Friday, 23 November 2012

A Question of Faith

The house I grew up in is next door to a Methodist church. My brother and I used to go to Sunday school there, and as I grew up I attended the church youth club. I don’t remember my parents attending church although I suppose they must have done at some point; I just remember walking home from church to my mum who would be in the kitchen cooking the Sunday roast.

My brother and I both attended a Roman Catholic primary school. We were sent there because the results were so good, which is a point I can’t argue with – by the time I went to secondary school, I was doing third year work. However, being a faith school meant that religion was obviously high on the agenda, and we were Methodists, not Roman Catholics.

I have no problem with the teaching of religion, particularly in a faith school. And it’s common sense to expect that at a Catholic school, Catholicism is going to be the religion taught; it’s hardly likely to be Hinduism is it?! But I do have a problem with prejudice and discrimination, and I was definitely a victim of both.

I was the only girl in my class not to be confirmed. I was teased and bullied for missing out on something so important. I was told I was going to hell because I wasn’t Catholic. Thinking this was ‘just kids’? The kids were fine, it was the teachers! I write with my left hand. I was constantly chastised for doing so and made to write with my right hand, then punished because my writing was too untidy. Finally my father got involved and stormed into the school to demand I was allowed to write with whatever hand I wanted. It solved one issue, but I still remember being told that I was a child of the devil because of my ‘evil’ way of writing.

We had a religious assembly every morning, prayers before and after lunch, and spent Thursday mornings at church service. We were also expected to attend services on Saturdays and Sundays with our families, but as my parents didn’t practise Catholicism, my brother and I didn’t attend – something else to ostracise us for. There were two other children in the school who weren’t Catholic and they suffered too.

Religion was forced down our throats at every opportunity. Other religions were criticised as blasphemous, cults or the work of the devil. Everything we did was analysed and criticised, from how we ate to our hairstyles. Every criticism was given a religious twist; it wasn’t bad mannered or not nice, it was ‘against God’s will’.

I didn’t dislike school particularly. The other kids didn’t care what religion I was, and I was bright, well mannered and keen to learn, so some of the teachers were more accepting than others. But several were cruel, vindictive and seemed to take pleasure in humiliating or punishing me.

When I went to secondary school (non-faith), I was instantly put in the top set for every subject as my work was of such a high standard. I was extremely polite with impeccable manners and well presented. I also had a passionate hatred of religion.

I spent the next few years avoiding any suggestion of religion. Eventually, in my 20’s, I found my way back to the Methodist faith I had grown up with, although with several changes. I read extensively, questioned everything, and reconciled my beliefs with Methodist faith to some degree, but I still have several beliefs that don’t tie in with traditional teachings. My parents have also come full circle; my mother converted to Catholicism to enable her to remarry (long story), my father is a member of Calvery Chapel and is currently studying theology. My primary school too has changed; a few years ago I went back there to do some experience as part of my degree and was very pleased to discover that although it was still a faith school with mostly nuns as teachers, the headmistress was now a secular, intelligent person who promoted tolerance and more modern, accepting views.

Would it have made a difference to me if I had been a Catholic? Probably in some ways. For a start, I wouldn’t have been a victim of the religious based bullying that went on. I would however still have been subjected to the constant bias and skewed teaching. Religion coloured everything we were taught and we were told to accept blindly, not to question.

I have no issue with faith schools in general. If you want your children brought up with your values, to celebrate your religious holidays and to learn about your beliefs, then a faith school is an excellent start. If I decide a faith school is in the best interests of my child, then I will not hesitate to send her to one. However, I question the benefits of teaching children to blindly follow whatever someone tells them. I don’t support ridiculing other religions and bullying others who do not share your beliefs.

I hope that my experience with faith schools is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, when I returned to my primary school, I was pleased to experience an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement along with a superb standard of teaching and religious teachings based on positive reinforcement rather than bullying and negativity. I would just suggest that if you are considering a faith school, you check out their teaching methods and their views, rather than presuming it will be best for your child just because the school shares your faith.

I could of course blame my family for sending me to a faith school whose beliefs did not mirror their own, but I know they were doing what they thought was best. They wanted me to get a good education which the school in question certainly provided. They just didn’t realise that my education came with a side order of discrimination.

My faith has been a great comfort and source of strength to me as I have got older. I know my faith is stronger as I have questioned it and decided for myself what I believe, not just accepted what I have been told. I hated being told what to believe, what to think, and told that if I questioned anything I was being corrupted by the devil.

I hope my daughter finds faith as she grows up. I am teaching her about my beliefs and I will continue to do so. Her father is an atheist so we agreed before she was born that I would talk to her about religion but in an open way: “Mummy believes this; some people don’t.” If her father was of the same beliefs as me, I would take the same line; I want her to learn about my faith but I want her to question and to discover for herself what she believes. I hope her beliefs are similar to mine, but if they aren’t I’ll live with it. I don’t particularly care if she’s Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. I’d prefer her not to be an atheist, but it’s her life and her choice. Me telling her repeatedly that she’s wrong and she must believe the same as I do will only push her further away.

Religion to me is a personal thing. If a faith discourages murder and promotes forgiveness and acceptance; if it encourages us to be better people and gives us comfort and hope, then it can only be a good thing. And I hope Jess can experience that. But she’ll have to find her own way there; I can guide her and help her, but I can’t and won’t force it upon her. And I won’t allow any school or person to try to force it upon her either.

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