Compulsory worship in schools is indoctrination, and it has to stop.

Compulsory worship in schools is indoctrination, and it has to stop. June 15, 2015

Today the BBC reports that former Education Secretary Charles Clarke is calling for an end to compulsory worship in schools. The first reason given in the BBC’s article is that the current requirement is, in practice, not enforced, but that doesn’t actually tell us whether or not compulsory worship is a good thing.

I don’t think any regular readers of this blog will find it controversial for me to say that compulsory worship in schools is a bad thing, but I haven’t seen anyone else advance the particular argument I have against it. I need to talk about psychology for a minute.

Parish Priest (image in the public domain)
Parish Priest (image in the public domain)

An extremely well-known and widely replicated psychological finding is from experiments based on the forced compliance paradigm: if you force someone to do something which does not fit their beliefs, they will modify their beliefs to fit their behaviour. In 1959, Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith published the experiment that brought this finding to wider attention.

In the experiment, Festinger and Carlsmith required their participants to do really boring stuff:

[The task] involved putting 12 spools onto a tray, emptying the tray, refilling it with spools, and so on. He was told to use one hand and to work at his own speed. He did this for one-half hour. The E then removed the tray and spools and placed in front of the S a board containing 48 square pegs. His task was to turn each peg a quarter turn clockwise, then another quarter turn, and so on. He was told again to use one hand and to work at his own speed. The S worked at this task for another half hour.

As the participants were leaving, the experimenter gave them a script to read to the next participant, which said: “It was very enjoyable, I had a lot of fun, I enjoyed myself, it was very interesting, it was intriguing, it was exciting.” There was also a control group who didn’t read this script.

In other words, they were made to lie about how interesting the task was. Later, the experimenters interviewed the participants to see how they felt about the task. and the people who had read the script reported that the tasks were much more interesting than the control group. Being made to lie about the task caused them to change their beliefs about how interesting the task was.

Some of you who are familiar with the experiment will be annoyed that I have left out important details in my description here. That’s because I’m only describing the parts that are relevant for my argument, so this blog post doesn’t turn into an academic paper.

Like I said, this is a much-replicated finding in a variety of contexts. People change their beliefs to match their behaviour. People believe more strongly that their horse will win after they’ve bet on it than they did before. They believe in their chosen political candidate more strongly just after they’ve voted than they do just before. If you get people to bet on one of those ‘guess the weight’ competitions, they are more confident of their guess after they place the bet.

I accept the prevailing theory about why this happens, cognitive dissonance, but I think in some circumstances (dealing with children and other cases where people didn’t have previously established beliefs) self-perception theory is also useful. But for the purposes of this argument, it really doesn’t matter why this happens. It just matters that it happens, and that’s not controversial. Festinger and Carlsmith’s experiment is famous for its convincing explanation; the effect of belief change after forced compliance had already been described in journals.

What does this have to do with collective worship?

If you can’t see where I’m going with my argument, I’ll spell it out: The evidence is that when you force people to act in a certain way, it changes their beliefs to be more favourable to that act. So if you force people to worship God, it will slightly manipulate their beliefs about God (or about the worthwhileness of acts of worship, at least). They are non-rationally moulding their beliefs to be more favourable to a particular religious position. This is indoctrination.

A couple of points here:

First, maybe this whole argument is unnecessary. Freedom of religion means freedom of conscience. Forcing anyone to perform an act of worship is a violation of their freedom. That’s enough to make it unacceptable on its own. Even if it has no effect on the kids’ beliefs whatsoever, it’s obscene to require children with no particular religious belief to take part in an act of worship. I suspect schools know this, and it’s part of the reason loads of them don’t actually do it in practice.

And yes, I’m aware it is usually possible to opt out of collective worship, but often the alternative is rubbish. (Interesting aside: a consequence of cognitive dissonance theory is that if children have an opportunity to opt out and don’t, that will probably make the influence on their beliefs stronger.) There can still be a strong social and/or authority pressure to attend, which could be quite difficult for a school-age child to resist.

Second point: You might object that my argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, because English schools clearly aren’t producing legions of indoctrinated religious zealots. Children do not normally emerge from school assemblies full of evangelistic fervour, and the existence of collective worship in schools has obviously failed to halt the decline in church attendance in this country.

That’s true, and it’s also true that in the experiments I’ve mentioned above, the effects are quite small. Festinger’s participants did not go into raptures talking about how putting spools on a tray was the most fascinating thing they’d ever done. Uncertain voters do not suddenly become campaign leaders after they cast their ballots. They are measurable, significant effects, but they are small. Collective worship could have a considerably bigger effect, because it is potentially cumulative: you’re doing it every school week for up to thirteen years of your life. You could see each act of worship as a separate forced compliance experiment.

Nevertheless, you’d be right to be skeptical. If religious conversion is the aim of collective worship in schools, then it has been a spectacular failure. That doesn’t mean, though, that the influence I’m describing isn’t happening. As you discover if you try to do any social science whatsoever, the social world is complicated. At the same time as students are experiencing this particular pressure to worship God, they are also experiencing thousands of other pressures in all kinds of directions. It’s not a controlled experiment. For many students, perhaps most, other influences in their lives drown out this particular effect, but it’s still happening.

If you put a leaf blower on the ground facing upwards, any light objects that happen to be directly above it are going to fly upwards into the sky. That doesn’t mean that gravity has ceased to operate. It just means that the force of the leaf blower is currently stronger than the force of gravity. For the avoidance of doubt: in this outstanding metaphor I’ve just concocted, collective worship in schools is gravity, and all the other social influences are the leaf blower. Sociology is more complicated than this, so it’d be a better analogy if there were also some fans pointing in other directions, and a strong wind blowing, and some magnets in various locations, and the light object above the leaf blower is in fact a tiny bird with an aluminium ring on its leg.

This is why I don’t normally do analogies in my blog posts.

ANYWAY, other things being equal, collective worship in schools will tend to have an indoctrinatory effect. That is unacceptable. For most children, it probably isn’t a decisive factor in whether or not they believe, but it certainly could be in some cases. Regardless, exerting social and psychological pressures on children to influence their religious beliefs has no place in a liberal education. It has to go.

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