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Margaret Knight on the BBC Home Service, 1955

In January 1955 psychologist, broadcaster and humanist Margaret Knight stunned post-war Britain by suggesting in two talks on the BBC’s Home Service (now Radio 4) that moral education should be uncoupled from religious education.

These two talks (reproduced below) were published in Morals without Religion and other essays in 1955 by Dennis Dobson, which also contains an entertaining chapter on contemporary reaction to the talks, some of it hostile, much of it appreciative. Margaret Knight quotes from several letters, including one from Germany that she found particularly moving:

Please accept the gratitude from an unknown man who has seen in your talk the sunrising of a new epoch based on the simple reflection; to do the good because it is good and not because you have to expect to be recompensed after your death. Being myself a victim of Nazi oppression I think that we all have to teach our children the supreme ethics based on facts and not on legends in the deepest interest for the future generations…

The book also contains these chapters: “The aesthetic experience and the problem of evil”; “Theoretical implications of telepathy”; “On intuitional insight”; “Can figures lie?”  (The book has long been out of print and we have been unable to contact the publisher.  If the owner of the copyright sees this, we would be pleased to hear from him or her.)


Morals without Religion 1

These talks are addressed to the ordinary man and woman, whose attitude towards religion is that they do not quite know what they believe. They were married in church; they have had the children baptised; and they still on rare occasions go to church, though mainly for social reasons but they do not pretend to believe the creeds they repeat there. Their general feeling is that it does not much matter what views a man holds on the higher management of the universe, so long as he has the right views on how to behave to his neighbour. And they are not at all troubled about religion, except for one thing: what shall they teach the children?

For where intellectual doubts are concerned, this ordinary parent’s feeling is: ‘Who am I to judge? I find these doctrines hard to believe, but many very able men believe them – men who have studied the subject much more fully than I have.’ Furthermore, parents are repeatedly told that Christianity is the only alternative to communism, and that there can be no sound character-training that is not based on religion. When juvenile delinquency increased after the war, they heard on all sides that this was the inevitable result of the decay of religious belief and the lack of sound religious training in the home; and in 1944 a new Education Act was passed, by which daily prayers and religious instruction were made compulsory in the state schools. `So, on the whole, our ordinary parents thinks it is best to take no risks. When the children are older they can decide for themselves; meanwhile, better bring them up in the orthodox way – talk to them about God; teach them to say their prayers; take them to church occasionally; and try to stave off awkward questions.

I want here to make three suggestions: first, that the doubts the ordinary man feels about religion are justified, and need not be stifled or concealed; second, that there is no ground for the view that Christianity is the only alternative to communism, or that there can be no sound character-training that is not based on religion; and third, I want to make some practical suggestions to the parents who are not believers, on what they should tell the children about God, and what sort of moral training they should give them.

The first thing I want to do is to define ‘religion’, for it is a term that is used in a great many senses. Sometimes when people say they ‘believe in religion’ they turn out to mean little more than that they believe in a moral standard, or that they believe there are more important things in life than money and worldly success.   I need scarcely say that I have no quarrel with religion in either of these senses. But this is not really a correct use of the term. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘religion’ as ‘Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of this destiny and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship’. That is the sense in which I shall use the term religion in these talks; and by ‘Christianity’ I mean over and above that, the beliefs essential to the Christian religion – that is, at least, that this ‘unseen power’ is omnipotent, and wholly good; that Christ was divine; that he rose from the dead; and that human beings survive bodily death. That is a bare minimum of Christian belief: there is far more than that in the official creeds of the Churches.

I am not out to destroy the Christian convictions of people in whom they are deeply implanted and to whom they mean a great deal. And I am sure that nothing I say here will have the slightest effect on believers of this type. But what I do want to argue is that, in a climate of thought that is increasingly unfavourable to these beliefs, it is a mistake to try to impose them on children, and to make them the basis of moral training. The moral education of children is much too important a matter to be built on such foundations.

In any religious argument, one is sooner or later reminded that ‘science isn’t everything’ and that ‘logic isn’t everything’. That is perfectly true; there are many human activities – art, music, poetry, for example – to which science and logic are more less irrelevant. But religion is not in this category, for religion, unlike art and music and poetry is a system of belief. And a system of belief that is to be acceptable must satisfy the ordinary criteria of reason: the beliefs must be consistent with each other and not obviously in conflict with fact. Orthodox Christian beliefs, I suggest, do not satisfy these criteria.

