The expressions of public support for ‘Don’t Label Me’ aren’t dissimilar from those of the Atheist Bus Campaign, but they do have a different character. For the buses many people expressed a kind of collective relief at seeing a light-hearted, pro-atheist message in the public space. But reading the emails from members, comments on blogs and our social networking sites, the billboards strike a more sensitive nerve with a lot of people. They have a moral objection to any attempt to ‘box’ children in to a hereditary belief system.
Speaking generally about the messages we received, people are not saying ‘Ban all religion!’ Rather, supporters of the billboard campaign – humanists, religious people and everyone – say that when it comes to parents educating children with moral and social values (as they should) there is a line you can cross when expressing your own views. Referring to children with labels implicating them in your beliefs is over that line; ‘faith’ schools which marginalise and sectarianise their own pupils are over that line.
We’ve heard from a lot of parents, teachers and former pupils of religious schools, and these are often the most personal and powerful messages.
Richard Dawkins and Ariane Sherine made comments on 18 November as the billboard campaign was launched.
The magician, illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown personally posted on his All Your Minds Are Belong To Us blog, enthusiastically explaining that the billboard campaign focuses on:
‘One unpleasant aspect of proselytising to children: the resultant labelling of tiny kids as “Christian”, “Muslim” etc, in a way that we would never do with, say, political affiliations (labelling a small child “Conservative”, for example, seems very wrong).
‘“Atheist” is of course also included as an equally regrettable label to be attached to a child: the message is, to allow children to choose for themselves when they are old enough to decide.’
Endorsing the campaign, best-selling children’s author and creator of the famously ‘atheistic’ His Dark Materials trilogy Philip Pullman, said:
‘It is absolutely right that we shouldn’t label children until they are old enough to decide for themselves.’
Philosopher and author of Against All Gods, A C Grayling, said:
‘This is a significant and welcome campaign reminding us that children have their own minds and we can encourage them to think for themselves.’
The BHA campaigns to make education free from religious privilege. Wanna help? http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools
Later in the day he tweeted a message into the Richard Bacon show on Radio Five Live, which was discussing the billboards with guests including the BHA. He joked:
@richardpbacon I’m going to force my children to be scientologists in the hope that they may develop into fine film actors.
Within half an hour of Ariane’s article appearing on the Guardian website, the term ‘Atheist Bus’ was trending on Twitter, meaning it was one of the top ten most popular stories circulating on the infamous social networking site. @AtheistBus, @BHAhumanists and the new @PlsDontsLabelMe pages worked together and reached hundreds of new supporters.
There were lots of new Fans of the BHA’s official Facebook Page, and the brand new ’Don’t Label Me’ Facebook group grew to nearly 500 members in just a few hours.
‘My daughter was asked to leave Brownies because I declined her going to Church services as we are atheist. Her leader replied in horror “I have never met an atheist before”, I replied “you don’t get out much then?”‘We were given an ultimatum – “attend Sunday service to thank the Lord for letting us use the church hall, or quit.” We decided it would be more honest to just quit.’
In Oliver’s reply he wrote:
‘It is very annoying something like Brownie or Scouts etc which have plenty to offer kids in other ways, are able to go on discriminating like this… The kids would have just as much fun and benefit without those trappings (I was a scout) and if they tried to promote universal humanist-style values then they could also encourage ethics and altruism etc without ideology.’
Tania posted a message saying:
‘At the church primary school my atheist daughter attended she was told by the teacher that she had an angel sitting on one shoulder and the devil sitting on the other. Isn’t that some sort of emotional abuse?’
‘I attended several Christian/Catholic schools. Thanks to my parents, I’m still an atheist. I got to choose what I don’t believe in.’
Thomas chipped in:
‘As a teacher, I have to say I think this is a fantastic campaign!’
‘As a parent, I am utterly shocked by the amount of religious propaganda, influence and discrimination in schools. My son’s primary is a multicultural, supposedly non religious community primary yet it offers no escape from that fact. The problem is that so few people dare speak up about this. How I welcome this campaign!’
‘Even if you choose not to send your child to a faith school, your problem is that religious indoctrination will still be the norm. Acts of collective worship are required by law. A parent has the right to withdraw a child from collective worship but what you are doing in reality is removing your child from daily whole school assemblies and singling them out as different. This is the last thing that a small child wants to be, so most parents comply even if they don’t agree with it. School education needs to be secularised completely.’
The BHA website and your emails
The BHA website creaked only a little under the weight of half a million hits. We received hundreds of emails and messages through our contact form, welcoming the campaign.
‘Great news! I did my bit and joined the Facebook group as well as “Tweeted” a link to this campaign.’
‘Nice one! Well done to all involved. Brave to include Scientology (and I’m glad you did)’
‘As an evangelical Christian, I just wanted to congratulate you on your latest billboard campaign. Children should not be labelled as Catholic kids, Protestant kids, Christian kids etc, etc until such time that they have made a decision for themselves.’
Many shared personal stories, such as Geoff.
‘I’ve just donated via the site, it’s not much but it’s what I can afford.
‘I was quite emotional seeing the BHA poster for the first time – I’ve been fighting this with my son’s school for 2 years, he’s now 7 and I’m so pleased it is getting publicity. My son is made to sit on his own in the medical room for 30 minutes when the rest of his class are frogmarched to church every Wednesday morning for ”group worship” – It is nothing short of indoctrination of vulnerable, highly suggestible young people.
‘But my son is made to feel the odd one out. It makes my blood boil that these so-called adults are abusing children like this.
‘Thank you BHA.’
Around the web
Ariane’s Comment is free piece for The Guardian garnered a massive thousand comments with lots of debate back and forth. A user called Errrrr joked:
‘Hmmmm… not sure… That kid in the ad looks a bit Quaker to me. Definitely an Everton fan, and probably centre-leftish with occasional libertarian leanings.’
Popular blogger Hermant ’Friendly Atheist’ Mehta welcomed the campaign, saying:
‘How awesome is that?… The point is that, by all means, you should educate your child with your morals and values. But there’s a difference between doing that and forcing an entire belief system on a child who doesn’t even have the capability to understand what that entails.’
Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief blog (on secular parenting) called the new billboard slogan:
‘A simple, marvellous message currently on display in four UK cities. It’s also #6 in the list of best practices on page viii of Raising Freethinkers.’
The PhD in Parenting blog supported the campaign message, saying:
‘It isn’t saying that you cannot teach your children about religion or expose them to religion. It is saying that you do not get to choose their religion. They do. I think that in order to give children that choice, we need to expose them to as many alternatives as possible.’
A self-described ‘teenage liberal atheist’ blogger welcomed the campaign’s “subtle brilliance” and laid into a critical piece by Ed West in the Telegraph, calling him out on references to fascism and calling the article “profoundly stupid”:
‘Who could possibly find anything to complain about in such a message?
‘Well, Ed West did in this profoundly stupid article at the Telegraph, where he makes any number of dumbass errors and assumptions in between being a general twit in his November 18 article, entitled “Stay away from my kids, Richard Dawkins”… Barely a single paragraph in, and already the equating of a peaceful message about not unfairly labeling kids to fascism has begun. Talk about getting to the point – and saying something stupid – in record time.’
Miranda C Hale blogs that ‘I’m so grateful for this’ and explains her own reaction and why it’s important.
‘It’s crucially important to raise consciousness on this issue. The practice of automatically labe’ling children with their parents’ religious beliefs has a huge impact on so many people’s lives, yet it is rarely discussed or questioned. Hopefully, this campaign will raise awareness of this issue and will introduce it into conversation and public discourse. It’s a wonderful, brilliant, and inspiring campaign, and it’s an issue that I care deeply about, both because of my personal experience and because it’s vitally important to, at the very least, start to question why the religious labelling of children is seen as acceptable and to begin a discussion about the negative and damaging effects of this labelling. Please, let’s start to question that which is taken for granted regarding the religious labelling of and indoctrination of children.
‘The Atheist Billboard Campaign is asking these questions and is helping to start a public conversation about this issue, and I’m so very grateful for that. It’s an important and much-needed conversation that’s long past due.’
Sara, who blogs calling herself a ‘mum, LibDem and Gooner’ as well as a religious believer, supports the campaign saying:
‘Of course parents want to imbue in children the values that they hold dear. This may include religion, politics and sporting affiliation, as well as confidence, ability to think, self-worth and general manners. You educate children mainly by leading by example and giving lots of love and feedback, but if you try to indoctrinate a child, you risk sending out into the world an adult who cannot think, for themselves, does not understand the point of view of others and in some circumstances, is a bigot. We should not place labels on children which may limit their life chances, suppress their freedoms and distort and damage our society. W[e] must let them decide for themselves which, if any, labels they will adopt when they become capable of doing so.’
‘Where, I wonder, would Jesus place himself in the debate over homosexuality and whether or not it is a sin as the reverend is so determined it is? I suspect he would not side with the Free Presbyterians. In that respect, humanists and other atheists, with their tolerance and acceptance of what consenting adults do, behave in a more Christian manner than many Christians.’
On the atheistcampaign.org website supporters of the original Atheist Bus Campaign chipped in with comments on the blog.
‘it is good to see a buzz around a new campaign. Best of luck with it!’
‘I am very happy you are on the move again, great idea to confront faith schools.’
