Thursday, May 25, 2006


The Separation Of Church And State?

A few comments lately (here and on other blogsites) have alerted me to the scary fact that I am addressing a global audience (only a few people, I know, but from far and wide), and that our friends overseas, in America in particular, are confused about the relationship between church and state in this supposedly secular nation of ours.

I can't speak with any more authority than my status as an enthusiastic observer of these things lends me, but it seems to me that having quite rightly been on a downward spiral since reason and common sense started to kick in around the time of the Enlightenment, today religion is creeping stealthily back into our lives. From the fear of Bin Laden's bombs as we travel to work on the tube to the mild irritation of 'Thought For The Day' (a sometimes illuminating, mostly patronising religious slot) on Radio 4 each morning, religion touches every one of us, on an almost daily basis.

Unlike in the States, where I hear tell that the separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution, here we don't even have a written constitution. Although laws start off as bills in the democratically elected House of Commons, they are sent for approval to the unelected House of Lords, where a selection of (some good, some bad) peers, there by merit of birth, political appointment or high office in the church, gets to debate each one and say yay or nay. Many think that the Lords is merely there to rubber-stamp decisions made in the other house, but make no mistake, if they want to stop a bill from passing into law, they can do it.

A strong, well-organised and extremely well-funded coalition of religions is represented in the Lords, which swings into action every time they are handed a piece of legislation that may displease whichever lord they take their orders from. They have their own agenda, which as far as I can gather has more to do with scoring points by saving souls for the next life than with helping humanity in this one. A few weeks ago, for example, they put the kibosh on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, legislation which would have allowed the terminally ill to die with dignity. They very cleverly played down the religious reasons for voting down the bill but you're not telling me that the thought of their all-seeing, all-knowing god catching them in the act of condoning sin wasn't what was truly motivating them.

As the government threatens to farm out the NHS to private companies, perhaps more worrying is the idea of them welcoming a suggestion put forward in the recent Faithful Cities report from the Church of England, that the provision of certain publicly funded social services be handed over to faith groups. Given that Tony Blair has already signalled the government's intention to get the voluntary sector — including faith groups — involved with the provision of social care, it looks like it'll be a shoo-in.

Of course, with two children at primary school (the eldest off to secondary after the summer - a whole new can of worms), education is the area with which I have the most personal experience. If you've read any of my previous posts you'll know that it's my pet subject. Although in theory the school that my children attend is not religious it, in common with all the other state schools in this country, is obliged to hold an act of collective worship each and every day of the school year. That's a religious asssembly in every school in the land, barring schools in the fee-paying, independent sector which make up their own rules as they see fit, but where you can usually be guaranteed a bit of non-commital Church of England hymn-singing will be thrown into the deal once you've written your several-thousands-of-pounds-per-term cheque. I have a suspicion that the devolved Scottish Parliament take a slightly more enlightened view, but as I haven't had a chance to check that out yet, I'll have to reserve comment for another posting.

'Collective worship' is what the law says, and fair enough, if you've got lots of children from different religious backgrounds (I refuse to call them religious children — it's not a genetic condition) in a school collected together in one big hall for an assembly it would seem a little harsh to focus on one religion over and above any other, although they're not so worried when it comes to the children of humanists, athiests and agnostics. What the law also says, however, is that the collective worship 'must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character'. Oxymoronic or what?

The reality is, of course, that most schools simply don't bother to comply with this nonsensical legislation. As I have discovered in my dealings with the head teacher at my kids' school, however, they are coming under increasing pressure to follow the rules to the letter, at pain of losing Brownie points come the dreaded Ofsted inspections, which can see a school's reputation peak or plummet, depending on how the middle-classes receive the results.

On a wider scale, Tony Blair and New Labour's 'radical' education reforms mean, amongst many other alarming things, that if you are an individual with a special interest, hmmm… let's say you're an evangelical Christian with dominionist leanings, for example, or maybe you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn and you've got a few quid in the bank, all you need is £2million and you can set up your own school. Yes, bring just two million quid to the table, the government will put up the rest (a lot more than two million - all tax-payers' cash, of course) and you can be influencing the hearts and minds of our youngsters in the time it takes to throw up the building. And get this — you get to make a profit! That's some business start-up loan. Too fanciful to be believed? Check this out!

So there you go. I'm sure there are many more instances of religion interfering in our lives, but I'm sure I've said enought for now. If you've made it this far, pour yourself a large drink and let me know that you think!


The Crazy States

Okay, so religion isn't specifically mentioned here, but you can't tell me the religious right isn't behind this. It's nuts! It's the first time I've tried to include a link, so forgive me if it all goes pear-shaped.