I will just take one point which I think is crucial. Orthodox Christian theology is completely inconsistent with the facts of evil. This was not so obvious in the old days then people believed in the Devil. To regard the universe as a battle field between God and the Devil, with the odds on God, so to speak, at least did not do violence to the facts. But now most Christians have ceased to believe in the Devil; and the orthodox view is (as indeed it always was, but the Devil got slipped in somehow) that the universe is controlled by a single, all-powerful and wholly benevolent Power, and that everything that happens, happens by this will. And that raises insuperable intellectual difficulties. For why should this all-powerful and wholly benevolent Being have created so much evil?   It is no answer to say that evil is just a means to a good. In the first place, there is no reason to believe this is always true; and in the second place, even if it were true it would not be an answer; for a Being who was really all-powerful would not need to use evil means to attain his ends. It is no answer to say that God is not responsible for the evil – that evil is due to man, who has misused his freewill and defied God’s edicts. Because it is not true that all the evil in the universe is due to man. Man is not responsible for leprosy and gangrene and cancer, to take a few obvious examples.

Some Christians, when they are faced with these facts, try hard to convince themselves that illness and pain and misery are not really evils; they are desirable states, blessings in disguise, if we could only see it. But, if that is really so, why do we try to cure illness, and think it wrong to inflict pain? Why did Christ heal the sick?   But in any case we can leave human suffering out of the argument, because animal suffering sets a still greater problem.   Why should an omnipotent and benevolent Power have made animals prey on one another for food? Why implant in the cat the instinct, not merely to kill mice, but to torture them before it kills them? There is no possible answer to the dilemma that so troubled St Augustine : Either God cannot prevent evil, or he will not.   If he cannot, he is not all-powerful; if he will not, he is not all good.

This difficulty arises for all religions which hold that there is an omnipotent and benevolent power in control of the universe. The specifically Christian doctrines raise still further difficulties, on which I need not enlarge.   I do not suggest that these doctrines have been disproved – most of them are not susceptible of disproof.   But it is undeniable that in the present scientific climate of thought, belief in these doctrines is becoming more and more difficult to maintain.   Just as, to take what I should regard as a parallel case, it is now almost impossible for anyone to believe in witches, though I do not imagine any scientist has ever disproved their existence.

Actually, there is not much attempt today to defend Christian dogma by reasoning. The fashionable attitude among orthodox believers is a defiant anti-intellectualism. The popular Christian apologists are men like Kierkegaard – who made the famous pronouncement ‘Christianity demands the crucifixion of the intellect’, as though this were a great point in Christianity’s favour.   It is surely pessimistic to suggest that doctrines which even their own adherents describe in such terms provide the natural basis for morals and the only alternative to communism?   The position is more hopeful than that.

However, as regards the moral training of children, I realise that a case can be made, and is sometimes made, even by unbelievers. So let me try to state this case, as it has sometimes been put to me. People say: ‘Of course I realise that these beliefs are not literally true. But then children are not literal-minded, they think naturally in terms of symbol and legend. So why not make use of this tendency in character-training?   It is no use giving the child cold-blooded lessons in ethics – moral teaching has got to have colour and warmth and interest.   So why not give them that by the means that lie ready to hand – the myths of religion, and the moving and beautiful ceremonies of the Church?   The child will cease to believe in the myths as he grows older, but that won’t matter – they will have served their purpose.’

I agree that moral training cannot be coldly rational. There must be colour and warmth and interest. One of the best ways to give that is to give the child plenty of models that he can admire and imitate. Tell him plenty of stirring stories about courageous, heroic, disinterested actions-stories that will move and excite him, and make him think that that is the sort of person he would like to be. This may be far more effective, even at the time, than tying up the idea of goodness with the Church, and religion: and there is not the same risk that, later on, if the child leaves the Church and casts off religion, he may cast off the morals as well.

