MANCHESTER HUMANIST MEETING REPORT July 9th 1997.

Though announced in our newsletter events listings as ‘A discussion topic for young people’ this was really a meeting ‘about’ young people, and in particular how we tell our children about God, religion, belief, Humanism, and morality.

Literature on this subject is rare. Dan Barker’s books Maybe Right, Maybe wrong, (for young moralists) and Maybe Yes, Maybe No, (for young skeptics), published by Prometheus books are rare examples along with The BHA produced video (The Great Humanist Detective Story). This contrasts enormously with the number of pro-Christian and pro-religious children’s books available, from junior Bibles to colouring books. I recently read Jeanette Winterton’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and its description of a child’s fuzzy felt Noah’s Ark set and remembered owning one at that age myself.

To provoke this discussion, I quoted from Dr. Miriam Stoppard’s appalling new advise book, ‘Questions Children Ask, And How To Answer Them. (1997, Dorling Kindersley). This atrocious work advises us to answer a 2-4 year old child’s question "What is God?" with; "God is love. When I say ‘I love you,’ that’s God. God makes us love people and animals, and helps us to see all the things that are beautiful in the world, whether its all the stars in the sky or tiny flowers in the grass."

When our immediate sense of nausea passed we asked whether it was any less dogmatic to answer the child by asserting that there is in fact no God, (atheistic) or that the evidence for there being a God is rather questionable (agnosticism).

For many of our members, the important thing was to allow and encourage the child to make his or her own mind up. We all felt that it was important that the child becomes aware that it is equally valid a point of view to believe in God or not, as the case may be and to be honest about what you, as an adult and a parent do and do not believe. One member had carefully told his children that he would be perfectly happy if they decided to take up any given religious faith of their choice as long as they did so from well thought out careful conviction and with total sincerity. Some members saw Christmas as a difficult time, and felt that their own sense of faith in the Christian Church was first threatened at the time when they realised there was no Santa Claus. There was a strong sense of aversion to any kind of ‘conversion’ process by our members (and not just concerning children). We should also be wary of rubbishing other peoples’ religious beliefs. We may however point out to our children that religionists are unable to decide if God is male, female or gaseous. One member asked about the necessity in belief of worshipping God every day and why God has a much more severe code of practice than our parents, as well as worse punishments for our transgressions of his vaguely defined laws. We must be honest with our children. We should not close their minds to the potential to believe in gods if they so desire it. If our children ask us about the meaning of life, it is only out of honesty that we can report that there probably isn’t one, before discussing the various ‘meanings’ believed in by various faiths.

Children should be treated as young adults, and never patronised. Teenagers and the younger generation were created arbitrarily as a marketing concept.

My own Catholic upbringing involved being taught religion as fact, not as belief. When I first stumbled on the notion of atheism (in reading Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22) I felt shocked and deeply betrayed by the beliefs I had been saddled with and the way I was stopped from using my left hand for writing at St. Patrick’s infant school. Some members were startled to hear that this practice survived into the early 1970’s.)

The matter of religion in schools was high on our agenda. Collective assemblies were challenged, along with the teaching of RI instead of RE, with such a focus as it carries for Christian teachings and a token gesture to other world faiths, but with scant mention of the many people who live without religion at all in their lives.

While baptism and male Jewish circumcision rites are performed on infant children, the rites of Bah Mitzvah, 1st Communion, Confirmation and the frightening visit to the confessional are sprung on children at their coming of age and entry to adolescence, as the church tightens its grip on their moral upbringing. The aim seems for many in the clergy to be the creation of guilt about feelings of sexuality in the young. Humanists were wary of the idea of converting people, younger family members and also the children of other families to Humanistic thinking. Some of our members had actually only started to question their faith after their children had rejected the family religion.

Religious stories, it was felt, were often told to children only to frighten them into behaving themselves. Religion is often used to divide children’s loyalties to one another, especially in areas of religious and sectarian divide, such as Northern Ireland, and the Middle East. The July 97 edition of The Freethinker which came out on the day of our meeting argues that religion is damaging to children, with reference to male and female circumcision for the young; how some sects treat children as communal and often sexual property, in effect reducing a child to prostitution and servitude. Some children are married under arrangement at an early age. In some religions, the sexes are routinely segregated especially in schools,. with girls invariably being treated as inferior to the male. I’m reminded of the song we used to sing at St. Pat’s. "Suffer little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.’ Sadly, for many children , that suffering is all too literal.

Religion often forms the basis of a child’s ethical thinking, but misleads by rooting morality in the ten Commandments. Children learn more of real moral dilemmas through TV soap operas. My first real sense of moral thinking was when my high school sent me and other pupils to a then innovative young people’s seminar on the nature of racism. One speaker there was a (by this time) elderly eye witness to the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp.

Children can often surprise us in thinking for themselves before we expect it. One member was facing the problem of his child or children contemplating becoming vegetarian at an early age. Another member suggested that children would learn better if they were deprived of TV viewing for a time, to which it was argued that some time in any given day or week should be set aside for non-TV viewing related events (other than school homework). Left to their own devises, children often behave surprisingly well. In antithesis to the Lord Of The Flies scenario in William Golding’s novel, a reported real life case of a group of children shipwrecked together found them being rescued safe and well, having not resorted to murder and savage cannibalism as Golding’s characters did.

The potential for more children’s Humanism related education material is high. I was taught to read on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books which are Christian allegories. On the very day of our meeting, The Guardian told how so many new children’s books deal with issues like homosexuality, AIDS, drug addiction, (Junk by Melvin Burgess) teenage runaways (Tenderness by Robert Cormier) and solvent abuse. Children want to know of such issues. if they can cope with that, the facts of Humanism and living on a godforsaken planet where people have only themselves to love or blame seems relatively easy to cope with.

Arthur Chappell.

Arthur Chappell