Maybe god doesn’t want to go to school
In America, apparently, many people say they want it but can’t get it, and in the UK many don’t want it, but can’t get rid of it – god in school, that is.
As a school pupil I had to endure it every day – the compulsory hymn and routine prayers. Just imagine it, 600 teenage boys with their mind focused on one thing (and believe me, it wasn’t god or their Latin homework), growling the hymn as quietly and as nonchalantly as possible (you could get punished for not singing), then standing and trying to provoke other people to laugh during the troubled stillness of the prayers being monotonously intoned by the headteacher. It was a ‘really meaningful’ religious act.
The Roman Catholics were excused, of course. As I remember it, we didn’t persecute them or try to burn them in the school yard at break-times. They were held in awe for having the mysterious secret that enabled them to avoid the daily assembly torture as well as escape the compulsory Religious Education lessons where we quizzed the aging teachers about sex (again, and again, and again, and again).
By the time I became a teacher the hymns had gone, but in the schools I worked in, there had to be an inspiring little homily, usually on a religious theme, and there were still prayers. Although at the time I was a Christian, even I could see the pointlessness of it.
The staff would be betting on how often the headteacher would repeat the same story. When he was often called away at the last minute, the deputy headteacher, knowing I was ‘one of them’, would often grab me with a look of horror as he was about to walk on the stage and say: “You couldn’t just go and do something religious could you?” I was happy to oblige, 1) because helping out the senior management wouldn’t harm my career, and 2) because I worked in church youth groups in my spare time I had a fund of ready made bible stories I could quickly adapt. Staff colleagues seemed to be mystified by the fact that I could pray in public without reading anything from a book, but the teenagers did what all teenagers do during prayers in school – they tried to provoke other people to laugh during the troubled stillness. I could see that it was really far from being a meaningful religious act.
Religious communities have their own schools outside of the state system and have been debating the precise purpose of those schools. For example, in 2001 the Church of England issued a report, “The way ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium,” which marked a radical shift in its position. The report called, in effect, for a subordination of the service to the nurture function. C of E schools, it announced, should be more “distinctively Christian,” with a mission to “nourish those of the faith; encourage those of other faiths; challenge those who have no faith… religious education and collective worship should be seen as an integrated experience, with collective worship acting as an expression of what is taught in many RE lessons.”
Despite what is happening in the religious schools, the state sector has never seen its role as being overtly evangelical. However, there is an understandable argument that the function of schools is to produce educated, model citizens, and there seems to be this lingering view amongst some in the establishment that one of the best ways of doing this is to give them a forced daily dose of exposure to Christian ritual. (Perhaps with Anglican Bishops still in the House of Lords, and the monarch still as head of the Church, that is not surprising.) Like cod liver oil, a forced daily dose of exposure to Christian ritual may be revolting to take, but it does you good.
It is also worth remembering that this belief in the daily dosage in schools is taking place against a background of predictions that the Church of England, at least, is facing a serious crisis about its survival. The authors of the annual book of church statistics Religious Trends which is produced by Christian statisticians argued that the fall in attendance is so precipitous, the Church will soon become financially unsustainable. As congregations age and die, there will be no money from collection plates to support the Church’s infrastructure and keep on paying the pensions of retired vicars and bishops.
The really good news is that some people are beginning to question whether forcing children to endure exposure to religion is against their human rights. As a recent e-bulletin from the British Humanist Association points out:
A report from Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (13 May, 2008 ) calls for any child of ‘sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding’ to be given the right to withdraw from compulsory religious worship in schools. Currently, only sixth form students have the right to withdraw themselves, and other children can only be withdrawn at the request of their parents, but the Human Rights Committee have said that this violates children’s rights to freedom of belief and conscience. Writing in support of the Committee’s report to Minister for Schools and Learners, Jim Knight MP, the BHA said, ‘We agree with the JCHR that the law is clearly inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and that children of ‘sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding’ should be permitted to withdraw themselves from prayer and other worship.’
If there has to be compulsion for school assemblies, god has to go. As Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education and Public Affairs, commented:
‘The best situation would be the replacement of the law requiring religious worship with a law requiring inclusive assemblies that would be suitable for all children. For as long as the current law remains, however, children must be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wish to participate. To compel them to pray, or worship in other ways, is a clear interference with their right to freedom of belief – one of the most important rights that we enjoy.’
And of course, if I were god, I would want to stop being forced into schools. I would gain no pleasure in gaining worship by compulsion, whether it be from torture or the threat of a school detention. If I were god, I could read hearts and could recognize a sham when I saw one.