A Religious Country?

As an ex-pat American now living in the UK, I am still struck by the very different senses in which it can be said that the US and UK are religious countries. The US is an officially secular nation with a supposedly strict separation of church and state. Yet its people are in fact very religious (at least compared to other Western democracies), and Christianity plays a huge role in politics. The UK is officially a Christian country, but its people are some of the most secular around and it is considered highly distasteful for politicians to mention their religious beliefs. Mostly, as a secular person, this makes me far more comfortable in the UK. One big exception, though, is education. All schools have a daily act of worship which must be of a “broadly Christian character” (with a huge range of interpretations of this available), and this really creeps me out as an American. (Though I find that my equally secular British friends are mostly unperturbed by it.) Which brings me to this story. One interesting thing to me is my reaction. Somehow I do find it more disturbing to have a Christian assembly at a majority Muslim school than to have one at a majority atheist school. Is that just because we atheists are so accustomed to being ignored? (Thanks, Jender-Parents!)

21 thoughts on “A Religious Country?

  1. This ‘daily act of worship’ claim sounds fishy to me. I never had any such thing (perhaps this is because I was educated in Scotland?), though we occasionally had quasi-religious ceremonies at various times of the year (i.e. we had a ‘Christmas concert’ or other event, at which a minister might speak, but which was otherwise secular).

  2. I went to a CofE primary school, and we had assemblies ‘of a broadly Christian character’ everyday. It mainly consisted of stories about this guy Jed, which vaguely resembled Biblical parables (e.g. he went on a school trip, they got stranded, they pooled their lunchboxes and had a feast. Bread & fishes, right?)

    Perhaps the reason I am unperturbed is that to me the whole experience was of a fairly moralistic set of stories (and some pictures to colour in, sometimes) devoid of much spiritual character. (But that might just be me – I escaped unscathed!)

    My recollection is also that the headmaster was a very kind and sensitive person, so I think perhaps considerable effort went into making these assemblies as inclusive as possible (whilst keeping the governors happy).

    The most overtly religious part of the proceedings were the hymns. Again, from the child’s eye view, these were slightly tedious unspiritual events. There were some muslim pupils at the school, and they also joined in the assemblies. One of whom I shared giggles with as we substituted the word ‘sultana’ for ‘hosanna’.

    When I think about it, I find the demand for religious assemblies exclusionary and troubling. That this is at odds with my childhood experience may be testament to the fact that things tend to wash over children. But it may also be due to the fact that what I was participating with wasn’t at odds with what (one of) my parents believed, or my cultural background more broadly; I wonder if my singing pal would have a different take on things (maybe I should join facebook and find out…. )

    At my secondary school, there was quite a large contingent of Jewish pupils, and they didn’t have to come to full assembley (which was twice a week, and again, mildly religious). Non-attendance always seemed quite desirable, so conferred esteem on those who achieved it, I think.

    Much worse than both of these institutions is my present university: in catered student residences there is no halal or kosher dining option (except the vegetarian option, I suppose). Most of the residences (there’s approx 30) have chapels and chaplains. I’ve come across one muslim prayer room so far.

    But then this isn’t a very diverse institution. Wonder why?

  3. I find it more disturbing to have Muslims having to participate than either atheists or, now, Jews. It feels too much like forced assimilation for a sometimes severely put upon minority.

    Stoat, I wonder if the non-attendance of Jews would have seemed as good when they were the subjects of an overt and fairly wide-spread suspicion (to say the least).

  4. Thanks Iga!

    JJ – yep, no doubt there are cases in which the circumstances around such non-attendance would be negative and damaging.
    This didn’t seem to be the case in my school days. From my position now, I’m inclined find it objectionable, even if at the time we didn’t *think* it was a problem (and again, this might not be shared by all: I don’t know what the Jewish students would now, looking back, say about it, nor whether at the time they would have preferred if there was just no assembly at all (we all shared that preference, I think!)…).
    In fact, it seems strange to me that no one queried it at the time…

  5. I’ve taught in a large secondary school near London for the last nine years, and we’ve never had any act of worship, collective or otherwise… Ofsted pointed this out to us a few years ago, and we did nothing about it… and in our most recent Ofsted report, they didn’t even mention it.

    I think this is the same in most of our state secondary schools… not sure about primaries… x

  6. As a fellow American in the UK, I too have been surprised by the level of institutionalized CoE Christianity that floats around. But it is also interesting that it gets largely ignored by the masses for whom it is intended. It’s just a different model than the US. I think the institutionalized religion in the UK should head out the back door along with the monarchy, but people here seem to be remarkably tolerant of institutions with no current value but obvious historical value.

  7. i just got back from teaching marx’s “on the jewish question,” and i used this post as a way of clarifying a student question.

  8. mr lp, who went to state school in england, insists that these assemblies (& RE) are not a big deal; that it was just a bunch of boring nonsense, and the students weren’t taken in by it. so, his experience of it sounds just like stoat’s, only he sticks to the claim that there’s nothing wrong with it. this seems bonkers to me (sorry dear): the fact that a child sees nothing wrong with a practice is neither here nor there. children have guardians for a reason; they don’t always know what’s in their own best interest.

