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Petition: End Church nominations to Scottish Education Committees

By pre-devolution law, three unelected church representatives sit as full voting members of every Council Education Committee in Scotland. Edinburgh Secular Society is petitioning the Scottish Parliament to change this. I strongly urge my friends, especially my Scottish friends, to support this petition (link here; if you live in Scotland, take care to say so). This petition is supported by the Scottish Secular Society, the Humanist Society of Scotland, and the National Secular Society.

   According to AnswersInGenesisDr  Nagy iskander, shown here with his wife Nashwa who shares his mission, “teaches the books of the Bible in government schools as part of the official religious education curriculum,” and is “One of Europe’s most active creationists.” Dr Iskander is an unelected religious representative on South Lanarkshire Council Education Committee. 

A pre-devolution law forces every local authority in Scotland  Education Committee to co-opt three representatives of religion, whether they want to or no. One of these must be nominated by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one chosen to represent local religious belief. This third representative is typically chosen from respondents to newspaper advertisements, making it very easy for Councillors who support a particular religious viewpoint to tip off their favourite denominations. The representatives of religion, although completely unelected and (apart from their parent Church) unmandated, have the vote on what is always the largest and most important of all council committees, and, according to the Church of Scotland itself, hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 councils. This despite the fact that more than a third of all Scots no longer identify with any religion. That last number almost certainly under-represents the proportion of the non-religious among parents of school children, to say nothing of the children themselves when old enough to form their own opinions, since 65% of young Scots identify themselves as non-religious.

These religious representatives bring more to council meetings than the benefit of their wisdom. They will, by definition, bring a certain view of what kind of place the world is. They will, by profession, regard religion itself as a highly important aspect of life, otherwise they would not have chosen to devote their own lives to it. So when it comes to deciding how much importance to give Religious Observance, or how much time and effort the school should put into maintaining its chaplaincy team, they will have their own biased point of view. They will also have their own special interests, based on those of their Church, affecting such issues as the locating of schools, and whether or not new schools should be denominational.

Edinburgh Secular Society has published data (full details here) on the identities of the religious representatives in every Scottish council. In some cases, the identities of the religious representatives give particular reason for anxiety. My own specific concern is with the teaching of science, and the brute fact that some versions of religion flatly reject the facts of the antiquity of the Earth, and of evolution of living things from a common ancestor. Scientifically, this means rejecting the whole of earth science, astronomy and cosmology, and large areas of physics, chemistry, and even ancient history. Philosophically, it means elevating one particular highly questionable interpretation of one particular, also highly questionable, text above all other kinds of evidence.

So what does the membership of the education committees tell us? On this score, at least, the Catholic Church representatives should give little cause for concern, since the Vatican accepts the historic fact of evolution. Concerning the Church of Scotland representatives, there would until recently have been little to worry about, but this may be changing. The Church of Scotland now sends seminarists to the interdenominational Highland Theological College, which has a biblical infalibilist requirement for teaching staff and two six-day biblical literalist theologians on its Board of Governors. To an outsider, this looks like an unsavoury political deal, where the liberal wing of the deeply divided Church has agreed to this creationist infiltration, in the (probably vain) hope of being allowed, in return, to pursue more gay-tolerant policies.

Of the third (and occasionally fourth) representatives of religion, two are Church of Scotland, two Moslem, one Jewish, one Salvation Army, four Baptist, and five (from four local authorities) represent smaller evangelical Protestant groups who embrace biblical literalism. So, if you are a parent in 8 out of Scotland’s 32 council districts you might have worries about who is deciding what your children will hear at school.

As I shall show in my next posting, these worries will be more than justified.

Has religion a future? My remarks to Edinburgh International Science Festival

Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)

I took part in the discussion on this topic, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, together with Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and chaired by Alex Wood, ex-politician, education consultant, and journalist. Here are the notes of my own introductory remarks; for the other speakers’ remarks, and a fuller discussion, see here.

A not-so-cheerful prognosis

I see much of merit within religion, and hope that it can get its house in order. But I’m not optimistic. I see tough times ahead, and an increasing threat from obscurantist fundamentalism at the very moment when Government is unloading its responsibilities onto the churches.

Tough times ahead

Population pressure; built-in momentum will push this to 8 billion in the next 25 years

Rising food prices worldwide

Economic instability

Growing inequality

Failed states, wars, terrorism; consider Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq

Nuclear proliferation; North Korea, Iran… and when a nuclear power is also a failing state, like North Korea and Pakistan in their different ways, what then?

Climate change; I wish it wasn’t happening but it is

The realities of power

 Representatives of religion complain of being marginalised, but the very opposite is the case. The embedded power of religion includes

School advisory boards, with representatives in Scotland of Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, and religious observance (not just instruction) in all state schools

Chaplaincies, paid for with public money, in Universities, the armed forces, and the financially struggling NHS

“Christian value” pressure groups, some with esteemed and well-connected educators

26 Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords, involved in making the laws that affect us all

Privileged access to politicians; Cardinal O’Brien, during his last months in office, met Scotland’s first Minister several times in a n attempt to influence legislation

For the first time, a Minister for Religion in the UK government

Government abdication adds to this power

On 1 Jan this year, Justin Welby, designate Archbishop of Canterbury, said that the financial crisis could signal the “greatest moment of opportunity since the Second World War” for churches to grow

Food banks run by Trussell Trust (Evangelical); now over 300, up from 20 pre-crisis Thank goodness, by which I mean human goodness, that someone is running these things, but do we really want to be relying on so erratic a mechanism to stop kids going to bed hungry?

100 million hours/year volunteer work by the Churches on social projects (according to Daily Telegraph, 14 Feb). This would be worth 50,000 full time employees, or over £1 bn

Schools; One third of schools in England are already religious. CofE plans for more

Just when religion is under threat from within

General drift away from religion

But difficult times favour extreme beliefs

Upsurge of absolutism

Biblical literalist and creationist infiltration

Example of infiltration; Highland Theological College

No ancient institution, but Founded in 1994; Now part of University of Highlands and Islands

Awarding its own degrees since 2008

Website: “This enables HTC to retain its strongly evangelical, Reformed ethos within the university sector giving HTC a unique opportunity to impact on the training of ministers from a number of denominations.” No two ways about what they’re doing

Church of Scotland has been sending seminarians there since 2006

Why is this their theology our problem?

Basis of faith (from website), to which all teaching staff must subscribe: Bible “verbally inspired by Almighty God and therefore without error.” How does the College interpret this?

Website lists only two theologians among trustees, both of whom have written books promulgating literal six-day creationism, and both based in US Southern Baptist seminaries; Douglas F Kelly of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina, author of Creation and Change, and the Rev Dr J Ligon Duncan III, Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson, Mississippi, author of The Genesis Debate

HTC teaching based on doctrine that (I quote)[1] a historical Fall “has ushered us into a state of bitter bondage, sad shame and total depravity”

So do we want our children taught that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, and that as a result of what happened at that time they themselves were born totally depraved?

More generally, do we want

… to be receiving a wide range of social services from religious organisations

at the same time that religion is losing its appeal

and its organisations are being infiltrated by the enemies of reason?

If not, what can we do about it?


[1] Information supplied “in the spirit of openness” by HTC in response to a Freedom of Information request, which the College did not, however, agree that it was required to answer.

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