But let us consider the young child first.   If he is brought up in the orthodox way, he will accept what he is told happily enough to begin with. But if he is normally intelligent, he is almost bound to get the impression that there is something odd about religious statements. If he is taken to church, for example, he hears that death is the gateway to eternal life and should be welcomed rather than shunned; yet outside he sees death regarded as the greatest of all evils and everything possible done to postpone it. In church he hears precepts like ‘Resist not evil’, and ‘Take no thought for the morrow’; but he soon realises that these are not really meant to be practised outside. If he asks questions, he gets embarrassed, evasive answers: ‘Well dear, you’re not quite old enough to understand yet, but some of these things are true in a deeper sense’; and so on. The child soon gets the idea that there are two kinds of truth – the ordinary kind, and another, rather confusing and slightly embarrassing kind, into which it is best not to inquire too closely.

All this is bad intellectual training.   It tends to produce a certain intellectual timidity – a distrust of reason – a feeling that it is perhaps rather bad taste to pursue an argument to its logical conclusion, or to refuse to accept a belief on inadequate evidence. And that is not a desirable attitude in the citizens of a free democracy.   However, it is the moral rather than the intellectual dangers that I am concerned with here; and they arise when the trustful child becomes a critical adolescent. He may then cast off all his religious beliefs; and, if his moral training has been closely tied up with religion, it is more than possible that the moral beliefs will go too. He may well decide that it was all just old wives’ tales; and now he does not know where he is. At this stage he could be most vulnerable to communist propaganda, if a communist were to get hold of him and say: ‘Well, you’ve finished with fairy-tales-now you’re ready to listen to some grown-up talk.’ Far from being a protection against communism, tying up morals with religion could help to drive people into its arms.

On the subject of communism, it is a mistake, I suggest to think of Christianity and communism as the two great rival forces in the world today. The fundamental opposition is between dogma and the scientific outlook. On the one side, Christianity and communism, the two great rival dogmatic systems; on the other, Scientific Humanism, which is opposed to both. To try to combat communism by reviving Christianity is a hopeless task. It is like – what shall I say? – like trying to combat the belief in witches riding on broomsticks. I do not want to press that analogy too closely – but   what I mean is, it is trying to drive out a new myth by reviving an old one, instead of going forward to something sounder than myth. Scientific Humanism – that is the constructive answer. By calling it scientific I do not mean that it is crudely materialist, or that it thinks nothing is important but what happens in laboratories: far from it. But scientific in that is does not regard it as a virtue to believe without evidence; scientific in that it deals with hypotheses, not dogmas – hypotheses that are constantly tested and revised in the light of new facts, rather than with alleged immutable truths that it is heresy to question. And humanist because it is concerned with human beings and with this life, rather than with supernatural beings and another world; because it believes that the primary good lies in human happiness and development – men and women realising to the full their capacities for affection, for happiness, and for intellectual and aesthetic experience – and regards these things as more important than any ideology or abstraction, whether it is the Church, or the state, or the five-year plan, or the life hereafter.

In this first talk I have inevitably been rather negative. But next week I hope to be more constructive; to present Scientific Humanism in its positive aspect, and to return to the question I raised at the beginning of this talk, namely, how should the humanist parent set about the morals education of his children?


Morals without Religion 2

In my last talk, I suggested that orthodox Christianity is no longer intellectually tenable, and that Scientific Humanism provides the best answer to our need for a constructive attitude to life and for a code of conduct. I want here to deal with two questions that are of considerable practical importance to humanist parents: namely, what shall they tell their children about God; and what sort of moral training shall they give them?

We must, I am sure, tell children something about God; we cannot just by-pass the problem by not mentioning it.   And for young children I would suggest tentatively, something of this sort. We can tell them that everyone believed at one time, and some people believe now, that there are two great powers in the world: a good power, called God, who made the world, and who loves human beings and who wants them to love one another, and to be happy and good; and a bad power called the Devil, who is opposed to God and who wants people to be unhappy and bad.   We can tell them that some people still believe this, but that most people now think there is not really a Devil-the Devil is something like the ogres and witches in the fairy-tales.   And we can tell them that some people now do not think there is really a God, any more than there is really a Santa Claus-though we often talk as though there were.   Then when the child asks what we believe, as he certainly will, we can say that we do not think there is really a God, but that many people think otherwise and that he can make up his own mind when his is older.

