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Will this spread? 349 students at Scottish High School challenge Christianity’s monopoly

North Berwick High SchoolMore than a third of the students at North Berwick High have signed a petition challenging Christianity’s monopoly in Religious Observance and School Assemblies. In order to express their views more freely, they have set up their own newspaper, The Contender, of which the first two numbers are available on line here and here, and obtained a grant to pay for a print edition. These actions have attracted well-deserved media attention both locally and UK-wide, and are likely to be discussed by the Scottish Youth Parliament.

Here is what they’ve signed:

 Petition for the Secularisation or Religious Diversity of School Assemblies and/or Functions

By signing this petition you, as a North Berwick student, are agreeing that there should either be no religious influence (in assemblies, other events) in school or that all religious denominations should be represented, and that it is inappropriate for only one religion (Christianity) to be advocated, in particular the assemblies led by members of the Christian church.

Setting up a newspaper of the quality achieved at North Berwick is a major enterprise, but these days any group of students can publish articles expressing its views using WordPress or Blogger, and spread word of them through social media. Moreover, any group of students in any school can organise a petition like this one, and, as we shall see, would be right to do so.

It is inappropriate for only one religion (Christianity) to be advocated, in particular the assemblies led by members of the Christian church.

(North Berwick student petition)

Strange as it may seem, all the students are demanding is that the school act according to the policies stated in its own handbook, which are based on the Scottish Government’s current guidance letter. Both the handbook and the guidance letter say, in identical language, that “[M]any school communities contain pupils and staff from faiths other than Christianity or with no faith commitment, and this must be taken fully into account in supporting spiritual development. It is of central importance that all pupils and staff can participate with integrity in forms of religious observance without compromise to their personal faith” and that “There should be a clear distinction between assemblies devised for the purpose of religious observance and assemblies for other purposes such as celebrating success.”

There should be a clear distinction between assemblies devised for the purpose of religious observance and assemblies for other purposes such as celebrating success.

(School handbook; also official Scottish Government guidance)

The Church of Scotland has also expressed remarkably similar views. In a 2013 submission to the Public Petitions Committee, objecting to the Scottish Secular Society’s plea to change Religious Observance from opt-out to opt-in, it stated that “What is defined now as Religious Observance in Schools is a pluralist approach in a pluralist society”, that Religious Observance events are “a place to encounter different beliefs and points of view, which are fundamental in making sense of the pluralist society in which we live”, and that “Religious Observance is not, and should never be confessional in nature (it is not worship nor can it be).”

What is defined now as Religious Observance in Schools is a pluralist approach in a pluralist society.

(Church of Scotland, to Scottish Parliament)

I also found in the Handbook a list of the members of the school chaplaincy team, at least as it was at the time of the last posted handbook edition, which would seem to be 2012. And while official bodies will not tell you the affiliations of school chaplains, regarding this as confidential personal information, a web search quickly showed that all were committed Protestant Christians, ranging from Episcopalian to extreme Evangelical [1]. The Evangelicals meet on the school premises for Sunday morning worship, but there seems no reason to object to that so long as the school handles all requests for accommodation evenhandedly, and does not pressure students into attending.

North Berwick West Bay (Kim Traynor via Wikipedia)

Can such a team deliver the promised “pluralist approach in a pluralist society”? Not according to the latest (2011) census data. These show all non-Catholic Christians totalling 38% of the population, as against 44% for “no religion” or “no religion stated”. Even these numbers will underestimate dissent from religion, especially among the school’s students. The religious affiliations monitored by the Census do not necessarily imply religious practice or belief, and we also know that religiosity is greater among older Scots than among the young.

Two things follow. The students are merely asking that the school follow its own stated policies. And spiritual education, if indeed such a thing is possible, can no longer be left to churches in which so many of the students no longer believe.

The students’ representatives are also asking the School Administration to allow 16-year-old students to withdraw themselves directly from Religious Observance, without involving their parents. I find it strange that they even need to ask. We are talking about young people who are by law old enough to get married, or to vote in at least some crucial elections. The individuals we are discussing have also shown themselves capable of effective organisation, and of producing work clearly superior to their own local newspaper. And while the law may regard the decision to withdraw as one for the parents, the school has no legal right to enforce attendance on 16-year-olds anyway, so why should it even try to retain this right when it comes to one particular activity?

1] The Chaplaincy Team members, and their affiliations as revealed by an on-line search, are Rev Neil Dougall (St Andrew Blackadder Church of Scotland), Bill Nisbet (North Berwick Christian Fellowship) , Shiona Liddle (North Berwick Christian Youth Trust, Inspire), Rev Dr David Graham (Abbey Church of Scotland) and Rev John Lindsay (St Baldred’s Episcopalian). In addition, the local paper reporter covering the school is the Minister of Belhaven Parish Church, Rev Laurence Twaddle.

Inspire is a CofS/Fellowship joint venture, which gives out free rolls at its lunch club and is involved in the school play.

The Fellowship gives no details of its beliefs on its web page, but is affiliated to Scottish Network Churches, some at least of whose members believe in Noah’s Ark as a fact of history and the eternal punishment of unbelievers in the Lake of Fire.

Religion and Creationism in Schools: England, Scotland, and the US

In the US, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is generally agreed, despite the ravings of a few noisy radical revisionists, to imply that no Government-run institution, such as a public school, can advocate a religion or sponsor any kind of religious observance.

In the UK, the very opposite is the case (I would like to hear from readers about how this matter is handled in other countries). Schools are actually required to incorporate both Religious Education and Religious Observance into their timetables. Religious Observance means, in general, a school assembly with hymns and prayers, and may also include taking part in church services, and visits from ministers of religion. Religious Education, in theory at least, is something entirely different – a faith-neutral liberal arts subject, explaining without proselytising what the contents are of the world’s main religions, and how they respond to philosophical scrutiny. In practice, the teaching tends to be heavily weighted towards Christianity, which is perhaps well justified given Western cultural traditions. Less justifiable is a tendency to assume that Christianity is true, a difficult problem to avoid when most of those who opt to teach the subject will themselves be believers. There is also a very specific problem in primary schools, where the boundaries between different subjects is blurred, and where children hearing, for example, the story of Noah’s Ark will not know whether it belongs alongside the story of Little Red Riding Hood, or of dinosaurs, or somewhere else altogether.

In principle, parents (or, above a certain level, pupils) have the right to withdraw from Religious Observance and/or Religious Education. Reality on the ground is more complicated, if only because of bureaucratic hurdles, and the entire Religious Observance system is coming under increased critical scrutiny. I will report further on this as events unfold.

As a result of these different attitudes towards religion in schools, the tactics adopted by creationists in the US and  the UK are diametrically opposed (I discussed this on pandasthumb a couple of years ago). American creationists claim to be teaching the best available science, and support this claim by describing parallel universes, in which (for example) the fossil record is full of inexplicable gaps, while the Grand Canyon is readily explainable in terms of Noah’s flood. Pandering politicians then claim to be exposing schoolchildren to the best available science, or educating them by exposure to a concocted controversy. In England, officially at least, the authorities are having none of it. After some close questioning, in which I am proud to have played a part, the Education Secretary was pressured into describing himself as “crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and the Department of Education also clearly states in its materials that it recognises Intelligent Design as a variety of creationism.

None of this, however, affects what happens in Religious Education, as long as it doesn’t claim to be science. So creationists in England, trying to smuggle their material into schools, will find it much easier if they can do so in the name of teaching about religion. This is a growing problem, in view of the current Government policy of establishing schools free from local authority control, many of them run by groups with religious affiliations. Then the way is open for pupils to be taught evolution as an examination requirement, while also hearing it that it is in conflict with the school’s preferred interpretation of Christianity, or (a recently emerging problem in England) that it is un-Koranic.

In Scotland, the situation is different again. Education is “devolved”, meaning that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, rather than the UK Parliament at Westminster. Evolution is in the syllabus, but when it comes to creationism and Intelligent Design the Scottish Qualifications Authority has repeatedly ignored calls from teachers and others requesting guidance similar to that on offer in England. The stated reason, incredibly, is that no such guidance is necessary, because creationism is not a problem in Scottish schools.[1] As for the actual motivation, that requires a little knowledge of the present state of Scottish society. Growing numbers of Scots, especially younger Scots, have no religious affiliation, and secular marriages (in Registry Offices, or carried out by recognized Humanist celebrants) outnumber religious marriages. On the other hand, Biblical literalism retains its hold in some areas, especially the Highlands and Islands, where a former Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (not to be confused with the Church of Scotland, nor with the Free Presbyterian Church, or others with almost identical names) continues to describe evolution as “dangerous pseudoscience”. Scottish politics is in a state of flux, with the collapse of support for the Westminster coalition parties and an upcoming referendum on total independence, so the Education Minister in Edinburgh doesn’t want to upset anyone. But if he lets his civil servants says anything on the topic, someone is bound to be upset, and his only escape is to pretend that nothing needs to be said.

More later.


[1] SQA to me, 4 Nov 2010: “There is no evidence from HMIE [Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education] school inspections or other sources to suggest that creationism or ID is currently being taught in schools in Scotland.”

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