Ep 17: Thought for the Day | RE in Wales

(Emma Park) Hello and welcome to the National
Secular Society podcast I’m Emma Park and this week I’ll be joined by Chris
Sloggett and Helen Nichols to chew over an old bone of contention among
secularists, BBC Radio 4’s thought for the day will be discussing whether it is
right that this major program should confine itself to as its webpage
explicitly states speakers from the world’s major faiths and while we’re on
the theme of the influence of religion on everyday life should parents be
entitled to withdraw their children on religious grounds from education on the
national curriculum about sex relationships and religion itself in the
second half of the episode I’ll be speaking to Steven Evans and Alistair
Liston about a consultation recently launched by the Welsh government on this
issue and the national secular society is planned response referring to the
practice of human sacrifice the Roman poet Lucretia sin the first century BC
said so great are the evils brought about by religion in the two millennia
since then there is no doubt that significant good has been done in the
name of the major world religions however they have also been used to
justify acts which to anyone not sharing their Dewar’s beliefs are to say the
least unpalatable at the same time philosophers from classical antiquity to
the present have produced carefully reasoned ethical systems that do not
rely on the existence of a deity to explain why it is a good idea to be nice
to people and contrary to the argument frequently made by religions philosophy
science and the arts have long offered cogent accounts of how it is possible to
have a fulfilling life on this earth now in Britain today roughly half the
population is non-religious and seems to muddle through daily life much like the
religious off nevertheless thought for the day on Radio fours flagship Today
programme still retains a wholly religious character in the BBC’s own
words the 3-minute series is about reflections from a faith perspective on
issues and people in the news but what makes a faith perspective so special as
to merit a daily slot on BBC Radio is there any equivalent slot for non
faith perspectives is the beep really as impartial representative and diverse as
it claims to answer these questions I’m joined now by Chris Lockett
communications officer at the National Secular society and Helen Nichols the
membership and finance officer Chris let’s start with you
John Humphrys was on good morning Britain recently criticizing thought for
the day what was C me what point was he making yes so John Humphrys obviously
former presenter of the today program and who retired very recently appeared
on Good Morning Britain and he was asked about thought for the day within this
interview and he called it discriminatory rather pointless and
anachronistic meanwhile also one of the contributors to sort of the day in the
same week actually in Dodge it’s Singh actually quit the slot because he said
that the BBC had tried to block him from discussing a guru from his religion he’s
a Sikh who fought against the forced conversion of some Hindus to Islam in
17th century India so in dodge it Singh was complaining that his free speech
being compromised essentially and in response to John Humphrys remarks we at
the NSS have written to the BBC to edges to reform or scrap thought for the day
so Chris could you go into a bit more detail what are the NS s’s main
objections to thought for the day so well john laprise i think was right to
describe it as discriminatory it excludes non-religious people and also
it encourages the idea that we all benefit from a bit of religion in the
morning so I thought this is a highly contentious view and it also furthers
the narrative that morals come from religion and many people would argue the
opposite and some people would see religion as a source of Hill that I
think is a legitimate point of view and a lot of people would say well their
morals don’t come from religion I noticed that the BBC used to have a
whole section on its website called religion and ethics but it seems to have
cut that perhaps in reflection of these ideas Helen on that point how does the
NSS propose to reform thought for the day do you want to get rid of it
altogether it’s up to the beam see to decide how to reform it if most
listeners find it tedious they could scrap it all together however if they
want to keep it going they could easily open it up to non-religious people some
new perspectives might also liven it up a bit make it less boring you never know
Chris yes when we’ve written to the BBC what we’ve suggested is reforming it
into an ethical current affairs slot if the BBC is committed to keeping thought
for the day so that would mean religious people could still contribute but that
would be on equal terms you wouldn’t have to shoehorn religion in in order to
get heard in these within these three minutes and given the decline in
religious identity across the UK if the religion if the if the BBC was treating
potential contributors equally you wouldn’t necessarily expect religious
perspectives to dominate such a slot on the other hand though thought for the
day is only about three minutes long does it really matter if such a short
slot is reserved for religious figures aren’t there plenty of other
opportunities for non-religious speakers to contribute to the Today programme and
the rest of BBC Radio Helen what do you think if it was called sermon of the day
maybe it wouldn’t matter quite so much the reason people feel so strongly about
this issue is it represents a commonly held view that only religious people are
able to give meaningful comment on ethics and how to live a good life in
many respects it’s similar to the collective worship requirement in
schools which rests on the presumption that children cannot have a meaningful
school assembly unless they worship a deity that some or even most of those
present do not believe in thought for the day reminds me a lot of my high
school assemblies it gives us a brief morning sermon in the hope that will
make us better people however the exclusion of non-religious
