Some responses to questions we were asked about the Don’t Label Me billboard campaign.
Are you attacking religion in general?
No. The billboards are expressing a view, which we know is held by a great many donors and supporters of the Bus Campaign and members of the British Humanist Association (you can join!) that religion should not be foisted on or assumed of children. Of course, this view is held by many religious people too, who have no wish to label their children or send them to faith schools that would label and segregate them from other children.
In the same way, people will sometimes criticise a parent who is ‘too pushy’ in insisting that a child play a particular sport, or develop an acting career. Of course we’ll all have different ideas about where motivating children ends and where ‘too pushy’ begins! But it is not a criticism of that particular sport or of acting careers in general to criticise the parent if you think their encouragement has overstepped a line.
It is not an attack on religion or religious practice to insist that children’s rights and freedoms must be respected. Moreover, the argument applies also to any other positions – which have nothing to do with religion, or which are antithetical to religion – and which can in principle be applied to children who are too young to have reached their own conclusions.
What does this mean for the rights of religious parents?
Nothing. We defend the individual’s right to freedom of religion and belief. But this right cannot extend so far as to impinge on the freedoms and autonomies of others, especially children. The issue here is not about preventing the individual religious practice of consenting adults; it’s about raising consciousness as to the effects of any language which is presumptuous of children’s future choices.
Are you saying that people who describe their children as religious are bad parents?
We do not believe that parents who refer to their family as a ‘Christian family’ or their child as a ‘Jewish child’ and so on are thereby bad people or bad parents. The purpose of this campaign is to raise consciousness about labelling children, and this only needs to be done because the habit is commonplace and most people have never seriously questioned or analysed it before.
We do believe that the practice of labelling children can have strong implications for how a child thinks about themselves and how others think about the child, constraining their freedom of thought and belief. What would be bad is to hear an argument, agree with it, and then not try to modify the corresponding behaviour!
What’s the deal with ‘faith’ schools?
‘Faith’ schools are a long-standing part of the historical tendency to label children and to claim that they ‘belong’ to a particular religion. Most people think ‘faith’ schools are divisive and that they should not be funded by the state. There is no evidence that ‘faith’ schools offer any better moral education or better education in general (exam performance is down to social selection). ‘Faith’ schools can try to run ‘interfaith’ dialogues with other schools to ameliorate concerns about social division, but these can at best only go some way to compensate for an impediment that they themselves create.
- See the BHA’s campaign against ‘faith’ schools
- See the BHA’s campaigns on religion and education in general
Don’t we influence children one way or the other whatever we do?
Yes, and it’s quite correct that parents should try and educate their children, including education on moral and personal matters.
However there is a spectrum of influence. On the one hand some parents insist children share their beliefs, preventing them from learning about other beliefs and ‘protecting’ them from external influences that might undermine those beliefs. On the other hand there are parents explaining what they believe, perhaps encouraging their children to share those beliefs but leaving option open without prejudice that their children won’t share those beliefs, being open about the fact that other people (good people) have different beliefs, and encouraging them to find out about those too, and to respect other people’s rights to their beliefs.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know what counts as education and what counts as indoctrination. But in the case of labelling children as if they innately hold a particular religion or ideology, or claiming that they ‘belong’ to a particular religion, this is clearly over that line. Anyone truly interested in the autonomy and freedom of their children should avoid labelling them. Even if instilling ‘faith’ is your goal, what does that faith really mean if it is first presumed and then reinforced by repeated use of labelling?
So you’re okay with parents professing their own religion and handing out books as long as they don’t label the children?
We defend the right to freedom of religion. But again there is a spectrum of influence that parents should be wary of. If you want your children to freely explore their moral and philosophical beliefs, to maximise their own ability to explore the world for themselves, then presenting only your own views or only taking them to your place of worship, will not be very productive.
A solid all-round education needn’t be ‘definite’ or presumptuous; it can be open and explorative and respectful of the fact that your children might end up disagreeing with you.
How are religious parents supposed to bring up their children if they’re not allowed to practice their faith with them?
The posters are about the practice of labelling children and ‘claiming them’ for a faith. The posters are not about parents expressing their own religious, philosophical, moral or political views or even involving their children in their religious rituals. However we do hope they will raise awareness about what it does to someone’s self-image when others presume a particular view of them, especially young and impressionable people. Such presumption gives them less choice to freely develop a worldview for themselves.
How does one instil morals without inculcating children into a specific religion?!
You do not have to be religious to be moral. Right and wrong can be found within society and by discussing responsibilities and the effects of your actions on others. We are certainly not against the discussion of morality – indeed we support the right of children to be free to explore their moral and philosophical beliefs. You can find more information and guidance at:
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.