But what about Christ?   May I say at once that I do not think it would be desirable – even if it were possible under the present Education Act – for children to grow up in ignorance of the New Testament. We do not want a generation who do not know what Christmas and Easter mean; who have never heard of the star of Bethlehem or the angel at the door of the tomb. These are part of the fabric of our culture; they are woven into our literature and art and architecture; the child should hear them. All I urge is that he should hear them treated frankly as legends.

May I say, in parenthesis, that it is a mistake to think that unbelievers are all insensitive Philistines with no appreciation of beauty, no respect for tradition, no capacity for wonder and reverence, who would like nothing better than to pull down the cathedral at Chartres and erect a public washhouse on the site. I do not want to pull down Chartres any more than I want to pull down the Parthenon; but I should like to see them treated rather more on one level. One can feel awe, and wonder, and reverence before the Parthenon without believing in the Greek goddess Athene to whose worship it was dedicated; and one can have similar emotions at Chartres without believing in the God of Israel.

So, I suggest, let children read and listen to New Testament stories in the same way as they read and listen to the stories of Greek mythology. And when they ask if the stories are true, they can be told that they are a mixture of fact and legend. There was a real Trojan war, and Hector and Achilles now believe that Achilles was the son of a sea-nymph, and that he was invulnerable because he had been dipped in the Styx. Similarly, there was a real Jesus Christ who preached to the Jews and was crucified; but we do not now believe that he was the son of God and of a virgin, or that he rose from the dead. Later, the child can hear more about Christ as one of the world’s great moral teachers; but that leads to my second point-the question of humanist character-training.

To begin with a little psychology: at different times, very different views have been held about the nature of man. At one extreme was the view held by the philosopher Hobbes, that man is essentially selfish. On this view, all behaviour is self-interested-if we help our neighbour, it is just because we think it may induce him to help us later on. At the other extreme is the view, of which Rousseau was the chief exponent, that man is naturally unselfish and co-operative, and that if he behaves otherwise it can only be because his natural development has been interfered with. ‘Man’, said Rousseau, ‘is naturally good. Only by institutions is he made bad.’

Neither of these extreme views is correct; the truth lies between them. To start with a good resounding platitude, human nature is very mixed. It is natural for us to be a large extent self-interested, and to be hostile and aggressive towards people who obstruct us in getting what we want; and it is also natural for us to co-operate with other people, and to feel affection and sympathy for them.   In more technical terms, we have both ego-instincts and social instincts-which may pull us in different ways. It is arguable that civilisation depends largely on widening the scope of the social impulses. Primitive man is co-operative within the family or tribe, and tends to treat everyone outside it as an enemy; the most civilised man may feel a certain sense of kinship with the whole human race. I cannot pursue this further here.

But one thing is surely clear. In community life, and especially in the sort of highly organised community life that we lead today, it is desirable that the social impulses shall be well developed and the ego-impulses kept to some extent under control. Morality – moral codes – on the humanist view can best be regarded as an organised attempt to reinforce the social impulses. There is one principle society however different they may be; on moral axiom which is accepted by everyone, from a head-hunter in Borneo to a Jesuit priest; and that is: ‘We must not be completely selfish; we must be prepared, at times and within limits, to put our own interests second to those of our family, or our friends, or of the group or community to which we belong.’

This does not mean that we must always be making sacrifices: we have a duty to ourselves as well as to others. But the essence of humanist morality is disinterestedness – not letting our own claims and interests blind us to other people’s: the ideal so nobly exemplified in the famous story Sir Philip Sidney at Zutphen; when, mortally wounded and parched with thirst, he handed the cup of water that had been brought him to a still more desperately wounded man, saying: ‘Friend, thy need it greater than mine’. Disinterested behaviour can spring from various motives. One man may be disinterested on principle, after a certain amount of moral struggle; another may be disinterested because he is a naturally warm-hearted and generous person, who enjoys seeing others happy. Both types are admirable, but most of us would agree that it is the second that we admire more; it is the second that we should like our children to resemble if possible. So when we come to the practical question of child upbringing, perhaps the most important question is to ask this: ‘Is it in any way possible, by our methods of upbringing, to increase the chance that the child will grow up a warm-hearted and generous person?’