‘A positive and thought-provoking message… well done again to Ariane and the BHA. Very glad “atheist child”, “humanist child” etc included in the background… The response to the atheist bus campaign has been amazing. Just goes to show the feeling among many that atheists/humanists should speak out against religious privilege.’
As news broke on RichardDawkins.net, many people expressed support for the campaign and some spoke of how projecting religious beliefs onto children had effected them personally.
‘One of the most harrowing things seen in Britain over the last twenty years was the terrified children running the gauntlet of adult haters just to get to school. (Belfast 2001) The haters then were my Protestant brethren. The whole of Ireland (“our” lot and the other lot) seems now to be secularising rapidly. But in England we seem to want a return to sectarianised education. WHY?’
‘As a faith school survivor, I heartily endorse the sentiments being expressed in this campaign.’
‘The growth in faith schools – not least via the creation of “academies” – is one of this government’s worst legacies.’
‘I used to teach in a Catholic primary school and, believe me, the kids were pounded with the doctrine day after day. Prayers, songs, rituals, Jesus and Mary over and over and over again. To take advantage of the open minds of innocent, unaware children in this cynically opportunistic way is something that makes me sad and angry at the same time. I would rather have a thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door and try to convert me, adult to adult, than to see a single child taken advantage of in the way these schools do.’
Logicel wrote to say that Dawkins’ ‘consciousness raising’ over the issue of labelling children had already had its effect:
‘When a tiny/small child is introduced to me as being an active participant of a religion, I now say, no she/he is not an active participant. Her/his parents may be active participants, but this child is not. The parents may be teaching the child the concepts of their religions, which is their right, but they do not have the right to determine what religion the child, if any, will eventually embrace. These parents… often regard their children as their property. They make me sick. I am not playing nice anymore with them. How I would loved when I was being brought up Catholic, if some adult did that for me!’
Raising funds to support the BHA’s work on issues related to the billboard message was a crucial part of this campaign, allowing us to build on the impact that the billboards and media coverage have in the public eye by taking the argument into the civic square via our lobbying work, local campaigns against new faith schools, and through our extensive education agenda.
As with the Atheist Bus Campaign, it’s been a joy to see the positive comments flowing in on the JustGiving pages as supporters made their donations. Here are some we spotted in the first two days, including mothers and fathers, grandmothers, teachers, students, and many more, often dedicating their gift to a family member.
Peter: ‘Superb campaign. These posters should be hung in each and every school in the country.’
Ruth: ‘I am very happy to give this worthwhile cause, especially as growing up in NI I experienced firsthand how divisive faith schools can be.’
Karl: ‘This is for the “lesson” I witnessed yesterday at a school. HOW CHRISTIAN CHILDREN ARE WELCOMED INTO THE FAMILY. For 5 year olds…’
Jane: ‘Let’s teach our children shared values – we’ll never all agree on a religion.’
Andrew: ‘This is vital work. Even more important than the original campaign. Freedom of religion or otherwise for all with preference and privilege to none.’
Peter: ‘It is wrong to subject the future generations to ideological apartheid!’
Sara: ‘This donation is for Sister Philomena who told me not to look at myself in the bath’
Daniel: ‘On behalf of my newborn son Alec, whom I want to benefit from a good education devoid of indoctrination so he can make up his own mind!’
Jennifer: ‘Very glad to support this campaign – let’s bring an end to this state sponsored indoctrination and teach kids to question and think for themselves’
Joel: ‘I’d love to see an end to religious privilege in my life time. Keep up the good work.’
anonymous: ‘Religious indoctrination produces religious fanaticism and world conflict.’
Neil: ‘A vital campaign for the future of a decent, sensible and civilized world.’
Paul: ‘A very important campaign; faith schools divide our society and substitute indoctrination for education’
Edward: ‘It is as important to tell others as it is to give. Email your friends and spread this important news. Indoctrination must cease’
Shell: ‘An excellent awareness campaign. Education is universal, religion is personal – let’s keep it that way.’
Chris: ‘Children have enough scary monsters to deal with without education and doctrine forcing more upon them. Spread the word, chaps!’
Ethel: ‘Schools funded by all taxpayers should not promote beliefs, held by only some of the population, as though they were facts.’
Bob: ‘Respect for each other does not require indoctrination and bad science. Excellent campaign – good luck.’
Simon: ‘Faith Schools are the best way to divide communities and encourage prejudice. Keep the State separate from the Church.’
Kelvin: ‘Please have some of my money, you will do more good with it than I will, probably.’
Kelly: ‘Good luck with this, children should not be indoctrinated’
LL: ‘Faith schools are not sustainable in a multi-cultural and open society.’
Richard: ‘Keep up the good work. Faith and education need to be separated.’
