This is an introduction given by Allan Armstrong (RCN) to the Edinburgh branch of the Edinburgh Radical Independence Campaign on Monday, September 30th. It is followed by some responses from other socialists.


Two interesting articles were published last week. The first one in The Herald (27.9.13) highlighted the recent Scottish census, which pointed out that, for the first time, those professing no religion had emerged as the largest and fastest growing group in Scotland (37%). The second article in the Sunday Herald (22.9.13) highlighted the growing penetration of Protestant fundamentalist church activity in Scotland’s ‘non-denominational’ schools.

The best way to understand and deal with such issues is to take a secular approach. Twenty years ago, most people, especially on the Left, would have been quite clear what secularism meant. Secularism is the complete separation of religion from the state. People’s choice of religion or of no religion is a private matter.

However, there has been an organised conservative religious counter-offensive, which tries to equate secularism with the promotion of atheism. Yet, in the western world, the origins of secularism lay amongst Christians and Deists, who wanted to overcome the bitter post-Reformation sectarian legacy. Some states, e.g. the Netherlands, had already moved to a situation where, although they had an established state religion or denomination, others were tolerated. However, when the USA became independent it adopted a secular constitution, which ended any form of religious establishment, and prevented the state giving backing to any religion, whilst at the same time allowing citizens the right to practice the religion of their choice. France took this secularism a step further during the Revolution.

Such a view of secularism is still understood today by liberal Christians, Jews and some people of other religions, as well as by many atheists and agnostics. A good example of a Christian who understands the importance of secularism is Richard Holloway, recently Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, who has just published the pamphlet, A Plea for Secular Scotland.

So where does Scotland lie on the established religion/secular spectrum? Since Scotland, at present, remains part of the UK, you can only understand the current situation in this wider context.

If secularism is understood solely as a social phenomenon – a decreased hold of religious authority over the lives of people – then the nations and regions of the UK (with one significant exception) are a pretty secular societies, where even many of those still adhering to specific religions, do not necessarily act according to the instructions or advice of their religious leaders.

England is probably the most socially secular society in the UK, but both Scotland and Wales are not far behind. Northern Ireland is the exception to this pattern. In Europe, probably only the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands are more socially secular than Britain. West European countries, including those such as Italy and Spain, recently considered to be Catholic, are much more socially secular than the USA, despite it having a more secular political constitution.

However, when you look at the position of secularism in the UK from a political, rather than a social point of view, the situation is very different. Official state-backed religion continues to have a conservative and sometimes reactionary role in society, and indeed also plays a significant part in holding the UK state together.

First of all there is the established Church of England, which has 26 bishops sitting in the House of Lords (itself a reactionary institution). The monarch is the head of the Church of England and is constitutionally unable to marry a Catholic. These features highlight the state’s support for a wider Protestantism, which has historical origins dating from political conflicts between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In Scotland, the Church of Scotland is recognised as the ‘national church’, although only supported by 32% of Scottish people and having declined by 400,000 since the last census. The General Assembly is arranged so that behind the presiding Moderator, there is a throne gallery, where the monarch is entitled to sit. The monarch is also a member of the Church of Scotland – a nice if limited example of ecumenicism! In practice, she is represented by the Lord High Commissioner (LHC). He addresses the General Assembly on behalf of the queen. The current LHC is Tom Murray, whose Google entry states that he “has years of experience of giving landowners and familiar advice on the complexities in tax and succession planning”!

However, the Church of Scotland, with the backing of the UK state in Scotland, extends its role into parts of society, where others are denied, particularly the so-called ‘non-denominational’ schools provided by the state. Since the 1980s, Scottish schools have been forced to provide religious observance (many had ceased to do so, in the relatively liberal post-1968 years). Parents do have the right to withdraw their children from this. However, particularly, at primary level, children would not necessarily understand why they were being separated from their schoolmates.

