Let’s just be clear from the outset. I don’t steal, I don’t cheat, I don’t lie, I give to charity, I’m not unfaithful and despite all the temptations that surround me I try to eat my 5 a day. In short, whilst I may not always succeed I try every day to be the best person I can. And as a mother of two I endeavour desperately to instil these values into my children who, despite frequent transgressions are generally thoughtful, polite, kind and loving.
So why the big proclamation? Well, as a family without a religion I feel at times desperately uncomfortable with what I consider to be the stealthy influence of the church on my children’s lives as well as the perception that we inhabit some kind of grey area when it comes to morality.
Let it be said from the get go that I have a deep admiration for many aspects of the main religions of the world (I’m choosing my words carefully here, because there are many aspects for which I have no admiration at all) and a fascination and desire to learn more about them. My children have already set their tiny feet inside cathedrals, mosques and synagogues and yet like all children are heart warmingly oblivious to differences in dress, skin colour and language whilst we adults tear each other to pieces over them. Nonetheless the influence of religion seems to pursue them and others like them relentlessly and as a parent I’m both baffled and angered by this.
I know that there are those who would say that we are a Christian country and that as such our values need to reflect this. I would argue that they and in fact that the values of all religions which for me, can be boiled down to a simple mantra of ‘be good’ are embodied by nearly all people of all faiths and none in this country day in day out, this has nothing to do with religion but humanity. I would also take issue with anyone who describes our country as Christian when according to the 2011 census one in four of us consider ourselves to have no religion at all.
It is the year 2018, technological advances has transformed our lives beyond recognition in the space of half a generation, medical advances mean that we are living longer than ever and yet we still deem it acceptable to have faith schools, schools which deliberately divide our children in ways which parents in so many other ways are keen to avoid. Faith schools, be they Catholic, C of E, Islamic or Jewish have become so woven into the fabric of our society that we seem blind to them, but transpose the idea on to other situations and you start to see the problem. A hospital for Hindus only? A library that only Buddhists can use? A leisure centre for Catholics?
Four years ago now I began the arduous process of school applications for my son. As I looked into the schools nearest our house I began to look at the criteria on which applicants are selected. Looking at a local C of E school I noticed that below the usual priorities of looked after children, siblings and children who attend the parish church, were children of other faiths whose application was supported by an Imam/ Rabbi/ other community leader. Placed below this at the bottom of the list were ‘other children’.
There it was in black and white. My child it appears was in some way morally inferior. Bad enough that his parents didn’t believe in the Christian god, but the absence of any god in his life placed him at the bottom of the pile without a chance of ever setting a foot through the door.
What, for me makes this doubly frustrating is the amount of parents all too keen to ‘play the system’ when it comes to their ‘religion’. First came the church weddings of friends, friends who in all our years together, I had never once seen go to church or have any religious convictions whatsoever. Then it was the christenings where I witnessed in their new roles as godparents non-religious friends of the non-religious new parents swearing to ensure that the (I can only assume) non-religious new baby would be raised ‘in the faith’. When that new baby reaches age 3 back everyone troops to church week in, week out so as to get that all important school recommendation letter from the vicar.
Given the situation I’ve just described I’m forced to reaffirm to myself again that whilst I may not have a religion I am at least guided by a stronger set of principles than those who indulge in the practices I’ve described above. I cannot imagine how frustrating and hurtful it must also be for committed Christians to see this unfold year in and year out in their places of worship.
As it turns out my son actually got a place at our first choice school which as a non-denominational establishment fitted the needs of our family entirely.
Or so we thought.
Again let me be crystal clear on this. I wholeheartedly support the teaching of R.E in school, in fact I think there should be more of it. Learning about the beliefs, traditions and customs of the different peoples of our own country and the wider world surely can only make our fractious little planet more peaceful and tolerant. But religious teachings, it would appear are not just confined to R.E and are largely based on the teachings of Christianity.
Once again my little boy came home from school last week talking about the death of Jesus. As far as I could tell the discussion hadn’t taken place in any kind of R.E lesson. This death of Jesus first reared its head in (his non-denominational) pre-school when he was three. He is a sensitive soul and whilst of course he understands that people die hasn’t yet come to the cheerful realisation that people kill each other for fun. At 6 I’m more than happy to wrap him up in cotton wool if that means protecting him from a story in which the main protagonist is betrayed by his friend for money and forced to carry his own cross before being nailed to it by his hands and feet and left to die in agony.
Then there are the assemblies. Religious societies which come into schools and tell bible stories. I know my son has been read to in assemblies by a religious Christian society, but unless I missed that section in the newsletter, I wasn’t consulted about this.
My first experience of one such society was actually as a secondary school teacher, working in a girls’ school in London. A girls’ school with a significant Muslim and Hindu population. Without consultation with the parents or with the girls themselves the school accepted an offer from a group to come in and give an assembly. An elderly gentleman took to the stage and explained that the he was from an association of ‘professional men and their wives’ (ladies if in 2018 you can read that last sentence and not want to punch the wall, then you are stronger than me) dedicated to telling people about Jesus via the distribution of bibles. I’m still wracking my brains as to how this could ever have been deemed appropriate.
Whilst I don’t believe that anything insidious is going on here and I’m fairly certain that my son, open as he is to most things enjoys hearing stories from the bible I feel that as his mother I should be consulted about this. I don’t even know that I’d want him withdrawn, but would rather just be given the options. I simply refute the idea that my children and the education system in which they will grow and learn for 14 years have been set to some kind of Christian default. At no point have either of my children come home and talked to me about the death of Mohammed or the birth of Buddha. The system as it is feels very far from being inclusive.
My children are free to believe whatever they wish and I make this clear to them at every opportunity. Their beliefs on most things seem to change as frequently as the weather and in this respect religion is no different. I will strive for them to be tolerant and not only accept but celebrate human diversity, I simply ask that we are afforded the same in return.
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