Referring to the dangers of printing, Cardinal Wolsey wrote to Pope Clement VII in 1523:

    This new invention has produced various results, of which Your Holiness cannot be ignorant. If it has restored books and learning, it has also been the daily cause of sectarianism and schism. People are beginning to call into question the Church's present faith and doctrines. Lay people are reading the Bible, and praying in their own language... The mysteries of religion must be kept in the hands of the priests.

    The Church had scholars burned at the stake for daring to translate the scriptures into living languages so that people could understand them. William Tyndale wanted to translate the New Testament into English so that every plough-boy might read it. Sir Thomas More, then Lord Chancellor, now a saint, opposed him, holding the traditional line that bishops should have the right to decide who should and who should not be allowed to read the Bible. As More put it in 1530:

    It is not necessary that the Bible be in the English tongue and in the hands of the common people. The distribution of the Bible, and the permitting or denying it, is totally in the hands of superiors.

    Tyndale fled for his life. He was later captured in Antwerp, tried for heresy, convicted, strangled and burned.

    When translations did eventually come into circulation they were invariably provided with a gloss to smooth over the unpalatable bits. Time and time again those who made translations into vernacular languages were perplexed to discover the lack of any mention of the papacy. Wycliffe, in translating the Bible into English, had started questioning the justification for various sacraments in their existing form: he realised that Holy Orders had been vastly inflated and that there is no justification for setting bishops above priests. Confession he said did not require "ear-whispering", and the doctrine of transubstantiation he saw as an invention. The Roman Church was right to fear vernacular translations, for it was their increased availability in the age of printing that was largely responsible for a number of "heresies" culminating in the Reformation.

    Tyndale's translation eventually became the basis for the Authorised Version. Still, the Roman Church stuck to its traditional line for centuries to come. The Vulgate, although studded with errors, was held to be divinely sanctioned, and other translations were regarded as less authoritative. Until the middle of the twentieth century, services in Roman Catholic Churches were conducted in Latin, in the certain knowledge that virtually no one in the congregation would be able to understand what they were hearing.



    Christian priorities are made clear in surviving Christian buildings. Almost every ancient village in Europe has a church, but almost none has a school — and the schools that were built were usually for the privileged, the rich or those destined for the service of the Church. Education was only for the select few. It provided a training for those selected to become churchmen, and ensured that the keys to the treasury of knowledge should not fall into the hands of anyone who might be tempted to unlock the door. Knowledge was power. Knowledge therefore had to be rationed. So it is that throughout Christendom there are a tiny number of schools that date from the time when Christianity was at the height of its power. In early times bishops ran their own schools for lectors, the education offered being limited to some Latin, singing, and enough arithmetic to calculate the date of Easter. No genuine academic subjects were taught*. No grammar school could be opened without the permission of the local bishop. The bishop's monopoly also explained why there were no schools for girls. Even religious women, like anchoresses, were debarred from teaching girls*

    Secular rulers like Charlemagne, who had favoured the idea of educating laymen, had been opposed by the Church. During his lifetime Charlemagne was strong enough to enforce his views, but as soon as he was dead the monasteries returned to their traditional position — that it was not their job to educate men who were not intending to serve the Church. In England, as elsewhere, parish priests sometimes taught the sons of those rich enough to afford the fees, but there was no effort at universal education. Private benefactors set up schools to teach the elements of Latin grammar, and these became known as "grammar schools". Winchester College, for example, was established to teach grammar to seventy poor scholars and ten "sons of noble and powerful persons, special friends of the said college". The poor proceeded to a clerical career via Winchester's sister foundation at New College, Oxford. Of the schools that have existed since the Church was at the height of its power, many are cathedral schools, successors to the old bishop's clerical schools, now supplying the Church with choir boys rather than putative priests.

    Physical abuse was universal in Christian schools up to the twentieth century,
    and corporal punishment is still common in Christian schools in countries were it is not illegal.


