Saturday, 5 July 2008

Islam, Christianity, and religious indoctrination

Today, the Daily Express reported an incident in a school in Alsager High School near Crewe, where, according to the article, "two schoolboys were given detention for refusing to kneel and “pray” to Allah." Of course, like most things the Express and its counterparts The Sun and the Daily Mail report, the headline leads the reader to a different conclusion than the article does. The children in question were not being forcibly converted to Islam or making actual prayers to Allah, but rather "had been taking part in a practical demonstration of Islam in a religious education lesson."

Of course, the methods employed still pose a lot of questions about just how ethical the teaching in the class is, but the underlying issue is a far more insidious and wide-ranging one than the newspaper and the outraged parents it quotes would lead us to believe. Yes, it is wrong to force children to partake in a religious ritual against their will, and these children should no more have been made to kneel to Allah than they should have been made to drink fruit punch laced with nitroglycerine in the hopes of being taken up to the mothership. But the reasons posited by the parents of the children as to why this is wrong are mistaken.

The Express reports that "furious parents claimed their children’s rights were breached by being forced to behave in a manner contrary to their religion." It then quotes one mother as saying "I do not have a problem with my child being taught about other religions, but this was going far too far." Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, backed this up by saying "What appears to have happened here is tantamount to asking a class of Muslim children to recite the Lord’s Prayer to teach them about Christianity. Somehow I cannot imagine that happening."

And, of course, they are right to object about this and their protests are aimed in the right direction. To a degree. Look closer, though, and you can see the constant references by parents to other religions, rather than simply religions, as well as Seaton's parallel with Muslim's being forced to partake in Christian rituals. The underlying assumption is that the children in question are Christian, and this is simply wrong.

As one parent said, "“I understand you have to teach different religions ... but you don’t have to practise them.” Exactly. Unless, of course, it comes to the religion of your parents, in which case you have no choice. As misguided and wrong as this particular instance is, it is nowhere near as insidious and sinister as what, now and for centuries, happens to children worldwide in the name of "religious education." Children are branded from birth with a religion that they have no knowledge of, registered and branded as Christians - or Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, etc - before they even have any concept of what their favourite colour or football team is, let alone a question as personal and complex as what they believe about the universe and God, or a lack thereof.

All children are born agnostic, ie not knowing what to believe about the question of deities. To brand them as anything else, whether it be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, or whatever else, is not only fallacious but part of a wider programme of subtle indoctrination. In RE, children do not receive equal amounts of teaching on all the different belief systems and the autonomy to decide for themselves. The religion of their parents - by extension, in this system, their religion - monopolises the largest portion of their time with other religions that other people believe in reduced to little more than a footnote.

Just one in seven children escape the religion of their parents. The British government is pouring money into faith schools that serve only to advance the indoctrination of children and encourage religious segregation. Atheism, naturalism, and rationalism don't even figure into the curriculum. Freedom of religion is a near unattainable mirage, inter-faith hostility is deepening, and it is our children who will ultimately pay the price. The system has to change, and soon.