In practice ‘non-denominational’ religious observance is left to Church of Scotland ministers (never Catholics, Muslims, Jews or Humanists), or to individual teachers with strong (Protestant) religious convictions. This has allowed some particularly worrying developments to occur. In Kirktonholme Primary in East Kilbride, a US pro-creationist sect was invited in, whilst in Dean Park Primary in Balerno, Edinburgh, another evangelical sect provides residential trips for pupils. Today (30.9.13) The Herald has highlighted a case where a physics teacher is alleged to have promoted a creationist view in a science class in Lasswade High.

Getting back to wider society, although the longstanding and continuing social secularisation of ‘Britain’ means there would probably be widespread support for ending the ban on monarchs not being able to marry Catholics, this would not be so well received amongst Loyalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland. This ensures that the British establishment and mainstream political parties are very reluctant to introduce such a measure, which could call into question continuing British rule over Northern Ireland.

Ulster Unionists and Loyalists can not conceive of ‘Britishness’ in any form other than being Protestant, and in this they are able to draw support from the existing UK constitution. Toleration of Catholics represents Unionism’s (small) ‘liberal’ wing, whilst strong enmity represents the still strident Loyalist wing. This Loyalism is currently making its political weight felt on the streets of Northern Ireland. Whereas there have been Protestant Nationalist and Republican politicians, there have never been any Catholic Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland.

Much of what is termed anti-Catholic ‘sectarianism’ in Scotland is the knock on effect of anti-Irish racism in Northern Ireland in the Central Belt. It is strongly promoted by specific organisations such as the Orange Order and various Loyalist groups.

Indeed, when you look at Scotland, if the historical context of the time is considered, you will see that, whilst being strongly Presbyterian, religious repression was not in the same league as say Catholic Spain (the Inquisition) and France (the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the repression following the Revocation of the Edict Of Nantes), or the 40 Catholic martyrs in England. The Catholic John Ogilvie was martyred in Scotland in 1615; but the Catholic Church in Scotland martyred the Protestant Patrick Hamilton in 1528, whilst the atheist, Thomas Aikenhead, was executed by the Church of Scotland in 1697. However, these are single events. None of this is to deny the highly discriminatory Scottish state and Church of Scotland practice towards Catholics (and after 1690 towards Episcopalians), just to see it in the wider context of the times, where such practices were widespread, and did not mark out Scotland as an extreme case of sectarianism and bigotry.

Of course, when you look at the activities of Scottish Presbyterian settlers in Ireland from the seventeenth century, you will certainly see much persecution and barbarity, but the real aim of all this was not to enforce religious conversion, which would have been counter-productive, since what was wanted was Irish land. And again, such barbarity was hardly unique at the time to Scottish Presbyterians, as the role of the Spanish state and Catholic Church and the British colonists and most Protestant denominations towards the Native Americans highlights.

By the early nineteenth century, despite some undoubted continuing reactionary Presbyterian opposition, Scottish Catholics were increasingly confident that their social and political position was improving, particularly after the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. Certainly this advance was limited, but when compared to say the position of Protestants in many official Catholic states at the time, Scotland still did not lie at the most repressive end of the religious spectrum in its treatment of religious minorities.

That, however, very much changed with the mass immigration of Irish Catholics after The Famine. This allowed a renewed Presbyterian sectarianism and intense bigotry to emerge, certainly within the Church of Scotland (and other Presbyterian denominations), but even more with the Orange Order and in the Conservative Party.

As recently as the twentieth century, a notorious incident was the publication of a report by the Church of Scotland’s Church and Nation Committee in 1923. It was entitled The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality. It was presented by the Moderator, John White, who was a Tory. However, when you read this report, what strikes you is not its religiously bigoted anti-Catholicism (indeed it supports Scottish Catholics), but its strident anti-Irish racism, highlighted by its title. Of course, many Loyalists did not make this distinction, and would attack any Catholic symbol, as well as Catholics of Irish origin living in Scotland. But, even they knew who their ‘enemy’ was – ‘Fenians’, a non-religious term for the Irish.

