June 27, 2013

Oh, God.

Bernard starts junior school in September (I know, how did that happen, etc). The school he will go to is separate from but on the same site as his infant school. It’s five minutes’ walk away, right at the bottom of our road. It’s the best school in a town full of excellent schools, and I’ve just read the OFSTED report where the inspectors clearly struggled to think of any “improvements” they could suggest. It’s also a Church school.

A couple of years ago, a friend described us as the most atheist people he knew (while laughing at us sitting politely through a thoroughly joyful church wedding). As parents, in the area of spiritual and religious learning, we have always leaned towards rational, honest discussion. We told him from the start that Father Christmas was made up. When we stay at Granny’s house, she does a christmas stocking; he knows it’s her but you can tell by the way he wakes up an extra hour earlier that it’s still very exciting. If we’re at home for christmas, we call it Yule. We chose that name for it to make it non-religious: in this family, that festival is all about family. We’re hoping that the same approach to the Tooth Fairy will save us some cash.

Although the infant school is not a church school, there are prayers and religious assemblies, with I think just slightly more than lip service given to other faiths. When these give rise to questions, we try to answer them in a straightforward way, and help him to think rationally. We encourage him to respect other people and other cultures, but we don’t downgrade our own culture in deference to religion. I am perfectly happy for him to be taught about other belief systems, but not for him to be taught christianity, or any other religion, as fact.

Today I was given a whole heap of forms to complete before he starts the new school, and one of them is about visiting church. I have the following options:

  • I am happy for my child to visit church as part of the RE curriculum
  • I am happy for my child to attend church to celebrate special events
  • I wish to exercise my right to withdraw my child from RE and/or collective worship.

If I don’t check both the first two boxes, I have to give reasons. I asked his new teacher if many children skipped church, because back in my day only the weird JW kids did that, and she said yes it’s not uncommon. I am very conflicted about this, because I don’t want him to be the weird kid (any more than is inevitable) but I also don’t see why he should be required to take part in something that is not relevant to our family, any more than a Muslim child would be obliged to do it. Then as Lisa says, sitting quietly during a church service is a useful lifeskill; but I’m not sure I agree with that. I don’t find myself having to do it even as much as once a year.

I explained to Bernard what going to church entailed: prayers, hymns and stories. He pointed out to me that he’s not a christian and doesn’t say prayers, but he likes hymns and stories. I said he could go along and not say prayers, if he wants to. We have not yet made up our minds.



13 thoughts on “Oh, God.

  1. From the perspective of a non-parent (i.e. ignore anything I say 🙂 ) I’d suggest letting him go, and then make up his own mind.

    If stuff gets presented as Fact (i.e. Creationism instead of Evolution) then it’s more of an issue, but he’s already a smart enough kid that he’ll ask questions. (Ideally to you, but you know he’ll question it to the teacher as well) Hell, he’ll probably start saying “But what about other religions?” and really stir the pot…

  2. I wonder if the church thing might work in your favour? Least small of the Gammidgy horde tends to very irritated by any of the church going at school or elsewhere required as she finds it intensely dull. Possibly the combination of critical thinking and going to church is the surest path to atheism. Where slightly smaller Gammidgian is concerned the picture is a little fuzzier.

    Miss Gammidgy on June 27, 2013
  3. I am leaning this way, too. If only because, as Lyle says, I’d like to think he will question teachers, and that can only be a good thing.

  4. Surely if kids can be excused, they can also be excused on an ad hoc basis. I’d send him along in the spirit of anthropological curiosity. If he discovers it’s not for him, he can plead apostasy, and go and sit with the weird kids (you know, the ones whose culture you were teaching him tolerance towards…).

    I don’t regret that I was exposed to religious education as a child. I still grew up sceptical, and I’m fairly confidant that this scepticism set in at an early age. Anyone who tries to tell him it’s a fact merely makes themselves look silly. I wouldn’t excuse Pockless Jr., but I would make sure he understood that these are simply nice stories people tell themselves in order to cope with the world, and that taking it too seriously can have dangerous consequences.

