Helen Martin: I’ve no faith in atheist paranoia

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WHEN the Young Master was at primary school, there were one or two things happening in the classroom with which I didn’t agree – the way times tables were taught, strange new-fangled ways of learning to read and spell, none of which seemed to work very well.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the philosophy that on sports day there “were no losers” and always pointed out to him, later and quietly, that the boy who broke through the winning tape was indeed the winner, and the guy bringing up the rear was not “a loser” but definitely “last”. That’s reality . . . someone always has to come last.

These were the issues I had with the school. Religion didn’t come into it.

Having sent him to a Roman Catholic primary, I’d have been pretty surprised if there hadn’t been any religious education and observance, though many pupils were not 

When I was young there were very few Catholic schools where I lived other than the private and expensive. I went to the local non-
denominational school, which in the 1950s meant it was Christian but neither dourly Protestant or flamboyantly Catholic.

We said grace before school lunch, a prayer or two at assembly and had random sessions during the week where the headmaster would come into the classroom regardless of the lesson in progress and thump out Jerusalem on the piano to get us all singing along. The Jewish children sort of joined in out of curiosity.

Neither me nor my son seem to have been terribly influenced by all this religious input. I’m a nominal Catholic, which means not being a very good one but feeling very guilty about it. The Young Master, who was much more immersed in Catholicism, learned his catechism, and made his first confession around the age of eight, doesn’t now, at the age of 24, believe in anything, including atheism as far as I can tell. He may bounce back, who knows?

So the idea that anyone is “indoctrinated” and “instilled” with beliefs by a few Bible stories and hymns at a non-denominational primary school, or even a Catholic one, is paranoiac over-reaction. But still it forms the basis of a petition by a south-west Edinburgh mum, which is now being supported by the Edinburgh Secular Society with a view to being handed into the city council, calling on it to remove “religious observance” from non-denominational state schools.

Parents have more to worry about with schools nowadays. Is there a roof on the classroom? Are there enough buckets to collect rain water leaks? Can the teacher maintain discipline? Are the little blighters learning anything? Has someone pinched their ludicrously expensive smartphone? What’s the school’s rate for teenage pregnancy?

But even among atheists and the apathetic or disinterested, how many really want primary schools with no Christmas trees, parties or nativity plays, no Easter crafts and chocolate eggs, no Christmas or Easter holidays? Most schools now also recognise the celebrations and holy days of other major religions.

The assumption underlying this petition is that any parent who does want some level of religious observance should send their child to “denominational” schools, which may be over-subscribed, non-existent in the case of several religions, or private and cripplingly expensive, leaving the non-denominational state schools for the exclusive use of confirmed atheists.

Non-denominational state schools are for everyone. If anyone is attempting indoctrination, it is those “evangelical atheists” who want us all to march to their tune, bend our beliefs to theirs and change our schools and institutions to conform with what many of us would perceive as their rather sad and despairing lack of faith.

Carry the can

AMID the obesity discussion surrounding fizzy drinks and suggestions they should be subject to a 20 per cent tax hike, most of us could be forgiven for thinking sugar is the problem.

But there is increasing evidence that diet fizz is even more harmful than regular. All artificial sweeteners make me feel sick. My son inherited it to such an extent that even as a baby he would spit out prescription “Calpol” made with sweeteners and had to have the full-price sugar version.

So studies showing these sugar substitutes can raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes, damage brain cells, increase appetite, increase blood sugar and may even contribute to diabetes didn’t really surprise me.

They are horrible, chemical additives which some researchers think are worse for us than full-sugar drinks and actually cause more weight gain, particularly for “frequent” users – those drinking two cans a day or more.

At last we have the answer to why so many overweight folk (and I’m no skinnymalink) seem to permanently have a diet can clutched in their hand. It’s not part of the process of losing weight, it’s a cause of gaining it.