The British Government’s recent decision to allow full religious discrimination in school admissions, and the view of the Scottish Government that sixth formers are not allowed to withdraw themselves from religious observances in schools, are abusive and dangerous in at least three ways.
Abusive to Society
One of the ways in which human beings learn to change their views is not particularly through rational argument (though that sometimes can happen), but through prolonged exposure to, and contact with difference. Many of us can testify how having to work for a long period with someone different (for example, from a different race, a different culture, or a different sexuality) has helped us identify our previously unacknowledged prejudice, and helped us modify our opinions.
Schools where there is a variety of religious views (including those with none) provide the means where children can come in contact with differences on a regular basis and learn that there is more to human beings than the presence or absence of a religious creed. The regular contact provides a healthy experiential context for evaluating claims about religion and religious people.
While religious schools in the UK have been forced to accept 50% of pupils who do not necessarily meet the schools religious criteria, there has been some hope of contact with difference being maintained. Without it, society is bound to suffer and be less healthy in the long-term. You only have to look to Northern Ireland (which still largely maintains religious segregation) to see how an un-mixed education system just reinforces tribal differences and makes questioning and unity harder. The consequences can literally be deathly.
Abusive to the Individual
Most sixth formers are at least sixteen. And at sixteen a young person (in the UK, with a few conditions) can:
- Have sex, gay or straight, as long as their partner is also 16+ (or 17+ in NI)
- Move out of the family home (but if under 17, social services may apply for a care order)
- Rent accommodation (but an adult guarantor is required)
- Get married (with parental consent)
- Give consent to medical, dental and surgical treatment
- Choose their own doctor
- Pay prescription charges – unless pregnant, on income support or in full-time education (law differs in Wales)
- Get free full-time education (at school, sixth form college and city technology college)
- Access school records
- Claim benefits and get a National Insurance number (this should be sent automatically a few weeks before their 16th birthday)
- Join the armed forces (with consent of parents or carers)
- Work as a street trader and/or sell scrap metal
- Earn the minimum wage
- Claim child tax credit if responsible for at least one child
- Invest in a cash ISA
- Drink beer or cider with a meal in a pub or hotel (but can’t be the person buying it)
- Do the football pools and play the National Lottery
- Buy Premium Bonds
- Fly a glider
- Order their own passport
- Ride a moped with a maximum engine power of 50cc (and a provisional licence), drive an invalid vehicle (with a licence) and a mowing machine or small tractor.
- Drive a car if receiving mobility allowance
People who are judged old enough to make a decision about whether or not they want to get married and join the Armed Forces cannot make a decision about whether or not they take part in an act of worship or say prayers. It is an insult to individuals and abusive of their right to choose.
If you stop and think about it for a minute the notion of compulsory religion is absurd. Presumably the compelled do not have to take part internally, even if their presence is required. And would any god, who may or may not exist, really want prayers and worship under duress?
Abusive to Cognitive Evolution
The progress of the human race has not been always linear or in a forward direction, but it is clear to see that there are many benefits now because some people have been able to get rid of silly ideas and think clearly and understand truth. However, religion can hinder such cognitive growth.
We can see the effect of fundamentalist religion on cognitive growth most clearly in countries where such religion prevails. I don’t have up-to-date figures, but in June 1996 Aaron Segal wrote: “In numerical terms, forty-one predominantly Muslim countries with about 20 percent of the world’s total population generate less than 5 percent of its science. This, for example, is the proportion of citations of articles published in internationally circulating science journals. Other measures — annual expenditures on research and development, numbers of research scientists and engineers — confirm the disparity between populations and scientific research.”
As a people we need to continue to develop cognitively. Aeroplanes, and computers, and medical advances do not happen because people sit and ask god what to do and then pretend that they have been spoken to, or because they “feel” something would be the right answer. Compelling people to believe and talk to invisible friends and to uncritically evaluate coincidences and other natural phenomenon – in other words, to encourage others to fail to apply reasoning and truth tests – is a mistaken burden on society. We progress with science, not mumbo-jumbo – and just insisting on society continuing to have both, slows down collective cognitive evolution.
The Governments are misguided and bowing to religious lobbying. I hope the Scottish Government is able to resist the pressure and preserve the rights of sixth formers to say No.
What do you think?