Imagine that a woman has taken her children to the dentist for a check-up. Before examining their teeth, the dentist reads a passage from the Bible, delivers a lecture on how they can be saved through Jesus, and gets them to stand, sing a hymn and recite a prayer. Most parents would ask what on earth was going on. Some would insist on such preliminaries being omitted from future visits. Others would be seeking a new dentist. Even many church-going parents would be disconcerted at the interpolation of activities which have nothing to do with dental health. This is the content of a dream or a surreal comedy sketch and would cause open-mouthed shock if it occurred in reality.
A similar scene, however, occurs every weekday in non-denominational British schools and goes largely unchallenged by parents who would not describe themselves as religious, have not raised their children in any religion, and have not sent them to school to take part in acts of worship or listen to ancient myths and supernatural speculations presented as though they were fact. Every weekday, in a unique act of organised collective dishonesty, children go through the motions of singing and praying to a god in which they do not believe, in a building whose purpose is education, using up time which could be spent improving valuable skills and increasing their understanding of reality. Why do they and their parents tolerate this scheduled intrusion into their lives of other people’s unproven religious beliefs, even while they have a legal right to opt out? There are at least four reasons.
Firstly, many people are instinctively conformist and go with the flow unless they strongly dislike where the flow is taking them. Parents might not want to risk damaging an initially cordial relationship with the school’s management by rejecting a component of the school’s projected ethos. They might not want to risk being the only parents to object, and consequently their children being the only ones excluded. Their children, especially in primary school, might feel unhappy at having to sit in a room apart while most or all of their classmates unite in song, since exclusion, often used as a punishment, can easily take on punitive connotations, besides making a child feel lonely. Going against the flow is not considered worth these risks, yet many non-religious parents might not give much thought to the question of why there is a flow in favour of religious observance in the first place. Declining church attendance figures suggest that it does not satisfy a majority parental demand. It is, rather, that the law demands it, and there has never been a sufficiently popular and organised challenge to the law, though all that might be needed is for the country’s non-religious parents to unite.
Secondly, school religious observance is a tradition, and traditions have two curious psychological effects on society. They render unremarkable what might otherwise seem bizarre behaviour, such as rolling cheeses down hills or tossing pancakes while racing along a road, and they gain sentimental value through longevity, causing people to support their perpetuation on the basis that “traditions must be kept up”. There is, of course, nothing wrong with people choosing to participate in traditions which give them pleasure, but school religious observance is for many participants neither a pleasure nor something they actively choose, as they are herded into the assembly hall with their hymn books on the mere pretext that they and their parents have not objected. For them it is a tradition with no value, so why are they expected to play any part in its perpetuation? The answer is that they are treated as Christians by default, not because of what they might believe but merely because they have professed no other religion and have no ethnic links to other religious groups. They are presumed ‘cultural Christians’ and might even be conditioned to seeing themselves as such. Many parents likewise retain a vestigial sense of cultural connection to religions they do not practice or believe. They have been ‘officially’ allotted a religion by birth certificates and infant baptism; they recall religious observance from their own schooldays and decide that, as it did not succeed in imparting belief, it was at least harmless; they still attend church weddings and funerals in which they might play the game of pretending to be Christians for a brief period, and they do not see any problem in their children playing the same game. If, however, they were to total up the time devoted to school religious observance during the whole of their child’s mandatory education, they would realise that it amounts to far more than occasional weddings and funerals over that period. Moreover, occasions for celebrating marriages and uniting in sadness can have meanings for non-religious participants independently of any religious trappings, whereas a regular act of worship in a school can only be an act of worship, to a believer, or a waste of time and possibly an embarrassment, to a non-believer.
Thirdly, some parents are put off removing their children from religious observance by the niggling idea that not allowing them exposure to religious influence might be, or be seen as, a failure in broadmindedness. Some proponents of evangelism exploit misgivings about censorship, arguing that if freethinkers are sincere about wanting their children to make up their own minds, they should support religious observance, as children cannot reject or accept a religion of which they have no experience. The fault in this argument is that it ignores the crucial difference between neutral and partisan presentation of religion. Non-religious parents are generally happy for their children to be acquainted with the tenets not only of Christianity but also of the world’s other major religions, as long as all unproven beliefs are presented as beliefs and not as fact, which requires evidence. Religious observance, however, is partisan. Prayer and worship assume the existence of a deity, and when they are organised activities in a school, whose main function is the imparting of knowledge about the world, they become exploitative. Young children in particular can easily be swayed by the assumption that what they are taught at school must be true, and even if they have atheist parents at home providing a counter-influence, having a factual diet laced with undeclared beliefs can be confusing and even lead to doubts about teacher trustworthiness. If teachers would not present the magic elements in fairytales as factual, why should they refer to proofless Biblical miracles as though they were historic events? The other way in which religious observance fails to be neutral is that in most schools only one religion – Christianity – gets served up in the assembly hall. If proponents ever bother to try justifying this favoritism, they might advance the circular argument that Christianity has long been the country’s dominant religion, so should continue to dominate, but to a child raised in no religion, Christianity does not derive more value than other religions merely from its historical significance. We are not bound by the past, and if Christianity’s place in British history does not justify recommending it to a child of Hindu parents, it does not justify recommending it to a child of non-religious parents. If a child of Hindu background can happily get through life and become a complete and broadminded person without taking part in Christian worship, so can any other. Moreover, if we treat participation in Christian worship as a developmental necessity, why should we not extend the same respect to other religions, which are backed by an equal amount of evidence? Would Christian parents who support school religious observance be happy for their children to be enrolled in acts of Hindu worship, on the ground that their children cannot make up their mind about Hinduism until they have experienced it first-hand?
Fourthly, religious observance is only one activity among others at school that children might not enjoy but accept that they have to endure. Schools are not regarded as places where you go to do as you please, and if a child hates, for example, maths, but accepts the annoyance of maths lessons for a few hours a week, it might be felt that less than an hour per week of religious observance is not too great a burden. This is a false analogy. We need to be educated in certain subjects, such as maths and language, in order to function in the world. As a society we need to perpetuate scientific knowledge to sustain our technology-dependent lifestyles, and though not all children will become scientists, we need to teach all of them some science in order to find out who has an aptitude for it. We also need to give children skills and knowledge to enable them to find employment, and the benefits of health education and exercise need no explanation. Religious observance, on the other hand, is neither a necessity, nor a means of developing skills or knowledge. Unlike lessons in which children learn about various beliefs as an aspect of humanity, it has no educative value whatsoever.
I asked why non-religious schoolchildren continue to take a dissembling part in what to them is no more than an empty ritual, even though neither they nor their parents have expressed support for it. I have given four reasons; I hope I have shown that they do not suffice; and I challenge readers who disagree to prove me wrong or to produce other reasons which do suffice. I end by calling on the management of non-denominational schools to stop taking support for granted and to ask parents and pupils their opinion. It should be easy to distribute a simple questionnaire with one question. To parents of primary school pupils: “Do you wish your child(ren) to pray and worship in school hours?”. To secondary school pupils: “Do you wish to pray and worship in school hours?”. It should also not be too difficult to accommodate all respondents: both those who answer ‘yes’ and those who answer ‘no’. While the ‘yes’-sayers (or their children) pray and worship, the no-sayers (or their children) can spend the time learning, which seems to me a more suitable activity to take place in a school.
Robert Canning 2013