His name was Mr Strange.
We were all seated. He stood at the front. Behind him was a blackboard. On his hand was a puppet.
He used to stick pictures onto the blackboard and tell us stories about people whose names I can’t remember. Each one taught a lesson, a moral. His puppet would interrupt and make funny comments and ask questions. Usually, the puppet would be rewarded with a Mars bar.
This was in primary school. Can you guess how many of us grew up to be religious?
Mr Strange and his puppet weren’t the problem. But they contributed to it.
Every week we would sing hymns. There are still schools, both primary and secondary, public and state, which do this.
Why do we continue to bundle school and religion? Everyone professes to not really believe, even the teachers, even the parents. So why do we persist?
Is it tradition? History? Is it because we want to honour our roots? If that’s the reason, it’s a shaky one. Persisting with an obsolete practice in the name of tradition is idiotic at best and dangerous at worst.
Is it because everyone else still does it? If you’re a public school, and every other public school still couples education and religion, you have to be pretty brave to be the first to break the mold.
Or is it the parents? Perhaps they won’t send their kids to a school with no tradition, no history.
I think the most common reason is that the use of religion is supposed to inspire the next generations to be good and honest and true.
If that’s the aim, they’re failing.
By forcing (And it is forcing. They might be able to opt out, but the social pressure makes them unlikely to) children to pray, to sing hymns, to listen to sermons that they do not really believe in, we are teaching them to lie.
We are telling them that it’s okay to persist in something you don’t believe in because someone else with more authority and more power wants you to do so.
We are telling them that it’s okay to act one way and think another. We are telling them that conformity in the face of a false belief is better than standing behind your own convictions.
It reminds me of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.
Psychopaths have no capacity to understand how another person is feeling. They do not feel remorse or sympathy or despair at the suffering of another. They cannot empathise.
Ronson relates how a group of psychopathic killers were given training in empathy. How to listen, how to understand, how to communicate more effectively. It was supposed to help them become less dangerous, more empathic, more caring.
Believing these methods to have helped the convicted criminals, some were released back into the public.
They killed again.
The crash course in empathy, far from preventing them from killing, had taught them how to be more effective predators.
I think religion in schools does the same.
We continue it for several reasons, the most prominent being the virtues of discipline and the development of a moral compass that religion supposedly teaches.
But like the psychopaths taught how to empathise, religion, meted out in this fashion, teaches children to lie. To outwardly conform, to inwardly rebel.
The energy and ardour with which we uphold the facade of religion in schools doesn’t strengthen the future generations, it poisons them.