    Some schools were established explicitly for the friends of the Church. The Jesuits became specialists at educating the rich and powerful , as a conscious technique to further their own ends — winning converts, or influential friends, or both. In Protestant countries many schools were originally founded specifically to educate the sons of clergymen. Outside Europe the position was generally worse. In South America the Dominicans refused to found secondary schools, and opposed the teaching of Latin to the indigenous people. In the past those who were privileged enough to receive an education at the hands of the church schools were thoroughly indoctrinated so that any natural inclination towards inquisitiveness, rational thought, or doubt could be eliminated.

    Dr Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, is credited with revolutionising the school system in England in the nineteenth century. His innovation was to turn out Christian gentlemen rather than just Christian men: "What we must look for here is, first religious and moral principles; secondly, gentlemanly behaviour; thirdly intellectual ability". It is noteworthy that intellectual matters ranked well behind religious ones: "None can be more sensible than ourselves to the worthlessness of mere intellectual achievement". Science was omitted from his school curriculum on the grounds that mere facts were morally useless.

    A cartoon reflecting early twentieth century criticism of the traditionalist approach to education

    The notion that girls might be educated was even more revolutionary. Mary Ward, who proposed to educate women in the early seventeenth century, met with nothing but opposition from the Church authorities, and had to fight tenaciously to keep her schools open. In some ways the girls were fortunate, for what they were denied was indoctrination rather than education. Their brothers traditionally spent their time reciting wholesome Latin sayings such as "The prelates of the Church are the salt of the earth". The overwhelming majority of schools founded by Christian Churches in English speaking countries were founded after Thomas Paine published The Age Of Reason in the late eighteenth century and ordinary people were discovered to be teaching themselves to read in order to find out what he had to say about Christianity. After 1800 years, Christian authorities now started to see the need to teach ordinary children to read — and get them fully indoctrinated in biblical texts as a way of inoculating them against Paine's (and Gibbon's ) best sellers.

    "Another Pied Piper" by E J Pace, from William Jennings Bryan's Seven Questions in Dispute, 1924.
    This was an exeptionally popular Christian cartoon showing the dangers of education. A piper representing science leads children along the path of education to a dark cave representing "disbelief in the God of the Bible"

    In 1846, the Rev. John Allen, Inspector for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire wrote the following (which, he claimed, reflected rural opinion):

    We cannot help having a school, but we think it advisable that as little as possible be taught therein.’ [Kay, David and Kay, Joseph, The Education of the Poor in England and Europe, (J. Hatchard and Son), 1846, p. 220.]

    US States where corporal punishment is allowed (2012) are also the most strongly Christian states.




    The Church permitted the establishment of universities in Europe, but these universities bore little resemblance to their modern counterparts. They were run by the Church and staffed by clerics, with the principal purpose of producing new generations of clerks (the words clerk and cleric are cognate — etymologically the same word). The basic educational content had changed little from pre-Christian times, and had been tailored to Christian needs by Isidore of Seville. Students studied the seven liberal arts: three years for the Trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric), leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree, then four years for the Quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy), leading to a Master of Arts degree*, with the option of proceeding to a doctorate. Much of the content was based on ancient authorities like Aristotle, no original research. All original thought was discouraged.

    The Church enforced an educational monopoly throughout Christendom, except ironically in Italy, where a vestige of the pre-Christian educational system survived amongst the rich. By controlling the educational system, the Church also controlled the professions. Not only were all scholars and teachers clerics, but all clerks in noble houses were clerics, civil servants were clerics, architects were clerics, so were physicians, and so were lawyers. The English legal profession still preserves reminders of its clerical past. Much that is traditionally associated with universities dates from the time that the Church controlled them. The professorial chair is an echo of the time when a bishop's cathedra was the only sort of academic chair there was. A university degree was originally a licence to teach, a reminder that no master might teach without a licence from the local bishop.