John: ‘It is sometimes hard to remember that this is supposed to be the 21st century.’
Keith: ‘Faith schools are divisive and wrong.’
Philip: ‘“Faith” should have no place in the lives of our children if they are to achieve their full potential.’
Anthony: ‘Words can’t describe how refreshing this campaign is. Please continue with another and another!’
James: ‘A very important cause, one day people will look back in amazement that there were ever faith schools in this country.’
David: ‘An honourable cause. Real democracy for a change.’
Helen: ‘Hoping we can make a difference, and a better, saner future for our children.’
Martin: ‘This is for Alexandra, my baby daughter, may she grow up with her own lively and critical mind and make her own informed choices.’
Christopher: ‘Please help us persuade this country of the divisive evil of “faith” schools! Keep up the good work, thanks Chris’
David: ‘What an awesome campaign!’
Robert: ‘Here’s to a great campaign and the hope of sending my young daughter to a non-denominational school.’
Elaine: ‘I fear that this could be a long battle, but IMHO it’s one which MUST be waged!’
Will: ‘Let’s bring children together not subsidise religious apartheid’
Liam: ‘A great cause. There’s no need to label children before they’ve had a chance to discover who they really are!’
Andrew: ‘I am fed up with my kids coming home from school telling me all about God. My youngest is 5! This has got to stop. Success to you!’
Gareth: ‘Oh yes, yes, yes… this is fabulous! A great move on from the bus campaign.’
Adam: ‘Another important campaign to which I’m happy to lend some support – keep up the good work!’
Kate: ‘Faith schools are state funded segregation’
Jot: ‘Even more important than the bus campaign!’
Niall: ‘Excellent campaign. I am heartened to know that others feel as strongly as I do on this issue.’
Fred: ‘A little something for a big important cause! Thanks for launching this campaign!’
Christine: ‘This is for my grandchildren and future generations’
Marilyn: ‘Brilliant posters, so pleased they will be in Edinburgh!’
Karen: ‘For my daughters’ freedom to choose’
Stephen: ‘I’ll vote for any party that gets rid of faith schools.’
Duncan: ‘A very important campaign: children should not be separated into religious groups for education.’
Benj: ‘Possibly the most important donation I’ll ever make.’
Frode: ‘Few causes are more important than this one. I’ll spread the word.’
Warren: ‘Good work BHA, kids can decide for themselves who they want their invisible friends to be.’
Mario: ‘Way to go! This is the most worthwhile cause I’ve EVER donated to, with the most long-lasting and beneficial results to my species!’
Andrew: ‘Faith Schools and indoctrination are child abuse, plain and simple. Things must change and this is a good start!’
Juliette: ‘Keep up the fight to end religious privilege and discrimination’
David: ‘We’re slowly winning the argument – well done BHA’
Megan: ‘Please keep up the good work towards separating religion and education in Britain today.’
Leigh: ‘We must stop the indoctrination of children in schools and give every child the intellectual space to think for themselves.’
Tim: ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for monkeys. Keep up the good work!’
John: ‘Dividing children leads to a divided society. Look at N. Ireland after 100s of years of segregated schools’
Christoph: ‘Keep on “fighting the good fight”… this really is a fight worth winning for the generations to come.’
Dick: ‘Every penny spent towards impressing on children the reality and validity of their existence outside of a religious framework is a penny well spent.’
Karl: ‘I have to visit schools in my work and there’s far too much time focused on God and not enough time spent on actual EDUCATION’
James: ‘Can’t overstate how important this work is and how much it is needed – keep it up.’
Jim: ‘The division of society along ethnic lines by religious (hence racial) apartheid will lead to community disaster’
Nick: ‘Religion should be a personal choice but the CofE has this stranglehold on rural primary education. Keep on fighting!’
Mike: ‘I’m not anti-religion, I’m just pro-common sense. Let’s work to get rid of all forms of discrimination.’
Colin: ‘Entry to state funded schools determined by minsters and priests HAS to be wrong if not illegal.’
Catherine: ‘Well done, you are making so much sense, let’s hope we get there soon.’
Inandoutagain: ‘Stop discrimination against non religious people – we are tax payers too! Let our children learn to question, not believe.’
Hugh: ‘Keep chipping away Paul [the BHA’s THEN Education and Faith Schools campaigner]… the walls will eventually fall. Thanks for doing a great job.’
Rob: ‘I don’t want my children lied to. I especially don’t want governments of any colour to pay my taxes for this to happen.’
Chris: ‘Well done to Paul Pettinger, Andrew Copson and everyone else at BHA for the great success in the “Teach Evolution in Primary School Science” campaign.’
Gareth: ‘no “collective worship” – would be nice :o)’
You can join them at www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.