Religion in SchoolsPosted by firstname.lastname@example.org Fri, August 24, 2018 10:01:01
My first novel contained
a thought experiment in which a somewhat inept RE teacher finds herself out of
a job. Her demise came as a result of one well-meaning but thoughtless response
to a vulnerable student and, as I crafted the tale, I felt sympathy with that
character, even as I fashioned her downfall.
As a teacher, I fear it’s impossible to keep your
thoughts, emotions and biases out of the classroom completely, however hard you
might try. Teaching is personal – it has to be. We throw ourselves into it and,
if I believed in the soul, I would say that teaching is a part of mine. It’s
also immediate, and it’s not like the construction of a carefully-worded article.
It’s us, in the flesh, on our feet, all the time: as an educator, a guide, a
philosopher, a fool, a blagger, a gatekeeper and a showman. Speaking as a
teacher and indeed as a person who could probably benefit from closing her
mouth on occasion, I felt a certain sympathy for my ill-fated creation, even
though her views differed wildly from my own.
But there is a darker story behind the tale that I
told, a real version which dates back to the early 1980s, when I was on the
other side of the desk. You know, the good old days when some schools still had
corporal punishment and teachers could say whatever they liked? I share the
real incident now as an illustration of the sort of thing that can happen when
preaching is allowed to enter the classroom.
In my final year at a Church of England all-girls
primary school, the headmistress took it upon herself to give us a talk on ‘the
facts of life’ or ‘body matters’ as she called them. There was a general sense
of excitement and trepidation amongst most of the girls, but I remember being
bored during much of the talk; it was pretty tame stuff and besides, I already
knew ‘the facts’ from home. Despite my disinterest, I have a hazy recollection
of zoning back into the room as the head was intoning her views on abortion.
Abortion was wrong. Fact. If we had ‘sinned’ (by
having sex before marriage), and in doing so had gone and got ourselves
pregnant, then that child must be born. Something told me that her views were a
little extreme, but before I had even had time to make sense of them in my
head, I suddenly heard my name and then realised that everyone was looking at
me. In her eagerness to make her point, our headmistress had decided to cite me
as an example of someone who could ‘quite easily’ have been lost to the
world as a result of a termination.
Head swimming, I tried to make sense of what she
was saying. My parents were happily married, so how did my home situation fit
with the den of iniquity she had been describing thus far? As far as I could
gather, due to the fact that I have a mild version of a condition called
Goldenhar syndrome (which does not, by the way, affect anything other than
certain aspects of my appearance) my parents might have decided not to have me.
Now, there was a thought! But the headmistress put her hand on my shoulder,
warmly and benevolently, and turned me to face my classmates. ‘Wouldn’t that
have been terrible?’ she asked them. They all nodded, dutifully.
Now it may not surprise you to know that my
ten-year-old self had not exactly contemplated my own termination as a
possibility before. I was blessed with loving parents, who made me feel like
the most important thing in their lives. Why on earth would the
idea have occurred to me?
Quite why this headteacher felt it her place to
introduce me to the idea seems impossible to fathom – until, of course, one
remembers her convictions. I’m quite sure she thought she’d done a marvellous
deed, and I wonder to this day to what extent she succeeded; did she persuade
the majority of girls in that room of her beliefs? I do hope not.
My objection to her tactics, speaking not as the
person affected but as a teaching professional, is this: it was clearly more
important to her to preach her morality than it was to consider the individual
welfare of a child in her class. And that, I believe, is the biggest danger
This piece was first published in 2014 in Humanist Life.
Religion in SchoolsPosted by email@example.com Thu, August 23, 2018 21:07:47
My school was proudly
old-fashioned. Questions were viewed with suspicion and contempt, especially in
the context of religion. We were not allowed to study RE as a subject, since
exposure to a variety of religious views would have ‘confused’ us. Instead, we
had Divinity with the School Chaplain: we read passages from the Bible and he
My parents were
deliberately neutral in their stance and so I came to my religious schooling
with a completely open mind – in many ways, an easy convert. I was profoundly
respectful of what I assumed were the sincerely-held beliefs of those around me
and I would bow my head during prayers. I was utterly fascinated by the ritual
of Chapel and knew all the traditional hymns; I can still sing most of them all
the way through, much to my husband’s consternation, and can recite the Creed,
some of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and several others.
While I would listen
with interest during the Sermon, it took me a long time to realise that I was
pretty much the only one doing so. On an increasing number of occasions I would
find myself enraged by the message that we had been given in Chapel, or puzzled
by the hypocrisy of our situation. If Jesus said to ‘sell all thou hast and
give to the poor,’ what were we doing in an expensive boarding school? Did God
honestly care how I performed in my exams – didn’t He have something more
important to worry about? And why on earth did I have to pray for the Queen?
Ignored by the staff and ridiculed by my peers, it became clear to me that most
people neither listened to nor cared about the lessons that we were taught by
the Reverend. Even he didn’t seem to care that much. Yet when I questioned the
charade, I was bullied for it – by students and by some of the staff.
Atheists are often accused
of being ‘angry’ and I guess it’s hard for believers to comprehend the
unpleasant mix of condescension, prejudice and paranoia that some of us have
faced, growing up in a society that tends to equate faith with morality. Soon
after I started attending school, I went to a meeting that was announced for
‘all students who are not Christians.’ In my innocence, I failed to realise
that this was a euphemistic way of gathering our tiny handful of Muslim
students together so that their non-attendance at Chapel could be agreed. The
Housemistress nearly fainted when I showed up, the only girl in the room
without a headscarf. She asked me what on earth I was doing there, so I
explained that I didn’t believe in God and was therefore not a Christian. She
told me not to be so ridiculous, said that my views ‘didn’t count’ and sent me
away. That was probably the first time that I felt really angry.
Despite the pressure
(or perhaps because of it – I was a rebellious child at heart), I became more
and more convinced during my childhood that an unswerving acceptance of a
bundle of ancient writings made very little sense. In addition, a school rife
with bullying was a fine place to observe that religious beliefs have no effect
on a person’s humanity. Over the years I watched some of the worst bullies in
the school pass through their Confirmation ceremony, in which they agreed to
‘turn away from everything which was evil or sinful.’ Some of them became
servers in Chapel. My distaste for the whole sham increased, and by the time I
reached University I was thoroughly relieved to be away from it.
Yet given that we’re
all a product of our experiences, I sometimes wonder what kind of person I
would be had I not attended such an old-fashioned ‘faith’ school. I fully
support the campaign against them, as in principle I believe that every child
should have an education that is free in every sense – not least free from
indoctrination and prejudice. Yet for me, my experiences shaped my convictions
– and not in the way that the school had intended. Maybe I’m unusual, but if my
story is anything to go by and you want to nurture an atheist, then I guess you
proceed as follows: send them to a ‘faith’ school, ladle on plenty of hypocrisy
and tell them not to ask questions. The result may surprise you.
This piece was first
published in August 2014 in Humanist Life.