Humanist pupils: the right not to pray

28th October 2005 at 01:00
They have a positive and moral belief, but schools expect them to join hands. James Heartfield reports

Sarah Draco's parents fought tooth and nail to get her a place at King's Manor school in Middlesbrough. Unlike other secondaries in the area, it will not force on her beliefs she does not share.

Sarah and her family are humanists - what followers describe as a positive, ethical viewpoint that is a substitute for religion for atheists. But humanist parents often face from schools the assumption that their children are Christians who have not been brought up properly.

Sixty-one per cent of all young people consider themselves atheists or agnostics, but education policy assumes that everyone who is not a Christian is a Muslim, Hindu, Jew or some other recognised faith. Schools have to provide a collective act of worship, and Christian worship unless the school has an exemption.

Humanists often find their beliefs challenged. One parent was angry to discover that her young daughter's explanation that Easter is a festival to welcome the spring is flatly contradicted by a teacher at her school as "wrong".

Another parent, whose children attend schools affiliated to the Welsh Chapel, was told her children lacked a moral framework because she told them they did not have to put their hands together to pray during assembly.

She believes a child following a recognised religion would not have been reprimanded in this way.

Yet atheism has been a minority strand in English life since the 19th century when David Hume, the great English philosopher and essayist, was persecuted for it. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet, trumpeted it, and Charles Bradlaugh MP, was denied his seat for refusing to swear the oath in 1880. In the 20th century, atheists such as Bertrand Russell were involved in the progressive education movement. But with official religious attendance declining to just 7 per cent of the population, militant atheism, it seems, has had its time.

Nevertheless, many children who are being raised in homes where there is no religious faith struggle to get teachers to take their lack of belief seriously. Few religious education lessons acknowledge atheism, and those parents who ask to remove their children from collective worship find that they are made to feel as if they are being punished. The chair of the governors at one primary school told a parent that his children would probably be bullied if he did so.

Humanist children do not share a doctrine in the same way that religious affiliates do. Humanism has no saints, feast days, commandments or origin stories. Non-believers are likely to have a diverse range of values, but it should not be assumed they lack goodness or morality. The difference is that their starting point is mankind and not God.

Humanist or atheist children are likely to be as thoughtful and ethically-minded as any other child. Many see festivals such as Easter, harvest and Christmas as pre-Christian survivals that can be enjoyed without reference to God. Opinions vary between those atheists who are happy for their children to learn about other religions and those who prefer to see all religion excluded.

Humanists are frustrated by the special privileges accorded to faith schools, which discriminate against their children. And they are wary that in spite of the decline in belief, the Government is once again calling on the churches to organise schools. For parents such as Sarah Draco's, this only serves to limit their choice even further.


Humanism is diverse, and humanists hold differing views, but these are the more common among them:

Atheism: there is no God, heaven, hell or afterlife.

Secularism: religious beliefs are private and personal and have no place in schools or any other public institutions.

Humanism: the good of mankind is the starting point of all ethics.

Freethinking: humanism is predisposed to favour the enquiring mind over obedience.

Many humanists observe the main festivals as pagan survivals, like yuletide, rather than their Christian equivalent of Christmas.


For a secular alternative to Scouts and Brownies, with groups across the country, try the Woodcraft Folk, 13 Ritherdon Road, London SW17 8QE. Tel: 020 8672 6031;

The British Humanist Association has published two new handbooks for teachers, "Humanist Perspectives 1", for primary teachers, and "2" for secondary teachers.

The Humanist Family Network organises social events:

The National Secular Society campaigns to get churches out of schools: 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL. Tel: 020 7404 3126;

The Rationalist Press publishes a range of books and pamphlets:

"The New Humanist" is a monthly magazine:

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