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Extract from Religious Schools: the case against
a report from the Humanist Philosophers' Group

[Another] argument . . . focuses on children's autonomy, or rather their lack of it. The fundamental premise of the argument is that, given the importance of fundamental religious and value commitments to a person's life, such commitments should be entered into only subject to all the normal requirements for valid consent: in particular, competence, full information, and voluntariness.

Religious schools, however, are likely to violate these requirements - partly because of (younger) children's lack of autonomy and partly because of the nature of such schools' missions. …it is one thing for parents in private to bring up their children to believe what they, the parents, think true and important. It is quite another for parents to expect that the state should undertake the role of transmitting such a belief.

The state has its own interest in ensuring that children grow up to be responsible and capable citizens. It must design a system of education that serves that end, as well as promoting the interests of children…

It is to be doubted whether separate schools for every religious persuasion are really the best way of promoting pluralism and tolerance in a multi-cultural society. Providing a full range of sectarian schools in every district would in any case be impracticable, except perhaps in the very largest cities…

More importantly, if children grow up within a circumscribed culture, if their friends and peers are mostly from the same religion and hence also, very likely, the same ethnic group, and if they rarely meet or learn to live with others from different backgrounds, this is hardly calculated to promote the acceptance and recognition of diversity. We have clear evidence to the contrary from Northern Ireland, where the separation of Catholic schools and Protestant schools has played a significant part in perpetuating the sectarian divide…

Our arguments support three key principles which we believe must guide policy-making with regards to religious schools:
1. In a free and open society, beliefs about fundamental religious and value commitments should be adopted autonomously and voluntarily...
2. Neither parents nor faith communities have a right to call upon the state to help them inculcate their particular religious beliefs in their children, nor further their own projects, customs or values through their children…
3. In a pluralist, multi-cultural society, the state must promote the tolerance and recognition of different values, religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs…

If we were designing the education system from scratch, the logical consequence of these principles would be that there would be no religious schools at all.

…although abolition of, or withdrawal of funding for, religious schools is a course of action we advocate, we do not expect to see such a radical reform implemented. Instead, we would make three practical recommendations that would help close the gap between our three principles and the status quo.
1. The state should not support the further expansion of religious schools…
2. The application of government guidelines requiring 'multi-faith' religious education should be extended to cover religious schools...
3. The legal requirements for and guidelines on 'multi-faith' religious education should be modified to include the compulsory teaching of non-religious views, such as atheism and Humanism…

The full report is available from the British Humanist Association, 47 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8SP - 020 7430 0908 - info@humanism.org.uk - price £2.50 incl. p&p.

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