Responses to our critics

Here we want to collect and respond to high profile criticisms of the Please Don’t Label Me campaign. We think most of them are based on misunderstanding, often an over-inflation of the message, but as ever we want to give critics a fair hearing, so their arguments are conveyed mainly in a charitable spirit, with good chunks of quote, and links to the source.

Jan Ainsworth

Church of England’s then-Chief Education Officer

On the Guardian’s Comment is free piece, ‘Atheist billboards are misguided’, Jan Ainsworth belittles the principles at stake in the campaign (we are targeting ‘a Very Bad Thing”) and has also misunderstood what the target is:

Ariane Sherine and members of the British Humanist Association appear to have decided that it is a Very Bad Thing that parents might try and bring up their children within a religious or philosophical framework of their choosing.

The billboards are about labelling children (‘Christian child’, ‘Muslim child’, ‘Agnostic child’ etc). Perhaps by extension the wider message is about the general case of ‘boxing in’ or actively coercing children toward a religious or ideological position, for example by:

  • telling them they are ‘born into’ a particular religion
  • undertaking infant baptism and telling the child they thereby ‘belong’ to a particular religion
  • segregating them from children who ‘belong’ to other religions in schools which teach largely about their ‘own’ religion and reinforce the idea that they are innately stamped with a specific creed
  • implying a threat if they ‘abandon’ the religion, such as familial disassociation, disfellowship from a community, or indeed more unearthly punishments delivered from on high!

However, even on this extended conception of how children can be labelled and boxed in, the campaign is clearly not about every way of bringing up children within any kind of framework. It is obvious that no child is raised in a vacuum and many parents are religious; parents always influence children whatever their own beliefs and whatever style of parenting they try to adopt. But there is a difference in how open-minded some parents are, and how open-minded they want their children to be.

We want to raise awareness about the line between normal parental influence on the one hand, and on the other hand those attempts (however well intentioned) to ‘box in’ a child, to deter him or her from questioning the beliefs assumed of them, to limit their options for criticism of their parents’ beliefs.

Ainsworth turns to ‘faith’ schools for which she claims evidence of a public perception of ‘benefit’. However 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).

Of Church of England ‘faith’ schools, Ainsworth says:

We aim to develop in children the ability to make informed choices in life. We aim to give them a good understanding of Christianity, and other faiths too. We aim to make them good citizens, hospitable and respectful towards people of all faiths and none. And, yes, we do hope that they might decide – when the time is right – that Christianity is a faith worth exploring more deeply.

These goals are also shared by community schools and by the vast majority of their good, professional teachers – apart from the last one. Except for sometimes unbalanced RE curricula imposed by SACREs and the legal requirement of ‘collective worship’, community schools do not assume that children will want to explore one religion or philosophy more deeply than the others. Good on ‘em!

Paul Woolley

Then Director of Theos, the Bible Society think tank

Woolley sets up a debate on the Theos website with the headline ‘What should we make of the Atheist (non-bus) campaign?’ He credits the billboards with tugging at ‘our love of autonomy and the right to choose’ and calls it ‘superficially appealing, but largely on an emotional level … On a more rational level, however, is it is based on some seriously flawed ideas.’ Woolley enumerates the problems.

Firstly, [the poster] assumes that there is a position of philosophical neutrality out there, a value-neutral cultural space in which children can grow up. The suggestion is dubious, to put it kindly.

The suggestion is indeed dubious and it is not implied by the campaign. You don’t have to think that there is an objective ‘view from nowhere’, or a perfect neutral way of raising children, to recognise that someways of raising children are more coercive than others.

Some ways of framing your own beliefs as a parent will imply that a child also shares them, or will share them, or should share them, as if they innately ‘belong’ to a faith. Some ways of framing your own beliefs may even imply that there will be negative consequences if the child strays from this path. On the other hand we can frame our own beliefs in ways which leave the option of disbelief or forming other beliefs widely open. We can frame our own beliefs without prejudice as to whether our children will follow us in them.

