The British Humanist Association (BHA) wishes to see the phasing out of all taxpayer-funded religious schools and an end to religious education as we know it. The BHA’s arguments are always articulated drafted in terms that are designed to be attractive to those who take a moderate, conservative view of the world – they say they want a less divisive, more inclusive system with only objective facts taught in religious education.
But, as soon as we ask some pertinent questions, we immediately see that the secularists’ approach to this matter is utterly stultifying of human freedom.
To begin with, the basis of the humanist position is that there are no absolute values of right and wrong. Rules have evolved or been rationally constructed, argue the humanists. However, there is no neutral view on the matter of whether there are absolute values. There either are absolute values or there are no absolute values. To require all state schools to assume that there are no absolute values is to impose the humanist belief system on all children.
Indeed, the belief that there are no absolute values is, in itself, an absolute value of sorts. It pre-supposes that humans do not exist for a particular purpose and, therefore, requires faith in the absence of God, a position which cannot be proved objectively. So a school that excludes the teaching of religion as we know it, and excludes the belief in absolute moral values, is a school built on a belief system just like a religious school.
Catholic education, on the other hand, consists of preparing young people for their life on earth, with a view to life after death. This is an entirely different conception of education from the humanist one. There are two models – one is based on absolute values, a purpose for life, and life after death; the other is based on human reason alone and the absence of any higher purpose. A choice must be made.
And this takes us to the crux of the problem. The Catholic Church seeks the right for parents to educate their own children as they would wish. Humanists seek the right to educate all children as they would wish. The idea that the taxpayer should not fund the religious education of children, as is regularly suggested in the media by humanists, is a red herring. Do Catholics not also pay taxes?
The state has chosen to take a significant role in the education of children in Britain. The state also finances education and levies taxes in order to ensure that these roles are fulfilled. However, the purpose of the state financing education is not – or should not be – to ensure that all children in the country can be brought up and taught the same moral relativist mindset. It is to ensure that all children have a certain set of skills, knowledge and the ability for enquiry to allow society to flourish.
The state levies taxes on Catholics and non-Catholics alike and wishes to spend some of this money on the education of children. There is no justification at all for believing that there should be restraints on how that education is provided beyond the requirement to fulfil the government’s principle aim of ensuring that we have an educated and enquiring young population able to participate in civil society and take its place in the world of work. That is, of course, unless, it is believed that a universal belief in the subjectivity of moral codes is necessary for society to operate.
It might be thought that, against the humanist belief in secular schools, stands a Catholic belief in privilege for Catholic schools. Indeed, that is how Catholic bishops and priests often portray the position of Catholic schools in the UK under the voluntary-aided settlement.
Catholics, however, do not demand privileges. As Pope Benedict said in his speech to the UK Parliament and has repeated many times, the Church seeks the freedom in which to operate and pursue her mission – but it does not deny that freedom to others. The promotion of the faith must come through reason and not through force.
An attack on freedom in education is an attack on freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. As the Church says in The Catholic School at the threshold of the third millennium:‘A correct relationship between state and school, not only a Catholic school, is based not so much on institutional relations as on the right of each person to receive a suitable education of their free choice...The public authority, therefore, whose duty it is to protect and defend the liberty of the citizens, is bound according to the principle of distributive justice to ensure that public subsidies are so allocated that parents are truly free to select schools for their children in accordance with their conscience’.
According to the Church, freedom in education is a fundamental human right for all - not just for Catholics, and the financing of schools should ensure that this right can be exercised effectively. In this, as in all other fields, the state is there to serve.
This is a battle in which there can be little compromise. The right to educate one’s children is either both inalienable and primordial – as the Church teaches – or it is not. But, it is a battle that we could fight differently. We do not demand privileges for Christians, but rights for all, including humanists. If the humanists wish to set up free schools, funded by the state, so be it. Of course, there must be limits on the behaviour of government-funded schools – they cannot be allowed to teach terrorism and hatred, for example.
It is the Catholic Church that believes in freedom for all in education. It is the Catholic Church that believes in reason and not force. But, it is up against a movement that wishes to impose one model on all parents and on all children. Perhaps, we need to stop gloating about the privileges that the voluntary-aided model brings to Christians in Britain and, instead, promote the freedom that we believe all parents should have – and articulate the need to extend those freedoms further, both to Catholic parents and to others.
The BHA often quote various UN rights to justify their position. However, paragraph 3, article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that parents have the prior right to choose the kind of education that is given to their children. It is this freedom which the Church should proclaim for all. It is this freedom which secular humanists oppose for all.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald.