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The Church, education, Christian values, and the denial of democracy

Help remove the unelected Church appointees on Council Education Committees

Absurd but true. If you are in Scotland, three of the members of your Council Education Committee, which supervises the education of your children, were not elected by you, or anyone else. They were appointed, as a result of laws dating back to 1872 and last updated in 1994, by the Churches. They are there as full voting members whether the elected Councillors want them or not, and do not even have to declare their special interests even when deciding such matters as which schools to open or close, whether they should be religious or non-denominational, and how schools should deliver Religious Observance and Religious and Moral Education, which are part of the Scottish education system. It is immediately obvious that this is an affront to democracy; here, I also argue that it is an affront to morality, based on pretensions by the Churches to special moral insight, which will not stand up to examination.

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Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

What the churches say and what it means

The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered, this one repays closer examination.Consider the Church of Scotland’s own code of practice for its religious representatives, which states:

Since the state assumed responsibility for the provision of school education in 1872 the Church of Scotland has been granted a statutory role as part of the education authority of the day. This privileged position reflects the historical link between schooling and the church. For that reason, if for no other, it is important for church representation on local authority committees with a responsibility for education, to ensure a respected presence across Scotland. This may be achieved by establishing good relationships; by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.

Where to start? Let’s start with the description of the Church of Scotland as a national church. How seriously should we be taking this claim, when in today’s Scotland only a fifth of the population say that they belong to it, while twice as many say they have no religion. It’s not even as if people turned to the Church on special occasions; Humanist weddings in Scotland now outnumber those of any religious denomination. Then there is the disingenuous reference to the historic link between schooling and the church. The reality is that in 1872 the Church of Scotland was split into two (soon to be three) major fragments, not to be reunited to form the present-day Church of Scotland until 1929, and that the 1872 Act combined a patchwork of church-run and local authority schools in what was intended to be a single non-denominational system. But this is a mere quibble compared with the major presumption, that such history could possibly justify a special place for the Church. As if the right to influence children’s education could be inherited, like so much real estate. Thirdly, there is the assertion of a statutory right to seek to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church. What, one wonders, could this interest possibly be, over and above the interests of the pupils themselves, and the broader community to which they belong? Then there are the stated objectives of endeavouring to influence … the development of the curriculum, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.

By what right?

Unless one believes (and one is forced to conclude that the Church leaders really do believe) that the ecclesiastical authorities have access to a kind of wisdom not granted to lesser mortals, what possible reason is there for the Church to have special reserved powers to influence the curriculum that affects all pupils, Church-connected or otherwise? For Religious and Moral Education, the policy of Scotland’s Education Department is that the teaching of this subject (and it is actually a curriculum subject!) should educate but not indoctrinate, so that special Church influence in this area is completely out of place. And the policy on religious observance states that it should represent the shared values of the community to which the school belongs, transcending denominational boundaries.

Thus, by its own accounting, the Church of Scotland plans to use its unelected appointees in ways that subvert the very educational system that they are there to influence. The policies of the other Churches making such appointments are presumably similar, and the argument used to justify the existence of these appointees turns out on inspection to highlight the need for their abolition.

Christian values

Finally, we have the interesting concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general.Most believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) But can morality be derived from religion? More specifically, if, by some means, we know what God does or does not want, is that enough to tell us the difference between right and wrong?

Consider, as many people have, the story of how Abraham was willing to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. As a teenager, I took this story very seriously, and asked myself whether Abraham was really doing the right thing. I gradually came to realise that this is a very interesting question, however you answer it, because it shows up a fundamental problem with the idea that morality comes from God.

What I did not know was that this problem had been pointed out over 2000 years ago, by Plato’s Socrates, in what is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In today’s language, are good actions good because they correspond to what God wants, or does God want them because they are good? The first alternative makes morality dependent on the whim of the Deity, which few of us will find satisfying. Some religions, after all, have believed in a God who wants human sacrifices. The second implies that goodness can be defined independent of God, in which case religion is not the ultimate basis for morality anyway.

Then there is the small problem of deciding what God actually wants. Does God want us to kill homosexuals? The authors of Leviticus certainly thought so, and Daesh ( the “Islamic State”) thinks so today. Does He want us to kill blasphemers and heretics? The legal codes of many countries say that He does, and there was a period in the sixteenth century when Catholics and Protestants agreed that this is indeed what He wants, even though they could not agree on who was, or was not, heretical.

The Ten Commandments

Some say the Ten Commandments encapsulate what God wants. So here’s my own brief summary:

God brought you out of Egypt (only applies to Jews, and anyway completely unhistorical). Don’t make idols, take God’s name in vain, or worship other gods, because God is jealous and will be very cross and punish you for generations. Not much morality there. Honour your parents; generally a good idea, though I have seen exceptions. And take a day off each week; good advice. But the reason offered is strange; that God made heaven and earth in six days (yes, that’s what it says), and rested on the seventh (what does it mean, I wonder, for God to rest).

Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Very good advice, but do we need a Deity to tell us this? And, finally, it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s slaves, but slavery itself is okay. Indeed, following on from the Ten Commandments in Exodus we have the rules about slavery. A Hebrew slave can leave if he wants after seven years, but his wife and kids have to stay behind because they are the master’s property.

At this point, some people will accuse me of poking fun at the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I am taking them seriously, looking at what they actually say, and evaluating them as guides to action. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

I have two reasons for analysing them in such detail here. Firstly, to challenge the claim of the great moral worthiness of these Commandments as a basis for morality. And secondly, and more importantly here, to illustrate the difference between general values and religious values.

As a matter of shared human values, I think we would all agree that murder, theft, slander, and cheating on our partners is not desirable behaviour. But I don’t notice unbelievers going around being any more homicidal, personally and sexually dishonest, or prone to malicious tale-bearing than the rest of us. Covetousness is an interesting case; at what point does the natural desire to improve one’s lot, and cut a respectable figure in society, become socially disruptive? As for this stuff about slaves, perhaps the kindest thing that we can say is that the authors of Exodus were people of their own time, and accepted (as most of us do today) their time’s view of economic necessity.

That leaves all the stuff about Egypt, graven images, and not making God jealous. I don’t think we need to pay attention to any of this if we don’t want to. Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

Religious values, past and present

But you might say that it’s unfair to judge Christianity by quoting the Old Testament. OK, let’s fast forward a bit. I won’t linger over St Paul’s views on the duties of slaves and women, or the Albigensian Crusade, or the Spanish Inquisition (after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), or the cosy relationship between at least some Churches and Hitler, Mussolini, and the bloodstained dictators of Latin America. These are more enlightened times.Nor will I belabour the sex abuse scandals of recent years. The direct result of the doctrinal absurdity of priestly celibacy and shameful administrative cover-up, but not even the various Churches involved pretend to moral justification.

US evangelical churches helped make possible the election of President Trump, but to be fair that was on the other side of the Atlantic, although Living Waters Church, one of those supporting Trump, has congregations in Scotland and interacts with schools in Peterhead. And as for the involvement of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Salvation Army in forced adoptions, they’ve apologised and won’t do it again, so let’s move on.

And how the Churches lag behind the rest of us

Consider now an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.

Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother’s health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors’ agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.

All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.This post uses material that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system

  • Exception: Orkney, which as of summer 2015 had no religious appointees. The Church of Scotland did, however, have two appointees, contrary to the law, in Midlothian and West Lothian.

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