Secondly, a value-neutral culture is not only impossible, it is thoroughly undesirable. It’s unthinkable, for example, that we would want our children to grow up in a culture that takes a neutral position on questions of race or gender. I’ve not heard anyone suggest that children should simply be left to decide whether or not racism is acceptable without any encouragement or guidance.

Indeed you haven’t heard anyone suggest that! And nor does the Don’t Label Me Campaign imply it.

Again, respecting the autonomy of children in coming to reach their own philosophical views doesn’t mean abandoning all moral education. By analogy, it should be relatively obvious that there is no fundamental philosophical impossibility in having broad social and political discussions with children, without implicating them in one’s own party political persuasion or rubbishing all opponents. There are better and worse approaches and Don’t Label Me is about promoting ‘best practice’!

Thirdly, the British Humanist Association is, I think, being disingenuous. It’s interesting and honest that, included among the labels in the background of the poster, are the terms “Humanist Child”, “Modernist Child”, “Libertarian Child” and “Agnostic Child”. The poster rightly recognises that these are ideological, even faith positions.

The labels are all examples of high level, ‘worldview’ type positions. This does not mean they are all ‘faith’ positions.

Woolley continues, saying ‘The reality, however, is rather different. It’s no accident that the associated campaign poster is ‘No faith schools’. What the British Humanist Association defines as neutral is in fact non-religious and even anti-religious.’ He quotes Richard Dawkins, as saying ‘I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate’ and concludes:

It doesn’t sound like Professor Dawkins is so willing to let children grow up and choose for themselves after all. Indeed, on his logic, if religious faith really is so evil, it’s absolutely imperative that he doesn’t just let children choose, but actively warns them of it.

Whether or not some parental practices ‘box in’ children to their own belief system is quite a different question from whether or not some belief systems are more harmful or more pro-social than others. There is no inconsistency in thinking that a) parents should not coerce their children into a particular philosophical position, while maintaining that b) individuals in society at large should be able to openly criticise the beliefs held by others. In fact, these two positions marry up rather well in an open, pluralistic society.

Finally, the advert sets up a straw man. I’ve never been introduced to a “Protestant child” or to a “Humanist child”, come to that. I suspect (though cannot prove) that people who have been given a faith-based education are generally more tolerant when dealing with people of other religious and non-religious faith traditions than those who have been nurtured in an intentionally anti-religious or ‘secular-humanistic’ environment.

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support this accusation at all. Ironically, Woolley then concludes just a few sentences later ‘The challenge is to engage in serious respectful conversations with secular humanists’. Good start!

If Woolley hasn’t been introduced to a religiously-labelled child in exactly that way, he may nevertheless have heard the children in a ‘faith’ school referred to collectively as belonging to a particular religion. Moreover he may have seen children baptised as babies, or children told that attending church or mosque is an inherent duty upon them, or children told that but for the grace of some specific god they may regret any decision to ‘leave’ a faith for all eternity. There is more than one way to label and box in a child.

George Pitcher

Religion Editor of Telegraph Media, and an Anglican priest

Pitcher’s somewhat loaded headline question is ‘What exactly are atheists so scared about?’ (We don’t really get an answer to this, let alone a reason as to why he thinks atheists are ‘scared’, although he does later refer to humanists as ‘neurotic’.)

Pitcher begins in narrative form:

As I was leaving church yesterday, a nice chap called Andy called to see if I would go on Radio 2 to talk about a new billboard campaign enjoining us not to ‘label’ our children with religious tags such as “Catholic child” or “Muslim child”. Beside pictures of bonny toddlers (all white, as it happens), runs the tagline: “Let me grow up and decide for myself.”

(On the parenthetical reference to ‘all’ the children being white: three out of four of the posters contain only a single child, the same girl. On the London poster there are multiple children – the format was wider – and ‘all’ these children are two in number. It’s the same girl joined by a boy. So their racial uniformity is hardly indicative of anything, nor are their racial characteristics relevant anyway. As it happens the stock photographs are a brother and sister.)

Anyway, my first reaction was this: chance would be a fine thing. I don’t know if you’ve actually tried to indoctrinate a child, but outside of an Afghan madrassa or a Moonie temple I’d say you’ve got your work cut out.

There is a spectrum of influence from open-minded education through to outright inculcation. Even if we zoom in on the latter end of the spectrum, the gradient remains: some ways of ‘boxing in’ children to a particular belief system are more coercive than others. We do not say that labelling children is the worst possible form of indoctrination (threats of Hellfire might be worse, abandoning the child who disagrees with you would definitely be worse). We say only that labelling children is in that half of the spectrum which unfairly curtails the open and autonomous development of the mind.

…by the time they’ve “grown up”, or at least hit their teens, forget it. The most positive response you’re likely to get from labelling them Christian, or atheist, or Communist, is “whatever”. More likely are shrugs, or giggles.

Pitcher might read some of the comments we’ve received which show the real strength of feeling some people have about the presumptions made of their own children, or of their own pupils in their own schools in some cases!

‘And, anyway, who are these grown-ups who are meant to be doing the labelling?’

Well…

  • Parents who do not educate their children about the range of positions that people hold (‘protecting’ them from the big wide world) while over-educating them about their own position
  • Parents whose faces and attitudes grow ominous in response to critical questions about their personal beliefs, especially if their child moves toward ‘abandoning’ the parents’ religion
  • Teachers who bend over backwards to teach about one religion to the exclusion of all others (we hear a lot about this happening)
  • Any adults who naturally think of the children of religious parents as ‘belonging’ to the same religion – and refer to the children as ‘Muslim’, ‘Christian’ and so on

After expanding a little more on things we didn’t say, Pitcher concludes:

‘They will deny all this, claiming that all they desire is a level playing field, a disestablished Church and no faith schools. But their websites tell a different story.’

Actually our website does express our desire for a level playing fielda disestablished Church and no ‘faith’ schools.

Theo Hobson

Christian writer

For some reason the Spectator has an entire online ‘Faith Based’ section including a ‘Faith Based’ blog which serves exclusively as a soapbox for Theo Hobson. He pulls no punches about the Please Don’t Label Me campaign.

‘These people are immensely stupid, and arrogant. To suggest that one does cultural violence to one’s child by exposing him or her to religion is very close to nutty.’

Again, it’s only necessary to say that mere ‘exposure’ is not the target of the campaign.

David McIlveen

Free Presbyterian Church minister

Humanist poster stirs up religious storm’ says the Belfast Telegraph, though the storm is mainly raging in the vicinity of Reverend David McIlveen:

It is none of their business how people bring up their children. It is the height of arrogance that the BHA would even assume to tell people not to instruct their children in the religion.

‘Instruct’ is a term which covers a range of possible approaches. Again, it is not the position of Please Don’t Label Me that parents must refrain from any and all reference to their own religion. Parents should be able to be religious and express religious beliefs and should be capable of not at the same time inculcating their children. However ‘instruct’ could also mean a kind of demand that the children submit to a particular god, or intimately obey a particular set of religious instructions. ‘Instructing’ a child in one religion sometimes means an attempt to eliminate other options for the child. This kind of thing is indeed implicated in the Don’t Label Me posters and we make no apology for it. The parent-child relationship is important and usually private and should be respected, but there are some parental practices which it is morally important to criticise.

I would totally reject the advertisement. It is reprehensible and so typical of the hypocrisy of the British Humanist Association today. They have a defeatist attitude and are just trying to draw attention to themselves. I think it is totally arrogant, presumptuous and sparks of total hypocrisy. I believe this doesn’t deserve a counter campaign. I will be expressing my public position on it in my own church on Sunday. I will be saying that this advert is another attack on the Biblical position of the family and will be totally rejecting it.

If the Biblical position of the family is that the family must inculcate children into the Christian religion and preserve belief by presuming it of infants then yes, the adverts are attacking it.