Monday, May 22, 2006


The Opening Salvo

Well, the meeting with the head teacher… Hmm, what to make of it. His position was basically that the school doesn’t push religion nearly as much as other schools in the area, and that if there was to be an inspection of the school tomorrow, they would probably by pulled up for not complying with the government guidelines regarding collective worship. Alarmingly, he told us that there is to be an inspection next year, and he agreed that there will probably have to be an increase in the amount of religion in the school in preparation for it. Terrific.

That aside, he said that in his opinion were there to be a debate about religion within the school community, the likelihood was that when it was over we would end up with more religion in the school, rather than less. In other words, back off. If we push our point, he seemed to be saying, we’ll only have ourselves to blame if it backfires and we end up with more religion in the school — something he claims not to want any more than we do. He was at pains to stress that he is a public servant, just doing as he is told. (Mmm… only following orders? Where have we heard that before? It certainly seemed to strike a chord with my husband, who pointed out that we are living in volatile times, with fundamentalist religion causing huge problems across the world, that there are times when you need to stand up and be counted — maybe this was one of those times. And I thought I was the one passionate about all this). We said that whatever the outcome is likely to be, if there is to be a debate we want to make sure our views are part of it.

He was very resistant to the idea of holding a humanist assembly to counter-balance the fundamentalist assemblies our daughter has been subjected to, saying that it would not be the school’s policy to invite people in from outside the school to conduct assemblies. When we suggested finding someone from within the school community to hold such an assembly he was non-committal.

On the subject of RE we were bemused to find that he did not know whether RE lessons included anything about non-theistic worldviews, especially in view of the fact that I wrote to him some weeks ago on this matter and the meeting had been arranged for a good few days. He did say that he would find out, and although again he was non-committal, he didn’t seem to have an objection to such subjects being included.

Again, he was at pains to stress that the school has nothing to do with setting the syllabus for RE, that it is the responsibility of the local SACRE.

Where we feel we had more success was when we told him about the incidents in the playground. The school has a very good policy of using assemblies to discuss issues — bullying, racism etc., — which have come up in the playground, and he agreed that the incidents would fall into the category of things that might be dealt with in such a way, especially when we pointed out to him that if our children had been challenged about their religious beliefs, rather than just about their beliefs, the school would be very quick to deal with it.

What struck me throughout the meeting was the language used. Non-religious people were consistently referred to in the negative. They were ‘non-believers’, ‘those without beliefs’, ‘people of no faith’… Eventually it started to really grate on me. As parents, we have made a positive choice to bring our children up without religion, as atheists and as humanists. We do believe (though in scientific fact, not in the supernatural), we certainly have beliefs (humanist ones) and we most definitely have faith — in ourselves and in humanity. To continue to portray us in such a negative way is… well, at risk of sounding like some of the religious nuts who have had their knickers in knots lately… an insult.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Bit between my teeth

Well, off to see the head teacher on Monday morning. He finally responded to my letter — I raised a number of points, apparently — and I have been summoned to discuss them. I'm going armed with a pack of infomation from the British Humanist Association, and my husband, who thankfully agrees with me, even if he doesn't get quite as animated on the subject. Wish me luck…

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


It's Just What You Do

If there’s one phrase that makes me want to weep with frustration it’s ‘it’s just what you do.’ Trotted out to defend the indefensible, it has become the mantra of the British middle classes, determined to get little Julian and Jocasta into the school of their choice, and seeking to justify the breathtaking hypocrisy they know they are going have to employ to do so.

I usually hear it just after someone has told me that they’re going to have their baby christened.

‘Oh,’ I’ll say. ‘I didn’t know you were religious.’

‘Oh, I’m not.’ They’ll say.

‘So is your partner/husband/wife?’ I’ll say.

‘No.’ They’ll say. ‘It’s just what you do, though, isn’t it?’

‘Oh?’ I’ll say.

‘Well, you know, schools, that sort of thing.’ They’ll say.

‘It’s just what you do.’


Forgive me, but this makes my blood boil on so many levels. For a start, people trotting out this tripe are usually acquainted with the fact that I have two children of my own. If they care to cast their minds back over the 11 years since my first child was born, they won’t find any memories of looking on beatifically as my children were sprinkled with holy water. So where do they get off looking me straight in the eye and saying ‘It’s just what you do.’?

Who do they mean? Where is it ‘just what you do’?

Of course, historically, there have often been good reasons for baptism being ‘just what you do’, whether you were religious or not. I expect it seemed like a good idea in the Middle ages, say, or during the Reformation, when your religious affiliations, or lack of them, could get you burnt at the stake.

