There was an edition of the BBC’s discussion programme The Big Questions recently which covered the topic: “Is religion good/bad for children?” (I can’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but it was about children and religion, broadly speaking, and a good part of the conversation focused on faith schools.)
Most of the guests invited to talk were religious figures, but they all fell on different points of the sliding scales of fundamentalism, reasonableness, and over-enjoyment of shouting, so there was generally at least some modicum of sanity being expressed, even before Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association put in an excellent defense of a non-religious approach to life.
One thing that struck me about the show was how much the religious guests enjoyed explaining what secular humanists believe and how they think, and how little they were diverted from this course by the one secular humanist among them repeatedly explaining where they were going wrong. No, he said, humanists don’t just think that morality is arbitrary and we should teach kids to behave however they like. We actually have a reality-based system of ethics founded on caring for other people, on good for goodness’s sake. No humanist I’ve ever met actually holds the views you’re describing.
Another recurring point was the confusion over what humanists want when it comes to religious teaching in schools. The idea keeps coming up that secularists don’t want God or gods ever to be mentioned in an educational environment, or that we want some kind of ban on prayer or religious activity. Which, again, is a misunderstanding that can only plausibly be a result of either never talking to any humanists, or not listening when they talk to you.
Of course we want kids to learn about religions in schools. The more they know about the variety of religious belief in the world today, and the origins and histories of religions that have come and gone, as well as those still prevalent, the better. I was reminded of a poster that recently appeared on an American university campus, put up by a freethinkers’ group, and featured on The Friendly Atheist, which neatly explains why humanists feel this way:
For the graphically impaired, it reads:
Study one religion,
and you’ll be hooked for life.
Study two religions,
AND YOU’RE DONE IN AN HOUR
Slightly over-simplified, perhaps, but it makes a good point.
The original “Big Question” was about whether religion was good for children – whether it was healthy or unhealthy to bring them up teaching them to adhere to a faith, the proven benefits that come from being a member of a church, and so on. What didn’t seem to come up was the value of teaching kids things that are true.
And, well, maybe I’m just being pedagogically old-fashioned, but that’s basically the trump card for me. We should be teaching kids things that are true. We should be teaching them how we come to know what’s true, how we can measure our levels of certainty about what we believe to be true, and how to think so that we’re likely to believe more true things than false ones in the future, rejecting old ideas in favour of new ones as necessary.
So, sure, let’s not hide from them the fact that around two billion people on the planet adhere to some form of Christianity. It’s not like we’re hoping they don’t notice. But let’s not leave out any other part of the factual context surrounding religious claims for the sake of maintaining our own biases, either.