This is a crucial area for Humanists in Northern Ireland. Education plays a very important part in Humanist thought. We believe that it is the duty of every community to make the future better than the present. Education is an investment, not only or even mainly in a narrow economic sense but also socially and morally. It should try to fulfil at least three basic functions: the development of talents and skills; the fostering of independence of thought; and the improvement in moral and social behaviour. It is also essential that children should be taught in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere to encourage them to love and be loved, to enjoy a social life.
The vast majority of schools in Northern Ireland are segregated along religious lines and although the number of integrated schools is increasing there is evidence that in many of them religion assumes an even greater importance than ever .
According to the League Tables, Ulster schoolchildren are often top of the class. For this we congratulate ourselves on the allegedly superior nature of our education system. Yet in some ways we do not treat our children as if they actually deserved this honour. Indeed, in one key area we seem to assume that they are dunces. That area is Religious Education.
Before considering the specific case of Northern Ireland, we should first set it in the UK context. Britain is at odds with other democracies such as France, India and the USA in making religion compulsory in schools. Indeed, whereas in America ‑ to cite just one stark contrast ‑ it is against the law to teach religion in state schools, in Britain it is actually against the law NOT to teach it! Recent reforms left the 1944 (1947 in Ulster) Act largely untouched, with religion being designated as a 'compulsory additional subject' and schools still legally obliged to hold a daily act of worship in morning assembly.
The law does not in fact compel children to attend either of these activities but instead empowers parents to compel them. It then makes the assumption that parents are indeed compelling them unless they formally state in writing that their child is ‘contracting out’. Recently, the law was changed to allow Sixth formers in England and Wales to opt out without parental consent, but this change does not apply in Northern Ireland.
What has daily worship in schools got to do with education anyway? Even some religious groups and individuals like the Evangelical Alliance and the Archbishop of York are beginning to question its effectiveness on the grounds that the worship forced on children probably does more to alienate them from religion than any other single factor. While this may be pleasing to unbelievers, it is hardly a satisfactory way to treat a serious subject.
The situation in Northern Ireland is made even worse than in the UK as a whole by the treatment here of RE. There is no central syllabus for RE in England and Wales, and English education authorities draw up their own syllabus. Take, for example, the Agreed Syllabus for the London borough of Hounslow. It is entitled Widening Horizons, a title which itself speaks volumes. It aims to develop and extend knowledge and awareness of belief systems which cover the major world faiths and life stances. Its core areas include Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism ‑ and Humanism.
In marked contrast we in Ulster have a Core Syllabus which seeks not to open children's minds but instead strives to keep them firmly closed. The main reason is that it was drafted by the main Christian churches. In their wisdom' they presumed that since most adults here are Christians, the Core Syllabus should be exclusively Christian also. So much for the rights of the child and minorities. As a result of pressure, they have recently included the study of two other religions at Key Stage 3, but this change does not go nearly far enough.
The rights of the child do not really figure very prominently in Ulster's dominant educational philosophy. An ingrained feature of both Protestant and Catholic ideology is the notion that schools have a fundamental duty to provide young people with a 'Christian' education. But what precisely does this mean? What is a characteristically Christian form of schooling? It would be rather absurd to claim, for example, that there was a distinctly Christian form of Mathematics or Geography. Nor is there any readily discernible Christian approach to punishment and discipline. And there is no peculiarly Christian view of what constitutes a balanced curriculum.
In fact, the true meaning of a 'Christian education in Ulster is much less substantive than this analysis might suggest. It is quite simply that children should be 'educated' in the Christian faith. What message does this restrictiveness convey to Moslems, Hindus and members of other faiths ‑ not to mention the 14 per cent or more who have no religion? In other words, it is a perfect example of what has been called the primitive concept of education ‑ the view a primitive tribe might have when it seeks to pass on to the next generation its rituals, its way of farming, and so on, according to its own customs and beliefs. Not the least problem with this concept of education is the fact that in Ulster there are two warring tribes and two distinct sets of Christian beliefs.
James Madison, author of the First Amendment of the American Constitution, asked a pertinent question: "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?" Owing to the almost total tribal segregation in Ulster schools, covering about 97% of young people, this is precisely what has happened, with the version of Christianity promoted depending on the denomination of the particular school.
The frightening extent of this tribal indoctrination is indicated by the almost total absence, as revealed in surveys, of any attempt to discuss the basic beliefs of the neighbouring tribe, In the early 1970s, for example, Greer discovered from questioning Heads of RE departments that at Sixth Form level the beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists and even Humanists were often mentioned, but "no mention was made of the problems of comparative religion which lies at the root of so many social problems in Northern Ireland, the Protestant‑Roman Catholic division". If this holds true today, and one suspects that it is still largely the case, then Ulster children grow up in almost total ignorance of the religious beliefs of the other basic strand of Christianity.
It seems that the dominant ideology of a 'Christian' education is narrowly conceived in terms not just of instilling Christianity to the almost total exclusion of other faiths and life stances but also specifically of instilling one brand of Christianity to the exclusion of the other. There is absolutely nothing to counter the widespread assumption on the one side that the pope is the antichrist or on the other that Protestants are not 'real' Christians. Here is a shocking dereliction of duty by the main churches in the face of 25 years of sectarian strife and bigotry. Even their conception of Christianity in the new Core Syllabus should be strongly challenged. It is as if Darwin, Strauss, Schweitzer and a host of other scholars and scientists had never existed. For this Syllabus adopts an obsolete, fundamentalist approach to the Bible, implicitly rejecting evolution and endorsing Adam and Eve. It thus reflects one notable defect of Irish Christianity in general, namely its very simplicity. It merely serves to perpetuate a frightening certitude about what constitutes true belief and an almost willful refusal to admit that Christianity is open to doubt.