To this day, there are many who decry ‘Scotland’s Shame’, putting it down to an engrained Scottish anti-Catholicism, when what should really be examined now is the continued anti-Irish racism still found here. By all social indicators, the position of Catholics in Scotland has steadily improved, especially since the 1960s. By 2001 Catholics enjoyed a position of occupational parity with other Scots. Denominational inter-marriage has also continued to increase.

Quite clearly, though, a political tension still exists in Scotland. What is the nature of this tension? It has less to do with any remaining Scottish Presbyterian anti-Catholicism, but mainly reflects the knock-on effect of the situation in Northern Ireland, where the UK state constitutionally underpins a so-called ‘sectarian’ division. Behind the sectarian labels ‘Protestant and Catholic’ there are more accurate political labels – ‘Unionist and Nationalist’ – and national labels – ‘British and Irish’.

This is why, despite the continued economic and social progress of Catholics in Scotland, we still see worrying political conflicts, which appear to take the form of ‘Protestant’ versus ‘Catholic’. These conflicts are likely to come to the fore, now that a Scottish independence referendum further threatens the UK set-up, frightening not only the British unionist establishment, but the Orange Order, Loyalists, BNP and SDL. The real issue has relatively little to do with religion and a lot more to do with the political nature of the UK and national identity. Somebody who has written a good book on anti-Irish racism in Scotland is Phil Mac Giolla Bhain. Minority Reporter, Modern Scotland’s Bad attitude Towards Her Own Irish.

Apart from the political and media focus on Protestant/Catholic or Rangers/Celtic antipathies, the other arena in which the issue of religious division comes up is the existence of state-funded Catholic schools.

Protestant fundamentalists, and even some liberals, claim that Catholic schools are the cause of social division in Scotland. Given the nature of Scottish society (as part of the UK state and British Empire), in the later nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, it is not at all surprising that the majority of Irish descended Catholics in Scotland then gave their support to the hierarchy’s call for separate school provision. By 1918, when this was achieved, Scottish society would need to have changed far more, before the majority of (Irish) Catholics would have had any confidence that they would be treated equally here. Therefore, widespread Catholic support for such schooling is wholly understandable.

However, Scottish society has changed and is changing. The main battle lines are now being drawn around the maintenance of the existing UK state (where Northern Ireland plays a particular role in Scotland’s debates) and bringing about more social equality, particularly for women and gays.

Socialists need to be at the forefront of these political and social struggles, and in the process help to change society, and put forward a secular vision, which seeks to educate children together. There is no Presbyterian geometry, Catholic algebra, Muslim arithmetic, or Atheist geography. We oppose segregated housing provision (e.g. present day Belfast behind the ‘Peace Walls’) and job provision (Clyde shipyards in the past). We want to maximise social interaction, whilst giving scope for people to practice their own individuality, whether expressed in the religion (or non-religion) and culture of their choice. And support for this should be demonstrated. When the Muslim mosque in Annandale Street was firebombed in 2003, socialists, atheists and people of other religions attended the solidarity event organised there. Many would do the same if a synagogue or Catholic church was attacked.

Although most socialists would like to see the end of separate schooling provision on religious grounds, the best way to achieve this is to end all political and social inequality in society – including the ending of the ban on the royals marrying Catholics, but better still moving towards a republic without any established religion. Protestant fundamentalists, who oppose separate Catholic schooling provision, are strongly opposed to any such political and social change in the UK, and indeed want to preserve the official Protestant nature of the UK state. Liberal opponents of state-funded Catholic schools usually ignore this constitutionally entrenched Protestant supremacism.

In its defence of separate religious schooling, the Catholic hierarchy claims that Scottish society is so deeply anti-Catholic there will always be a need for such provision. This ignores the considerable economic and social advances already achieved by Catholics in Scotland, whilst showing a highly pessimistic view of Scotland’s political future. Such a stance though has its own political purpose. It is designed to protect the privileged position of a Catholic hierarchy, which is increasingly being questioned by many lay Catholics.

Tom Gallagher has recently written a book Divided Scotland – Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis which, whilst being somewhat ambiguous in its proposals, sees new political lines being drawn. He thinks that much of the current opposition to Catholicism (more accurately, to the reactionary politics of the Catholic hierarchy) in Scotland today draws not upon traditional Presbyterian anti-Catholicism, but is part of a wider secular opposition to all religious interference in the state and wider society. Such opposition also includes a marked hostility to the claims of Protestant fundamentalists. There have also been new alliances between some Catholic and Protestant groups when it comes to opposing women’s (especially over abortion) and gay (especially over marriage) rights.

The political effect of promoting socially conservative Catholic values (not necessarily held by all or even the majority of Catholics) can be demonstrated in the case of the Scottish composer, James Macmillan. He is somebody who very much believes in the “Scotland’s Shame” – or its congenital anti-Catholicism. However, his own support for socially conservative values led him to vote Tory in the last Westminster election. The Tories were in an electoral alliance with the anti-Catholic Ulster Unionist Party! Upholding social conservatism takes priority over opposing anti-Catholic sectarianism.

Getting back to the issue of separate schooling provision, there is now another issue. If job and social discrimination against Catholics in Scotland has largely been overcome, another group of migrants, Muslims, still very much face the discrimination and vilification, which Catholics once experienced. Some Muslims have raised the demand for separate Muslim schooling provision.

There are two roads one could take in relation to this. The first is to accept the claim that it is impossible to change the racist or sectarian nature of Scottish society, and therefore separate Catholic schools should always exist and new Muslim schools should be added to the mix. Given that it is unlikely that any Holyrood government will admit that it allows racism and sectarianism to persist, then such provision is likely to take the form of the right of any religion to get state backing for its own schools – Church of Scotland, Free Presbyterian, Sikh, Jewish, etc. This would not be a socially progressive move. It would strongly reinforce the hold of various religious figures and officials over children, often protecting reactionary stances in particular towards women, gays and wider sexuality.

Socialists should uphold a secular vision. First, this means fighting against the political and social divisions in which racism and sectarianism flourish. Challenging the UK set-up is central to this. The provision of fully secular schooling follows from this. However, the so-called ‘non-denominational’ schools should also be fully secular . There should be no religious observance in such schools. That it goes on in so-called ‘non-denominational’ schools should be of considerable concern, especially given the nature of some of the reactionary views being pushed. What can be supported is religious and moral education, which informs pupils of various beliefs and non-belief.

However, the census statistics show that just over 50% of people in Scotland still claim to adhere to some Christian denomination. Amongst those, there will be people who remain more committed religious practitioners. How can secular schools provide for them? First, there should be a number of days allotted to each pupil/student, in which s/he can withdraw from school on days of particular religious significance. It should be possible for religious and non-religious clubs or societies to form in schools, with attendance on a voluntary basis. Whilst parents might choose to place their children in particular religious societies, there should also be provision that when a pupil/student is old enough to make her/his own choice, they make it themselves.

Now, since we are discussing the issue of secularism in its contemporary political context, including the challenge of the Scottish independence referendum, there is another issue. The independence march last weekend was dominated by the nationalists’ saltires (or St. Andrew’s cross). This is a medieval and specifically Christian symbol, which seems inappropriate in today’s multi and non-faith Scottish society. If you go to Ireland, where they have long dropped the Irish unionist and Christian St. Patrick’s cross, people have the choice of the ancient Irish Harp, the republican Tricolour, or the socialist republican Starry Plough. Even England has a little-known republican tricolour (blue, white and green) designed by the Chartist, William Linton. It’s about time for Scotland to catch up.

(also seeBeyond The Saltire And St. Andrew – Flying The Red Flag On John Maclean Day

Offensive Behaviour And The Independence Referendum)

1. A response from Murdo Ritchie

Congratulations! An excellent article.

It is especially good because it frameworks the struggle for secularism as an essential aspect of the struggle for republicanism. Though, of course, both will have to be fought for as separate issues they are firmly intertwined and the conclusion of the struggle for one will require the achievement of the other.

