Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist

If there is one thing that can be considered to be the basis for all others, it is information or knowledge. Solid, reliable, accurate information underpins every human activity, and has done so since mankind stopped living by instinct and started to train each other in behaviours learned through experience. Over the millennia since then, information has accumulated for the betterment of our species, and continues to do so at an ever increasing rate. The store of information is now so great that specialisation is the norm, and we have numerous training programs for many different careers and spheres of activity.

It is now a standard practice in the developed world to educate groups of children in schools, initially about general matters, then for those who wish to proceed beyond a general education, to increasingly narrow the field of study until they are fully trained in some specialised activity. A sound education is of paramount importance, for without it our society cannot reach its full potential, neither for the individual nor as a collective, i.e. a nation or other community. This is fully recognised in many undeveloped nations, and with few exceptions, education opportunities are one of the first things that such societies make available as they are able.

Who should have primary responsibility for the education of young people? For many years in the past this was assumed by religious groups, and many of the early schools and universities were controlled by churches. In most cases under this system an education was not available to all children, particularly if they were not members of a nation's elite or whose parents had a limited income with insufficient to spare for paying the church or tutors for their services. There were sometimes ways to overcome this, usually involving an apprenticeship or indenturing, but for many children of the poorest groups there was no education available, and the ability to read and write was uncommon.

Since monks and nuns were the main source of teachers, this involvement of the churches also led to the situation where church dogma was the basis for much of the education. This led to a stifling of free investigation, and for centuries intellectual progress was slow. Emphasis was often placed on religious indoctrination rather than on secular information which would encourage the students to question and evaluate what they were taught.

Today, of course, this has been all but overcome and the very rapid increase in the total sum of human knowledge can be traced to the secularisation of education and the encouragement given to investigators to look at areas of knowledge formerly considered sacrosanct. Today, almost any area of human endeavour is considered appropriate for study and this now includes both the evaluation of and challenges to its accepted basis.

The state has taken responsibility for education, so church involvement in schooling has declined, although not completely eliminated. Religious schools are still quite common but are in a minority. This change from religious to public control has led to a more open education system. It has brought about a paradigm shift in which religion is no longer the primary focus, so instruction may be from a more scientific and secular basis, and may include explanations and examples that were not acceptable in the past.

Many nations, at least in the developed world, are legally required to provide a basic, secular education for all children. Since the state now finances this education, what is taught also comes under the control of the state. This has sometimes led to confrontations about what should be taught, when some parents and their churches have objected to components of the curriculum, often in the areas of biology and literature, and sought to have them removed for all students, including those not members of their churches. These moves are usually opposed by educators and more enlightened parents who want to stimulate the students to question and challenge accepted attitudes, including those held dear by religionists.

Then there are some other churches who are opposed to most education other than the basics necessary to live in a modern society. These groups often recommend that members or their children should not attend universities as it may lead to a loss of faith due to exposure to secular ideas which conflict with those in the Bible. It is necessary to question the validity of that opinion, since on one hand we are told that a strong faith and belief in god will protect us from the activities of the devil, for it is nearly always thought of as a plot of the devil, yet the recommendation not to attend university is based on an underlying fear that just being exposed to secular ideas will result in a loss of faith. In fact, many Christians have attended universities and not lost their faith. Those who have would probably have done so anyway once exposed to secular ideas in society, since the ease with which they lost their faith must surely indicate that it was not strong in the first place and, perhaps, was more for pleasing their parents than being committed to their church.

In some cases the dissatisfaction of a minority of parents and some churches has led to the establishment of schools with curricula more acceptable to their beliefs. This also has led to battles about whether these schools must also teach the curriculum required by the state in order for the educational attainments of the children to be recognised. This recognition is important since state approved educational achievements are usually needed to gain entrance into most post secondary educational institutions where the students can expect to receive an education in some specialised area, such as accounting, medicine, law, etc, which will benefit both them as individuals by providing a career and income, and society by providing services it needs.

A few of the fundamentally important questions that have been raised are:-

Let me make one thing quite clear. I am not questioning anyone's right to preach their religion or teach their religion through a church or in the home, or even in the street. How others practice their religion is not my concern as long as it complies with the law, but I do believe it is inappropriate and completely improper to use tax money which has been assessed against atheists to support, in any way, the teaching of religious philosophies.

An argument may be made that separate, religious schools do not depend on tax money, as the parents pay a fee to send their children to them. That is often partially correct. It is also partially incorrect, in two aspects. Often the fees paid to religious schools are used as a tax deduction so the state forgoes some income, effectively subsidising the parents who send their children to these schools. This is not an insignificant amount. It is justified on the basis that parents are paying twice for their children’s education, once by paying taxes in support of public schools, and once by the fees paid to the separate school. It is also common for separate schools to receive a per-student grant from the state's Ministry of Education to help defray costs. The rationale used to justify this is that the state is legally obligated to provide an education to these students, so the schools are entitled to receive an amount similar to the amount that would have been provided to the public schools if the student had been attending there.