And of course there are countries today — Afghanistan, for example, where the penalty for apostasy can be death — where it’s probably wise to observe the traditions and customs of the dominant religion.

But here? Now? So I choose not to have my children christened. What’s the worst that can happen?

Of all the things that irritate me about this kind of attitude, it’s the implication that if you’re not prepared to perjure yourself, you’re somehow not as committed to your children as the next person. That you don’t love them enough unless you're prepared to sacrifice your own principles to get them into a nice little church school and away from the riff-raff.

It’s like when people say to you before you have children ‘Oh, you wait until you’ve got children yourself. Your principles will go out of the window then.’

What rot. My children are special, wonderful, talented, beautiful, clever… of course they are. What kind of a mother doesn’t think her children are all these things? But I’d have to be an idiot to think that just because they are special to me that they are special per se, or to anyone else.

In the grand scheme of things, every child is equally special, and if they’re not, then they should be. I could be wrong but didn’t Jesus have a few words to say on the subject? Oops, sorry, I slipped into thinking we were talking about sincere people for a second. I forgot it’s got nothing to do with whether you actually believe or not… it’s just what you do.

While those with enough money to move to a posh area and enough gall to stand up in church and make promises they have no intention of keeping block-book the good schools, the rest of population are left with schools that are rapidly turning into sink schools. The very children who need good schools most — the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, those with parents who don’t care or who haven’t got the wherewithal to care… oh, and those with parents who still have a few principles and a vague sense of collective responsibility — are left to rot.

But that doesn’t matter. Precious little Julian and Jocasta will get their place at school, because mummy and daddy love them sooooo much that they're going to get up every Sunday for… ooh, three weeks and tell lies in a house of god. Yey!

And what’s our so-called labour government doing about it?

Don’t get me started.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Proud but perplexed…

My son came home from school yesterday and told me he had been challenged in the playground by a girl who wanted to know if it was true that he didn't believe in god. He said yes, and she said: 'so you believe in Satan?'. He said: 'No, I don't believe in him either.' 'So that means you don't know the difference between right and wrong then?' she said. I was intrigued to hear what he had to say to that. 'I'm a humanist.' he said, 'and I probably know more than you do about right and wrong.' I was very proud to hear his reply, but also felt upset to think that his (supposedly good, Christian) peers seem to think (clearly they are being brought up to believe) that living without religion automatically makes you a bad person.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Literally Rubbish

I've always had a bee in my bonnet about religion and the assumption that if you're British and your religion isn't obvious then the default position is Christian. Until the recent upsurge in the debate over creationism and evolutionary biology, however, I really didn't think that literal interpretation of the bible was something I was ever going to have to get exercised about. It seems, though, that since ever greater numbers of Americans have started shouting about how some guy in the sky created the earth in six days a few thousand years ago and then sat back to survey at his handiwork, British nutjobs with the same beliefs have felt emboldened enough to start shouting about them here.

Thanks to New Labour's woeful education reforms, all it takes is £2million to build your very own city academy — the government will stump up the rest of the cash — and when you've built it, you can dictate what is taught there. So far four — rich — evangelical Christians have jumped at the chance, and there are now four schools in Britain where creationism is taught alongside evolutionary biology and given equal credence. What is it they say about America sneezing and Britain catching cold?

Then there are the individual faith schools — C of E, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc., — where, although they have recently been instructed by the government to let a few infidels in along with children from other faiths, the history of the earth is doubtless being taught with a slant peculiar to whichever faith is in the driving seat.

All this, of course, will come as no surprise for anyone with more than a passing interest in the issues involved. It certainly hasn't surprised me. What has surprised me lately, however, is my eight-year-old daughter coming home from her non-denominational primary school and telling me that they have been having Christian assemblies where Old Testament tales are being taught as truth. So far they have had Noah's Ark and Adam and Eve. And if I was alarmed by that news, I was astonished by the the response my daughter got to the question she asked after one of the assemblies had finished.

'Why did god forbid Adam and Eve from eating the apple?'

'Oh, I don't know. It's like when your mum or dad tells you not to do something, and you don't know why you'renot to do it, but you know that you shouldn't because if you do they'll get cross.'

Lame or what? Okay, so I can undestand the woman not wanting to get into the whole original sin thing with an eight-year-old, but she started it! Of course, having done a little research on the subject I find that her answer was probably quite consistent with the belief that god did it simply to test Adam and Eve's (blind) obedience, but why so coy about just saying it was a test of obedience?