Many observers noted, including Marx and Engels, that Catholicism in Britain was a religion of the very rich, principally the landed aristocracy, and the very poor, usually Irish immigrants. Protestantism, sandwiched between the mains classes of Catholicism has given both a strangely contradictory character in Britain. It was the staged rejection of the traditional, unchanging authority of Catholicism by Catholic reformers and those that later identified with the schismatic protestant groups that laid the ideological and practical foundations for bourgeois democracy and nationalism. Protestantism can rightly be described as the embryo of capitalism.

The idea of straight forward division of Catholics and Protestants causes enormous difficulties because where do Episcopalianism/Anglicanism and Methodism fit in? Also it is worth remembering that at one time the Orange Order would only allow into membership adherents of the Church of Ireland while showing hostility to other variants of Protestantism.

While an established church exists, it need not be overtly hostile to other religions as long as they agree to live within a “league table” of acceptable religions. Consequently all have an interest in maintaining an established church; all of them believing that one day they may gain top position. This is why fierce battles are fought over the viewpoints of the reigning monarch even though they are nominally all heads of the Church of England. The Catholic inclinations of a landowning aristocracy are in constant tension with the bourgeois origins of capitalist wealth within the Royal Family and much of the capitalist class.

When this multi-layered structure of religious belief is applied to so-called faith schools, it produces a bizarre picture of mutually antagonistic schools essentially claiming the same or similar beliefs. It is hardly surprising that most so-called faith schools are appalling failures at the religious indoctrination they are created to achieve. Under the pretence of religious tolerance, faith schools replicate capitalist competition in much the same way as fashion retailers use cut and style rather than use or quality to differentiate their products.

The Scottish left has always shown moral and political cowardice when it comes to challenging the existence of so-called faith schools. The Labour Party runs scared of upsetting voters. Even the far left, when it ever manages to show any interest, has the same outlook. Despite Arthur Scargill’s strong support the Scottish Socialist Labour Party, fought hard to conceal this position and remove it from every manifesto. The Scottish Socialist Party eventually adopted a bizarre position that faith schools would only be abolished if the schools wanted it! It was a calculated evasive position.

Secularism, like republicanism, is not an optional extra in the British class struggle and must be central to the thinking and strategy of fighting socialists.

2. A response from Eric Chester (RCN)

Allan’s article provides a good starting point for a discussion of a socialist perspective on secularism. Hopefully, my comments will carry this discussion further.

As socialists, we should start with the fundamental tenet that no individual gains or loses rights because of her/his religious beliefs or membership in a religious institution. Everyone, whether a believer, agnostic or atheist, should be treated equally. Rights granted to those in one group need to be extended to everyone on an equal basis.

Issues related to schools are particularly sensitive. I believe every child should attend a publicly funded, non-denominational school in which religious sermons of every sort are banned from the classroom. Schools tied to a particular religion can not provide children with the education they need to fully participate in an egalitarian society. Of course, parents remain free to send their children to religious schools after hours, during weekends and during holidays.

Within the publicly funded schools, students should have the right to form clubs. These clubs should be open to all students who are interested in exploring a certain topic. Clubs oriented to a specific religion would be permitted, but only on this basis. Thus, a club formed by Orthodox Jews could only be accepted if it is open to all interested students, not just those deemed to be Jewish.

Non-denominational schools may adopt reasonable restrictions on clothing that can be worn during school by students, but the rules must apply equally to all students. If girls or women are permitted to wear head scarves as religious symbols then large crosses, yamakas and other religiously oriented items of clothing of similar size must be permitted. Furthermore, students who are agnostics or atheists will then have the right to wear symbols of their beliefs, say buttons, of similar size.

In this context, I doubt whether schools should permit the wearing of burkas by girls or women holding to Islamic fundamentalism. Certainly no other students would be allowed to wear clothing that covered their face.

Needless to say, a society that actually implemented a policy of secularism would meet with fierce resistance from religious fundamentalists of all persuasions. Merely insisting that all students attend a non-denominational school would be extremely controversial, particularly if these schools had mandatory sex education classes. Nevertheless, as we project a vision of a secular, socialist Scotland we need to hold firm to our basic principles.

