This article first appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 1st November 2013.
You may have noticed in recent weeks that the issue of religion in schools has been featuring fairly regularly in the media. We’ve seen coverage of parental concerns about the presence of an evangelical Christian group in one school, the (alleged) promotion of creationist views in another, the right to withdraw children from religious observance and the contribution of faith representatives on local government education committees.
So, does this coverage reflect a growing interest by journalists in religion? Does it indicate a sudden burst of intensive activity by religious groups or Church members in schools? No, the cause of much of this sudden attention to the place of religion in schools has been the hyperactivity of some secularist groups who are determined to remove the presence of religion from public life.
Their strategy is to target some practices which may appear to some to be out of place in the contemporary world. So, they argue, why should school pupils be forced to participate in “religious observance” in school assemblies when most young people don’t “observe” any faith – ie they don’t belong to any Church? Is this not a restriction of their human rights? Should they not be free to opt in to these activities, rather than be forced to opt out?
A petition was lodged with the Scottish Parliament in an attempt to overturn the current arrangements for religious observance in all schools. This has been backed by various secular groups and some celebrity secularists. A few weeks ago the Scottish Secular Society inundated schools throughout the country with Freedom of Information requests which required answers to 23 questions about: which groups are invited to speak to pupils, how Chaplaincy services are provided, whether Humanist views are offered to pupils and whether pupils are taught that homosexuality is sinful.
It strikes me that this action can be perceived to be intimidatory in its intent. Certainly its effect was to make Head Teachers feel vulnerable in having to defend and justify their school’s policy and practice. It also caused significant inconvenience and cost to local authorities who would be legally responsible for collating information from thousands of schools. It is another example of the aggressive intolerance of religion by individuals who are trying to impose their secularist ideology in Scotland.
In their well-organised media campaign they have misrepresented the role of the churches, cast suspicion on the motives of religious groups, caricatured young people’s experience of religion in schools and mocked religious belief. Yet they claim to uphold the supremacy of rational thought and argument based on fact and evidence. So, let me offer them the Good News about religion in schools.
The evidence which we have is that religious observance supports the spiritual development of pupils and addresses important aspects of their emotional wellbeing. It provides time and space for a school community to celebrate its achievements, hopes and aspirations, and to honour its traditions and culture.
Given our traditions in Scotland, it is appropriate that religious observance in non-denominational schools draws largely upon the rich traditions of Christianity and the skills of local Christian ministers. The wisdom of the Christian tradition provides great insights into the human condition which can benefit people of all faiths and none. Such insights are offered and not imposed on any child, of course. Christianity respects the freedom of individuals to make their own decisions. No Christian Church representative is interested in the “indoctrination” of children, as some have suggested.
In Catholic schools, our practice is characterised by Catholic traditions, customs and practices which nourish the spirituality and faith of the individual and of the community. Prayers and devotions recognise the sacred presence of the living God, whom we recognise as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We pay due regard to the Church’s liturgical calendar which celebrates certain festivals, seasons and saints. On significant occasions, pupils participate in religious services, including the celebration of Holy Mass, either in school or in the nearby parish church. All of this is reasonable, intelligible and absolutely in line with the mission and purpose of Catholic schools in which young people are freely enrolled by their parents.
We also know that religious education also offers enrichment to the learning experienced by young people in schools. Young people tell us that it provides time and space for them to address the big questions in their lives – to explore their origins and their destinies, to learn how religious traditions and rituals, sacred texts and symbols can help them to make sense of the mysteries of life, to reflect on significant moral decisions and ethical challenges which face them in today’s world. Religion, when it is learned = in this way, isn’t “absurd” or “irrational”, as some make it out. It is absolutely relevant and contemporary. Religion is also not opposed to science, despite what some celebrity atheists would have you believe. It is perfectly possible to believe in the truth of God being the creator of all life and to accept the facts which led to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
I have no doubt that our secularist brothers and sisters will persist in their attempts to pick away at the ‘scab’ of religion in schools. Their ultimate aim is to destroy Catholic schools which they see as the last bastion of the Church’s influence and (in their eyes) privilege. The challenge for the Catholic community, and for our brothers and sisters in faith, is (in the words of Pope Benedict XVI when he visited Scotland) “to be examples of faith in public . . . [and] to put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum.”