I will start off by telling you about an unpleasant experience I had earlier this year, (some of you may have heard this story already) at the beginning of March, I witnessed my old high school’s ‘official Facebook page’ promoting Christianity through various posts, the school’s account is set up as a personal Facebook account, rather than a page, and instead of ‘liking’ it (to receive its updates) you have to send a friend request. I was ‘friends’ with my old high school for probably a year or more at the time of the incident, my primary reasons for ‘befriending’ the school was simply to get info on the school’s sporting fixtures and results but I was relatively interested in any of the school’s activities.
On one sunny Friday morning, the school posted an image containing the following words: “Psalm 34: 10 - those who seek the lord lack no good thing” – Now I had two objections to this post, one that I probably would have had even as a Christian and another that’ll go on to form the central theme of this article.
First, the verse is demonstrably false, no religious group or person is free from misfortune, tragedy or grief. Secondly, this account belongs to a school not a church, and a public school in a secular country at that.
As most of you know and some of you might have gathered at this point, I am not a Christian, I am an Atheist, but my Atheism is slightly irrelevant in this instance, as I could as easily have been a Jew, an Agnostic, a Hindu or a Muslim, and my objection to the school’s bias toward Christianity would have been no different.
I decided to comment on the post, stating my two objections, if memory serves me right, the comment I posted read “Isn’t it against the law for a public school to promote any specific religion? – and I bet the starving kids in the rest of Africa love this verse”
The school didn’t respond, but as you can imagine, a bunch of angry Christians did, most of them claiming that the school was a Christian school (which it is not, it’s a public school) and others threatening to beat me up. At some point the admin of the school’s account decided to delete all the comments on the post and to send me a private message urging me to rather contact the principal of the school to discuss my objections with him. I initially decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble, that the account admins (if they had a basic understanding of the constitution and the legislation on religion in education) would realise their mistake and probably, in future, tone down their religious propaganda. That was pretty much the end of it, or so I thought…
The next day, my younger brother was representing the school in a rugby match, I was staying over at my mother’s house for the weekend and I decided to accompany her to go watch the rugby. Shortly after arriving at the rugby fields, a male teacher called me over (We knew each other from back when I was still at school) and he mentioned that he saw what happened on Facebook the previous day, he told me that I was no longer welcome at the school and asked me to leave the premises. Obviously I tried to explain that (despite my sarcasm) there were valid reasons for my reaction on Facebook, that I was merely there to watch the rugby and that I meant no one any harm. But despite my efforts, I couldn’t convince this guy, or either of the two members of the school’s governing body, who had joined the conversation at this point, to be reasonable. I was told that I had to leave or they would get security to remove me.
Leaving was a tad impractical because I wasn’t there with my own car, if my mother were to take me home, she would probably miss a big part of my brother’s rugby game. I had to leave though, so I decided to go find the principal, who was at the school’s netball courts (they are found at a separate location about a kilometre away), when I eventually got a chance to talk to him, he kept insisting that I had to make an appointment to see him during the coming week, in order to potentially get unbanned. Nothing I would say could change his mind, it was clear that he was simply abusing his authority to discomfort me. At this point, as you might imagine, I was quite frustrated, a bit of profanity from my side ended the conversation, I was engaging with him in Afrikaans but I basically said ‘fuck off’, now contrary to what you might think, this wasn’t directed at him, I was simply trying to describe the manner in which I was chased away from the rugby fields. He said no one uses that kind of language in front of him, and then he walked away.
I did eventually schedule a meeting with the principal, and in a twist of irony the dominee from my old church offered to accompany me to the meeting, the dominee is on the school’s governing body and he felt his presence would help ensure that the principal didn’t abuse his authority again. The meeting went relatively well, I was unbanned and I received an apology for being banned (but only after apologising for my use of profanity) the school’s apology was also followed by a range of excuses, from the odd claim that they couldn’t not ban me because they were yet to sit down and review the incident, to the claim that they banned me for my own protection, as they feared some of the people who threatened to beat me up might have also been at the rugby(yet none of this was mentioned to me on the day) - good news is that despite not ever acknowledging that there was anything wrong with using the school’s Facebook account to promote religion, they have not shared or posted a single religion-themed picture or status since 8 March this year(the day of the initial incident).