voices implies that they consider those perspectives to be less worthy and less
meaningful yes of course there are plenty of other opportunities for
non-religious speakers but those are opportunities for religious speakers to
really there is there’s no part of the today program where religious people are
excluded there is a part of the today program where non-religious people are
excluded that really is the key issue there sure how long has the NSS been
campaigning on this issue for decades thought for the day has
existed since the 1970s in 2002 we are a signatory to a letter to the BBC
governors asking for non-religious voices to be allowed on the program it
led to Richard Dawkins being given the slot to do a secular thought for the day
however if they didn’t let him go in the regular slots it was an extra they
didn’t want him to desecrate the religious segment with his presence and
they didn’t want to open the door to other non-believers as membership
officer have you had any response from the NSS as members about this topic this
topic is dear to the hearts of our members it was raised at least twice at
our last AGM and one of our affiliate groups southeast the southeast London
humanist group have a monthly protest outside Broadcasting House I went along
once there was quite a crowd and I saw lots of BBC employees expressing their
support as they walked past while I was there Sara spats and spoke to some of
the organisers about coming on to the Today programme to discuss the protest
I’ve since heard that they finally did that a few months ago their focus is on
getting a humanist on the programme and that’s fair enough because they are a
humanist group we put our emphasis on the broader point that a person does not
need to subscribe to any clearly defined belief system into order to provide a
spot of meaningful reflection at breakfast time Chris do you think
there’s a good chance that the BBC will finally reconsider its position
well the BBC’s been quite stubborn on this in the recent past we have raised
it a few times in the last few years but I mean public opinion may mean that it
decides changes overdue so we commissioned some polling last year and
that found that only 18 percent of British people that’s fewer than one in
five thought that thought for the day it should always feature religious content
and a lot of people sort of saw thought of the day as an irrelevance they more
than half of respondents didn’t agree or disagree with the idea that sort of that
I should still exist so it may be that the BBC partly thinks well this just
isn’t going down very well with the audience and public opinion majors
pressure it interchanging as well there’s also I suppose the question of
whether or not it’s compatible with the BBC’s commitment to impartiality I think
that’s a question that the BBC should certainly
be asking itself whether having three minutes within a program which is
specifically designed to pushing this religious agenda and which I think as
Helen said does endorse this idea that religion is the source of ethics and
morals whether that is compatible with a public service broadcaster that has a
very clear remit it’s be impartial but the fact that prominent voices on this
day program have spoken out suggest there may be some support for a forum
within the BBC and I suppose that is an encouraging sign but we’ll just have to
wait and see so whoever these mysterious characters
are at the BBC hopefully they’re listening to this podcast now Chris and
Helen thank you very much thank you thank you a new curriculum on religious
education and on relationships and sexuality education is due to be
introduced in Wales in primary schools and the first year of secondary schools
in 2022 the Welsh government has recently launched a consultation
entitled ensuring access to the full curriculum which considers the impact
that would be made on parents if they were no longer allowed to withdraw their
children from RE and RC classes for religious reasons the Welsh government
is also considering whether to change the title of re to religions and
worldviews are these good ideas I’m now joined by Stephen Evans CEO of the
National Secular society and Alistair let’s turn ed of Education Stephen
starting with you why has the Welsh government launched this consultation
what’s the purpose behind it and why now so this is all part of a broader project
to overhaul education and create a new curriculum for Wales it’s probably the
biggest reform to Welsh schools for decades and so as part of that reform
the Welsh Government is proposing to ensure that every child in a maintained
school in Wales has the right to access abroad a balanced curriculum this
includes access to religious education and relationships and what they’re
calling sexuality education rse so to do that they’re reforming the subjects and
removing the long-standing parental opt-out now the government says and I
quote that it wants all children and young
or to have access to learning that supports them to develop tolerance
empathy and understanding of different people cultures and communities and in
understanding their rights and the rights of others so this all sounds
really good really positive but the parental Ops hats have long existed in
education to protect parental rights and religious freedoms particularly where
artery has sometimes be more akin to religious instruction and not not really
a proper academic subject like anything else in school so this is a contentious
move from the Welsh government and I think if they plan to remove the octane
of faith schools they may well have a legal problem so this consultation is
really about working out where the crunch points are and what the
implications of this shift in policy might be just picking up on the legal
problem what would the legal problem be well the legal problem is that the
parental rights to raise their child in accordance with their own beliefs is
actually protected under human rights legislation so if the courts were to
decide that the way schools the way in which schools were teaching religious
