Religion and Education

By Tommy Sheppard MP

I’ve been denounced – again!

This time I appear to have incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church in Scotland’s hierarchy. A front page report in yesterday’s Scottish Catholic Observer claims I have a “plan” to outlaw Catholic schools and that my views are “chillingly intolerant”.

Sadly due to the deterioration of Scottish journalism once great newspapers like The Scotsman have simply rehashed the story without even the pretence of checking fact or context.

So, now there’s a real danger that people who don’t know me will search online and see a raft of stories suggesting that I’m anti-Catholic. That concerns me. I’m not. So let’s set the story straight.

As on many occasions a newspaper report is not the whole truth. The story in Friday’s Scottish Catholic Observer is one such example.

It is a report on comments I made at a fringe meeting at an SNP conference almost exactly a year ago. You might wonder, as do I, why the paper has waited until now to publish this story. Not only have my remarks been taken out of context but they have been melded in the article with comments from others who do not actually refer to what I said.

I am a humanist and a member of Humanist Society Scotland.  As a result I believe in certain things. I believe all human beings should be treated with fairness and respect.

I believe in equality and that the earth’s resources should be a common treasury for all. I believe women have the right to control their own bodies and people can love whoever they want. And I believe in the fundamental right of all people to have and to practise whatever faith they believe in. I work for a tolerant society in which diverse views are respected and included. “Chillingly intolerant”?

I have no problem with any religion wishing to use its own resources to supplement children’s education with religious instruction in that faith if that is what parents wish.

I do, however, believe in a separation between church and state and that public administration should always be secular in nature. This is what I would like to see in an ideal world. It is not, of course, the situation we have today where religion and politics mix at many levels in the UK and in Scotland. And to be absolutely clear this is not about Catholics, I have no more or less antipathy towards Catholicism than any other religion.

Catholic schools exist and form an important part of our education system. If, though, they are to be funded from the taxes we all pay for public education then there must be an expectation that they will provide an inclusive and comprehensive service to the whole community. So I draw a difference between the overall character and ethos of a school which might well be determined in large part by its relationship to a religious faith, and the content of the teaching it provides which should not, I believe, be conditioned by religious belief, particularly in sciences and humanities.

I have a number of very good catholic schools in my constituency which I have visited and I believe that they make this distinction well. They do excellent work and I have no intention of doing anything other than commending them for it. I’d be lying if I said I saw this situation was ideal according to my belief system, but it is certainly one I can live with and one I have no ‘plan’ to try and change.

However, at the meeting which is reported in the SCO I was not discussing the existence or otherwise of Catholic schools but the involvement of unelected church appointees in education committees which decide education policy for everyone.

This is set out in the 1973 Local Government (Scotland) Act brought in by Ted Heath’s conservative government which requires each local authority education committee to appoint three religious members (one Church or Scotland, one Catholic and one other). It is an anachronism that will have to be addressed at some point.

As a democrat I believe that whilst public policymakers should consult widely with everyone affected by their decisions, they themselves should be elected by and accountable to the electorate. It is certainly very hard to justify why some faiths and not others should have a vote on committees which decide everyone’s education. The specific campaign is called Enlighten Up and I’d encourage everyone to support it.

Reproduced with kind permission of Tommy Sheppard MP.

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13 thoughts on “Religion and Education

  1. Big Jock

    As a lapsed Catholic and a believer in life after death, but not necessarily God. To me the problem is not agnostics or atheists. Some of the most Un Christian people I have met are religious people. They identify theirs as the one true religion. This automatically prejudices them to others beliefs.

    Religion in the 21st century should be tolerated but not encouraged or pandered to. It’s an archetype of the dark ages. Time the world moved on from divisions.

  2. Abulhaq

    Given the state of the polls the independence movement needs all the support it can muster. This kind of stuff which smacks of the ‘divide et impera’ tactics of old might well give some pause for serious thought. A wry wit once remarked that being Scottish means being used to disappointment. it also means having the perverse tendency to shoot oneself in the head. The SNP needs to keep a tighter rein.

    1. Sam

      Definately. Until independence it’s not politics as usual.

      Does the State broadcaster and our printed press act as if it’s politics as usual.

      1. Abulhaq

        This is the sectarian fault line Unionism has effectively exploited for the last three centuries. We ought to be much wiser.

  3. Andy McKirdy

    I’m with you on this one GAP.
    I’ m also a humanist but have no problem with anyone’s religion.
    We need to get completely away from the concept of religion and its connection with society. It’s a personal thing, it’s a personal FAITH in something you can’t prove, I have no problem with that and I don’t give a rats ass in who anyone believes in, but it must remain a personal thing, completely separate from the state.
    I’ve always found it strange in recent years how western faiths have a problem with Islam. They protest about sharia law but expect the SG to make decisions based on their religious beliefs and don’t see the irony in this thinking.
    For me organised religion presents a problem because they are all a hierarchy, about power and influence, true faith on a personal level is something completely different and has no agenda attached to it.
    If Catholics, or anyone of faith want a school system that is based around their faith but are unwilling to go along with bog standard education policy and conditions then they must place themselves in the private sector and become an alternative St. Aloyisious.
    They can’t have it both ways.
    Bottom line is that Scotland is for everyone and if you want to be a wee bit different and separate yourself by religion in the education system then you might have to pay for it.
    If muslims or Hindu’s or Budist’s wanted faith schools in the public sector, paid for out of the public purse what would their answer be?
    Having lived in west central Scotland for over 50 years I am only to aware that this is a problem for our part of the world and that it doesn’t present the same problem for the rest of the country, shame really, don’t you think. It’s 2017 after all not the Middle Ages!!!!!
    Maybe an independent Scotland free of Entrenched imperialism might free itself of this bullshit thinking, just my, seen and dealt with a lot of crappy things in life, opinion of course!!!

      1. Geejay

        Nonsense. I agree entirely with Tommy Sheppard and Andy. If a faith wants a faith school then, ok, but they must pay for it themselves. However, I would be concerned if such schools started teaching bogus notions and denying scientific explanations such as evolution.

        1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh

          Agreeing with Tommy means agreeing that Humanism is indeed a belief-system. With admirable self-awareness he writes :

          “I am a humanist and a member of Humanist Society Scotland. As a result I *believe* in certain things. … I have a number of very good catholic schools in my constituency … I’d be lying if I said I saw this situation was ideal according to *my belief system*…”

          That elementary point made, Big Jock’s comment (4) below certainly needs echoed. I am totally sure Tommy Sheppard would endorse that wise counsel also,

          1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh

            Big Jock’s apposite comment has currently moved from (4) to (6).

  4. Robert Canning

    The Facebook group Secular Scotland support all the comments made by Tommy Sheppard on this occasion and are glad to see him fight back against these ridiculous smears.

  5. Garry Otton

    I hope an independent Scotland will be a secular Scotland. If you are unlucky enough to in the western isles or Shetland you must have 4 unelected religious representatives. It is an abomination indeed.

  6. Big Jock

    Whilst I agree. Lets get independence first. We can shape our nation without division once the real enemy of Scotland’s progress has been extinguished.

  7. Jim Morris

    If any religious denomination has to return to funding their own “faith” schools, then the education portion of their tax should be returned to them in social justice terms. It was this double tax anomaly which led in the 1918 Act for the Catholic Parish Schools to be taken under the State control and funding. Schools for the poorer sections of society had only been on the go for 46 years at that point.

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