3. An exchange between Allan Armstrong and Martin Tod

i) A.A. – “However, the Church of Scotland, with the backing of the UK state in Scotland extends its role into parts of society, where others are denied, particularly the so-called ‘non-denominational’ schools provided by the state.”

M.T. – I think this point is so important. When we argued ‘against’ Catholic schools at EIS {Scottish teachers’ union} meetings it was always vital to also argue ‘against’ Protestant schools ……..and point out that so called secular state schools were in fact part of the Protestant establishment.

ii) A.A. – “Although most socialists would like to see the end of separate schooling provision on religious grounds…”

M.T. – Can you be a socialist and not want this?

A.A. – Unfortunately, one phenomenon we have recently seen amongst socialists is a resort to identity politics, so this support for secularist approach can not be taken as granted.

M.T. – You’re right but the question still stands….can you be a socialist?

iii) A.A. – “… the best way to achieve this is to end all political and social inequality in society – including the ending of the ban on the royals marrying Catholics, but better still moving towards a republic without any established religion.

M.T. – Maybe., but if you are confronted with the rise of faith schools as part of an onslaught from a right wing ideologue….Blair/Gove….you have to specifically argue against and oppose them…..before you get a socialist republic.

A.A. – I agree with you. However, my article was dealing with the current situation in Scotland rather than England. However, I do point out that we might face the political demand for separate state-funded Muslim schools in Scotland. Then I think that socialists, when opposing such a development, would highlight the racist (or ethno-religious) nature of UK society (including Scotland), when pushing for a secular approach. This would contrast to the approach of any Christian bigots or liberals, who would defend the existing ‘non-denominational’ set-up.

iv) A.A. – Socialists I think should uphold a secular vision. First, this means fighting against the political and social divisions in which racism and sectarianism flourish. Challenging the UK set-up is central to this. The provision of fully secular schooling follows from this.”

M.T. – Not if you live in England and are confronted with faith schools… let alone the generality of so called ‘free’ schools.

A.A. – You are right, in England this is already an immediate argument, and there are state-funded Church of England schools (a stage beyond ‘non-denominational’ schools in Scotland). My argument is not an argument about waiting until we have successfully challenged the UK set-up, but rather constantly pointing out how the state hiding behind a mask of good old British neutrality is profoundly anti-secular and still supports a Protestant establishment.

v) A.A. – “However, the census statistics show that just over 50% of people in Scotland still claim to adhere to some Christian denomination. Amongst those, there will be people who remain more committed religious practitioners. How can secular schools provide for them? First, there should be a number of days allotted to each pupil/student, in which s/he can withdraw from school on days of particular religious significance. It should be possible for religious and non-religious clubs or societies to form in schools, with attendance on a voluntary basis.”

M.T. – Why should secular schools provide for them? I think this is a bit liberal Allan…….a sop to Muslims? How about a Christian club…which runs assemblies…and end of term celebrations?

A.A. – No this isn’t designed as a sop to Muslims, but a way of putting all those of religious and non-religious background on an equal footing in schools. Remember these clubs/societies would be voluntary not compulsory. There could be humanist clubs too. Such clubs would not be permitted to run assemblies. I like Eric’s suggestion above that they should be open to all.

This position was originally developed by Scottish Rank and File Teachers and then taken on board by the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. However, I am open to other suggestions about how a secular approach could be advanced in schools.

M.T. – I was never entirely comfortable with this approach when I was active in R&F….and working in schools and colleges. While not for me, a club to propagate and participate in rugby, macramé or highland dancing is very different to a ‘club’ specifically set up to espouse say, Christianity. Let the Christians (and Jews and Muslims, etc) play rugger and dance to their hearts content in the aforementioned clubs by all means…. but I think contemplation of their various gods in an organised and structured way should take place in their own time and in their own places. I’m not entirely sure I would even let people stay away from school for religious festivals and rituals but I suspect I’m a bit of a lone voice on this one.

