September 20, 2010

Secular Schools – Logical

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I read something I liked today – Evan Harris’s secularist manifesto in the Guardian was reasonable and reasoned, boiling down to the logical argument that the more secular a state, the more religious freedom there is as no religion has a more favoured position than any other.

religion flow
A interesting graphic from, a Manchester University affiliated site about religion in the UK.

Not everyone liked the manifesto, and a quick trip into the loony bin, aka the comments section, showed this to be the case. Some of the theists (and a tiny number of atheists) demonstrated an inability to read and assumed this to be an atheist manifesto, ignoring the fact that atheism and secularism are not the same thing, no matter how loudly one shrieks that they are.

One of the dissenting comments took exception with points 2 and 3 which combined could be taken to argue that there should be no state run religious schools. When another commenter piped up that they felt this was reasonable as no state school would advocate communism or Tory-ism in the way that religion can be espoused in state schools the original dissenter on this issue insisted that it was their right to have their children taught in a school which taught exclusively or mostly about a single religion, or which strongly presented one religion as more “right” than others.

Choice is education is a big issue, one which Labour got very obsessive over and which the coalition seem even more concerned about if their proposed free school idea is anything to go by. But in the case of religious schools it’s an impractical red herring. The commenter’s mistake was to assume that all religious schools are equal. This is most definitely not the case.

I went to a Catholic state school. In fact, I went to a very very good Catholic state school, the sort which pumps out great results and which attracts middle class parents from miles around, resulting in them herding the family into church on a Sunday in order to convince the local priest to back their case for their child to go there, despite the fact they don’t know their stations of the cross or who the Immaculate Conception was (the latter is almost uniformly identified incorrectly by people I’ve met). But my Catholic state school was not like others.

I’ve heard the stories. The ones from other people who went to other Catholic state schools. The one about the class who were shown a video of an abortion in order to scare them off. The one about the people who were told homosexuals would burn in hell. The ones with the scary nuns as teachers and the intimidating priests who would come in to visit. The ones where sex before marriage was a massive crime, and teachers were sacked for affairs.

Karate nun was not in evidence at any of the above schools. Sadly.

Yet in my school the extent of the Catholicism was that we didn’t learn about contraception in biology and general studies classes, and the time our beloved biology teacher prefaced the (National Curriculum mandated) lessons on evolution with a weary “Right, I’ve been told to tell you all that this is just a theory and there are other possible explanations for how the world came into being… (pause) Right, now that’s over with, this is what happened.”

Which version is Catholic? Which version would please our irate Guardian commenter? My Catholic school was the only one for miles and miles, the catchment radius stretching from Frodsham to Crewe, north to Knutsford and south almost as far as Tarporley. That’s a large area, I lived ten miles away and wasn’t anywhere near the furthest commuter. If you were a hardcore, no abortion, no homosexuality, fire and brimstone Catholic and the only school in the area is one like mine – Catholic sure, but liberal in the extreme for one – would you be happy with an institution you’d probably see as wishy-washy?

Surely, faced with dilemmas like this, it makes more sense even for religious people to have secular schools run by a secular state as at least they will then know exactly what form of their religion their kids are being taught? I’m no fan of religious extremism, quite the opposite, but religious state schools don’t really offer religious people much choice at all, and could in theory lead to their children developing a totally different view of their religion to their parents.

Of course one can argue that all subjects are, by necessity, restricted in their scope, my awesome biology teacher didn’t teach me the entirety of biological studies in my time there. But that’s not a valid comparison in this case – the argument for religious state schools is akin to arguing for a school which only teaches plant biology, and not animal biology. Just boring experiments involving sprouting cress rather than dissecting something red and wobbly which apparently used to belong to a cow (or sheep if you’re in a post-BSE Cheshire).


In a secularist society religion is a personal thing, and the state and schools have no place advocating any particular brand over any others. To do so will only create dissatisfaction anyway.

However I’m quite glad we didn’t get the abortion video. The squeamish reaction of my class to dissecting a heart was bad enough, I fear that video might have sent several 15 year olds over the edge completely.

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