Humanist Society of Scotland Education Strategy Event

On Saturday, I headed over to Our Dynamic Earth to attend the official launch of the Humanist Society of Scotland’s education strategy. The launch date was carefully chosen to coincide with the birthday of the famous scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and the location is one of Edinburgh’s leading visitor attractions for families which takes an exciting approach to educating people about Earth Sciences. The event was open to the public and those in attendance included HSS members, University of Edinburgh Humanist Society members, teachers, parents, grandparents and more besides; we were looking forward to finding out more!

The underlying ethos of the education strategy rests upon Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which “affirms the right of all children to an education that respects both their own cultural values and those of others.”. The HSS points out that schools often expect pupils to participate in religious activities that do not necessarily reflect the religious views of the child or the parent and that alternative options are rarely offered or acknowledged. They announced that as of that day, humanist educational materials would be available for free on their website for children from 5 to 16 years of age.

The event started was introduced by Jim Petherwick, National Convenor for the Humanist Society of Scotland, and continued with talks from Christopher Brookmyre, Honorary President and Bob McKay, Education Officer. This was followed by a question and answer session and then the opportunity to look at some of the materials.

Christopher Brookmyre, Honorary President and popular Novelist, gave an amusing and personal speech about his experiences as a parent and a non-believer. He spoke about not wanting his child to have religious doctrine forced upon him but also about not wanting to make a stand through his child which might leave his son excluded and stigmatised. The current system makes religious activity something that a parent has to specifically opt out of, when instead it should be something that is a possible opt in. The assumption that all families and children want their child to take part in a particular religious activity is unfair to all those who are non-religious or from other religions, or those who feel that religion has no place in schools outside of religious education.

Bob McKay, Education Officer, returned to the theme of the Rights of the Child. He provided examples of recent complaints that he had heard fron non-religious parents where children were coming home from school quoting religious doctrine. One 4 year old came home telling his parents that Jesus had died for his sins, and another 6 year old child told his parents that he was stained with sin. Parents and the community place a lot of respect and trust in educational institutions and it is not appropriate for a place of learning to indoctrinate children with religious beliefs. It is particularly galling when this is against the will of the parents or guardians and against the school’s own nondenominational policy. It is the the right of every parent in the UK to have their child withdrawn from religious activities at school and the school is obliged to present alternate education options.
The Humanist Society of Scotland education initiative hopes to offer schools and parents alternate materials from a humanist perspective and give parents the confidence to approach schools and request these alternatives for their children. Bob McKay observed that sometimes humanism and non-religious approaches to life are seen as a lesser morality or as having lesser value. He hopes that with the materials provided humanists can establish equal rights for their legitimate views, and encouraged all present to approach schools as parents or as humanist speakers to help make them aware of the humanist alternatives available. The aim of the initiative is that no child should be excluded because of enforced religion and that alternative humanist materials should be available for all those who need it.

If you want to have a look at the materials for yourselves, they are available to download at the Humanist Society of Scotland website here. I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts about them.

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3 Responses to “Humanist Society of Scotland Education Strategy Event”


  1. 1 Tim April 29, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    Very interesting – I had a look at the secondary school stuff. I’m not familiar with the material it would be substituting for, so it’s difficult to judge it on that level, but in terms of physics (which I do have some expertise in) it’s quite alarmingly bad.

    I can appreciate that it’s got to be very difficult to write about things like the Big Bang in a concise, well-pitched, incremental way, but it seems clear this is written by someone that has neither a firm grasp on how to convey this kind of knowledge nor a terribly good understanding of the concepts themselves. There’s also some very poorly constructed sentences, which gives the strong impression that only a single author was involved.

    Interestingly there’s a somewhat controversial assertion: “To ask, ‘what was there before the big bang?’ is meaningless because time did not exist.” This is of course an attempt to arm students with the beginnings of an argument against God as a creator of the universe; what I find problematic is that at a higher level of debate it is likely to backfire, as there is plenty of theoretical work being done to answer this “meaningless” question, and plenty of scope for something to exist before the big bang, even if it can never be observed from the universe we find ourselves in. What I find most perturbing is it effectively applies the same blanket excuse that “this is unknowable knowledge, so you can’t even ask” that is so familiar from the other side of the debate.

    Overall, I’m sorry to say this reflects pretty poorly on humanism. It’s a real shame, because it is addressing a very real need.

  2. 2 cath April 30, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    On the theme of the rights of the child, is there an argument being made here that children who’re being told that Jesus died for their sins are having their rights infringed?

    I mean, I can see that this is something that the child or the child’s parents might not particularly like to hear, but is it really a question of rights?

    Not snarky questions, I’m honestly interested!

  3. 3 Clare April 30, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    I think the argument here is that if you send your child to a non-denominational school you do not expect your child to be preached to by any religion. It is inappropriate and disrespectful to both the child and the parents. It is not an objection to preaching about Jesus, but an objection to preaching about any religion. Christian parents would be similarly disappointed if they sent their child to a non-denominational school and found that their child was expected to take part in muslim/buddhist/etc worship.


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