The UK government recently reasserted its determination to privilege Christianity over other religions, and especially over unbelief, in public schools.*
There are plenty of rants one could indulge in over this – on the merits of a secular public sphere in general, on the dangers (to religious as well as secular values) of mixing religion and government, on the indoctrination of children.
Today, I’d like to simply reflect on the justification given: that the collective worship assemblies reflect the country’s broadly Christian heritage.
Many replies could be made to this statement. First, I will agree that Christianity has played a long and important role in shaping British history and culture. It would be a disservice to children and society to deny or downplay this fact in teaching kids about British history.
But what is, in fact, suggested, if we really take seriously the claim that British religious heritage should be imparted in school assemblies? You see, as I understand it, the religious heritage of the UK is not one of meekly accepting traditions that have been handed down. A large part of that heritage is a laissez-faire attitude: great numbers of people claiming religious affiliation for but doing nothing about it.
Leaving that very important part of the British character aside, the religious history of the isles is an exhilarating tale of reform, revolution, and advance. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all been swept with waves of religious reform, from the Anglican break from Rome, through the Protestant Reformation, down through the Enlightenment and the rise of scientific scepticism.
British religious heritage includes ideals of Catholic universality, of Anglican nationalism, of Protestant individualism, and (very dear to me) of radical dissent from religious belief. The intellectual history of humanism is as indissoluble a part of this heritage as Christian traditions such as the “Lord’s Prayer” – and as necessary to understanding the contemporary character of British society.
To deny this – to privilege Christian beliefs and rituals over the other aspects of British heritage – is to reject the great advances that have been made by some of Britain’s most well-known and respected historical figures – Newton, Hume,Darwin, Huxley, and many others. It is also to reject the growing portion of the population that finds fulfilment in life without any reference to a god or religion.
If the government really wants to impart British heritage to schoolchildren, to give them a real experiential connection to the grand themes of British religious identity and heritage, then it should open up the scope of the religious assemblies to explore all of that heritage, rather than only one corner. How were things in Britain different before and after Henry VIII’s break with Rome? How have different religious groups, when in power, persecuted or protected other religious groups? Perhaps children could watch (or, even better, participate in) re-enactments of the encounters between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, or between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce.
Having grown up mostly oblivious of religion in Canada, I rather like the British idea of openly discussing and learning about religion in the classroom. Too many of the ills of religion are due to (or exacerbated by) ignorance of other beliefs. It is a shame that the UK government undermines their basically positive principle by cravenly catering to sectarian influences, as in the case of collective worship.
I have to agree with this statement by Lord Avebury at the end of this piece that, “this is going to happen in the end” … “whether they like it or not, it is going to come. Sooner or later we shall get rid of the act of compulsory worship in schools, and the sooner the better.” Britain is becoming more secular, and secularists are gaining a stronger voice. But sooner would be better, for the children’s sake.
* The media at large doesn’t seem to have picked up on this, so I can only link to the BHA’s summary. See also this report by the Accord Coalition, a group of religious and non-religious organizations working to improve education and religious rights in the UK.