education actually constituted a form of indoctrination or inculcation into a
particular faith then there may be a human rights problem I see Alastair
what’s the NSS assessment of the proposal so far well like a range of
civil society organizations we’ve been very involved in this process this is a
process that has gone on for many years there’s been lots of consultations
there’s been plenty of opportunity for people to put their views across as you
know the evolving settlement has proposed was come forward and it’s
oneness with you I feel like at every stage of the process
if someone’s asked me to summarize how do we feel about the pros at the moment
I probably just say cautiously up cautiously optimistic and I try and find
lots of ways of phrasing cautiously cautiously optimistic that’s because if
we look at the big picture stuff we’ve been very supportive of the aims and
the values put forward by the current Education Minister Kirsty Williams and
also her predecessor but then when we look down the details we often see that
this this big picture of great ambitious stuff often gives way to a failure to
tackle some of the more difficult questions particularly entrenched
religious interests that stephen said obviously we all want students peoples
to have access to high quality inclusive accurate
broad and balanced religious religion and worldviews religion or religious
education and of course also RSA but it’s they’re often the devil is in the
detail sure and I’m just looking at this
particular issue of making sex education in re mandatory and picking up on what
Stephen said a bit earlier about parents rights to bring up their children in
their own way how far do you think that the current
proposals would infringe on parent’s right to bring up their children is
there a danger that the state could be meddling too much I think we always need
to be mindful of that danger but not not to not take their that’s a concerns too
far clearly this is one of the contentious and difficult issues in the
re or the whole curriculum reform process so we can see why the Welsh
Government decided to separate this question out into a separate
consultation however it’s also important to separate the issues around we right
to withdraw from re and the right to withdraw from what used to be called sex
education of what is now called RS C because the reasons these rights exist
and the historic way in which they’ve been used has some similarities but is
also very different in principle we’re going to come back to the big-picture
stuff in principle we agree that all children should receive all parts of the
curriculum no pupil in a school should should be shielded from some particular
subject or some particular knowledge but the right
to have draw from our re-exam re being used to promote I have a specific
religious worldviews or a more positive view of faith in general the reason the
right to a draw from what was called sex education existed was much more because
some groups wanted to shield pupils from particular knowledge I don’t think
people really want to you know buy analyze want to shield people from
knowledge about different religions it’s just they have concerns over how re is
sometimes taught so there are areas where there’s often a tendency within
the re community and we see this there much in the consultation document to
simply have a positive Rose tinted glasses are all of the problems which
necessitate the right to be draw have been solved and it’s completely not
necessary anymore and that’s not really the case we do we do still see cases
where parents feel that re is being used to promote a particular worldview which
they don’t agree with it’s not how they choose to raise their children and so
they feel they have little choice but to withdraw do you think the problem with
this alistair is really about continuing the right to withdraw do you think it’s
just a question of reforming the way re is taught if we reform if we get all of
the reforms that we’d like to the way the re or I guess we should start
getting used to calling our W is taught then the right to a draw shouldn’t be
necessary a couple of years ago I did a review of some guidance that came out
from the Welsh Association of sack race and I think that kind of very much
Illustrated the problem with the right to boot draw this is a group of local
local local 40 groups that deal with religious education and they point out
some their common sense things that the right to withdraw from RE is a bit an
anomaly it causes problems and confusions for schools sometimes and it
is sometimes used by parents for prejudicial reasons but equally you
can’t just entirely dismiss people’s legitimate concerns particularly in
faith where re is inspected to ensure it is
promoting a religious worldview what it has that continuing legacy of that
purpose Steven what about the right to withdraw from sex education or RNC is
are there any circumstances in which this would be justifiable or do you
think all children always should be taught these subjects no with regard to
Ric I think that all children should have a right to access high-quality
relationships and sex education and I think that should be LGBT inclusive as
well because all the evidence tells us that this leads to better health
outcomes both sexual health and mental health we’re talking about there so I
don’t think parental rights should trump children’s independent rights in that
instance and so I think I in certainly the National Secular society would
support plans for an end to the right of withdrawal from relationships and sex
education I’m Alistair any further comments on Ric
yeah I mean we do see cases for example in an annex to our unsafe sex education
report of last year we identified faith schools in Wales we were using our se
for promoting particular religious world views particularly anti LGBT teachings
anti reproductive rights information the solution and so you know if a school
were using our se just to promote the idea that homosexuality is wrong as
Catholic faith schools do I can see why a parent might want to have draw their
child from that lesson I think the solution there is to fix that bad
