Faith Schools, Sectarianism and Secularism

The Tory(surprise, surprise) MSP for Hawick, John Lamont, caused quite a furore when he said that the segregated schooling in the west of Scotland “produced many, if not all, of those who are responsible for the shocking behaviour which we have witnessed in recent months” (in reference to recent sectarian attacks on various figures associated with Catholicism, Irish Republicanism and Celtic Football club). The story was reposted by various groups on Facebook of a skeptical and humanist/atheist bent with many comments supporting the MSP. Some laughing about how it was the first time they had agreed with a Tory.

Many who know me would probably assume that I agreed with Mr Lamont on this issue. I have been in the past, and still am, vociferously against the segregation of children along any lines let alone their parents belief in fairy tale A over fairy tale B.

So why is it that I disagree with Toryboy?

At the fundamental level faith schools have a generally negative effect upon society in the way that they perpetuate the notion that society is, or should be, fragmented along lines of religion. That a person belongs to X group and all others are ‘other’. They are also allowed exemptions when it comes to religious instruction, and some schools choose to place sex-ed and citizenship classes within religious education thus escaping the regulators watchful eye. For these reasons alone faith schools should be closed down wholesale.

Added to this the way that faith schools, Catholic schools in this case, help feed into the blight of sectarianism here in the west of Scotland. The very existence of Catholic schools sets kids whose parents happen to be ostensibly Catholic apart from all the other kids in the area. This isn’t to say that Catholic kids, or Catholic adults for that matter, are more prone to sectarianism than anyone else. The massive Orange Order sectarian celebrations graphically demonstrates this is so. But the existence of these schools tells kids that attend state schools that these kids are ‘other’ to them and that feeds into the wider sectarian social discourse which sets the Catholic as the outsider. For this reason faith schools should be closed down wholesale.

So why is it that I disagree with Toryboy?

The reason I disagree with Toryboy, and my fellow skeptics/atheists, is that schools that are defined as ‘faith schools’ would be better called ‘minority faith schools’. All of the faith schools about which much ado is made belong to minority religious groups. Jews, Catholics and Muslims. The vast majority of supposedly secular state schools(ooh alliteration!) are actually de facto Protestant schools. Religious assembly, complete with prayer and often times a local member of the clergy, is a common feature of these ‘secular’ schools. The schools that I attended between the ages of 4 and 14(I left early) all had religious assembly two or three times a week with prayer and singing of hymns to the Christian god.

Why then the focus on these minority groups when the vast majority of kids in the UK attend a faith school that is fully funded by the state? Also how can we expect members of these communities to accept their schools being closed down and their kids forced to attend Protestant schools? To only call for the closure of minority faith schools is a sectarian move in the extreme. Even if the people making the call do not belong to any of the opposing sects, as is the case with humanists, atheists and skeptics, they are by proxy supporting the Protestant schooling of children.

So yes, criticise faith schools, but criticise all of them and make that criticism sharpest towards the faith school that is controlled by the most powerful institution in the country, the state.

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