That is a question which can receive a refreshingly definite answer: and the gist of the answer can be conveyed in one word-‘love’. Warm-hearted and generous natures are developed, not primarily by training and discipline, important though these are in other ways, but by love.   There is abundant evidence that if a child is brought up in a warm, happy, confident, affectionate home atmosphere, he has the best chance of developing into a well-balanced, secure, affectionate and generous-minded person. Whereas the child who has not got this background-the child who feels unloved, or who can never feel sure that he is loved-is the potential problem case. A high proportion of neurotics and delinquents are people who have been deprived of normal affection in childhood.

There was a deplorable theory current some time ago that it was not a good thing to show love for a child too openly, or to encourage the child to show it. I have seen a mother snub a child when he showed affection, and tell him not to be sentimental. That is a grave mistake. A small child can hardly have, or give, too much love. This does not mean that the parents should always be smothering him with demonstrations-although a small child’s appetite for such demonstrations can be pretty insatiable-and it does not mean that they should urge the child to be more demonstrative than comes natural to him. But it is important to provide demonstrations when the child shows he wants them; and still more important to provide a firm, secure background of affection so that is never occurs to the child to doubt that he is loved and wanted.   Psychological work with children strongly suggests that so long as the parents provide this background they cannot, with a young child, go far wrong.   Even though they make mistakes of judgement in other ways-and what parent does not? – these will not have any serious or lasting effect. Whereas if they do not provide this background, there is a problem chid in the making. It is as simple as that.

But providing affection will not solve all problems. The child has a powerful outfit of ego-intincts, and these are bound to show themselves often, in inconvenient and sometimes unpleasant ways. For example, take that perennial problem of a child showing jealousy and hostility towards a new baby.   It is a problem that can be reduced by tactful handling, but it does often arise, sometimes to the extent that it is not safe to leave the older child alone with the baby. If this does happen, it is important that the parents should not take up a shocked or heartbroken attitude. They should not suggest to the child, either by what they say or by what they do not say, that they had expected him to love the new baby and that they feel it is rather shocking and unnatural that he does not.

This illustrates a point that is of fundamental importance in bringing up children; that is, that though the child must be helped and encouraged to control his aggressive impulses, he should not be made to feel that it is wicked and unnatural of him to have them.   We all have them; they are part of our instinctive heritage; and one of the great contributions of modern psychology to human happiness has been to recognise this fact, and to make it clear that, provided we control our more primitive impulses, there is not the least need for us to feel guilty because we have them.

Another related point: it is unwise for parents to set children an impossibly high standard of un-selfishness. Sometimes parents do this, perhaps with the idea that it is best to ask for more than you expect to get, or you may not get anything.   But it is a mistake. Let me give an example.   That great child psychologist Susan Isaacs described somewhere how an obviously intelligent mother had put this problem to her. She had an only child, a little girl, and they lived in an isolated neighbourhood, where the only children available as playmates were rather rough and boisterous. Whenever they came to the house, some of the little girl’s toys got broken; and, not surprisingly, she was beginning to be rather unwilling that they should come. The mother asked: would it be wrong- would it be encouraging selfishness-if, when these children came, the more breakable toys were put away?

The answer was that of course it would not be wrong; it is the obvious thing to do. Why should a little girl’s sense of property not be respected as much as an adult’s? If the mother had some cherished possession-say a new fur coat-she would not lend it to someone who she knew would be likely to spoil it; she would think it unreasonable if she were asked to. Why set a much higher standard for a child?   Someone may say: ‘But that is different; the fur coat is valuable and the toys are not’. But the toys may be just as valuable to the child, and it is expecting too much of human nature that she should not mind seeing them smashed if it gives other children pleasure to smash them.

So far I have been suggesting that the most important task of moral education is to encourage the social impulses.   But it would be unrealistic to suppose that all social behaviour is the spontaneous outflow of social impulses. A great deal of it is the result of training; the person has been taught to conform to certain codes of behaviour that make for the general interest. This training is not moral education in the strictest sense, but it is a most important part of a child’s upbringing. Early in life, he has to learn to obey various rules that make for the smooth running of the household.   He has to go to bed at the right time without making a fuss; to respect other people’s property; to come to meals in time; sometimes to refrain from disturbing adults when they are busy, and so on. This is a field in which there have to be definite rules and–let us face it–definite penalties.