4. A comment on Bob Goupillot’s contribution at the RIC meeting

“However, there has been an organised conservative religious counter-offensive, which tries to equate secularism with the promotion of atheism.”

In the discussion at the RIC meeting following my contribution, Bob Goupillot (RCN) made a very useful comment that helped to explain why the conservative counter-offensive equating secularism with the promotion of atheism has gained some purchase. He provided the examples of the old USSR and its satellite states, and China and Albania, which claimed to be secular states, but sometimes enforced state atheism.

In effect, such atheism became the state’s own established ‘religion’. Sometimes, this went along with the state promotion of atheist god-like figures, e.g. Stalin, (following the precedent set by the earlier embalming and public display of Lenin’s tomb, after his death), Mao Tse Tung and Enver Hoxha.

When it was in these state’s interests, just like other states with established religions, they could sometimes show limited toleration, e.g. for the Lutheran Church in East Germany and the Catholic Church in Poland. An alternative used by the USSR, Poland and China was to promote state approved religious hierarchies, e.g for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church or Tibetan Buddhism.

State promoted atheism does not amount to secularism, but is its negation. As I point out “secularism is the complete separation of religion from the state. People’s choice of religion or of no religion is a private matter.” Socialists need to reclaim this genuine secular legacy, and join with others, religious and non-religious, who are prepared to uphold it.

A.A. 23rd October 2013

In 2007, Allan Armstrong, then convenor of the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers, was asked by the Scottish Socialist Party National Executive, to write a reply to a questionnaire by the Humanist Society of Scotland, concerning the SSP’s attitude to religion in schools. The questions and reply can be seen below. An edited version of this reply was published in the HSoS magazine.


Q. Do you think that schools should teach morality and ethics as a subject separate from religious instruction?

A. We do not believe that there should be specific religious instruction in schools. Religion should be a private matter, and the concern of the children’s parents, until they are of the age to make their own choices.

We want a secular public society within which there should be complete freedom of worship. However, the state or other public authorities should not give support to, or promote, religion or atheism.

Students should have the right to form specific religious societies in schools, just as they should have the right to form other societies. These would be purely voluntary and would not be funded by the school, although rooms could be made available for students to meet.

Morality and ethics should be dealt by the Personal and Social Education and the Religious and Moral Education Departments.

Q. The view of the Humanist Society of Scotland is that “a child is a guest in our house to be loved and respected but never possessed”. Do you support this view?

A. We would be uncomfortable with the notion of “our house”, surely it is “their house” as well, but we would certainly agree with the idea that a child is to be loved and respected but never possessed.

Q. Do you believe that school assemblies should represent the diversity of our community and have regard to the equal rights of all, including the almost one third of Scots who hold no religious convictions?

A. At present school assemblies alienate many students. This is certainly one area, where a student input should be introduced. However, with this proviso, we think that school assemblies draw on people from a wide variety of both internal and external sources – staff and students, and from the community beyond. Whilst specific religious representatives could be invited, this must be for wider educational purposes, not to proselytize. Concern should be taken to ensure a representative balance of both religious and non-religious speakers.

Q. Does your party support the rights of parents who hold no religious convictions to have their children educated without the imposition of religious views and practices and how would you intend to achieve this?

A. Certainly, as a transitional measure until all schools are truly secular. We would be prepared to join any wider public campaign to achieve this. We would also campaign for the EIS (Scottish teaching union) to provide support.

Q. Does your party distinguish between the study of religions as part of the curriculum and religious practice and instruction (and/or daily prayers and/or religious assemblies and/or visits by religious representatives) and if so in what way?

A. Yes, we support education about the major world beliefs, including specific religious and non-religious views. We do not support religious instruction, assemblies or compulsory attendance at visits by religious representatives. The current school Religious and Moral Education departments could do this. The Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies curriculum could also be modified to ensure a wide and fair coverage of views.

