Take religion out of morality
First published in Nursery World’s In my view column, October 1998
By Marilyn Mason, Education Officer BHA
Like many people in our multi-cultural and increasingly secular society, humanists do not believe in God, but they do believe that we can tell right from wrong and live good and happy lives without religion. Unlike many who think the same way, humanists act on their beliefs – they get married in non-religious ceremonies, they bring up their children as rational non-believers, and they campaign for an end to religious privilege.
I am particularly interested in the way children learn moral values, often, I suspect, long before five years old and without much reference to religion. How many parents or teachers tell small children that God is watching them and will reward them if they’re good, punish them if they’re bad? Or refer back to the commandments of their religion, if they have one, when a child does something naughty? Most good parents and teachers, faced with the inevitable question, “Why shouldn’t I?” respond with a version of the Golden Rule, common to all thinking human beings: “Because you wouldn’t like it if someone did it to you.” People who understand that morality is about empathy, treating other people with respect, and learning to live together, are humanists to some extent.
It is a mistake to confuse morality with religion, as many politicians seem to, and schools are encouraged to do. I am sorry that with more and more children entering nursery school, the confusion and indoctrination may begin even younger. What happens to the values of our children when they give up on religion, as something like 61% of teenagers do?
Small children’s “Why?” questions are the beginnings of deeper thinking, and nursery and infant teachers should answer their questions in a rational philosophical way. I’m sure that many of them do – but then go and muddle the issues by teaching religion, praying in assemblies, and producing nativity plays. Small children from non-religious families must feel puzzled by all this religion, so unlike life and values at home. Although parents can withdraw their children from RE and collective worship, many, understandably, choose not to, because it would mean their children feeling different and missing some of the moral education and communal life of the school. Teachers, too, have this right, but often choose not to exercise it. Humanists have long campaigned for a more inclusive and sensible approach to moral education – perhaps some readers would like to join us?