  9. JJ writes: “I find it more disturbing to have Muslims having to participate than either atheists or, now, Jews. It feels too much like forced assimilation for a sometimes severely put upon minority.”

    What’s compulsory is that all state schools put on ‘daily acts of collective worship of a christian nature’. It is not compulsory that all pupils attend these. Parents can opt out. In my experience assemblies, as these acts are called, were mostly non-religious moral education with a veneer of Christianity thrown in – in the form of sublimely dreary singing. Some Catholics at my school used to be opted out because it wasn’t Christian as their parents understood the term.

    It still looks bad from a US perspective, I expect, but then all that flag worship looks worse from over here than it probably really is.

    For the hardcore, there’s an articulate debate on this at http://www.teachers.tv/video/24057 – Dimbleby, Dawkins, and some others, including a studio audience.

  10. I have to say I don’t remember /daily/ prayers/assemblies at my Catholic primary school (although it was, erm, a while ago), and my high school – a non-religious grammar school but not a private school (i.e., you only needed to pass the 11+) – certainly did not have daily assemblies/prayers (even for those who wanted them!). Assemblies were maybe weekly, if that, and were for announcements only. Our RE lessons (one a week until 3rd year, when you only kept it on if you were doing RE for GCSE) were not solely about Christianity. Have the rules changed in the past 15-20 years? (or was I really not paying attention?)

  11. [Apologies for the long post, just thought that people might find this alternative model interesting!]

    At my boys grammar school near London we had religious assemblies twice a week and whole school assemblies once a week. The interesting thing is that 5 religious groups were catered for (in decreasing size order): (generic) Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.

    Apart from the Christian assembly the other religious assemblies were run by older students from that religious group, usually sixth formers (17 or 18 year olds).

    Though I am now an atheist and was reasonably strongly anti-religious at school I was actively involved in running my faith group assembly for several years (being Sikh there weren’t always older students to organise the meetings). The assembly often provided a useful forum in which to disucss aspects of the religion that might not have been questioned in more formally organised groups. The question of arranged and forced marriage was often discussed as was the historical underpinning of religious doctrines. It wasn’t always so illuminating, this issue of homosexuality was greeted with some rather bigoted responses but it was perhaps refreshing for many that such a forum existed.

    Opting out was relatively easy (a letter from parents) and generally resulted neither in street cred nor unwanted abuse. However, those who did opt-out in general were free to attend a session that they found particularly interesting at any one of the groups.

    At the time I found even this level of enforced religious observance quite oppressive but in retrospect it seems like a useful model in a system where some form of observance is mandated by law. It might even foster a healthier relationship with both one’s own religion and with others, as long we can guard against dogmatism from those that run such fora.

  12. Growing up as a Quaker in the UK I took pride in boycotting organised religious activity at school, and so I was very aware of the number of times we sang hymns or recited prayers. In secondary school we were required to work towards a qualification at 16 in religious studies and I absolutely refused (until, when I was 15, they decided it wasn’t compulsory after all, and so I decided it was quite a good idea…). But I think my objections were quite personal: I didn’t see it as a political protest, exactly.

    Now that I have a partner who teaches in an Anglican school I think I’m seeing the political implications more clearly. I’ve been shocked at some of the incidents where pupils have been seriously let down because of a school ethos that excluded them. I feel more and more strongly that there shouldn’t be any publicly funded religious schools.

  13. Kalbir, your comment is interesting. I used to opt out of school (Christian) assembly and go to Muslim assembly, which was run by Muslim pupils, and where I learnt lots about Islam. The headmistress eventually stopped me from going to Muslim assembly as I wasn’t Muslim. I told her I wasn’t Christian either, but that didn’t wash as an excuse to not go to the main assembly. My teenage attempts to set up Pagan assembly were unsuccessful.

  14. Just wanted to say how fascinating I’ve been finding all these anecdotes from those who have gone through UK education. I’m only sorry I don’t have the time to respond to them individually. (Though I do especially love Monkey’s childhood efforts.) Keep them coming!

  15. “Is that just because we atheists are so accustomed to being ignored? ”

    I recently wrote a paper arguing that the state should endorse only a secular moral education. One of my prof’s comments was ‘what about a non-denominational deity?’

    The idea that this would exclude atheists never seems to occur. I’m pretty used to being ignored.

  16. does anyone have any school-aged children in britain currently? i’d be interested to know what it’s like these days. (maybe use a different username to your normal one if you’re talking about little children? monkey’s post on internet safety has worried me!)

  17. I have a friend who was distressed that his child’s school didn’t teach about atheism in Religious Education. He complained, and was shocked that the head teacher said “You’re right: we should do that. Do you know any good teaching materials we could use?” As far as I know, he hasn’t found any yet, so suggestions are very welcome!

  18. Actually, on the subject of Muslim assembly in school – I also spent a year at school in Germany, where we split for religious education into Lutherans and Catholics, who each had their own session. Or at least, most of the pupils did. But there were also some Turkish pupils who had their own Muslim sessions.

    Apparently, when my mother explained that I was a Quaker and wouldn’t be attending the Lutheran or the Catholic sessions, the teacher paused for a moment and then said, oh, that’s okay, you’ll be with the Turks, then…

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