Q. Does your party consider that ‘Intelligent Design’ should be part of the science curriculum?

A. There is no scientific support for ‘Intelligent Design’ outside a small section of fundamentalist Christian and Islamic ‘scientists’. Therefore, any reference to ‘Intelligent Design’ should be confined to religious education lessons, along with other people’s origin myths.

Any attempt to introduce ‘Intelligent Design’ into the Science curriculum should be vigorously opposed. At present such anti-scientific views are gaining inroads in England, through big business sponsorship, particularly by Sir Peter Vardy. This is a particularly pernicious effect of the current drive to open up directly schools to business interests.

Q. What is your party’s view on the existence of and/or increase in Faith Schools? If you support Faith Schools would you also support Humanist Schools?

A. In Scotland, the main example of faith schools historically has, of course, been the state-supported Catholic schools. These arose because of the undoubted discrimination that Catholics, particularly those from an Irish background, faced in Scotland. Nowadays Scotland’s Muslims often face similar discrimination.

There are two approaches to this. The first is to accept that discrimination is a permanent part of our society, and therefore to argue for separate provision as a form of protection for the particular group/religion discriminated against. Sometimes an appeal is made to the right of all religions and even humanists to have their own schools. We believe this to be divisive. Furthermore, if you accept such an argument, why should there not be separate residential areas and reserved jobs? We have seen this in Northern Ireland and it is not a road anyone should want to travel down.

Instead, the SSP supports a second approach, which is to conduct united campaigns to end discrimination itself. Part of such a struggle is to create as many arenas as possible where people from different multi-ethnic/religious backgrounds can mix, e.g. work, shared residential areas and schools.

However, this also means recognising that we do not currently live in an officially secular society. There is an established Church of England, and a semi-established Church of Scotland. The ban on any monarch being able to marry a Catholic is one striking example of this remaining institutionalised sectarianism. It gives political succour to very unpleasant, and hate-filled, loyalist groups in Northern Ireland, and parts of Scotland. Although the SSP is a republican party, and has no wish to condemn anyone to a married life within one of the most dysfunctional families around, we still support the repeal of the Act of Succession.

The existing non-faith schools are often far from secular. Some still give preference to the local Church of Scotland minister, when it comes to school visits. A genuinely secular education system has still to be achieved.

Furthermore, any campaign to end existing Catholic schools should not be about closing down these schools, but opening them fully up to the wider community.

Q. What is your party’s view on the concept of secular schools that would encourage pupils to study the world’s religions but exclude religious practice in all its forms?

A. We would very much support this view.

Q. Does your party support the proposal that religious laws (e.g. Sharia, Judaic) can or should be incorporated into Scottish & UK law?

A. We are strongly opposed to such ideas. All laws should be based on universal human rights. People individually should have the right to adopt the particular beliefs and practices of a religion/belief of their choice, provided it does not interfere with the rights of others. However, there should be no state backing for any particular laws based on these beliefs and practices.

Furthermore, such proposals would often result in the state’s recognition of religious leaders who are not necessarily representative of those in the wider community who belong to their faith. If there were to be such legally-backed sanctions, this could result in the persecution of individual members of that community, who are perceived to have broken religious laws or codes. Indeed, individuals from any particular religious background should have the right to appeal to the state’s universal laws, against the unwanted imposition of particular religious or ethnic laws and codes.

The SSP is particularly firm upon advocating women’s rights. Those religious representatives, who push for state backing for their own laws have an extremely poor record in this field. Whether it be the Christian supremacism found in the USA, or the Islamic supremacism found in Saudi Arabia, giving such religious groups more scope to impose their beliefs on others, does not present a very pleasant prospect for humanity.

Q. Does your party support the suggestion that institutions such as hospitals, schools, universities, prisons and the armed forces should have humanist ‘chaplains’ as well as religious ones?

A. We don’t support the notion of having any state-supported chaplains, but if people in particular institutions wanted access to religious or humanist representatives they should have it.

Q. Does your party envisage Scotland becoming a secular state?

A. Yes, and the sooner the better.

Allan Armstrong, Scottish Socialist Party