Given we, quite correctly, have age restrictions on voting, standing for public office and joining political parties why is it that religious organisations are able to recruit members who haven’t yet managed to even speak, read or understand even the most basic language never mind make an informed judgement about the meaning of life?
I’m talking about babies and children. They are signed up as members of religious groups and when they start school are considered to be Christians or Muslims or Jews. And this state of affairs is actually reflected in government policy. In some religions they are even considered to have ‘joined the faith’ at the moment of birth, or, for all I know, even before.
I bet a good few of you have even attended the bizarre water ritual – thankfully I have an atheist father – I wasn’t forced into the ritual when I was a baby. I followed suit and refused to enroll my own daughter in a religious group without her consent and I have never attended a single head wetting ceremony in my life and intend to keep it that way.
I can’t imagine that even believers consider it reasonable that a six year old should be considered to have consented to joining a theological group. Yet our education system accepts categories such as Muslim, Christian, Jewish pupil. The correct terminology should be “the sons and daughters of Muslims, Christians and Jews”. The faith aspect of ‘Faith Schools’ is not about meeting the needs of the children but about transmitting the values of the faith – which may be what the parent wants but it is certainly not something that the child can be considered to have consented to.
Given religion is a philisophical stand-point, an ideology, I see no reason why, if faith schools are considered acceptable, that political schools should not also be allowed by the British state. If the SWP or the BNP had the resources to start their own educational institutions on what basis could they be objected to by a state which endorses the indoctrination of children by other ideologies? Why is religion given precedence over other ideologies in a society which accepts the basic liberal notion of co-existence and competition between different world views?
The distinction drawn between political ideology and theological ideology is reflected in a number of other areas — the debate over dress code and symbols of ideology in schools for example, where the religious are given rights to make statements and expressions of identity that are denied to others. A teacher would, quite rightly, face serious consequences for wearing a Vote Labour badge in class but is perfectly at liberty to wear expressions of religious affiliation.
In order for British children to have a fully-rounded and fully free education, in order for them to be given the tools to make their own minds up about philosophical questions, religion should be treated exactly the same as politics in schools. There are no socialist children, liberal children or conservative children. Education should give kids the tools to digest, understand and eventually participate in politics. Likewise it should give them the intellectual capacity to understand religion so that, when they reach an age where they are capable of consenting to membership of a religious group, they are capable of making an informed decision.
I suggest the following would be progressive demands in this area:
1. The phasing out, leading to the eventual abolition of, all faith schools and their replacement with ideologically-neutral schools.
2. The introduction of an age of consent for participation in religious organisations, which I suggest should be 18. In order to enforce this it will be necessary for indoctrination of children to become an offence.
3. The end to the use of terminology such as “Christian children” or “Muslim pupils”. No government data or policy should include such references, no policy should be based on such notions. Children are children.
4. As well as ideologically neutral Comparative Theology classes in schools, there should be compulsory Citizenship Studies which give children a grounding in the rights of the individual in a democracy, the history of democracy and the British constitution among other topics.
5. In order to provide for a consistent secular approach from the British state in education and other areas of child development, legislation should be passed declaring the total seperation of church and state, the repeal of the blasphemy laws and the formal declaration of the British state as neutral in matters of religious ideology.