When it comes to religious teaching, I'm lacking in faith

27th July 2012 at 01:00
Different religions and the non-belief stance should be evenly handled, but this is not always the case in Scotland

Scottish attitudes to religion have changed dramatically in recent years. The land of John Knox and the village kirk is now a nation of many faiths. And indeed faith itself is declining. If the 2008 Scottish Household Survey is a reliable indicator, then it seems that more than half of the population prefers to look elsewhere for moral guidance and an explanation of our origins.

We would expect the education system to adapt, too, and reflect this greater pluralism. In fact, the law demands it, although this is still not widely appreciated. In 2005, the Scottish government, following the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, issued guidelines asking schools to change their teaching from a doctrinal and single-religion approach to one where children are educated to know about all the main religions as well as the non-belief life stance.

This directive has been taken up by a number of secondary schools in the non-denominational sector. There seem to be some excellent courses out there, trying to equip children with the critical thinking skills they will need to negotiate our increasingly complex and pluralistic world. However, many schools still appoint a religious chaplain - often a Church of Scotland minister - who is expected to hold assemblies that are unsuitable for a significant proportion of the school. Parents report that a speaker is invited into the RE classroom to extol the theory of Intelligent Design without the pupils having the opportunity to hear a scientific refutation of this theory.

Since the topic of evolution doesn't form part of the curriculum for pupils who don't specialise in biology, a large number hear only the standard biblical account of our origins. If they're lucky, the alternative explanation will be presented by a teacher with no scientific training.

However, many schools in the primary sector continue to teach Christianity as effectively the one true religion, and anecdotal evidence suggests some parents will try hard to protect this position, ignoring the rights of non-belief parents if they are allowed to.

A recent case reported to the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) involved a rural school with an intake of children from several Church of Scotland parishes. At the request of some non-belief parents, the headteacher agreed to omit references to religion from school assemblies. In - admittedly anecdotal - accounts of what followed, he was more or less denounced from the pulpits of several parishes in the area. Parents who had attended these religious services also issued him with vociferous complaints.

Schools are asked to ensure that all parents are aware of their right to have their child opt out of religious education and to provide a suitable alternative activity. But according to a March 2012 YouGov survey, almost 80 per cent of parents were not made aware of this fact by the school. When they enquired they found such a paucity of alternative provision that they preferred to leave their child with their classmates.

The 50 per cent of Scottish children growing up without religious instruction in the home should have the opportunity to examine and discuss their views about ethics, meaning and truth and to have these challenged. They should understand the basic facts about the main religions and be acquainted with their principal festivals and customs, as well as their influence on our culture. However, religious education (RE) - or rather religious, moral and philosophical studies (RMPS) - could be so much more. It has the potential to help pupils become more than just knowledgeable, but to aspire to free and independent thought of their own.

Great results can be obtained when primary children are allowed to study philosophy, if we are to believe the findings of research such as that published earlier this year by the Department of Education at the University of Strathclyde. Suitable courses are available and there are training opportunities for staff who want to develop this further.

The proportion of teachers who are non-believers - if it resembles that of the general population - will be about 50 per cent, so there should be no lack of volunteers. Government guidelines, recently reiterated by Alasdair Allan, the minister for science, learning and languages, declare that even in denominational schools pupils should be taught about more than one religion.

Only 4 per cent of the parents interviewed for this year's YouGov survey considered it correct that teaching should maintain one religion's claim to the truth. While such parents may wish to send their children to denominational schools, these are state-funded schools that must welcome all children and provide an alternative secular education for those who seek it.

Why do parents feel the need to put their children on a bus to get to school when a perfectly good denominational school exists just round the corner? Are they perhaps unaware of the law? Throughout Scotland, particularly in rural areas where the choice of schooling is limited, children learn together under one roof very satisfactorily.

Is it not time to ask why our children have to spend such a large proportion of their time acquainting themselves with ancient and doctrinal writings produced in a context very different from our own? Maybe more time spent appreciating the work of the Scottish philosophers and scientists who helped shape the Enlightenment - just as an example - wouldn't be such a bad thing. As Voltaire once said: "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation." Could we once again aspire to such a leading role?

Clare Marsh is an education officer with the Humanist Society Scotland.

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