These subsidies are often defended with the claim that they are less per student than the public school system receives, so private schools actually save taxpayers money. This invariably fails to take into account any tax breaks that the parents receive on their portion of the fees and any tax breaks the schools may receive simply by being a school. In other words, those making this claim are deliberately obfuscating the issue by ommitting some of the details. In addition, the buildings, including the costs of maintenance and heating etc. and administrative support staff, are already available so the public school system would require very limited extra infrastructure support to absorb the increased numbers of students. In fact, some of the moth balled buildings could be reopened and become useful again rather than merely being a drain on the school system’s financial resources.

When all three are provided: tax deductions, a per-student grant and school tax exemptions, we have a classic case of double or triple dipping, one for the parents and two for the school. The total cost made up of foregone tax income and a direct grant may be substantial in comparison to the amounts paid to schools in the public system. Since public schools are invariably short of funds, this amounts to the public system indirectly subsidising the separate school system. How much more appropriate it would be if the public system were given all the funds set aside for education at the appropriate level and equitably disbursed.

Churches are no longer responsible for educating children. If they do so, it is a voluntary activity not a compulsory one, and sometimes even profit making. The public system, in contrast, is legally obligated to provide a space for every child who needs an education, and always operates without making any profits. Obviously, the schools they use must be able to provide a space to each student who wants it, although we find in practice that there is often insufficient physical space for the currently attending students let alone those who must be provided for should they decide to start attending. Certainly, this situation raises questions.

I do question why religious schools which are operating voluntarily should receive any financial support from the state at all. Basic education is not part of their religious requirements, nor a legal obligation of churches. It is done so that students may be educated in an environment where religious instruction may be more easily given and where the surroundings can be controlled to more easily match the preferences and sensibilities of the church involved.

We should always keep in mind that the public school system was set up so that every child could have an education at no direct cost to the child or family, the curriculum and selection of teachers being determined by the state. The point is that the public school system was established to be controlled by the state to meet the objectives of the state. Separate schools avoid that. They have been established to meet the objectives of groups who felt strongly enough about an issue to establish one. Meeting the objectives of the state is a secondary consideration, and some separate schools may not meet these objectives at all.

I have no objections to children of religious parents being given religious instruction, but I do object to tax money being involved. The costs of any religious instruction should be borne completely by the parents and churches. To do otherwise is to support religious ideologies with state money. Doing so is tantamount to endorsing those religious ideologies, and that should not be. It does not matter how widespread a religious ideology is as religious conviction is a personal matter and the state should not be involved in supporting it, no matter how obliquely.

Public schools are available to provide an education at no direct cost to every child. If parents wish to send their children to an alternate school for any reason, they are free to do so, but the costs should be borne by them. There should be no tax relief for any costs the parents incur since the state is already providing for the child’s education in the public system. It is the parents’ choice not to send their children to the public school and any increased costs are due to that personal choice. For that reason the parents must accept complete responsibility for those costs, without state assistance.

Similarly, separate schools should not receive any grants from the state since the public school system is already required to provide an education to the children involved, and funding a second educational opportunity merely duplicates what the state has already provided. If parents or churches want to bypass the public system, it should be at their own cost and tax money should not be involved in any way.

A second concern is that of meeting the objectives that the state has established for it to recognise and endorse the educational achievements of students. The requirements the state has established should surely be considered the minimum requirement and not just a general guideline which can be ignored when inconvenient. If students from a separate school are to receive the state’s endorsement of their educational attainment at any level then they must meet the same requirements of subject and understanding that students in the public system must meet for that same level. This is usually referred to as accreditation of the educational institution and gives society a way to ensure acceptable educational levels are met.

If the institution is not accredited then the educational attainments are not recognised by the state. In other areas, such as health care, this is made clear by restricting the use of certain descriptive terms. Those looking after sick people may not refer to themselves as a “Registered Nurse” unless they have been registered with a College of Nurses after meeting the mandated educational requirements and issued a license, for instance. The same practice should apply to the terms used to designate graduation at recognised levels from accredited institutions, most importantly from universities. The designation of academic degrees as being at a Baccalaureate, Master’s or Doctoral level should be reserved for graduates of accredited institutions only. Unaccredited institutions should not be permitted to use them, nor to use similar designations with which they might be confused.

The education of children is so important and fundamental to their successfully living in a modern society that there should be no right to dispense with or change the standards established by the state. The presumption must be that the state has determined the curriculum based on what they observe is needed to be successful in a modern society and to progress to further education by those who want it. Since the information is needed by students, separate schools should be limited to adding material to the state established curriculum but should not have the right to replace any part of it. They may add extra subjects or material but they may not replace material they do not like, nor may they make any other changes to the curriculum established by the state. All schools would, therefore, be teaching fundamentally the same material with the students being instructed similarly no matter where in the state the instruction is given. Any other material or viewpoints may be addressed in extra classes if they wish, but not as part of the standard curriculum. In other words, the religious material which differs from the standard curriculum should be clearly identified as such and should not be presented as being part of the standard curriculum. Students will then be in a position to accept or reject any of the material they wish, on whatever basis they wish, but will have the information expected of a student completing the educational level attained.