This kind of denominational brainwashing negates the whole purpose of an advanced educational system. Education is certainly not about bringing up a child within any particular faith. It is about the opportunities for a child to learn of many different systems of beliefs and attitudes of mind, so that he or she can make a personal choice among them. This is surely one of the basic rights of a child ~ rights which are all too easily forgotten in Northern Ireland. Children are individual people, not private possessions of their parents or fodder to swell church membership. The latter will naturally prejudice children in favour of their own beliefs, so the school has a vital role in redressing the balance by making other views known. Ulster's schools singularly fail to fulfil this role.
This appalling situation is itself a strong argument for abolishing 'Religious Education' throughout the UK and for substituting 'Philosophy' or 'Moral Education' or 'Education in Stances for Living' as a subject in the curriculum. Religious pleading should be left to the home and the church. Children should certainly learn about religion in school, but on a comparative basis or in the context of examining various alternative belief systems. This comparative perspective is clearly necessary in view not only of the obviously plural nature of modern Britain but also of the deep religious polarisation in the province of Ulster.
Traditionalists will recoil in horror from any proposal to abolish 'Religious Education'. They see morality and religion as being inseparable, the one flowing from the other. Abolishing RE would mean to them a loss of any effective ethical teaching and therefore a further decline in moral standards in society generally. There is one, and only one, sense in which they may be right. To link moral education so closely with a set of beliefs which are themselves widely in question in the modern world runs the risk that, if the child comes to discard these beliefs, then the moral values associated with them will also be rejected. But this is another argument in favour of treating the moral sphere as independent of religion and of granting to Moral Education the same autonomy as any other subject in the curriculum ..
In any case, the record of Christianity in Ulster and elsewhere is hardly a model of morality or humanity. It has certainly not provided a reliable guide to the development of values such as independent thought, respect for truth and reason, open-rnindedness, tolerance and respect for life. If anything, it has in practice promoted the opposite of such values. Christianity in Ireland has a lot to answer for, and yet the predominant view is that children would all be much worse if they were not taught it!
Research in fact points to the relative moral naiveté and backwardness of Ulster children compared to their counterparts in Britain and America. The roots of this ethical underdevelopment do not lie in any intellectual inferiority on the part of the province's young. They lie, rather, in the pressures ‑ from the home, the church and, sad to say, the school ‑ to conform to traditional modes of thought. And not the least cause of this conformity is an overdose of religion in 'Religious Education' and a marked deficiency of secular moral teaching. On the British mainland RE in many schools has, in fact, broadened away from the inculcation of a distinct set of beliefs and in some areas has become Moral Education in all but name. This has not yet happened. to any real extent in Northern Ireland's schools, where ethics are still largely filtered through a religious prism.
Secular Moral Education would not invoke the beliefs of one particular section of the community but would be genuinely undenominational. There is no shortage of material in the contemporary world or in relevant literature on the subject to provide detailed and interesting syllabuses throughout the school years. The aim should be to assist in the development of autonomous, morally responsible adults. This should lead to the independent arrival at a conviction of one's own accountability to one's fellow human beings and to a rational and emotional concern for justice, freedom, tolerance, truth, and other humane values.
But Moral Education is not just a subject for the school curriculum. It is also an aspect of the school itself For it also lies in the daily influences and experiences through which children learn the basics of self-respect, joy in co-operation, concern for others, tolerance of their ways and beliefs, and so on. And if Moral Education is in large part a practical process of inter personal and group influences, then schools in a divided society are totally failing in their moral duty if they themselves remain a microcosm of that division. In other words, moral education cannot be effectively taught at all in Ulster while schools are segregated. Proper Moral Education is inextricably linked to integrated schools.
The way forward in Ulster education is to establish schools that are both integrated and secular. Ideally, Humanists would like to see state subsidies removed from voluntary schools altogether, or they should be nationalised with compensation, As far as possible, integration should be on a basis of numerical equality of Protestant and Catholic children, who each represent about 509o' of the total child population. Both collective worship and RE should ideally be abolished and replaced with agreed syllabuses of Moral Education or Education in Stances for Living.
These proposals are clearly radical, but it cannot be emphasised enough that the segregated and church‑dominated system of education in Northern Ireland does greatly contribute to the province's Problem, and only when Protestants and Catholics mix freely and equally from nursery school level upwards is there likely to be any real progress towards a harmonious community.
Yet there are signs that the main churches are endeavouring to tighten their grip on schools. The main Protestant churches, through a Transferor Representatives Handbook, are encouraging governors of state schools to appoint teachers and principals who support Protestant values, and Catholic schools blatantly advertise for teachers who share the Catholic ethos of the school authorities. Even the integrated movement is being targeted. Protestant churches are encouraging some state schools to acquire integrated status in the hope that they will continue to educate mostly Protestants and instil a Protestant ethos.
These disgraceful attempts to manipulate the educational system for theocratic ends should be strongly opposed by all parents. The time has come for a revolt of the people against clerical power. It is time to secularise the schools. For too long the churches have been allowed to dictate the rules of the educational game. The moment has come to expel God from our schools. If we did this, then we would have begun the real peace process.
Teach evolution, not creationism Date Posted: 2011-09-22 Thirty leading scientists and five national organisations have issued a statement calling for the extension of evolution lessons in school science and firmer statutory guidance against creationism.