Stephen Wang

Catholic priest in the Diocese of Westminster, London and Dean of Studies at Allen Hall seminary

In a piece entitled ‘Religious Education is not brainwashing’ for The Times, Father Stephen Wang repeats some of the above mistakes, in terms of over-exaggerating the terms of the Don’t Label Me Campaign. ‘The call to liberate children is superficially appealing but fundamentally naïve. Here are four reasons why’, he says.

First: The exercise of freedom requires some prior foundation. Children have to learn how to make choices: how to weigh things up, how to judge what is best, how to take responsibility. Any child psychologist knows this. Freedom doesn’t just happen. And an essential part of learning to choose is having some sense of the meaning of the world we inhabit, of the value of our actions, and of the significance of their consequences. In other words, freedom can’t be learnt outside a context of meaning and values.

Religious faith can help establish this context; so can a robust humanism. But to think that freedom can be learnt in a vacuum, without the sharing of any moral or philosophical convictions, is simply naïve. Children who are brought up without inherited values of any kind are actually less able to exercise their freedom and choose for themselves. Just as children who are brought up without boundaries will never be able to learn the significance of crossing them.

The Don’t Label Me campaign does not suggest that children can, let alone must, be kept away from all talk of meaning and values. On the contrary, in order to achieve such a backward feat would require a cultural isolation of the most extreme and damaging kind. The Don’t Label Me campaign is not about de-contextualising or isolating children from all talk of meaning and value. It is about the parental attitude that leaves open the possibility that one’s children might not share those values or identify with the same meanings.

In the ideological (and analogously real) shelf space of their parenthood, parents should ideally provide a range – a library – of books, and this will include their own favourite titles. They just shouldn’t presume that their children will favour the same books, nor attempt to coerce them into rejecting alternatives.

Second: If you believe something important to be true, then you shouldn’t pretend it is an open question. This goes for secular humanists as much as for religious believers. If, for example, you are a convinced atheist, and you think that belief in God is false at an intellectual level and damaging through its distorting effects on morality, then of course you would want to share this conviction with your children. It would be unjust to keep it from them. Similarly, if you believe in God, and you believe that this faith is not just a lifestyle choice or a cultural imperative but an objective truth with profound implications for human existence, how could you not share this conviction with your children? Yes, you want to nurture their freedom and you hope they will discover things for themselves. But if it is a question of truth – whether scientific or moral or spiritual – then you will inevitably want to guide your children along a certain path, knowing full well that they may one day choose to veer off in another direction.

The point of Don’t Label Me is that some practices in parental guidance run contrary to the notion that one’s children may ‘full well’ disagree in later life. Some practices, some ways of speaking, some implied threats of severe parental disapproval, serve to prejudice a child’s free development in a way which goes beyond merely conveying one’s own deeply held opinion.

In an extreme (but not all that uncommon) case, a parent may label their child as ‘belonging’ to some particular religion and also leave hanging the threat of the withdrawal of love and support should that child question too closely the terms of faith, ‘abandon’ the religion, marry outside of it, and so on. This crosses a line between a reasonable desire to impart one’s own values, and unfairly coercing children toward a specific credo.

Third: It’s a fantasy to imagine that children can be raised in a philosophically neutral environment without some dominant world-view. Theism – as much as atheism, materialism, or secular humanism (these terms are not synonomous) – provides a particular understanding of the meaning of the world and of human life, which will help structure a child’s understanding and values. But if you try to bring your children up in an environment which is indifferent to questions of ultimate meaning, then your purported neutrality will already have been lost. … In this view, religious questions and all questions of ultimate meaning are relativised, and indifference is taken to be the predominant value.

Allowing children room to think and develop for themselves is not the same as imparting indifference. Parents can with enthusiasm discuss many topics, keenly and passionately, whilst avoiding the presumption that their children will agree with them; indeed whilst making it explicitly clear that the children should engage with these ideas critically and think for themselves.

Likewise these questions need not be ‘relativised’. Parents can be fair- and open-minded about their children’s possible development without giving up the idea that there is still a right and wrong.