It is important to note that there is no requirement that either the students or the teachers must accept or endorse the material in the standard curriculum, only that they are aware of it and understand it to the same degree as every other student in the public education system.

Religious based educational institutions sometimes require adherence to certain modes of behaviour as a precondition for attending or being employed by the institution. Some even require a written guarantee to be given by staff and students. Where this is done by an institution receiving state support in any fashion, whether financial or by endorsing the educational levels attained, there is no argument. Such institutions must comply with the law, including all laws which deal with human rights. In those institutions, refusal of staff or students to give such guarantees should not form the basis for refusing to hire or admit them. Since even raising the subject may be seen as an attempt to limit the exercising of an individual’s rights, it might be more circumspect to not broach the subject directly at all. Oblique statements clarifying the institution’s viewpoint might be acceptable, provided that individuals are not singled out, directly or obliquely, no attempt is made to determine whether individuals are complying with those viewpoints, and no action is taken against anyone who does not comply.

What about institutions which do not receive state support and who do not want the state’s endorsement of their educational attainments? Do these have the right to require such guarantees from their staff and students? Should the state exercise any control over these?

These questions are best answered by pointing out that private institutions are established according to a nation’s laws and make use of a nation’s amenities. They must obey all the laws of the nation and may not be selective. It should also be noted that separate schools, although they may have been established with the intent of accomplishing certain goals, are still fundamentally commercial enterprises in the field of education. Like all commercial enterprises they must obey all applicable laws. That includes the laws guaranteeing human rights and the prohibition against discrimination. Requiring people to give up their rights in order to gain some benefit, as these institutions do, demeans the value of those rights for all people. It should not be possible to give up rights and it is improper to pressure someone to do so, even when couched as a religious requirement. How can something be called a “right” if it can be dispensed with so easily? Rights are non-negotiable and are always active. They are put into law as a protection for the individual in difficult situations. Removing them from individuals denies them that most basic of protections.

An argument is sometimes made that requiring a religious school to accept staff or student behaviour of which they disapprove for religious reasons is a violation of the school’s right to be a religious institution and freedom of religion. Let us be quite clear. In those institutions it is not the institution itself making the demands, although it is often presented as if it were. The demands actually come from the governing body of the institution, likely influenced by the administration and senior staff, and the demands reflect the opinions of those people.

It should be noted that schools cannot have human rights because they are corporate entities. Only humans can have human rights, and those rights are individually applied. For that reason, it is the individuals making up their governing bodies that have the right to freedom of religion, not the institution. Even so, their freedom of religion is not being compromised. What is being compromised is their ability to impose their will on others by using their institutional authority to compel others to behave in a way those others may not want. Members of the governing boards are not being forced into engaging in behaviours which they find abhorrent, nor are they being required to condone those behaviours in others. They are merely being required to obey the law and respect the right of others who have different perspectives and who wish to live as they see fit without being pressured, no matter how gently, into a life they may not want. Indeed, it might well be argued that a greater degree of care must be taken to ensure that a single individual who differs from others in any group has the opportunity to exercise the rights associated with that difference, if they so choose.

What, then, can the governing board of an institution do under these circumstances if they feel unable to accede to freedom of choice by their staff and students. As was pointed out, establishing and operating a school is a voluntary and, fundamentally, a commercial practice. The choice is very simple: either operate in compliance with the law or close.

An objection may be raised that the graduates of private educational institutions, particularly of universities, may be the objects of discrimination if their achievements are not recognised as being the equivalent of other university graduates' achievements from state endorsed universities. It could well be that the educational levels from both are much the same. This could easily be established by an evaluation comparing both. Educational institutions do this frequently for graduates of foreign universities to determine where in the educational stream individual foreign students should be placed, always providing that they reach a minimal standard acceptable to the institution. Similarly, some professional licensing societies may have programs to evaluate foreign trained applicants to determine whether they meet the licensing requirements for that group, or whether further education or experience is required. There is really no difference between foreign students and students from private universities in this regard. Both have been educated outside the state's own system but wish to share equally in the opportunities that are available to graduates of the educational level achieved. Whether this should be done by a state controlled organisation, universities, or licensing bodies of professional groups really does not matter. Objective comparisons of their achievements will ensure that students of private educational institutions are not subject to discrimination and are integrated into society as a whole, while ensuring the required standards are maintained. This would be achieved while still making it clear that there is no endorsement of the private institution's own discriminatory practices.

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