    After the Reformation the two English universities came under the control of the Anglican Church. Biblical scholarship improved a little, but otherwise there was not much change. The universities were still run by the Church for the benefit of the Church. They existed not for research or increasing the stock of knowledge, but for training clergymen. Oxford and Cambridge were both closed shops. Many scholarships were available only to the sons of clergymen. Those who disagreed with the current Anglican line were excluded. University fellows lost their tenure if they strayed from the current views of the Anglican Church. For centuries no other universities existed in England, so there was no choice in the matter. All the fellows were in Holy Orders, and to gain admission it was necessary to subscribe to the faith of the established Church. Atheists, Jews, Roman Catholics and dissenters were all denied a university education, although Roman Catholics could at least attend their own educational establishments. Jeremy Bentham founded University College in London in 1828 to enable non-members of the Church of England to obtain a university education. Oxford and Cambridge continued in their ways for years to come. Until 1871 only those willing to subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England were eligible to enter the ancient universities. Tutors who started to question the Articles, as an ever-increasing number did in the nineteenth century, were obliged to resign*. Students like Shelley (the future poet) who became atheists and asked awkward questions were sent down.

    Until the nineteenth century most European universities were still controlled by the Church. Hardly any great discoveries were made in them until they were reformed in that century. Until then the centres of discussion, research and discovery were the households of the independently minded nobility, and learned societies, such as the Royal Society, founded during the Enlightenment. University syllabi remained fossilised into the twentieth century. For example, arguments in Paley's Natural Theology had long been discredited by philosophers and evolutionary theorists, yet it remained part of the prescribed course of study for some students at Cambridge into the twentieth century. (It is still part of the Natural Sciences Tripos — but now merely for historical interest.) At Oxford, doctors of divinity still officially rank above all others, and doctors in civil law and medicine, like those in divinity, are admitted to their degrees "For the honour of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for the profit of our Holy Mother the Church, and of learning". They are incepted "in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" when the Vice Chancellor touches them on the head with a Testament*.

    Since the Church maintained a monopoly of all learning, the rare advances that occurred were usually made by heretical clergymen. The treatment they received is instructive. Pierre Abélard had an original enquiring mind and was interested in resolving contradictions in early Christian writings. He was condemned for heresy in 1121. No one knows what the philosopher and naturalist David of Dinant proposed, because most of his writings were ordered to be burned by a Church Council in 1210. Later in the thirteenth century a Franciscan, Roger Bacon, produced some original ideas. He dealt with mathematics, optics, experimental science and moral philosophy. He was accused of "suspect novelties", condemned by the General of the Franciscan Order, and imprisoned. Early in the next century William of Occam came to prominence as an outstanding logician*. He was also a Franciscan and like other Franciscans of the time advocated poverty. He was denounced in 1323 for teaching dangerous doctrines, and a few years later he was obliged to flee for his life. Protected by Louis of Bavaria he comprehensively destroyed the synthesis between faith and Aristotelian reason constructed by St Thomas Aquinas. William is generally considered to have been the only medieval thinker to have contributed significantly to modern philosophy. Copernicus, a cathedral canon, was posthumously excommunicated when the Inquisition realised the significance of his cosmological work.

    Others were less fortunate. Original thinkers like the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno were burned at the stake. Michael Servetus, a priest with a lively and original mind, was burned to death by Lutherans (Calvin had wanted him executed, but in a different way). Church attitudes continued after the eighteenth century, although the risks for dissent were reduced. Thomas Malthus, an Anglican priest who first understood the principles of natural population control, was denounced and reviled. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, was discouraged from his pioneering work on genetics, and his writings destroyed after his death.

    Christians knew perfectly well that women were not capable of learning. Books destroyed women's brains. Learning made them neurotic, hysterical and flat-chested. Well into the twentieth century clergymen were agreeing with the popular nineteenth century view that education for women, like other rights for women, was "mad wicked folly". It was not until 1920 that women were admitted to Bachelor's degrees at Oxford University, and later still at Cambridge. MAs were even more of a problem since this degree made its possessor a member of the university's ruling body where, contrary to the injunctions of St Paul and St Augustine, they would "hold authority over men". It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the last remnants of discrimination were overcome, and men and women would be treated equally by the ancient universities.

    Vestiges of Church influence remain at the ancient universities. The headgear known as a square, popularly called a mortarboard, is a variation on the Paris Cap, a type of clerical hat. The gown and hood are also relics of clerical dress. Even in the twentieth century the connection is maintained: the white bow tie still worn by members of Oxford and Cambridge universities as part of standard academic dress on formal university occasions is also official dress for Anglican clergy. But this is all pleasant tradition. More troubling for academics, there are still many scholastic posts reserved for theologians. Elsewhere in the world the position is little changed from the nineteenth century. In Roman Catholic countries, the Church still typically exercises control over universities, influencing the teaching of disciplines from medicine to philosophy. In the USA Baptist and fundamentalist universities flourish, their prime purpose being to propagate or justify the beliefs of their founders, just like traditional seminaries. Following ancient tradition, their purpose is often not genuine education or research, but Christian indoctrination.


