Reluctant prayers

2008-01-31 00:00

I am an atheist and have raised my son with knowledge of — but no particular affiliation to — various religious beliefs. He has just started Grade 1 at a government-funded school. He is being made to feel uncomfortable in assembly as he does not know the words of hymns or the Lord’s Prayer. I resent my son being indoctrinated into a belief system I strongly disagree with. I wanted to send my child to a government school because private schools seem to be explicitly Christian. I believe it’s a violation of my moral right to freedom of belief, and to raise my child with the beliefs that I deem suitable. What moral arguments can I make to the school?

When a child is forced to abandon a physical expression of his or her faith, such as the wearing of a headscarf, it is easy to point to some violation of freedom of religious belief. It seems much harder, on the other hand, to point to a violation of liberty when it is thought that a child “lacks” beliefs. However, it is misguided to assume that children raised by atheists lack beliefs. Atheists or, for that matter, agnostics, by definition, hold a belief system that encompasses the physical and moral realm. It is simply a belief system that does not rely on faith in God or Satan or other metaphysical powers. Attempts to alter that belief system are, therefore, infringing on a parent’s right to decide how to raise his or her child.

The issue here is clearly that of freedom of belief. Legal provisions for this moral claim can be found in Section 15 of our Bill of Rights, in the clause on freedom of religion, belief and opinion. It is worth quoting in full here.

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.

2. Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that —

a. those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;

b. they are conducted on an equitable basis; and

c. attendance at them is free and voluntary.

Prayers and hymns at assemblies of state-funded schools may be decided on by the governing body in which case they meet provision 2(a), but unless such prayers are inter-denominational, pantheistic and open to unbelievers, they are not “equitable”.

Assembly prayers are also certainly not “freely and voluntarily” attended. Assembly is mandatory and prayer is a mandatory requirement at most assemblies. While one may choose not to pray at assembly, what six-year-old child really believes he or she has this option? State-funded schools are abusing their power by indoctrinating children into religion. This is not the business of organs of the state. It is the right of a parent only to decide what belief system his or her child will be brought up with.

A child who is coerced at school into adopting religious expressions of faith, such as prayer, is not in a position to question this teaching. Schools operate on strongly defined power differentials. When the principal unequivocally tells your son that God exists and this is a Christian God, whose son came down to Earth, your son does not have any recourse to disagree with that belief.

Religious teachers are doubtless well meaning. They obviously believe in the truth of what they preach. But this does not change the right of parents to believe what they believe and to pass this on to their children.

Imagine if the scenario were the other way around and any Grade 1 child of religious parents who was sent to a government school was earnestly taught about the logical implausibility of God’s existence or other beliefs subscribed to by atheists. There would be widespread outrage and a demand to respect the belief systems of religious families. The same respect should be granted to atheist parents not to have their belief system undermined by schools.

Ultimately, the solution is simple: we live in a secular democracy, governed by a secular Constitution, which provides for freedom of belief. Which belief to impart to children is the choice of parents. Parents who wish their children to go to religious schools can send them to such. Alternatively, they can send their children to secular schools and encourage religious sentiment at home. But it is immoral for government-funded schools to openly endorse one particular faith system.

• Everyday Ethics is a column dedicated to responding to readers’ questions regarding ethical dilemmas and queries. Responses are written by members of the School of Philosophy and Ethics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Opinions cannot be taken to represent the view of the school or the university. E-mail your query to Everyday Ethics@ukzn.ac.za or fax it to 033 260 5092, clearly marked with the words “Everyday Ethics”.

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