Frequently Asked Questions
What do I tell my child about death?
Humanists tend to think that sensitively telling children the truth is preferable to giving false explanations, however comforting in the short term. It is sensible to discuss death before one occurs in the immediate family. (Short-lived pets like hamsters can be useful in preparing children to cope with the death of something they have cared about, and a pet’s burial ceremony can focus on the good memories that are so important to humanists.) There are a number of books for children of all ages that convey a humanist or an open-minded attitude to life after death – see our Primary Fiction and Books for Bereaved Children for details. If you have a Humanist Funeral, the celebrant can arrange a separate part of the ceremony just for the children, and this can be very helpful. See also the website of the Childhood Bereavement Network and our briefing for students on Death and Other Big Questions.
Should I worry about my child being indoctrinated in school prayers?
Unless you are in a particularly religious school, your child is more likely to be offended, or to feel excluded, or bored, by worship and prayers in school than to be indoctrinated. How schools conduct assemblies varies a great deal, and it is always worth finding out exactly what goes on in your school by having a quiet word with the form teacher before considering a complaint or withdrawing your child from worship, which you have the right to do (see “Collective Worship” and school assemblies: your rights). Many ordinary community schools have come a long way from the Bible story, hymn and prayer that used to be common, and you may well find that school assemblies usually consist of a moral story, an invitation to reflect on it, and general school business – all of which convey the school ethos and a sense of community. Our Ideas For Inclusive Assemblies can help schools to provide good inclusive assemblies, and is worth discussing with the head teacher.
The BHA campaigns for change in the law on collective worship in schools – if you would like to find out more about this, see “Collective Worship” and school assemblies: your rights and Inclusive School assemblies. You can help by writing about your case to your MP and if you suffer discrimination at the school on account of this, you should contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission for further advice and let us know.
The best (or only) school in the neighbourhood is a Church (or other “faith”) school – what should I do?
It depends on the school, how religious it actually is, and on its admissions policy. Some Church schools cater for a diverse population and can be tolerant and welcoming to humanists. Religion may not be particularly emphasised, but you may have to put up with what there is (though you retain your rights to have your child excused from worship and RE). RE and Sex and Relationships Education may not be as objective or as broad as you would like, and school assemblies may be more overtly Christian than in a community school. But you may still feel that you can send your child to a religious school with a clear conscience, and that the family’s beliefs will be far more influential on the child anyway. Sending your child to the local school may have social advantages that outweigh the disadvantages. However, some Church schools will require a clergyman’s reference based on church attendance or other proof of “faith” as part of the admissions procedure, and you may object on principle to this, as most humanists do. Ultimately, however, humanists believe that religious schools are unnecessary, discriminatory and divisive, and the BHA seeks an end to them. You can help by writing about your case to your MP and if you suffer discrimination in school admissions, you should contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission for further advice and let us know.
My child has been allocated to a Church (or other “faith”) school, and as a humanist, I don’t want my child to have a Christian education – what can I do?
First of all check how Christian it is likely to be – Church schools vary enormously, though when the Archbishop of Canterbury says that Anglican schools should be like churches, we must assume that they will move in a more Christian direction generally and it is certainly true that the BHA receives more and more requests for advice from parents whose children’s Church school is increasingly evangelistic. Increasingly, the BHA is also hearing from non-religious families seeking help with school admissions appeals. They have argued for a place in a community school on grounds of “religion or belief”, citing human rights legislation – and in 2006, an appeal was won on those grounds. So it’s worth a try, and the BHA can help to advise you. But the system is deeply flawed and BHA campaigns for the phasing out of church and other faith-based schools. You can help by writing about your case to your MP and if you suffer discrimination in school admissions, you should contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission for further advice and let us know.
As a humanist, do I have the same right to subsidised school transport as my religious neighbours?
First of all, no one has the right to subsidised or free school transport on grounds of religion, though LEAs have discretionary powers to subsidise transport for children going to distant Church schools, and some do. The BHA has been arguing for some time that, unless the same subsidy is extended to non-religious families sending their children to non-religious schools, the LEA is discriminating on grounds of religion or belief, and is thus in breach of the law (see Law on freedom of ‘religion or belief’). It looks as if recent decisions on the issue and forthcoming legislation on school transport will support treating families of all beliefs in the same way – which may mean that some LEAs decide not to subsidise any transport to school, except for low income families. Write to your MP about this – nothing will change unless people demand change.
Should I withdraw my child from Religious Education?
BHA thinks that learning about other people’s beliefs (including non-religious beliefs like Humanism) is a good thing in a multi-cultural society, and that non-religious children can and should be catered for in RE. But RE (which changed a great deal in the last 20 years) varies from LEA to LEA and from teacher to teacher. It can be inclusive, impartial and balanced, but it can also sometimes come very close to proselytising. You should find out what is going on in your child’s class before exercising your legal right to withdraw him or her. If your child is excused from RE, you may withdraw him or her from school for some other kind of education on philosophy or belief or religion. If s/he stays in school, the school is not obliged to provide a substitute lesson. Sometimes just pointing out politely that the language, assumptions or tasks in RE were excluding or upsetting your child, or actively exclude families who do not share those assumptions, is enough to remind the teacher of what s/he should be doing. You can also ask to look at the GCSE or local RE syllabus, to check if the teacher is keeping to it. And, of course, you can always tell your child that what they learn in RE is only what some people believe, not necessarily the truth or what you believe.
The BHA believes that RE should be reformed to become the impartial, fair and balanced study of a range of beliefs, including humanist ones. See BHA Education Policy – a summary; our report A Better Way Forward.
But it’s not normally the school or the teacher that’s at fault, it’s the syllabus they teach…
Parents have the right to complain to their local Standing Advisory Council for RE (SACRE) about the local syllabus or a school’s misuse of the local syllabus. You can contact the SACRE via your local Council or Education Department. You could explain that your beliefs are marginalised or offended by the syllabus or teaching, and ask them to take your views into account when revising it. SACREs regularly and rather complacently report that they have had no complaints from parents – but ignore the fact that this is probably because most parents don’t even know they exist! The 2004 National Framework for RE, which is guidance from the QCA for SACREs, says: “Many pupils come from religious backgrounds but others have no attachment to religious beliefs and practices. Therefore, to ensure that all pupils’ voices are heard and that the RE curriculum is broad and balanced, it is recommended that there should be opportunities for all pupils to study … secular philosophies such as humanism.” Ask your local SACRE to ensure that this happens.
How do I bring up a child to be good?
Most parents quite rightly rely on common sense and children’s innate ideas of fairness and ability to empathise. ”If you put a kid in a pro-social family, in a pro-social culture, with parents who understand how to raise a child effectively, the child comes equipped with the tendency to capitalise on that and develop into a good person.” “Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion.” Read extracts from this reassuring article about moral development in children that this comes from here, and the timeless advice given by humanist psychologist Margaret Knight in the 1950s.
What books can my child read on Humanism?
There are very few books written specifically for children about Humanism and most parents prefer just to talk about humanist ideas with their children as and when they are ready. You could have a look at some of our recommended resources for teachers and students for ideas (see the side menu), or seehere for some suggestions for young sceptics.
See also Humanist families discuss family life for a range of approaches to similar questions.
If you need individual advice on these or other questions, please email us or phone on 020 7079 3584.