    Losing the Monopoly

    The revival of learning during the Middle Ages was largely attributable to men powerful enough to circumvent the Church's monopoly of learning. As we have already seen, some vestiges of the classical approach to learning had been preserved in Italy. In the 1440s Cosimo de"Medici initiated a worldwide search for ancient manuscripts. Through him the corpus of Pythagorean, Platonic, Neo-platonic, Gnostic and other work found its way into translation. He established the first public library. He encouraged the teaching of Greek, the language of learning and the original language of the New Testament, which the Western Church had suppressed some 700 years earlier. He set up an academy to study ancient thought, an idea that was copied elsewhere, accelerating the Renaissance and preparing minds for the Enlightenment.

    In England and elsewhere, wealthy townsmen started to endow schools outside the clerical system. With the Reformation, it became possible for laymen in Protestant countries to read the Bible. Now the Roman Church felt itself even more under threat. No provision for training priests in their duties had existed until then, but as part of the Counter-Reformation the Roman Church started to formalise its system of education. When it had enjoyed a monopoly there had been no need to ensure that even priests were properly educated. Now that its monopoly had been broken the Roman Church had to compete with educated Protestant clergymen. The Council of Trent established a system of seminaries for the first time in 1562-3. The monopoly could still be enforced in some countries, but in others the cat was out of the school bag. Secular forces would eventually ensure that universal education would become the norm. These forces brought education to the middle classes, then to working men, then to poor boys and even girls. Education would soon be available to all — even to women, to the deaf and to slaves — but not before rearguard actions had been fought.

    All attempts at improving education for the masses were opposed by the established Church. In 1807 a bill to establish rate-aided schools to provide two years" education for poor children in Britain was defeated in the House of Lords, largely through the efforts of the bench of bishops. As the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out at the time, such schools would subvert the first principles of education in England (i.e. the Church's monopoly) and would leave "little or no control to the minister of the parish". Education was not for everyone. It was for those favoured by the Church, and the cultivation of the intellect was a privilege that the Church wanted to keep within its gift. In 1839 the Lords debated a proposal to establish a National Council for Education, an idea that outraged Christians. As the Bishop of Exeter observed during the course of the debate:

    Looking to the poor as a class, they could not expect that those who were assigned by Providence to the laborious occupations of life, should be able largely to cultivate their intellects*.

    The danger was that educated Christians would be less pliant. As the reformer Henry Peter, Lord Brougham (1778-1868) was reported to have said "education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave". Churches still tried as hard as possible to restrict education, for example declaring it sinful to educate slaves, but it was increasingly difficult to enforce the vestiges of its monopoly. By the 1860s slavery in the USA had disappeared along with the severe penalties then in force for anyone who taught a slave to read or write. One of the last bastions of the Christian monopoly of education had fallen.

    The ideas of learning for the sheer love of it, of open research, and of allowing an education to all were all fiercely opposed by the Church. Genuine education was advocated by people outside the mainstream of Christianity. Utilitarians held that education and progress were the best way forward for the whole of humankind , and that schooling should be available to all. Universal education was promoted by men like the liberal theist George Birkbeck (1776-1841), by followers of Robert Owen, the agnostic philanthropist, by reformer Sir Francis Burdett (1770-1844) and by intellectual socialists. Francis Place, a well-known freethinker, pioneered education for the poor. It was supported by other freethinking radicals and some dissenters. In England Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, whom all the mainstream Churches regarded as their enemies, held that education was the best preventative of crime, and that it should be compulsory for rich and poor alike. Universal education was advocated by freethinkers and opposed by the Churches. The Elementary Education Act of 1876 made education compulsory and universal. In 1877 New Zealand introduced free, compulsory and secular education. The Churches were outraged, and the Roman Catholic Church, which still saw secular education as inherently evil, was uncompromising:

    If you have Catholic faith and Catholic hearts within you, you will never give a vote to any of these infidels, whom Almighty God will send to hell some day for leading a whole generation away from religion*.

