Veronica Wikman: A black mark for religious observance in our schools

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There is a lot of anger among many parents about the religious assemblies and related activities that are delivered by chaplains and ministers in Scotland’s non-denominational state schools.

These assemblies are held throughout the year, in some schools on a weekly basis, and take the form of a “Sunday School” session, often reminiscent of a church service.

Yet according to a recent YouGov poll, 63 per cent of respondents in Scotland want a secular education system, and consequently wish to see assemblies removed from their children’s education.

The conscience clause in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, gives parents the right to opt out of religious observance (RO), but this option is rarely used, because it is impossible to remove children without putting them at a considerable disadvantage.

Children make great efforts to fit in with their peers. It’s an important part of a child’s normal, social and emotional development. Children who are excluded feel anxious and left out, and can become the object of derision from other children.

One father described how his child was made to sit on the bench outside the head teacher’s office, usually reserved for misbehaving pupils, as an alternative “activity” during RO. In many cases children who are withdrawn are simply given a book to read or left to roam the school corridors. As a result, few parents choose to have their children excluded even if they strongly object to their children being involved in religious observance.

So, we have a situation where non-religious parents, or even those of a different religion, can only protect their children from the influence of chaplains and Church of Scotland ministers by risking damaging their emotional and social development.

Religion is a topic that is very divisive. The fact that parish ministers are welcomed into our schools means that the schools are perceived to be endorsing religion. For the non-denominational schools this is obviously a problem as they exist to serve the entire community, not just the religious.

Religious observance isn’t just limited to the minimum eight times a year that the chaplain or parish minister has access to the children in school or in church. Children in some primary schools are engaged in RO-related art activities or singing, on a weekly basis. One example is the controversial song “Who put the colours in the rainbow?” which has a very strong creationist, anti-evolution 
message.

Young children are intellectually immature and have open, impressionable minds. They are also socially primed to accept as fact whatever an adult in authority tells them. This means that they are particularly vulnerable to all forms of indoctrination, whether political or religious.

Religious observance has nothing to do with education, but everything to do with religious indoctrination. This is exemplified in brutal clarity by the “Light Dispels Darkness” assembly resource that seeks to condition children to develop a fear of darkness, to associate darkness with evil and discomfort and light with hope and safety. Unsurprisingly, the concept of “light” is represented by a church candle. This resource was first created by the Church of Scotland in 2007 under the title “Light Dispels Dark” and the almost identical version, mentioned above, was published by Education Scotland in 2010.

It is inappropriate to give the Church of Scotland access to children during school hours as it would be to do so for the SNP or the Coca-Cola Company, for example. Removing RO wouldn’t just be a welcome move for atheists, secularists and humanists, but also for liberal Christians who are uncomfortable with the heavy-handed way in which the Church of Scotland is imposing its faith on the non-religious and on those of a different religion.

The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 gives local councils the power to remove religious observance from its non-denominational schools by bringing the matter to a vote. A petition has been launched to gain at least 500 signatures from electors in Edinburgh in order to get the city council to consider conducting a vote on bringing about an end to religious observance in Edinburgh council’s non-denominational schools. How often do you get the chance to stand up for one of the most precious principles of democracy – freedom of thought?

Please add your name to the petition to “Remove religious observance from non-denominational schools” on the City of Edinburgh Council website: (www.edinburgh.gov.uk/directory_record/219097/remove_religious_observance_from_non-denominational_schools). And the next time you walk past the statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile – you can do so with your head held high.

• Veronica Wikman is an Edinburgh parent and a member of the Edinburgh Secular Society

• More than half of Scottish weddings (52 per cent) are now civil ceremonies, with humanist weddings now outnumbering those carried out by the Catholic Church in Scotland

Forty per cent of Scots say they have no religion, according to the Scottish Household Survey for 2008