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A place for wonder, but not for worship

The review of religious observance can bring a new dimension to school life , says Graeme Nixon

The minister asked us to pray. All I could see were people looking exceedingly uncomfortable in being forced into this practice. Later some hymns were sung, and all I could hear were the two ministers out-singing over 600 people. This shows me that there seems to be very little place for religion in a modern school environment, if not in modern life."

These words were written by a sixth-year pupil in his dissertation. What he describes is a scene that many teachers will recognise. I wonder how much "social capital" or Christ-like action an assembly such as the one above actually generates? Very little, I suspect.

Indeed, the prominent humanist Richard Dawkins described religious observance as a form of "mental child abuse". A less trenchant, but hopefully weightier, opinion can be found in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Articles 13 and 14 speak of the "right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion".

What is happening in many Scottish school assemblies is therefore at odds with the human rights of the child. I would add that the rights of the teacher have also been ignored. Though there has been a "conscience" clause for parents, there has never been a similar clause for staff.

One of the arguments for religious observance was that it would complement religious, moral and philosophical studies as a kind of spiritual field trip. This is rather like saying that modern studies teachers should take their pupils to party political rallies, but representative of only one political party. The community of enquiry created in effective religious, moral and philosophical studies is actually undermined by confessional assemblies.

Another argument against purely Christian assemblies is that pupils will mistakenly assume that Christianity is the sole originator of concepts such as compassion. I am reminded of President Bush's fatuous statement that atheists are not citizens of America. Ethics are not the sole preserve of religion.

There are several issues emanating from the new definition of religious observance, which the recent review attempts to address (largely successfully). First, the review's definition of spirituality goes a long way to acknowledging that everyone, of every philosophical and theological persuasion, has a spiritual life.

So where does worship fit into the new model? The answer is that it shouldn't have any place in a school which is not "continuous with a faith community", in the words of the review.

At last, there is a recognition that worship should not take place in a school community where there is a diversity of beliefs. It is my belief that this describes every school community in Scotland. This should be welcomed not only by headteachers, teachers and pupils, but by school chaplains who can now go on to develop a much more positive profile for their faith than currently exists.

The review document goes on to state that, if the school is "diverse", then the "appropriate context for worship is within the informal curriculum".

Again surely this is welcome - meaningful worship should be freely chosen.

One implication of this is that, the next time the Gideons come with their Bibles, the headteacher should say: "Yes, hand them out and, if you wish, engage in an act of worship. However, I will advertise your presence to pupils who will voluntarily come along." I await with interest the first headteacher to take such a line.

One major stumbling block remains - the term "religious observance". Why, given the new definition, has this phrase been retained? Why don't we just call it "assembly"? The retention of the term religious observance will only perpetuate an inappropriately confessional approach to these events.

The appearance is of little change.

The anomaly here is that, given the new definition of observance, Richard Dawkins himself could be a guest at an assembly and expound on the awesomeness of the natural world. In doing so, he would be fulfilling the "religious" observance requirement.

These reservations aside, overall I am excited by the possibilities offered by the new definition. The review puts it best as "a paradigm shift in which religious observance is transformed from a peripheral position to a central role as a guarantor of the school's commitment to realising the full potential of every person in the school community".

Ultimately, given the challenges of a plural society and the complexity of 21st century life, it is an act of cowardice if we retreat into simplistic and anachronistic modes of practice such as confessional assemblies.

Creating gated communities of the mind does little to prepare young people for the world.

Graeme Nixon is a lecturer in religious, moral and philosophical studies at the school of education, Aberdeen University.

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