    Free education in France was introduced in 1881, and in the following year it was made compulsory and secular. In Germany the pioneer of modern education, Johann Basedow (1723-1790), stressed philanthropy in place of religion. The general pattern was that the greater the power of the Church, the later educational reform was achieved. Almost invariably, freethinkers led the way and the Churches limped along later. It was only after Bentham's University College had succeeded that the ancient universities abolished their religious qualifications.

    An American Catholic cartoon by U.S. Abell (1876-1965)
    emphasing that the best protection against the dangers
    of modern education is ignorance of contemporary ideas.

    For 1,500 years the Church had tried to keep education to itself. Now churchmen had to accommodate themselves to a new world. They lost no time in changing tack and were soon presenting themselves as educators, bringing light into the darkness of millions. As they were obliged to accept the principles of universal education, they set about using it to bolster their position. In some countries this was done for example by developing Sunday Schools. In North America, towns like Boston and states like Massachusetts set up public schools under religious control. They were instruments of the favoured Protestant Church, designed specifically to serve Christianity and propagate Christian belief. When the modern public school system, directed by Horace Mann (1796-1859), came into existence in the nineteenth century, the position was much the same for all primary and secondary education. As Mann put it "…our system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals; it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible".

    Fear of Catholic influence in schools was a lively concern in nineteenth and
    twentieth century America - now replaced by concern about fundamentalist sects.

    This American cartoon is more explicit about fears of Catholic influence in education. A globe is being swept away along with a history book and the bible. Clergymen teach papal infallibility. A gory picture of a bleeding heart hangs on the schoolroom wall, along with the keys of Saint Peter. Also prominent are candles, crucifixes, a holy water stoup, a rosary and even a communion cup.


    In some places education was used as a sort of bribe to encourage conversion — as it still is. But in Europe, once learning had been freed from the grip of churchmen, the Church lost most of its power. Science and philosophy flowered as secular ideas flourished. Ideas like those of Marcus Aurelius were revived. Christians fought more rearguard actions, as we shall see later, but it could no longer restrain free thought. Moreover its objection to free enquiry came to be seen as an indictment against it. As Bertrand Russell pointed out:

    The fundamental difference between the liberal and the illiberal outlook is that the former regards all questions as open to discussion and all opinions as open to greater or less measure of doubt, while the latter holds in advance that certain opinions are absolutely unquestionable, and that no argument against them must be allowed to be heard. What is curious about this position is the belief that if impartial investigation were permitted it would lead men to the wrong conclusion, and that ignorance is, therefore, the only safeguard against error*.

    One of the last Christian victories of note in the field of education was against Russell personally. In 1941 Russell, an atheist, was offered a chair in philosophy at the College of the City of New York. Christians of all denominations were outraged. The Deputy District Attorney of New York State summed up their position when he protested that taxpayers" money would be used "to pay for teaching a philosophy of life which denies God, defies decency and completely contradicts the fundamental religious character of our country, government and people"*. The offer was withdrawn after a sustained campaign by Bishop Manning and other leading Christians, including Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Baptists and fundamentalists.



    In Britain the 1944 Education Act required that religious instruction be given to all pupils, although it was silent on such incidental academic disciplines as English and Mathematics. The practical effect of this was to subject generations of British school children to many hours of indoctrination. Moves were made to abandon the requirement in the 1988 Education Reform Bill, but the bishops used their position in the Lords to retain it. Despite having been widely regarded for years as an anachronism that should be scrapped, the provision was strengthened to give it a more explicitly Christian emphasis. All state schools are required to provide a daily collective act of worship wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. Of course, the requirement offends large numbers of adherents to other faiths. Similarly, Religious Education, a subject that most people had expected to be allowed to die quietly, was shaken into life and made part of the core curriculum. In most primary schools and some secondary schools Bible stories continue to be taught as events that really happened — contrary to the views of most theologians. Christian ethics are presented as absolute truths, rather than opinions. The Churches" role in history is misrepresented, and in some particularly religious schools science is either deliberately mis-taught or not taught at all.

