Loss of faith leaves questions to answer

15th November 2013 at 00:00

On Monday, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, schools across the country paid tribute to the soldiers who died in the First World War and those who have died since in the line of duty. In many services, school chaplains played a role. At Paisley Grammar in Renfrewshire, the minister of Paisley Abbey, Alan Birss, spoke of David Garven, a student whose name recently came to the attention of staff even though he last walked the school's corridors in the 1910s.

Three books by Sir Walter Scott, presented to Garven for "general proficiency" in his second year, have found their way back to his alma mater. His name is also on the school's wall of remembrance; he died in the Great War before reaching the age of 20. He had stood where they were standing, Mr Birss told students gathered in the school hall for the service.

Our news focus is about the Scottish Secular Society's desire to make religious observance an "opt-in" activity rather than, as is the case now, something that parents much opt out of if they object to it (see pages 16-18). Indeed, the SSS is petitioning the Scottish Parliament on the issue.

Would the society, therefore, see no value in the Paisley Grammar ceremony because of its religious element? Or was the religious element necessary to bring home to students the tragic loss of life?

This is not the first time that Scotland has looked at the relevance of religious observance in our increasingly pluralistic society - the guidance for schools was updated in 2005, after the Religious Observance Re view Group reported, and then again in 2011.

However, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council says that this tinkering has "watered down" religious observance. Last month, it went one step further than the SSS and called for the practice to be scrapped altogether. It believes that school communities should determine what is appropriate for them; sometimes that might mean religious observance, but it could also mean "more secular 'spiritual' development".

The Edinburgh Secular Society also believes that religious observance should be "removed from schools", a move which, it says, would solve the problems of providing inclusiveness activities for those who opt out.

This week, the issue was kept alive by the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee, which opted to continue the SSS petition and write to the government asking for more information on some points raised. The most important issue, according to SSS chair Caroline Lynch, is that, if religious observance is genuinely inclusive, why do so many minority groups say it is flawed?

One of the best examples of this is the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, which argues that religious observance should become an opt-in activity "in view of the number of pupils and parents from minority faith communities who report feeling excluded and alienated".

It is, at least, time to have a full and frank public debate on the subject.


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