To paraphrase Flemming Rose, if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his rituals in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission.
Here’s an extract from South Africa’s policy on religion in education.
“South Africa is a multi-religious country. Over 60 per cent of our people claim allegiance to Christianity, but South Africa is home to a wide variety of religious traditions. With a deep and enduring indigenous religious heritage, South Africa is a country that also embraces the major religions of the world. Each of these religions is itself a diverse category, encompassing many different understandings and practices. At the same time, many South Africans draw their understanding of the world, ethical principles, and human values from sources independent of religious institutions. In the most profound matters of life orientation, therefore, diversity is a fact of our national life. This policy for the role of religion in education is driven by the dual mandate of celebrating diversity and building national unity.”
“Our Constitution has worked out a careful balance between freedom for religious belief and expression and freedom from religious coercion and discrimination. On the one hand, by ensuring that “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion”, the Constitution guarantees freedom of and for religion, and citizens are free to exercise their basic right to religious conviction, expression, and association. On the other hand, by ensuring equality in the enjoyment of all the rights, privileges, and benefits of citizenship, the Constitution explicitly prohibits unfair discrimination on grounds that include religion, belief, and conscience. Protected from any discriminatory practices based on religion, citizens are thereby also free from any religious coercion that might be implied by the state.”
Particularly, the following instructions are given re religious observances:
In accordance with the Constitution, the South African Schools Act, and rules made by the appropriate authorities, the Governing Bodies of public schools may make their facilities available for religious observances, in the context of free and voluntary association, and provided that facilities are made available on an equitable basis.”
With the above in mind and despite my ‘victory in principle’ over the school, there’s still a lot at the school that I can justifiably complain about, as an example, on the school’s website, each letter of their name is used to spell out one of the school’s ‘values’, the G in their name represents ‘geloof in God’, with this the school seems to promote belief in god as something virtuous, there’s also no denying that it obviously discriminates against the agnostic, Buddhist or Atheist children, who don’t believe in any god.
The morning of my meeting, I witnessed assembly being started with a prayer to the Christian god, I also know that each Monday morning would see a professional preacher on stage in the school hall.
This is a highly confused public school parading as a Christian school, while South Africa’s legislation on religion in education couldn’t be any clearer about outlawing religious bias, I cannot emphasize this enough, this is a state funded public educational institution. Unfortunately this kind of religious bias seems to be the norm, especially among Afrikaans schools, where probably 95% of all schools shamelessly promote Christianity.
This raises the question; What happens to non-Christian children in South African schools? Or more specifically, do these kids get the option to choose not to partake in religious observances? Do schools cater for all represented religions (including positions of non-belief)? Are these children who choose not to partake in religious observances judged or discriminated against by personnel or fellow students? Are pupils and personnel made aware of the religious diversity of South Africa and the need to realise that not everyone shares the same religious beliefs (and subsequently encouraged to embrace people with different religious beliefs)? Are religions treated in a fair and equitable manner, as legislation instructs? Etc.
The alternative for pupils who subscribe to a ‘minority’ religion instead of the socially accepted norm (those who are lucky enough to be given a choice not to partake in observances) is often sitting in an empty classroom. I have heard that some schools require parents to write a letter of consent, before the school grants the children their constitutional right to freedom of religion. Obviously Atheist pupils have an even harder time, despite the fact that religious observances have to be completely voluntary, I have heard many stories of personnel and pupils interpreting the Atheist’s choice to not partake in worship sessions, as disrespectful and/or an act of rebellion, (the negative stigma attached to Atheism doesn’t help either) which obviously results in discrimination and persecution.
From my personal experience and the many sad stories I’ve heard, I think we can safely conclude that most public schools in South Africa fail to provide children with their right to freedom of(or from) religion.
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