There is a strange idea about, that modern psychology does not believe in rules and penalties; that, as a result of the discoveries of Freud, we now know that the right way to bring up a child is to let him do exactly as he likes, that, if we ever say ‘don’t’ to a child, or, still more, if we punish him, we risk damaging him for life.   So may I say, as clearly as I can, that modern psychology says nothing of the sort?   Freud said, in his Lectures in Psycho-analysis:

“The child has to learn to control its instincts.   To grant it complete freedom, so that it obeys all its impulses without any restriction, is impossible.   It would be a very instructive experiment for child psychologists, but it would make life impossible for the parents, and would do serious damage to the children themselves…Education has to steer its way between the Scylla of giving the instincts free play, and the Charybdis of frustrating them altogether.”

Freud had six children-he knew what he was talking about!

Reasonable discipline never did children any harm-in fact, fundamentally, they prefer it. They need a stable framework for their lives; they like to know where they are, and know what is expected of them; they do not want to have to decide everything for themselves. The discipline should not be excessive-we do not want prohibition for prohibition’s sake; and it must not be capricious-it is no use forbidding a thing one day and allowing it the next. But above all-the old point again – it must be maintained with affection. Parents should never say: I won’t love you if you do that…’ or: ‘If you do that you’re not my little boy…’ The child should never get the impression that this parent’s love is in any way conditional. As I have said, the fact that he is loved and wanted is something that it should never occur to him to doubt.

It does far less harm to spank a child than to tell him you do not love him any more. I am not exactly advocating spanking; but I am sure that the horror some people feel at the idea of it is unrealistic. If a child is fundamentally confident that Mummy and Daddy love him, an occasional spanking will do him no harm; and as a harassed parent once said to me, it may do a world of good to the spanker! Much more real harm can be done to children by a few high-minded and over-anxious parents, who would recoil from the idea of spanking, but who sometimes inflict mental punishment that is a good deal more severe, by taking up a grieved, heart-broken attitude if the child behaves badly; by using phrases like ‘I’m ashamed to you’, ‘I’m disappointed in you’, and so on.   These things should never be said to a child. They are not as bad as ‘I don’t love you’, but they have the same sort of effect-they weaken his sense of security.

That does not mean that we should never make clear to a child that we take a poor view of something he has done. But-this is the important point – condemn the act but not the child himself. If he does something naughty – say, takes all his brother’s sweets as well as his own – the line to take is: ‘That was a selfish thing to do – it’s not a bit like you to do that’, rather than to say: ‘Well, you are a selfish, greedy little boy.’ It may not sound all that different, but there is a world of difference in the implications for the child.

My time it running short; and the religious listener has perhaps been getting more and more restive. ‘This is all very well’, he is perhaps saying, ‘but it has left out the one thing that’s fundamental. What is the ultimate sanction of this moral training? What answer could you make if the child were to ask, ‘Why should I consider others? Why shouldn’t I be completely selfish?” What possible answer is there, except the religious one-because it is God’s will?’

Why should I consider others? These ultimate moral questions, like all ultimate questions, can be desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy students knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer to this question is the humanist one – because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards, is much happier, and fuller, and richer if the members are friendly and co-operative than if they are hostile and resentful.   But the religious listener may feel that this is simply evading the point. So may I say in conclusion that the answer he would propose is not really any more satisfactory?   His answer to the question ‘Why should I consider others?’ is ‘Because it is God’s will’. But the sceptic could always answer: ‘Why should I do God’s will?   Why shouldn’t I please myself?’ – and that, surely, is just as much of a poser as: ‘Why should I consider others?’

In fact, it is a good deal more of a poser, in view of some of the things that the believer must suppose God to have willed. But we need not go into all that again, for in any case this question of ultimate sanctions is largely theoretical. I have never yet met the child – and I have met very few adults – to whom it has ever occurred to raise the question: ‘Why should I consider others?’ Most people are prepared to accept as a completely self-evident moral axiom that we must not be completely selfish, and if we base our moral training on that we shall, I suggest, be building on firm enough foundations.