My first instinct was to have my daughter exempted from these ridiculous assemblies, but having taught both my children that when faced with something that seems incredible, you should check it out, do it again, look for the simplest expanation, etc., as per the rules of science, I decided to hang fire on that. Instead, I have written to the head teacher, asking for an explanation.

I don't object to my children being exposed to information about all sorts of different religions and creeds — within the context of religious education lessons — or even to them being taught that the basic principles of christianity (love thy neighbour, etc.) form a good, basic moral framework for life. What upsets me is when Christianity, or being religious in general, is presented as the only moral framework for life, the implication being that unless you are religious, you cannot be a good person and lead a moral life.

Bearing in mind the fact that if I was asking for my faith to be represented he would be bending over backwards to accommodate me, I've asked him to let me know what arrangements he has made to tell the children in the school about living a good life with a secular worldview. I've even volunteered to find a speaker.

That was over a week ago and so far, I've had no reply. Watch this space.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Now, you see, that's exactly the sort of thing I mean. I've just checked out my blogger profile (I'm new to this, remember), and lo and behold, alongside all the usual info, there's my star sign and my sodding Chinese zodiac year. Automatically, without asking, it's been worked out and thoughtfully provided! I ask you! Harrrumph!

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Here goes…

Well, I'm new to this blogging thing. Didn't even know what it was 'til about three weeks ago, but as I seem to have bored everyone I know to death with my constant ranting about the evils of organised religion, religion in general, astrological guff and other assorted mumbo jumbo that comes under the loose heading of 'spirituality', I am glad to have found somewhere to vent my frustrations in a more, shall we say, contained way. I'm a little self-conscious about it, but hey ho, hanging around in the comfort zone's not really doing it for me at the moment. Let's try something new.

I've chosen the name Atheist Mum because it sums up who I am and what I write and talk about more than anything else. There's an American column called Agnostic Mom, and I suppose I could have just Anglicized the 'mom' bit, but — no offence to Agnostic Mom, her column's great, even greater when you take into account her Mormom background — for me the term Agnostic is just a little too polite. Okay, so we can't prove that there isn't a god… but, COME ON!

That said, I could equally have gone for humanist, secular humanist, freethinking, bright… I'm happy to be described as any or all of the above. In the interests of snappiness, however, and because I think there's never been a better… no, scratch that, there's never been a more important time to be out and proud about atheism, that's the moniker I've plumped for.

Just for starters — I have LOTS to say on this subject — I'm going to relate a little incident that happened just after I had my second child.

Libby was born at home after a three hour, straightforward labour, at around one in the morning. The next day I was up and about, tired but functioning, and by the following day I felt up to taking her for her first trip to the supermarket. Behind us in the queue there was a middle-aged woman who began cooing over the baby.

"Oooh, she's very new!" she said to me. "How old is she?"

I told her two days, and she was so surprised that I went on to explain about her having been born at home, all very straightforward, etc, etc... We chuntered on for a bit and then the woman beamed at me. "Of course, you know why you had a good birth? It's because you're a good Christian!"

I don't know what she was basing her assumption on, but in making it she placed me in one of those situations you read about in books about ethics and moral dilemmas. Do I let her think that yes, I will be joining her come judgment day, marching under the banner saying 'CHOSEN — SOUTH LONDON CHAPTER', or do I risk offending the old dear by disabusing her of the notion? Actually, I felt a little offended myself, and why not? Had I been Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, whatever, I would have felt I had a perfect right to feel offended by her assumption, and to put her right. Why should I feel less entitled to take offence because I'm atheist? Are my feelings less important than those of 'people of faith'? No, exactly, that's what I thought, and besides, I had just had a baby, I could say whatever I bloody well felt like saying.

"Actually, I'm not." Still smiling, I even managed to force myself to look a little apologetic.

She looked at me for a moment. A sort of searching look, I fancy, as she waited for me to explain, if I wasn't a Christian, what in heaven I was? I smiled again and got on with packing my shopping. When I looked up again she had moved, without another word, to the next queue along. What happened to 'Love thy neighbour'?

Now, I've told this story many times, and although I'd be hard pressed to find any true 'believers' amongst my friends, almost all felt that they wouldn't have disagreed with the woman. 'Paying lip service to a defunct religion' is how this sort of thing is often characterised, and to most, it seems like a reasonably benign activity. It is not, and it is something I'm sure will come up again and again in this blog, as I try to explain why not.

That's all for now. I've enjoyed doing this, and I'd be thrilled to think someone out there is interested in what I've got to say, so if you are… let me know.

N.B. Agnostic Mom can be found at She also writes a regular column for the Humanist Network News,

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