George Pitcher In Defense of Compulsory Religious Education

In general, I tend to think of Great Britain and Europe as significantly more secular than the United States, which is why I always get a bit weirded out reading op-eds like George Pitcher’s defense of compulsory religious education in the United Kingdom.

The thing is that compulsory education is already the norm — although from what I can tell just from news accounts, many public schools give only a perfunctory nod to their legal obligation to provide religious instruction to their pupils.

A joint committee of Parliament recommended giving some children the right to abstain from religious “education.”

We recommend that the Government reconsiders its objection to permitting a child of sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding to withdraw from religous education. As for religious worship, we recommend that children who are not in the sixth form but who have sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding to be permitted to withdraw.

Pitcher finds even this recommendation as part of a secular attack on religious faith in the UK,

The NSS’s [National Secular Society] agenda is simple: it wants to force the next generation to stop thinking about the spiritual, the transcendental and the mysterious, in favour of a negative utilitarianism. That can be the only reason for picking on this particular bit of the syllabus.

Which is odd because, in general, the widely accepted explanation for the much greater religious fervor in the United States is precisely the strict separation of church and state. And, of course, nothing even close to the existing regime of religious instruction in school nor this rather mild modification of the same would have a chance in hell of passing muster in U.S. courts — they’d be rejected out of hand as impingements on fundamental freedoms.

So from a strictly utilitarian perspective, perhaps atheists and secularists in the United States are engaged in self-defeating behavior when they run around trying to extinguish mention of religion from the public sphere. Receiving religion from the state — at least a liberal democratic state — seems to have the same effect on religion that perhaps a teenager receiving a pornographic magazine from his parents might have on the libido. It takes all the fun and interest out of it.