Humanists have beliefs too
Two months ago, the new school year began. For a substantial and growing number of Scottish parents this raised a difficult and continuing challenge. They are the Scots who are non-religious and who are now one Scot in three, according to the Scottish Annual Household Survey (2005). Their children return, in many instances, to a school environment where religion, often largely Christian, predominates, where religious and moral education is a fixed element in the curriculum and where religious observation is the norm.
Many teachers of RME strive to provide a balanced and comprehensive perspective, which includes the nature and philosophic basis of, for example, humanism. But this is not always the case, and there is often an elision of curricular content and religious belief. Parents who hold no religious views have a right to expect respect for this and a recognition that freedom of thought, as enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, is fundamental to democracy.
A parity of esteem is a basic human right. Why should they have to opt out? Surely the preferred alternative ought to be that all schools take a comprehensive approach to RME which is founded on diversity and equality. This would offer a range of options which recognise the different views, faith positions and parental convictions, thus endorsing the principles of equality and parity. It would ensure that, if the compulsory RME provision is to continue, it is inclusive and recognises that those who hold ethical and moral positions which are not dependent on religious revelation are of equal value.
Parity of esteem and respect for the views of humanist parents becomes more necessary in relation to religious observance, assemblies, visits to school by religious representatives and visits to churches, mosques, synagogues and so on. In the last year, the Humanist Society of Scotland has received an increasing number of letters of concern and requests for advice. Examples include four and six year-olds being told that they "are stained with original sin" but that "Jesus' love can save them".
Parents who have confirmed their position and withdrawn children from certain activities can face immense pressures. Others dare not to pursue their rights for fear their child will be alienated and bullied.
These parents, and youngsters aged over 16, have rights set out in guidelines. What is required is that the Scottish Government, local authorities and all the partners in education proactively support these rights. We need a public commitment to diversity and tolerance and a recognition that religious views are "a" position, not "the" position. There should be a range of options to which parents can opt in, rather than be forced to opt out.
Each school can and should explicitly advise parents of their rights, explain the curricular provision made, the nature of religious observance, the inclusion of their perspective andor the right to opt out without fear or prejudice - with details of an alternative, appropriate programme. The authorities can ensure that parental beliefs and preferences are recorded early and responded to constructively and positively.
If this issue remains unresolved, some parent somewhere in Scotland will take legal action. It would be better if those in charge acted fairly and proactively and recognised that a society which endorsed religion as an essential part of curricular and whole-school activities has been replaced by a diverse and increasingly religiously-inactive one in which moral and ethical virtue is not the exclusive preserve of those of a religious persuasion.
Bob McKay is education officer of the Humanist Society of Scotland, and a former director of education.