    Traditional style Christian teaching - from an Irish school book
    once commonplace - now rare enough and seen as offensive enough to attract attention

    Many teacher-training colleges are still dedicated to specific denominations, and many schools employ teachers only if they belong to the right denomination. In Northern Ireland there is a greater and more divisive problem associated with religious teaching. There, Roman Catholic children attend Roman Catholic schools and Protestant children attend Protestant schools. They all receive sectarian instruction. Their parents" religious prejudices are reinforced, and distrust and hatred is fostered for another generation. This sort of sectarian hatred and fighting is closely linked with the provision of separate denominational schools. The only other places in Britain where it has been known are cities like Liverpool and Glasgow where Roman Catholic and Protestant communities were also polarised into separate communities with their own schools.

    A Fundamentalist Protestant View of Education - which also manages to suggest to
    ingenuous children that scientists and psychologists "know that God's word is true"

    In many countries Christian schools continue to discriminate as they have done traditionally, for example by accepting only children from what are considered properly constituted families. Children of divorced parents are thus denied admission. In Chile, where divorce is not permitted, the children of separated parents are not admitted into particularly religious schools. Elsewhere, the effects of Christian educational policy are having even more serious consequences. A common missionary practice was, and still is, to offer a free education to those willing to join up. The effects of this are often divisive and persistent. For example in what is now Rwanda, nineteenth century Belgian missionary priests helped reinforce the dominance of the Tutsi minority by denying Hutus access to schools. The dislocated balance of power resulted in periodic outbreaks of violence that continued into the 1990s , culminating in the genocide of April to July 1994, in which up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu militias, including machete-wielding priests*.

    As in Britain, church schools in the USA are state-funded. Christian schools can even be established with the express intention of "programming the mind". Many hold the fundamental tenet that God favours US world supremacy. A popular programme of religious teaching called Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) works Bible stories and religious themes into all subjects. It also puts a great deal of stress on Christian values and almost none at all on science. ACE schools in England have been criticised by HM Inspectors of schools on numerous grounds, including the gaping holes in their curriculae. Many fundamentalist Christians still want to deny a scientific education to their children, especially if it includes evolutionary theory.

    When it was published in 1859 Darwin's The Origin of Species shook the Christian establishment around the world. It soon established evolutionary theory among the educated classes, but it took much longer for its truth to filter down to the less well-educated parts of society. Many states of the USA adhered to traditional Church teachings, accepting as fact the creation stories in the Old Testament. Schools were prohibited from teaching genuine biology. By the 1920s this position was regarded as a joke by the outside world, although in the USA there were still fundamentalists recommending that those who advocated Darwin's theory should be burned, or even crucified. Many states were still not ready for the scientific age. In the so-called Scopes "monkey trial", a case heard in Tennessee between 1925 and 1927, it was held that evolution must not be taught to state school children. To the astonished amusement of much of the rest of the world this line held for another 40 years or so in the southern states of the USA. It was not until 1967 that Tennessee repealed its law that forbade the teaching of anything that conflicted with the biblical account of the creation.

    Sign in Dayton, near the Rhea County corthouse, Tennessee, USA


    Other states still retained such laws. In 1968 the Supreme Court dismissed an Arkansas one as a quixotic and anachronistic violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which both guarantees free speech and forbids the establishment of religion. In April 1972 the last remaining anti-evolutionary law was repealed in Mississippi. Nevertheless, evolution remained a controversial subject, and many schools still do not teach it. Some states have local opt-out provisions, allowing fundamentalist school districts to use non-evolutionary textbooks. School textbooks often avoid the subject or treat it in such vague terms that pupils cannot understand the fundamentals of the subject. Consequently the American public is, throughout much of the country, profoundly ignorant of one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time. Traditionalists continued to try to re-establish the old ways. In the early 1970s many school boards issued instructions requiring that creationism be taught in schools, until this too was ruled to contravene the First Amendment. Nevertheless it is still not unknown for American biology teachers to teach that the world is 6,000 years old, and that fossils date from Noah's flood. In recent years Creationism has been dressed up and paraded as Intelligent Design, purporting to be a scientific theory on a par with the theory of evolution and so worthy of equal time on school curricula*.