The following article was first published in the Royal Institute of Philosophy magazine Think (Spring 2004) about Margaret Knight’s talks, their reception, and their relevance today.  Marilyn Mason, then-Education officer of Humanists UK, reflects on how attitudes to moral education have changed over the last 50 years.

“The Unholy Mrs Knight”

In 1955 psychologist, broadcaster and humanist Margaret Knight stunned post-war Britain by suggesting in two talks on the BBC’s Home Service (now Radio 4) , that moral education should be uncoupled from religious education.

“It is a mistake to try to impose [Christian beliefs] on children and to make them the basis of moral training,” she said.  “The moral education of children is much too important a matter to be built on such foundations …”

Although she knew that these views would be provocative (it took three attempts to get the BBC to air them), no one anticipated the thousands of letters both she and the BBC received, the press outrage and abuse (“untrue and vicious propaganda”, “Mrs Margaret Knight is a menace” are mild examples), and the headlines (“The Unholy Mrs Knight”, “Godless Radio Repeat Shocks Nation”).    Perhaps more predictable were the relief and appreciation expressed by some of her “godless” correspondents, including many teachers and parents (“At last someone is saying these things we have felt for so long”, “It was like opening a dungeon door…”).

How much has changed?

Would Margaret Knight’s talks be so controversial or so relevant half a century on?  Some elements of her talks and the public reaction now seem like signs from another world: her confident endorsement of smacking; the background fear of communism; her almost exclusive concentration on Christianity as the rival to “Scientific Humanism”.   Other things have changed less.   Leading the attacks on Margaret Knight in the 50s was The Daily Telegraph, and even today secular humanist speakers can provoke similar hostility and incomprehension from similar sources.  They can also still provoke recognition and relief.  Much of what she said still seems like common sense to the average humanist, and much has happened to confirm her claim that religion and morality are two different things.

But a perception persists that without religion there can be no sound basis for values.   In the moral panics that periodically seize the media, the impression is often given that all the young need in the way of moral education is a good dose of religion, particularly the Ten Commandments.  In the United States, where, admittedly, both sides in this debate are more extreme and more embattled than they are here, the religious right’s response to rising crime and tragedies such as the Columbine High School massacre and the events of September 11th, is to challenge the 1980 Supreme Court ruling that posting the Ten Commandments in schools is an unconstitutional promotion of religion.   June Griffin, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee and campaigner for public displays of the Ten Commandments, was reported in December 2002 by the Associated Press as saying: “Our nation is in the sewer and the way you get out of the sewer is to begin with the definition of sin so that the people know what it is. They don ‘ t know what sin is now. The Bible gives you the definition of sin.”

Similar arguments can be heard here: in media outrage after the murder of toddler JamesBulger by two small boys; in the fears voiced in Parliamentary debates (particularly in the House of Lords) that to take religious worship out of schools would cause widespread moral degeneration; and in the common belief that to get a sound moral education, you must send your child to a “faith-based” school.   A few years ago, Conservative Education Minister John Patten proclaimed “No religion, no morality” and even this May vicar’s wife Anne Atkins clearly expected only negative answers to her rhetorical questions on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day: “Without God, where do we find absolutes of right and wrong? What is to stop a secular society sinking to depths of depravity that as yet we only dream of?”

These kinds of argument seem to be based on several false premises: a belief that the Ten Commandments, or any other code derived from religion, will have binding and beneficial authority over the non-religious (when they don’t even always work with the religious); the idea that there is no viable educational alternative to simply laying down the law (or posting it up on the wall); a nostalgic view of the past that attributes an imagined catastrophic moral decline in young people to a decline in religious belief; and the naïve notion that children (and terrorists) do dreadful things because they don’t know that there are rules against them.

All the evidence suggests otherwise. The September 11 th terrorists found not condemnation but support in their religion for their dreadful actions. Blake Morrison in The Guardian ofFebruary 6, 2003, brought some calming reality to media hysteria and pessimism about children who kill:  “UK statistics don’t suggest that violent crimes by juveniles, especially schedule one offences such as rape or murder, were any worse in the 1990s than they had been previously. Recorded killings by children in Britain go back as far as 1748.”   A study published in 2001 by the Division of School Psychology, Alfred University, New York, suggested sixteen reasons for school shootings, including access to guns, bullying, alienation and dysfunctional family background.  Not knowing the Ten Commandments or that shooting other students was wrong did not appear.  The study concluded: “We need ‘kinder, gentler’ schools. We cannot continue to allow bullying and abuse as normal milestones of child development. We need to communicate the value of caring, and demonstrate that care. We need to provide alternatives to violence for problem-solving, to encourage more frequent, open, and genuine communication between students and the adults who care for them, at home, at school, in the community…”

And in our schools…

Our school curriculum, where discussion of morality and moral issues still takes place largely in Religious Education lessons, tends to reinforce conventional links between religion and ethics.  Attempts to separate the two, for example by teaching Citizenship or introducing ethical issues into other subjects, can provoke worryingly defensive reactions from RE professionals.  Yet as long as the two are taught together Margaret Knight’s concern that when children cast off their religious beliefs, as many do, they might also cast off moral values, remains well-founded.

However, the picture today has improved since the 1950s, and RE has undergone a transformation at least as radical as any other school subject since then.  No longer is it simply Christian scripture taught in a way that assumes assent; the introduction of other world religions and the multi-cultural nature of many classrooms put an end to that.  Many RE teachers acknowledge that many pupils have no religious belief or culture, and that reliance on those as a source of moral values would be mistaken.  Much of the discussion of morality and moral issues in RE is genuinely impartial and detached from any particular worldview, except, perhaps, a rather vague and implicit humanism.  In other subjects where ethical issues come up, this is even more so. The downside of all this open-mindedness and vagueness can be a pervasive but unstated and unrecognised (and so unchallenged) moral relativism, sometimes, paradoxically, accompanied by the view that whatever is natural must be good (a view often, wrongly, blamed on the rise of evolutionary psychology) and absolutism about, for example, animal rights.  A good dose of philosophy would do more to cure these ethical muddles than the good dose of religion that is often prescribed, though I doubt that philosophy alone can make people better human beings.

What else is there?

Margaret Knight offered guidance and reassurance to perplexed parents, the ones with little or no religious faith who wavered between thinking that religion must be good for children at least and worrying about passing on what they believed to be untrue. She pointed out that education, not religion, went hand-in-hand with decreasing crime and that our values owed at least as much to ancient Greece and Rome as to Christianity (a fact recognised recently in the draft European Union constitution).  She pointed out that just as “it is natural for us to be to a large extent self- centred and to be hostile towards people who obstruct us in getting what we want… it is also natural for us to co-operate with other people, and to feel affection and sympathy for them.”   She suggested ways of nurturing these benevolent feelings and helping children to grow up kind and generous, prepared sometimes to put their own interests after those of others.  Her methods will not surprise thoughtful parents and teachers: love and encouragement, security and firmness and consistency, training in the rules of small societies such as the family; teaching and demonstrating that things go better “if members are friendly and co-operative than if they are hostile and resentful.”  She also recommended stories exemplifying courage and unselfishness that would make a child think “that this is the sort of person he would like to be”.  Her advice remains sound.

What else can be done to educate children morally in a world where people, including teachers, are often afraid of imposing their values on other people or “moralising” (another change, perhaps, from the 1950s)?  What can those of us in education with philosophical inclinations do to help?

To Margaret Knight’s heroic tales of unselfishness and courage, I would add stories that develop empathy with and understanding of others, and that raise moral issues.  I would also stress the values shared by the religious and the non-religious alike.  Entire classes will agree absolutely that mugging old ladies for their pensions is wrong, and will come up with rational supporting arguments, usually based on human nature and experience, our need to live safely and sociably amongst others.  Similarly, teachers can demonstrate that we generally use a combination of reason and empathy to work our way through moral mazes.  It is a rare student who relies completely on religious authority or codes, or, indeed, on one meta-ethical theory for all situations, when presented with moral dilemmas – from thought-experiments about shooting people trapped in burning lorries to more mundane questions about cheating in exams.  And even atheists who do not believe that religion is the source of morality can acknowledge that it may support and motivate a moral life.  We do not need to attack religious beliefs, though we do need to promote a sounder foundation than religion for moral values. Margaret Knight’s work is not yet finished.

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