Half-hearted and meaningless- religion in schools   4 comments

At school Physical Education was compulsory.  I forged notes from my parents, feigned injury and forgot my games kit to avoid it.  As soon as there was a relaxation, as I reached sixth form (High School senior years) I opted for table-tennis which was unsupervised and so was actually cover for a card school.

Outside of the official games periods I played football (soccer) in the playgrounds and cricket and football away from school.  I still play league cricket as I reach my fiftieth year and social football games twice a week.  I am also a walk leader as part of a community project.

At school I tried to avoid sports because they were official, the PE teachers that led classes as a supplement to their other academic duties also did so without any conviction and so allowed a little latitude.

My view of religion at school was very similar to that of games; the statutory nature destroyed any merit for the subject.  In the main, I feel most schoolmasters felt a similar lack of enthusiasm.  The difference for me was that I didn’t run off and engage in religion away from school.

This is why I find the battles in the American education system and the extent of religious indoctrination so alien.  Religious tradition is so much a part of the English education system but has a marginal effect; over the pond it seems that the malignancy is very deep.

Unlike the US, the church in the United Kingdom is not separated from the state but integral to it.  Our Head of State is the Head of the Church of England.  Our second legislative chamber has protestant church leaders in it as of right.  Our state (public) schools have daily collective worship that “shall be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.  For all this religion is weak in our collective society.

Like in my day I get the impression that religion is essentially ignored in the state school system.  Even some voluntary aided faith schools insist on as few as ten per cent of admissions being regular participants in the established faith.  My local Roman Catholic secondary (High) school gives preference to Catholics who attend church, then any Catholics, then active Christians, then any active participants in any World Faith.  There is a move away from parents pretending to go to church just to guarantee a better school place for their heathen children.

I clearly remember at primary school that the school dinners were preceded by a Christian grace.  All my assemblies included prayer and most were akin to a church service.  For all that there was a feeling that this religious input just diluted the faith message.  All of the religion seemed closer to tradition than any real theism.

There was Religious Education at school but I have no real recollection of the subject I always got the impression that any masters or mistresses involved were a figure of fun.  I don’t remember any other faiths other than the very basic biblical Christianity.  The official government line on the school subject  now is “Religious education provokes challenging questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, beliefs about God, the self and the nature of reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human. It develops pupils’ knowledge and understanding of Christianity, other principal religions, other religious traditions, and other world views that offer answers to these challenging questions”  What I found odd over my kids’ school life was that every exploration of “alternative” religions involved Diwali; it was an easy call to go for a festival with lots of lights before Christmas.

As an atheist for my last five years at school I never had an issue with any religious elements.  My later secondary school had been founded in 1594 so had traditions linked to religion going back centuries.  I never remember anyone asking my religion.  Perhaps it was that as multi-culturalism had not really reached middle England then and so we were all “Christians”   However I do not remember any Catholic teachings.  This was in a town where there were a significant number of Roman Catholics although that town claimed a place in Protestant history.  I did note that the “visiting” priest at my daughters’ school was Catholic.

A generation on and at that establishment, another 400 year-old school, my children found their religious studies to be very similar.  Lay teachers going through the motions and specialists who were figures of fun.  Because I took more of an interest I knew who the religious teachers were.  One of the most devout was also one the best teachers I have come across.

The early secondary stages were all about comparative religions with a drift thereafter into general morality.  I got the impression that those who kept the study up into external exam levels were either the properly religious or those looking for easy grades.  My youngest daughter sought exemption from the collective worship as soon as she was of an age to decide and no one made an issue.

I have to say that for me and my children a lack of faith was no issue whatsoever even from those teachers who were devout.  It certainly didn’t stop my eldest representing her school and many events and winning a whole host of prizes.

For as much as religion is enshrined in the compulsory curriculum and levered into daily assemblies by law it seemed meaningless in reality and regarded with the same apathy as compulsory sports.  Like with those sports if you were really interested you got on with it outside of the education system.


4 responses to “Half-hearted and meaningless- religion in schools

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  1. Hi Pete – I’m impressed with your atheism. I’ve been one since I was five, but that’s another story. Religion is not so benign in America. The Jessica Ahlquist campaign to remove a prayer from her school is a prime example of small town religious bigotry. Jessica has become a star and has a bright future ahead of her. The events on ‘You Tube.’ and are well worth watching. For other avenues of religious intolerance in America see clips from ‘Fox News.’ But you probably know all this. Yet America is beginning it’s own genesis. Atheist billboards are beginning to appear in the mid and deep south and small groups of atheists are challenging the lack of separation between church and state.

    The internet is, at last, opening up the debate. For me it has been a great source of inspiration and I’m now well versed in debunking religion. Christopher Hitchen’s death was a heartbreaker. A great man, terribly undervalued whose writings I consumed with gusto. His, and Steven Fry’s demolition of Anne Widdecombe in the ‘Catholicism’ debate on ‘YT’ was electrifying.

    I retired last year from teaching in London. Witnessing four year old Catholic children being forced to put their hands together and walk the whole length of the school to the assembly hall for prayers still fills me with indignation; and all this at tax payers expense. As Richard Dawkins says, the indocrination of young minds is a great evil. Are you a member of a local atheist group?


    John James

    John James [Frearsghost]
  2. John- thank you for your comments. I am not a member of any group nor do I hide my lack of beliefs (despite meeting the CFC chaplain today!)

    I don’t push it where any conflict might affect the work I do in the community. While that work is exclusively secular I do interact with all sorts including charities with a church background.

    My “public face” with the football club Trust was the reason I repositioned myself on Twitter to have two accounts. My face_of_weevil one allows me to follow and interact with a lot of the American atheists like Ahlquist. The pervasion of ill-considered faith into US politics and society is truly frightening.


  3. I agree with almost all of this apart from the bit about children who do religious studies at exam level being devout or looking for an easy grade. I studied religion at the Scottish equivalent of A level and I’m an atheist and certainly wasn’t doing it to get an easy grade. I did it because I was interested, for a couple of reasons; firstly because it’s easier to shoot down a theist in a debate if you have a grounding in the basic principles of religion and secondly because the course covered philosophy which is, I believe, important to study as it allows us to examine the meaning of existence through logic and reasoning rather than just pointing at the sky and going “beard man done it.”

  4. I have yet to read a god believing philosopher provide a discourse that is anything but a disingenuous attempt to construct a ‘truth’ within which they can justify their faith. John Haldene, Alister Magrath and the Catholic Father George Coyne are just three whom examine the meaning of our existence through to a framework for the existence of god.

    Haldene, an evolutionist, talks of ‘substantive’ meaning. Magrath of ‘great truths’ and Coyne, also an evolutionist, declares that god exists because religion means so much to so many and, therefore, must be true. Their discourses start well enough but their words become opaque, their logic pales and great stretches of the imagination are needed to maintain a coherency.

    In the sphere of cosmology, where it really matters, they are barren; indeed shy away from. We are temporal beings subject to extant laws. If there are third dimensions let the scientist discover them.

    John James [Frearsghost]

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