“HANDS together, eyes closed,” came the instruction, and we obediently complied. It seemed no more or less arbitrary than many of the other edicts issued by primary school teachers to us, their pliable charges. We lined up together in twos holding hands, we recited our times tables, we put our chairs atop our desks at the end of the day, and we prayed to God. Praying was like a less enjoyable variation of the indoor-playtime classic Heads Down, Thumbs Up, only with considerably more peeking.
I suppose we understood roughly what praying was all about – in this era supermarkets still kept sweeties beside every checkout, so by the age of five we were well-versed in pestering authority figures who were busy doing something more important – but the same cannot be said for the hymns. The youngest of us learned these phonetically, with such disregard for meaning that in later years substituting “plasticine” for “Palestine” was the height of both rebellion and hilarity. To this day I can’t quite shake the belief that the hymn beginning “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (number 57 in the book) was about a man called Seekye First, possibly a relative of the grumpy but loveable character Siegfried Farnon from All Creatures Great and Small. The comedian Richard Herring has told of similar confusion about the much more lively number Lord of the Dance Settee.
“I may not have been scarred by the religious observance at my primary school,
but that does not mean it was right to treat pupils in this way”
At the time, to pupils like me, religious observance was just another part of school, and no doubt many adults have fond memories of aspects of it, particularly if they enjoy looking at stained-glass windows, or singing. I still remember that Colours of Day (number 22) was Mrs McLeod’s favourite, and only slightly resent the fact that valuable space in my brain is occupied not only by hymn verses but by utterly worthless hymn-book trivia of this nature. Certainly our local minister, Reverend Hill, always seemed a very nice man – no less deserving of respect that the equally nice headteacher to whom we also droned a vaguely irreverent “good morning” at weekly assemblies – and the form of Christianity with which we were indoctrinated was among the most benign available.
But indoctrinated we were, since we were given absolutely no choice about whether we wished to participate in acting out the role of “Christian children”. This was despite the fact that the sign in our school’s playground explicitly referred to its alleged non-denominational status, in order to distinguish it from the Catholic primary of the same name with which we shared a campus. The Sikh parents of the brother and sister who joined towards the end of my time there could have been forgiven for thinking non-denominational meant just that.
The Rt Rev John Chalmers, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, who delivered his New Year Message this week, seems to be a little confused. Either that or he believes Scotland’s world-class education system has somehow produced adults who cannot tell the difference between religious education and religious observance, or between “time for reflection” and time to do precisely what one is told. Grasping for relevance in an era where enlightened Scots are leading moral, purposeful lives free from religious superstition, he has cynically selected extremism as the hook on which to hang his latest appeal for the privileged position of Christianity in schools to be maintained. Apparently the key to promoting religious tolerance is to impose religion on children as they learn. The right religion, presumably. One that doesn’t involve any of that nasty extremist business.
The Scottish Secular Society (SSS) suspects the moderator would not be altogether delighted with, for example, imams leading school assemblies – and so it has gone ahead and called for exactly that to happen. While this bluff-calling ruse is unlikely to get us very far, it’s easy to see why the SSS has resorted to it, exasperated by the utter hypocrisy demonstrated by Rev Chalmers. How to begin to debate with someone who asserts “there is nothing worse that the indoctrinated child” and that none should seek to impose their beliefs on others, while shamelessly arguing for precisely such indoctrination and imposition and, worse still, trying to dress it up as education? And not just education, but the key to “peace in our time”. I can’t pretend I remember much from the religious education I received at secondary school, but I do know that we were not required to assume or act out any religious identity in classes. We didn’t roll out prayer mats while learning about the pillars of Islam, or don turbans when memorising the seven dimensions of Sikhism. The very idea is quite absurd.
I may not have been scarred by the religious observance at my primary school – and indeed the patent nonsense of it may have helped develop critical thinking skills among those of us who were subjected to it – but that does not mean it was right to treat pupils in this way, or that prayers by default have any place in 21st-century Scotland. Everyone knows small children are complete suckers for ritual, routine and repetition. But they are also human beings who deserve respect, and we should shudder at the very notion of exploiting these endearing – if at times infuriating – characteristics in order to bolster the power and influence of an organisation seeking a captive audience of impressionable new recruits.
The Kirk will claim, no doubt, that secularists are demonstrating their “intolerance” merely by arguing that religious observance should be offered on an opt-in rather than opt-out basis. The status quo means parents with objections must remove their children from key aspects of school life into which Christianity is tightly woven. It will perhaps be claimed that the nasty secularists seek to ban Bible stories, nativity plays and Christmas carols. But the crucial factor here is how any of these cultural traditions is presented. I was surprised recently when a friend on a study placement from overseas joined and swiftly un-joined a student choir, having discovered that hymns would be sung at its Christmas concert. She wasn’t a Christian, she told me, so she wasn’t happy singing hymns, despite otherwise loving the choir and approving of the rest of its repertoire. Something tells me the phrase “militant atheist” is not bandied around quite as freely in her home country as it is by frothing ministers in the UK.
One can enjoy singing or listening to Christmas carols without being a Christian, and indeed absorb moral messages from Bible stories without believing they are the gospel truth. There is a considerable leap from staging a charming nativity play to assuring a group of startled, runny-nosed infants that the son of God went on to die for their sins, and in exceptionally painful circumstances.
If the Kirk is so confident that its teachings are the right ones – in contrast to those that spawn the extremism it seeks to combat – then it should have faith that independent-minded adults will seek to join its congregations of their own free will, having learned about the history, practices and traditions of all of the world’s religions free from prejudice in their Scottish schools.
The article was first published in The Herald on January 2 2015. Published responses can be read here, here and here.