  5. I think I was about 8 or 9, maybe even slightly younger, when I decided that organised religion wasn’t for me. The “stand up, sit down, stand up” ethos of the one church service I year I had to go to at school irritated me, and the “don’t believe in me and you’ll go to hell” doctrine really rankled. Took a few more years to put myself properly into the atheist camp though.

    It was junior school assemblies when we came back to the UK that I really hated. Particularly when you got told off for not knowing the words.

    Clair on June 27, 2013
  6. I don’t recall the moment I stopped believing. As with Santa, I think all the stories we were told just slowly faded until it simply seemed obvious that we weren’t actually supposed to believe them. During my angrier teenage years I was a hard line atheist, but now, confidant as I am that there’s nothing to prove, I no longer have anything to prove… I call this softened, but ultimately more rational position “lapsed atheism.” I am unable to believe in a supreme being that needs to be believed in.

  7. It’s not only church when it is useful to be able to sit still, I didn’t mean that 🙂 I can also remember being thoroughly bored through church and religious assemblies at school (and I turned out ok!) but I liked the singing. I still do like choral music.
    My children are at a church school, because the village aspect was more important to me than opting out would have been. I was certainly never give a form (I feel quite cheated). Tamsin was, apparently, a Christian when she was in reception but now neither child is.
    It definitely depends on the school (and the head) whether it is presented as fact or a nice story. Would you opt him out of a nativity play?

    Lisa on June 27, 2013
  8. So I’m starting to think I can treat the churchy stuff as inocculation, rather than trying to protect him from it. That’s good, I can finish this form now.

  9. Exactly. A small dose may make him feel a little poorly in the short term, but will avoid the risk of more harmful attacks later on.

  10. My feelings on this are complex. ‘Going to Church’ is an experience that, by design or accident, enforces communal feelings. I’m not sure, at a young age, that I would have been able to process the difference between the social pressure, or at least the inherent respect and grandeur of a church and mass gathering, and questions about other faiths and the validity of the reasons for the gathering. But then again I didn’t have parents like you guys.

    Also, in much the same way that Christopher Hitchens loved to belt out ‘Jerusalem’ but was an avowed enemy of most of what it contains, I’m not sure that a bit of CofE mightn’t be a bad part of a British cultural education.

    I hope you’ve already finished the form and I’m not contributing to indecision in any way…

  11. I went to CofE primary, Roman Catholic secondary and 6th form. My son goes to church school. I’m one of the stronger atheists in the neighbourhood.

    See my earlier comments about my father, the right winger, advocating reading Tressell and watching Eisenstein. His (valid) argument is that you cannot thoroughly dismantle someone else’s argument unless you thoroughly understand it. But it will be incumbent upon you and Pete to put across the rational counter-arguments to religious doctrine. Then, in time, and armed with all sides of the argument, Bernard will draw his own conclusions, as is right and proper.

    Also, having sat through some of the “church” stuff at Tom’s school, it generally is not of the ram-it-down-the-throat nature. And, actually, some of those Bible stories are pretty good – particularly the ones that revolve around the theme of “be good to each other”, which is one of the best doctrines that many faiths promote (even if they rarely live up to it). Certainly, the focus of the teaching is around the “be a good person” theme for years 2, 3 and 4, from what I have seen.

    Finally, remember that he is only in school for 1300 hours a year (40 weeks, 5 days a week, 6.5 hours per day). Of that 1300, I’d be surprised if more than 40 or 50 hours were formal RE teaching and even some of that will be about other faiths than Christianity – with literacy hours, numeracy hours, PE, lunch time, music, eco hour (yep) and goodness knows what else, there simply isn’t room in the school timetable for more than that. For the remaining 3800 or so hours that Bernard will be awake during the year, he will mainly be in the company of you and Mr Dot Nu – time which you can usefully employ to indoctrinate him with wholesome, evidence-based, rational thinking.

  12. Graybo, you seriously overestimate the amount of time that child spends sleeping.

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