A few weeks ago we had a situation at school that made me think about the topic of defaults, i.e. should people be opted in or out by default.
When we filled in the paperwork to enrol our children in primary school there was a checkbox on the form to indicate your preference with regards to scripture class. Being atheists as we are we naturally ticked the option to have them not attend scripture.
At the intake interview a teacher checked through the paperwork with us and when they came to the scripture information quizzed us on the reason for our choice. I was somewhat offended by the question as it was my understanding that it is entirely our choice as to whether our children attend or not, I chose not to make a fuss and explained clearly that we are atheists and feel very strongly that scripture class is something we do not want our children exposed to. The teacher explained that she was only asking in case we were concerned about the denomination of the class, it was apparently a non-denominational class in case we were concerned.
This was a little over a year ago and in the intervening time we had made our wishes known verbally to the relevant members of staff, scripture class does not commence until the second year of primary school so we had put it on the mental back-burner.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when our eldest son’s class started scripture lessons… Can you guess what is coming???
Against our strict written and verbal instructions our son was indeed sent to scripture class.
As you may imagine we were not happy to say the least.
At this point it is probably worth explaining the reason for our objections.
We are not against religion per se (well I am but my wife is far more moderate than I), but rather our objections lie in the fact that scripture is taught within the school in a setting that to the children is indistinguishable from their normal secular studies.
In our minds this blurring of religious and secular instruction adds unwarranted weight to the religious material being taught.
Our nightmare scenario would be for the children to accept the religious material as fact in the same way that they would accept subjects like Maths or English.
On the way home from school that very day our fears were realised, our son when questioned about the scripture class told us that “God exists because school says it does”, we couldn’t have scripted it any better ourselves.
That night I drafted a letter to the principal outlining what had happen and how we feel about it, I spent an hour on it trying to make it as clear as possible while keeping it free of emotion, it was not easy I will tell you, I am probably the most even tempered person on the planet and I was really angry.
We had a meeting with the principal a few days later, seeing as the damage was already done I would have accepted a written apology. In the meeting we again explained how we felt about it all and that as far as we were concerned the damage was done but if we ever had a repeat of the incident we would certainly escalate it as far as we could.
It turns out that the list of non-scripture people was not given to the supervising teacher (who was a casual on that day, as was the teacher with the list) which brings me to the point of the post, what should the default position be for scripture?
The principal tells me only about 5% of children opt-out, my understanding was that statewide it is about 20% so I guess we are in our own little “bible belt”, so in the absence of other instructions our son was put in with the rest of the flock.
We talked about opt-in vs opt-out with the principal and he said that the general rule, due largely to apathy on the part of the parents is to opt-in. While this is a reasonable position given the 95/5 split it seems to me that not all choices are equal.
Imagine if the choice was whether to eat a peanut butter sandwich or not and 5% of the children were allergic to peanuts, or if the class in question were sex education (a hot button issue for some people, personally I’m disappointed that our school doesn’t offer it at all), or perhaps if a “Christian” child was made to attend a Muslim class….
The problem in this case is that religion is seen as completely safe so accidentally sending atheists’ children to scripture is “harmless” so there’s no need to make sure the substitute teacher has the list, I certainly don’t think it is harmless and I hope more people come to that realisation.