practice rather than keeping the sort of strange right to a draw but if you often
see if you keep it for one person you end up having to keep it for lots more
Stephen where do the children’s human rights to have rse fit into all this
yes good question children’s rights I think often get neglected in these
conversations where I think there’s an unjú focus and emphasis on parents
rights and the parents religious beliefs that parents and children’s best
interests aren’t actually always in alignment as some people seem to assume
so generally speaking I don’t think people’s should have the right to
withdraw from education I don’t think it’s a kind of
pick a mix offering that schools have I don’t think children generally speaking
should be able to just you know if we can choose what subjects they they learn
and what they don’t but when that line between education and instruction are
even indoctrination is crossed I think not only parents but pupils should also
be free to up themselves ad so particularly I think where acts of
worship and involved or where re is used as some sort of vehicle to inculcate
pupils into a particular faith then I think pupils rights to freedom of
religion or beliefs should be respected by then being able to op themselves out
and certainly as children develop a maturity and the ability to decide
things for themselves they should be encouraged to do so and this is
recognized of course in law through they’ve gillip principal Gillick
competency it’s known as which establishes that parental rights
diminish with the child’s evolving maturity but obviously because the welsh
government say that the reformed religion and world views subject is
objective and broad and balanced they’re not actually proposing any pupil right
at withdrawal there you know then even removing the parental right at
withdrawal but as we’ve already covered i think there may be a problem when they
get to the area of faith schools which obviously will teach about religion and
world views in a particular way so it’s the solution to to allow children to
withdraw from particular subjects and faith schools or is the solution to get
rid of faith schools that’s nice and simple well certainly III think all all
parts of the school day in every school should be inclusive of all pupils so I
think the only way you really get to a properly broad balanced and pluralistic
education system is if you have an inclusive secular education system and
you don’t allow religious organizations to run schools because speaking as a
former teacher I would just be slightly worried that if children had the right
to withdraw from certain lessons how’re they really to know what counts as
education and what counts as end up nation sure and as I said right at the
beginning I don’t think people should be able to pick and choose why areas of
curriculum they learn I think the emphasis should be on making sure the
curriculum is appropriate for all peoples
so who supports these changes apart from the NSS but I think that remains to be
seen I think there is certainly broad support for reform of religious
education and making sure that non-religious world views are given a
fair hearing too often religious education across the UK has been
dominated by religious interest so anything that takes us away from that I
think is positive and I think most people whether religious or not will
actually recognize that but I imagine that both faith and secular groups will
be concerned to see any reduction in parental rights around religious
education and religious freedom so whilst faith schools exist inari can be
used as advertising space for religion in schools I’m certainly not convinced
know-nothing the NSS is convinced yet that the time has come to remove the
writer withdraw it’s interesting actually not so much to what the right
to withdraw but re reform more generally that the Catholic education service in
England they were just so radically against the very similar proposals which
were made there but seem to be I’ve okay or supportive of similar proposals in
Wales and it I think goes to show that policy makers have more flexibility
where faith schools are less entrenched and on that point Alistair how great are
the substantive changes that are going to be made to the National Curriculum
in these subjects rather than just the changes in names I think this is the
largest curriculum overhaul project in recent in recent history in the UK re or
our W is going to be embedded in a broader humanities area of learning
something which we’re in favor of but we’re still gonna see sack craze that’s
local Stanley advisory councils on religious education we’re still gonna
see faith groups determining the syllabus within faith schools there’s a
move towards reflecting the changing religious demographic demographics and
greater inclusion of non-religious world views they’ve introduced some
in code the plural the pluralist requirement and they’ve put that in
capital letters that sounds very important and but that doesn’t solve
every problem I think there’s often this idea that all
these problems can just be sold by greater breadth so you know we re has
become what’s last offers just an advertising space for Christianity and
then it became an advertising space for Christianity and also other religions
and now let’s give a bit of advertising space for humanism but that doesn’t
solve all the problems the Constitution document talks about that oh there won’t
be there won’t be any indoctrination in the subject but you can have bias within
the subject without it rising to the level you’d call indoctrination you can
have you know a bias view being presented and inculcation and immersion
in a religious way of thinking increasing focus on the importance of
religious views so there are going to be substantive changes to the content but
what about the names of the subjects in fact there are two changes proposed this
idea that sex education is going to be renamed relationships and sexuality
education and that religious education is going to be renamed religions and
worldviews Alastair can you tell us what is the idea behind these proposed
