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Suddenly, I’m an intolerant atheist

Lately, we have all heard a lot about “intolerant atheists”. I was wondering who these people were. Now I know. It’s me.

As many of my readers know, Secular Scotland is backing a parliamentary petition to change the rules regarding Religious Observance in schools from opt-out (parents must take the initiative, and are often not even notified of their right to do so), to opt-in (children are only taking part if their parents want them to). Here is what RCScotland, the Catholic Parliamentary Office, had to say in reply, in Fr Paul’s posting of June 11:

 The intolerant mindset of the petitioners is perfectly illustrated by the following two comments they have made: that for our country to be considered Christian “flies in the face of Scotland’s position as a leading proponent of equality and diversity”; and asking [sic] “do you think it is right, if you are a non-Christian believer, that your child is forced to endure Christian religious observance?” [Emphasis in original].

Well yes: I do think it arrogant presumption to call this country Christian when most of its population don’t even go to church to get married. Worse, I think it morally wrong to manoeuvre children into praying to a God they don’t believe in. And so, I must confess, I am guilty as charged. And proud of it.

You have until Thursday to sign the petition here.

One week left – petition to change opt-out to opt-in for Religious Observance in Scottish schools



[Update: the petition was duly submitted with 1516 signatures, and Mark Gordon (for himslef) and Caroline Lynch )for Secular Scotland)  have been invited to give evidence to the Petitions Committee in September]

Only one week remains to sign the Secular Scotland Petition to the Scottish Parliament (you can sign here), to change the procedure regarding registration for children to take part in Religious Observance in schools from opt-out to opt-in. This petition has already attracted widespread attention in broadcasts, local and national newspapers, and discussion forums both secular and religious.

I and others have already rehearsed the arguments. Parents (and children) are not being informed of their rights, and in one extreme case (the Edinburgh School Handbook template, no less), the existence of RO is not even mentioned. RO receives input from committees with their own dynamic, including in at least one case from a prominent advocate of six-day creationism. Children are left thinking that the school requires them to take part in religious ceremonies that they don’t believe in, and those parents who are aware of their rights and wish to assert them are presented with bureaucratic hurdles, up to and including the need for a personal conference with the head teacher.

My own view is clear. Children should only be taking part in religious observance if they want to be, and I do not understand why anyone, whatever their own personal beliefs, would wish it otherwise. The view from the Catholic Church, and from the Free Church of Scotland, who find themselves in agreement over this (as over so many things these days), is that the change would cause disastrous disruption to the fabric of society, and be a prelude to the complete removal of religion from the public educational system. Such anxieties speak volumes.

For what it’s worth (and I know that facts are not worth very much in some discussions), both the petitioner, Mark Gordon, and the supporting organization, Secular Scotland, are very much in favour of the retention of Religious Education in schools, given the important role of religion in cultures worldwide, both historically and in the present. Moreover, neither is demanding the removal of Religious Observance from schools (there is indeed a separate petition to that effect, in which, however, Secular Scotland plays no formal role). My own view is that the public discussion that would result from the change to opt-in would help rejuvenate RO, because its advocates, with inertia no longer on their side, would be forced to find a role for it suitable for today’s Scotland, in which the traditional beliefs can no longer be taken for granted.

Petition: make Religious Observance in Scottish schools opt-in, not opt-out

No sooner have I decided to broaden the range of topics on this blog, than I find myself writing two posts in as many days about religion in British schools. This is in response to events, and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.


The United Kingdom is one of the very few developed countries that includes Religious Observance (RO, i.e. school prayers) in the school timetable. In principle, parents (or children, above a certain stage) can opt out. In practice, this rarely happens, and many parents are not even aware that they have this option. As a result, RO must contain many pupils who are only there out of hypocrisy and coercion.

According to Scottish education policy, “There is a statutory provision for parents to withdraw children from participation in religious observance. This right should always be made known to parents and their wishes respected,” and “Parents should be provided with sufficient information on which to base a decision.” This doesn’t happen, nor is it likely to happen under the present opt-out arrangements. Official guidance has in the past stated that the school handbook should notify parents of the right to opt out, but even this requirement has now quietly been dropped, and only 20% of parents surveyed said that the school had informed them of this right at all.

Mark Gordon, an Inverclyde father of 3, backed by Secular Scotland, has now, with the support of Secular Scotland, has petitioned the Scottish Parliament to change the registration procedure for Religious Observance from opt-out to opt-in (Press release here). If you live in Scotland, and support this petition, sign here. (Disclosure: I am on the board of Secular Scotland, and contributed to the drafting. Note for Scottish Noire fans; Chris Brookmyre is among the first signatories.)

This change should be welcomed by non-believers, who now, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, make up an actual majority of the over-18 Scottish population, since it will free them from the onus of singling out to their children, in an act of dissent from the school’s assumed norms. It should be welcomed by believers, who would then have reason to hope that those present at such observance are there of their own free will, and are taking part in good faith. It should be welcomed by all those concerned with the quality of Scottish education, since it will inevitably lead to a productive discussion of the role of RO in the timetable.

Such a discussion is long overdue. RO is mandated in the Education (Scotland) Act, 1980, continuing a legal tradition that dates back at least as far as 1872. In the words of the Religious Observance Review Group 2004 Report, it is intended to consist of “community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school’s community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community”, while also being “equally sensitive to individual spiritual needs and beliefs, whether these come from a faith or non-faith perspective.” It is not clear how it is to reconcile these two rather different functions when no religious nomination commands even nominal affiliation from more than a third of the Scottish population, when the General Register Office reports that more marriages in Scotland are nonreligious (Registry Office or Humanist) than religious, and when a growing number of younger Scots, including presumably those registering schoolchildren for the first time, have no religious affiliation whatsoever. Moreover, despite these fine words, in practice RO even in nominally non-denominational schools tends to be strongly confessional, predominantly Church of Scotland, with additional input from groups such as Jesus and Me, allied to the Young Earth Creationist AnswersInGenesis, and evangelical groups such as the Lighthouse touring bus.

When you register your children to school in Scotland, you will be presented with a copy of the school handbook. Buried within this may or may not be the statement that you can tell the school if you wish your children not to take part in RO.. When surveyed,  only 20% of parents said that the school had told them of the right to withdraw their children from RO, and 39% never learnt of it from any source whatsoever.

Even when the school informs parents of their right, it may do so in a strongly discouraging manner. Parents are typically told to write to the Head Teacher, or to discuss their concerns, clearly implying that the request is considered unusual or misguided.

In such circumstances, you may very reasonably feel inhibited about exercising the right to withdraw. By doing so, you are clearly going against the assumptions made by the school, and you may not wish to place your children in the situation where they are singled by dissent from the presumed majority ethos.

If you do succeed in registering your right to withdraw your child, teachers will not necessarily even be aware of the fact. Mark Gordon’s petition was triggered by an incident when his own child was sent by default to attend a church service, despite Mark having opted out of RO. Mark objects to having his children told that they are born sinful, that they can be freed of this sin only if they believe without question that certain ill-attested events took place in the Middle East some 2000 years ago, and that those, including their father, who do not share this belief are destined for eternal damnation. Now you may regard these objections as completely unreasonable, but his right to act on them is incorporated into law, and should be respected.

Finally, as a result no doubt of the small numbers involved, schools do not carry out, and may even be completely unaware of, their legal obligation to opted out students, which is for the school “to make suitable arrangements for the child to participate in a worthwhile alternative activity”. There is no shortage of materials for such activity. I can immediately think of books such as Maybe yes, Maybe no, or Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality. Other materials are available from humanist and rationalist associations, and even, regarding the teaching of biology, from the Templeton Foundation (!) (I would welcome further specific suggestions frm readers.) If the numbers opting out were commensurate to the real demand for alternative materials, the resulting discussion would force a healthy evolution of what is now all too often a hollow sectarian ritual into a meaningful emotional, moral, and, if I may use the word, spiritual exercise, much as at its best Religious and Moral Education has evolved from dogmatic indoctrination into a valuable discussion of comparative religion, and of moral and philosophical issues in general.


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