There is a huge philosophical gap between allowing that others will disagree with us, and intellectual relativism.

Fourth: A strong notion of autonomy, which is essential to an individual’s freedom, requires an appreciation of one’s human dignity. Children need to know not just that they are loved but that their life has meaning and is valuable in itself… So, paradoxically, in order to liberate children from the limited vision of their parents and culture, you have to imbue them with a strong sense of their own worth, of their dignity, of their significance in a framework of meaning. The humanism of the early Enlightenment held on to a strong notion of human dignity and human uniqueness, even as it became more secular. But as secular humanists have become more and more materialist in their outlook, and as materialism has failed to offer any satisfying accounts of human dignity, it has become almost impossible to avoid describing human nature in reductivist terms.

Contemporary secular humanists are largely unable to explain to children why their freedom and autonomy have any significance, why their life has any meaning – and this is why the exaltation of freedom proposed in this poster feels a bit hollow. If you really want your children to be free, you need to tell them why their freedom matters, and help them appreciate some of the values they might pursue. And to do that, you need to use at least a few labels.

First of all, it’s important to point out that while many religious thinkers and commentators express such dissatisfaction with humanist conceptions of human autonomy and value, Humanism itself is in part a response to a similar dissatisfaction with theistic conceptions. How exactly, humanists have asked, does being made in God’s image mean a child is more valuable than they are otherwise? How does the mythological invention of the ‘soul’ make us any more free than we are otherwise? Many people respond to a religious upbringing by rejecting as shallow and meaningless the supernatural and divine conceptions of human autonomy and value. These people prefer worldly, humanistic conceptions in which the moral value of a person consists, not in some supernatural bond or divine spark, but in who they actually are and what they actually do, here on earth in the one life they have.

But leaving this philosophical dispute aside, Wang’s position is that children must feel objectively valued, or feel a sense of human dignity, in order to be free, and that ‘to do that, you need to use at least a few labels.’ Instead of labels (which attempt to shortcut free enquiry), the Don’t Label Me campaign implies that truly dignifying children means disabusing ourselves of the notion that adults necessarily know best. Human beings are fallible, and hard as it may be to accept, this includes parents.

What better way to laud and honour the human worth, dignity and freedom of children than to cut them some ideological slack.

Jonathan Bartley

Co-director of the Christian thinktank, Ekklesia

Bartley’s comments are of a different character from the aforementioned. He’s not criticising the message as a whole (Ekklesia and the BHA are both members of the Accord Coalition in favour of inclusive admissions policies and fair and balanced RE). Rather he is making a suggestion as to what we could have done instead. We think it’s worth airing. In a news piece for Ekklesia called ‘Why humanists aren’t asking the right question’ he argues:

This is why the Humanists have been asking the wrong questions in their advertising campaigns – particularly their latest one about faith schools. What the Humanists should have put on their posters was the simple question: “How would Jesus have run a school?”

Of course, it’s not going to happen. But run with the proposition for a moment. Such a question might be uncomfortable for many Humanists. But it would be doubly uncomfortable for many Christians. For such a question goes to the heart of the issue that the British Humanist Association (BHA) is trying to raise about faith schools.

Actually it’s not such a bad idea, and has a humorous element. Where some humanists might be uncomfortable is that for us, of course, Jesus of Nazareth is not the high representative of all that is good and just, and we like to make a case based on principles we can all share. Jesus of Nazareth may be the high representative of all that is good and just for the Christians that such a campaign would be targeting, but there are those besides Christians who also support ‘faith’ schools for whom such a campaign would mean less. The message does apply to all religions.

We are not getting the impression that a large number of Christians ‘are getting defensive, fearful and angry about the latest posters’, however we do agree as Bartley suggests that many have failed ‘to engage with the substantive point that the Humanists are making’ and in that context perhaps an ironic ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ campaign about faith schools would have worked wonders. But how well this would translate to ‘What would Mohammed do?’ etc is less clear.