In November 2009 billboards at four locations in the UK displayed some of the labels routinely applied to children that imply beliefs, such as ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Sikh’, together with labels that people would never apply to young children such as ‘Marxist’, ‘Anarchist’, ‘Socialist’, ‘Libertarian’ and ‘Humanist’ (see images).
In front of the shadowy labels are happy children, with the slogan, ‘Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself’ in the world-famous font of the prior Atheist Bus Campaign.
The billboards were unveiled to coincide with Universal Children’s Day, 20 November, which is the United Nations ‘day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children’. Labelling children as if they innately ‘belong’ to a particular religion, while ascribing incompatible beliefs to infants who ‘belong’ to other religions, can only serve as an obstacle to understanding between children around the world.
You can support our work on children’s rights, education and faith schools by donating at www.humanism.org.uk/donate.
Where did the campaign come from?
The Don’t Label Me billboards grew out of the Atheist Bus Campaign.
Based on an idea by comedy writer Ariane Sherine and supported by the British Humanist Association and our Vice President Richard Dawkins, the Bus campaign appealed for funds in October 2008 and hit the roads on 6 January 2009, with dozens of bus routes across the UK carrying the message, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
Many people gave generously to fund this message – so many in fact that after the bus ads ran we announced we would put further money donated toward a similar campaign later in the year. This became the Atheist Billboard Campaign.
Many people who supported the Atheist Bus Campaign left comments on the JustGiving pages as they donated (the original Bus Campaign appeal page is now closed). These messages were overwhelmingly positive, celebratory and fun – despite being web-based comments on a controversial issue! Many Atheist Bus supporters raised issues to do with equality, autonomy and children’s freedom to grow up and decide for themselves what they believe. Here are just a few:
‘Equality for all!’ – Lucy, 21 October 2008
‘Any chance of NO Faith schools next!’ – Mark, 21 October 2008
‘This is for my kids’ – Helen, 21 October 2008
‘And let’s have other slogans – “Stop tax-payer funding of faith schools”’ – John, 21 October 2008
‘Let’s get religion away from kids’ – Paul, 16 December 2008
‘Time to stop the “good” of religion and mind-control from being given the hard-sell only-option and thrust in the face of all, particularly children’ – Rob, 6 January 2009
‘I was annoyed about the bus driver [who refused to drive a bus with our advert on] as I am about the rise in faith schools and… well, you all know the rest.’ – Carl, 16 January 2009
‘Bishop [a recurring, generous donor] for Sainthood!… More £ to the anti faith schools campaign people, nearly there!’ – Tim, 16 January 2009
‘Please target faith schools.’ – Julian, 3 February 2009
‘Now that is progress… but pls leave the little brains alone’ – JJ, 5 February 2009
‘The advertising should continue with a new focus—SCHOOLS’ – Peter, 6 February
‘Please won’t somebody think of the children’ – Rich, 23 February 2009
Speaking of the launch of the Atheist Billboard Campaign, Ariane Sherine said:
‘One of the issues raised again and again by donors to the campaign was the issue of children having the freedom to grow up and decide for themselves what they believe, and that we should not label children with any ideology. I hope this poster campaign will encourage the government, media and general public to see children as individuals, free to make their own choices, and accord them the liberty and respect they deserve.’
What’s the big idea?
In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins argued that we need to change the way we speak about beliefs attributed to children – and by extension change the way we think if we presuppose particular religious beliefs of children.
‘There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents… Catholic child? Flinch. Protestant child? Squirm. Muslim child? Shudder. Everybody’s consciousness should be raised to this level.’
The Atheist Billboard Campaign mirrored this argument.
Speaking of the launch of the Atheist Billboard Campaign, Dawkins added:
‘We urgently need to raise consciousnesses on this issue. Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a “Marxist child” or an “Anarchist child” or a “Post-modernist child”. Yet children are routinely labelled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labelling any child too young to know their own opinions and our adverts will help to do that.’
What did we hope to achieve?
Many times in recent history, society has revised phrases and habits of language in order to expose and overcome the hidden assumptions they contain. Sometimes these assumptions seriously and negatively affect the way people think about themselves and each other.
The direct purpose of this campaign was to raise consciousness about a way of referring to children which has strong implications for how the child may think about themselves and how others think about the child, constraining their freedom of thought and belief.
We believe that labelling children is divisive because it:
- leads to segregation, either socially (as in ‘faith’ schools) and even interpersonally (between children who are told they ‘belong’ to different and incompatible religions)
- restricts learning about other beliefs because the child told that they ‘belong’ to x religion may rule out other options or become hostile to them
- creates negative attitudes to other people’s beliefs, because labelling has the effect of making a belief seem ‘intrinsic’ to the individual child, rendering those of other religions intrinsically different and ‘Other’
We also believe that labelling children is coercive because it:
- places an expectation on the child to conform to her parents beliefs
- removes choice and decreases autonomy by limiting the options available; by constraining the child to think that their religion is ‘a given’.
- can act as a threat, either because there is an implied risk of parental disassociation if the child rejects the religious beliefs, or because inherent in the religion itself are explicit metaphysical dangers (judgment, Hellfire etc) associated with disbelief or apostasy.
There is also an indirect aim, to draw attention and support to the work of the BHA on issues of children’s rights, freedom of belief and education, which we have long campaigned on. See below.
Read more answers to your questions in our Billboards ‘Critical Thinking’ FAQ.
One indirect aim of the Billboard Campaign is to support the work of the British Humanist Association in its campaigns on education, children’s rights, and faith schools. We are raising money to fund this work and to continue employing our dedicated Faith Schools and Education Campaigns Officer. You can donate at www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.
The BHA campaigns:
- to phase out ‘faith’ schools, in favour of inclusive schools with no religious admissions policies
- for reform of RE (Religious Education), in favour of balanced teaching about different beliefs and values
- for a repeal of the legal requirement of ‘collective worship’ which applies even in community schools
- against creationism and pseudo-science especially the threat they represent to good teaching in schools
- for wider improvements to values and moral education across the school curriculum; improved Sex and Relationships Education, Citizenship Education and inclusion of Philosophy.
Our campaigner makes sure that the voice of UK citizens who oppose ‘faith’ schools is represented in the most powerful way. To do this our campaigner helps to stimulate and organise local campaigns against new ‘faith’ schools and lobby government and parliament to reform the laws that allow state funded schools to discriminate on religious grounds, that requires they provide collective worship and to teach unbalanced curricula of religious education.
There are many other ways to support the BHA and to take part in all our campaigns. But again, if you support the message of the Atheist Billboard Campaign, then you can put your money where your mind is at http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.