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Those Who Can't Preach

Religion in SchoolsPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk 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 with preaching.



This piece was first published in 2014 in Humanist Life.





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Losing My Religion

Religion in SchoolsPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk 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 explained them.

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.





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