    A secular view of Catholic Education in the 21st Century
    (popular on social media. Artist unknown. Does anyone know?)


    In Britain, as in many other countries, theologians are appointed to ancient chairs of philosophy, although they are not recognisable as philosophers to other academics. In some countries the Churches still run universities. In others an established Church still appoints professors of theology to be paid by public funds.


    In Summary

    Christians have generally sought to prohibit any form of education other than their own and to suppress ideas in conflict with their own. The education that Churches have traditionally provided has not been a genuine education, teaching children to think, reason, invent and understand: it has been indoctrination, emphasising rote learning, obedience and deference to religious authority. Historically, within the Christian hegemony no boys were educated for the love of learning, and no girls were educated at all. Educating girls, women, the poor, slaves, the deaf was considered to be blasphemous, or at best pointless.

    Education became free and universal only when the Churches' monopoly was broken, as it eventually was against a great deal of clerical opposition. Well into the twentieth century, the Christian Churches opposed educational reform. Even today the role of some Churches is divisive: teaching opinion as though it were fact, suppressing or misrepresenting science, using education as a bribe for conversion, favouring teachers and academics on the grounds of belief rather than ability, and in some cases perpetuating sectarian hatred.


    Buy the Book from



    Buy the Book from
    Beyond Belief: Two Thousand (2000) Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church
    More Books






    § In Britain, barristers still wear as a collar the traditional preaching bands, derived from the medieval shirt. The judge's ermine-trimmed scarlet robe is derived from an ecclesiastical cope, his cincture from an ecclesiastical girdle, and his stole from an ecclesiastical stole. At Easter time judges still exchange their scarlet robes for purple ones, just as priests exchange their usual vestments for purple ones at that time of year. Judges belonging to the Queen's Bench even vary their dress according to whether the day is a Saint's day.

    §. Royal schools in western Europe, even the famous palace school of the Frankish kings, taught the usual limited range of Latin, theology and chant. Ironically a tradition of lay teaching survived in Italy, a vestige of ancient Roman times that survived despite the Church. Students could learn Latin and Greek literature, philosophy, law and medicine. In this way women could learn and practice medicine.

    §. A twelfth century rule for anchoresses known as the Ancren Riwle, for example, forbids an anchoress to teach girls herself, although a servant might give instruction instead.

    §. The basic structure survives at ancient universities like Oxford and Cambridge and has been copied by more recent universities.

    §. A few notable examples of Oxbridge tutors having to give up their jobs were Arthur Hugh Clough, J. A. Froude, and Sir Lesley Stephen. In 1865 the Clerical Subscription Act reduced the level of agreement with the 39 Articles required by law from ex anima consent to "general assent", but even this was too much and resignations continued.

    §. The words, like all the words of the Oxford degree ceremony are spoken in Latin. The translations are taken from the "Guide to the Oxford Degree Ceremony" (1989), printed by the University for candidates.

    §. The most significant contribution to philosophy during this whole period was what is now known as Occam's razor, developed by William of Occam.

    §. Quoted by Tribe, 100 years of Freethought, p 174.

    §. Father Henneberry, National Reformer, 21 st April 1878, cited by Tribe, 100 Years of Freethought, p 124.

    §. Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, p 125.

    §. For an account of Russell being denied his teaching post see "How Bertrand Russell was Prevented from Teaching at the College of the City of New York", an appendix to Why I Am Not a Christian, p 169.

    §. Although widespread involvement in killing by priests and nuns in Rwanda was witnessed and reported at the time, relatively few were ever prosecuted. One notable example was Father Athanase Seromba condemned by a UN court on 12 March 2008 for his crimes. He had been accused of the massacre of 1,500 Tutsis at the church in Nyange in the west of Rwanda. Although he had not wielded a machete himself, he had ordered the church to be demolished by bulldozers, then sent in militiamen to kill any survivors with machetes and guns. There were no survivors. See

    §. The website of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster deals with the arguments for Intelligent Design by making claims for an equally valid or equally invalid third alternative “theory”.


    •     ©    •     Further Resources     •    Link to Us    •         •    Contact     •