It would be hard to find a better illustration of religion’s staying power in societies than what’s happening at Burford Primary School in Nottingham, England.
I often report on faith trends in the United Kingdom (including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) because I view them as forerunners of religious changes that are bound to occur—if they haven’t already—in the United States.
Note that despite more than half of U.K. citizens (52 percent) claiming they do not belong to any religion, compared to 31 percent in 1983, and that the number of self-identified Christians has plummeted from 66 percent to 38 percent in the same span, a still-extant law requires all schools in England and Wales, secular and religious, to offer a daily act of “collective” religious worship that is at least “of a broadly Christian character.”
England and Wales are the world’s only countries that impose compulsory Christian worship in state schools.
More and more atheists
Compounding the growing irrelevancy, according to a July article in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, referencing the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey for 2018:
“The nonreligious [in the U.K.] are increasingly atheist. One in four members of the public stated ‘I do not believe in God,’ compared to one in 10 in 1998. The figures challenge theories that people are ‘believing but not belonging’—in other words, that faith has become private rather than institutional—the report says.”
The BSA report also points out that the relentless decline in religious belief among British citizens since the end of World War II is “one of the most important trends in postwar history.”
No matter, the U.K.’s so-named “Collective Worship Law” in two of its member countries still remains on the books despite decades of formal political and legal opposition by secular groups, such as Humanists U.K., and parents.
It begs the question: Why does such an obviously outdated law (first enacted in 1944), which is now and increasingly irrelevant to a majority of Britons, continue to perpetuate unchanged?
Even the United States, whose populace is generally far more religious than the U.K.’s, surveys show, has no government-mandated religious services in any schools. It would be unconstitutional under American law.
The problem with Burford Primary
Which brings me back to the situation at Burford Primary School, which was originally a so-called secular-ethos school but whose administration in 2015 was taken over by a religious organization, the Church of England’s Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST). A local church, St. John the Baptist, hosts Wednesday worship services at school assemblies each week. Keep in mind it’s the only primary school in town.
The unresolved protests of nonreligious Burford parents Lee and Lizanne Harris has led to a suit filed with the U.K.’s High Court that is scheduled to be litigated starting in November (Lee and Lizanne Harris v. Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust). The Harris’s say when they withdrew their children from attending religious worship, the school shunted them into classrooms and did not provide an equivalent learning experience during those assemblies. They said school officials refused to implement any adjustments so that their children wouldn’t feel discriminated against or lose learning opportunities.
According to an article in the Humanist.com website, the Harris’s are also concerned that, during assemblies, “stories of God and Christianity are presented to pupils as ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and that visiting church officials express harmful views to children.” They also decry the presentation of Bibles to graduating students at the final “leaving” ceremony.
The Harris’s contend that school authorities have repeatedly argued that they are operating within the worship law, and that the headteacher they spoke with claimed the school was serving the “majority” children in the country and preparing them for life in a “Christian country.”
On the other handYet, the U.K. has long stopped being a majority Christian country and is increasingly diverse and religiously disinterested.
“We are the only sovereign state in the world to require schools to hold daily Christian worship, yet 80% of our young people and 75% of people of parental age are not Christians,” Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said. “… Requiring children to participate in religious worship and then marginalising them if in good conscience they cannot, ignores their right to freedom of religion or belief and is a negation of inclusion.”
Stephen Evans, campaigns manager for the National Secular Society (NSS), said the “collective worship” issue badly needs revisiting. He referred to a Westminster Faith Debates report titled “A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools,” by former Education Minister Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead.
“The role of religion in school needs to be thoroughly reviewed. The obligation on schools to provide worship is an anachronism, the legacy of a society unrecognizable from the diverse and pluralistic Britain of today where citizens hold a wide variety of religious beliefs, and increasingly, no religious beliefs whatsoever. School communities … are places of learning, not places of worship, and this report goes some way to recognising that.”
Why faith schools at all?
While the NSS generally supports the Clarke report’s conclusions, it does not favor its urging that faith-based schools continue.
“We must go further and challenge the whole concept of faith schools. Religious identities are not good, logical or just criteria to organize schooling around.” Evans added. “What we really need is a fully secular, inclusive and fair education system that teaches pupils about religions and beliefs with no attempt to inculcate them into a particular faith.”
I unqualifiedly endorse such thinking.
But why is the debate still raging in two countries where relatively few Christians and believers remain, and where atheism would appear to be the probable personal philosophy of choice for the vast majority of U.K. citizens in the near future?
Because once entrenched in societies—and deeply in human minds—religion is like a perennial noxious weed that is always hell to eradicate.
The good news is that a large number of English and Welsh schools appear to be ignoring this law, and a vast majority of parents are starting to opt their kids out.