changes I think the RIC name change draws
strongly on the recommendations of the Welsh government so an expert panel it
reflects that it’s about rights and responsibilities in all types of
relationships and so it discusses a wider range of issues and then simply
you know physics and mechanics of sex or sexual relationships rse covers relation
peer relationships relationships with adults in the understanding of what
children’s what their rights are so that draws in things like anti-bullying other
other ethical issues the re /rw name change again that draws on
recommendation of experts in this case from the Commissioner on RA that’s
intended to give the saga to fresh starts and increase the importance and
the relative esteem of non religious worldviews
are these name changes themselves going to make a difference to the way the
curriculum is taught or its content or are they just window dressing people in
the re community do love discussing possible subjects name changes so I
think a subject name change can send an important message but ultimately it is
about more than just a name change we need to you need a cultural change you
need the curriculum content and not just the content but you need strong
protections of what are the values of this subject I think we should also
recognize that their name still frames religion as the default
the subject the curriculum content talks about world views that are analogous to
religion so religion and worldviews and that definitely places non-religious
worldviews in a quite limited in a limited sense – and so it leads to just
normally as world views and humanism being used synonymously it leads to
approaching the study of normal it as well views as if they’re also well as if
they’re also religious and it frames that religion is the important one and
non-religious world views are very much secondary so we do need the cultural
change to completely move beyond faith promotion we need to see that it’s not
just a problem if a faith school or another school is promoting just their
religion is true it’s also upon other forms of bias and these can sounds be
subconscious bias because many within the re community do see their job as
promoting a positive view of faith and particularly in faith schools where it’s
not just a positive view of faith but a positive view of a specific faith that’s
always going to have an institutional bias so far we’ve been talking about
changes which apply to the maintained sector in Wales Stephen what about in
the private sector and what about in the rest of the UK well as you’d expect
private schools do have greater freedoms they don’t have to follow the National
Curriculum and parental rights that withdrawal have actually only ever
applied state sector they don’t apply in the
appendant independent sector anyway that said schools in the independent sector
should still certainly be held to particular specific standards and they
certainly shouldn’t be able to undermine the rights of children as set out in the
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child with regard to the rest of the country
well in terms of religious education progress has been and continues to be
painfully slow reform of aria is not to be high on the list of government
priorities sunny in England last year we saw the findings of an independent
Commission on religious education which made various recommendations broadly in
the right direction as far as we’re concerned I think but the but the
response from the government has been disappointing to say the least you know
make no mistake religious education is withering on the
vine certainly in England which you know many people may think is no bad thing
with some justification of my ad community schools often neglect the
teacher Navarre or do it badly faith schools only teach it but tend to teach
it in a more biased and partisan sort of way so the subject for me has little
credibility left and it really does need a significant reform but there’s no sign
of that reform anytime soon unfortunately what I think we need sees
all vestiges of confessionalism removed and in fact I would move away from the
whole concept of religious education as a specific area of the curriculum as a
separate and distinct subject I definitely think people should be
entitled to learn about religions and beliefs about a diversity of religions
and beliefs and their impact on society but you know teaching of religion belief
could absolutely be part of a broader civics based curriculum that teaches yes
about religion and belief and about religious diversity but also about human
rights politics the democratic process and what it means to be assisted citizen
an education about secularism of course I think would form part of that subject
and we have the amazing range of free sources at exploring secularism talk
Steven anything further to add to that not really just that I hope their
listeners in Wales will engage in this consultation and certainly make their
views known we’ll be emailing members and supporters I’m sure we’ll also be
posting details about how to get involved in our weekly news line
bulletin so yes stay tuned Steven and Alistair thank you very much
yes thank you that was episode 17 of the National Secular society podcast hosted
by Emma Park if you would like to help us challenge religious privilege and
support freedom often from religion in Britain today why not become a member of
the NSS full details are on our website at secularism org dot UK forward slash
podcast if you like this podcast you can find more episodes on the website along
with further information about the topics discussed thanks for listening you

1 thought on “Ep 17: Thought for the Day | RE in Wales

  1. It’s amazing how in modern times with the uk being diverse with different religions and non religious people but yet the queen who is the leader and face of the uk is also the leader of the Church of England, and non Christian and non religious tax payers have to pay for the queen and the royal family, it’s all absolute nonsense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *