C of E faith schooling edged me towards atheism
I had the misfortune of going to a Church of England first school. Christianity was gently imposed on me and my classmates for four years, but the end result was anything but religious conformity. It is heartening to know that these institutions sometimes trigger in people exactly the opposite of what they wish to, or at least don’t stunt their capacity to think for themselves.
I doubt that I would not be an atheist without my religious education, but such an education did not stop, and may even have accelerated the process of my disillusionment with religion.
One of my early first school memories was asking my teacher during an assembly, with genuine curiosity, who created God. She simply giggled and muttered something along the lines of:
It doesn’t work like that.
I wince to compare myself with Christopher Hitchens, but he told a somewhat similar story of his time at school. A teacher of his remarked how kind it was of God that green, the easiest colour on human eyes, was so common in nature. Hitchens instinctively saw the fallacy in this point, and I’m sure there are many people who have similar experiences at a young age. These people are almost certain to have rejected religion no matter what their upbringing.
However, my education encouraged my atheism in one key way. Religion is meant to instill wonder or awe but I found its presentation mediocre. For example, the main religious figure who visited the school was the babbling local vicar. He was impossible to take seriously, giving bizarre assemblies in which he claimed that Jesus’ well-known birthday was proof that he is the greatest man that ever existed.
I later found out he was an alcoholic, and that he was arrested for drink driving after I left. One could hardly blame me and my fellow pupils for not being inspired by this man to embrace Christianity and all its dogma. All parts of religious education at the school were presented in a very ingratiating, progressive way, which made it seem quite meek and unconvincing.
The alternative would have been to put the fear of God into us all, I suppose, which might have us take it more seriously. Or perhaps it could have created deeper resentment. I certainly think that the way Christianity was shown made it appear pathetic, and not a belief I could ever take seriously.
The latter method was tried in the past by fundamentalist Christian schools, and still seems prevalent in some Orthodox Jewish schools and Muslim faith schools. Most will have heard of the “Trojan horse” Muslim schools scandal in Birmingham, where a full-blown indoctrination approach was employed. In Park View School, inspectors found posters saying “If you do not pray, you are worse than a kafir”, and the schools were largely segregated.
However, whilst the school authorities may wish otherwise, I do not think that a religious school ethos alone is enough to fully indoctrinate many children. They must also be religiously isolated at home, but this has become almost impossible with the invention of the Internet.
Along with the failures of my first school and my natural scepticism, the Internet was a key part of my development as an atheist, and I know this is true of many others. Despite having its dark spaces, the Internet has been a revolutionary way of sharing information. This has made it a truly liberating force when it comes to giving atheism more exposure.
Whilst coming through a faith school had helped convince me that there was no higher power, it was by watching famous “New Atheists”, especially Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, that I started to develop wider views on religion. Not only did they reinforce my atheism by clearly articulating ideas that had been floating around unformed in my head for some time, they showed religion to be a highly destructive and stupefying force.
Of course it was always possible to read atheist material prior to the invention of the Internet, but to come across a Hitchens speech online is far easier than to order and read a copy of God Is Not Great at the age of 13. YouTube is filled with inspirational atheist viewpoints and debates that are easy for the curious to find.
As isolated from other viewpoints as many students in faith schools and more religiously conservative households may be, it is almost impossible today to properly shield a young person from the World Wide Web. I have read countless stories of shielded youths discovering the ideas of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett online and rejecting the lessons of their parents and teachers. Look to the recent murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh to see just how nervous a free exchange of ideas online makes the religious.
In any case, we should be very grateful that the influence of partisan religious schools is waning. At their core, they are extremely divisive and damaging to children’s minds. I am thankful that sometimes they do exactly what they wish not to, and that the wealth of information now at everyone’s disposal means being exposed to a range of secular ideas is unavoidable.
• Cai Markham, 17, lives in the West Midlands. He is currently studying for A-levels and attempting a writing career. He is hoping to go to university in the at the end of next year. He says his heroes (as of now) are Christopher Hitchens and George Orwell.