Thursday, 19 August 2010

There's a starman sitting in the sky...

There's a starman waiting in the sky
Hed like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds
There's a starman waiting in the sky
He told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it's all worthwhile
He told me: Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie

David Bowie, Starman

The other night, at a family dinner table in North Wales, we got into a heated discussion about dangers of religious education in the UK state schools. It all started when I said I was not sure what to tell my daughter when she starts asking what happens when we die. I felt uneasy telling her there was no heaven filled with grandparents and pets. Neither did I really want to scare or worry her by explaining that one day we will all just disappear into rotting nothing. ‘She is only 4!’ I said.

So, I was wondering if it would be that damaging if she was told a lie. So what, I thought, if maybe, for a short period of time, until her intellect (hopefully) takes over, she believes in fairies, Father Christmas and heaven? Is it really that bad?

Husband, however, felt strongly about the dangers of any religious influence.

‘Look’, he said, ‘They are already brainwashing them at school! We get no choice as parents. She is being taught that God created life as if it were a fact anyway.’

‘Surely it is not that bad? Father in law suggested. ‘She is in a state school after all, not a religious one?’

That night, we ended up having a very long debate; and that is in a family where none of us were religious! It made me wonder about people who enter into marriages with completely different attitudes to faith.

I could have married someone very Christian, Catholic, Jewish or very Muslim. Well, not really. I could not have. But I have come across situations when an atheist married a religious person. ‘Oh’, my friend said, ‘She is a nice Christian girl. I am not a believer myself, but it is good that she is.’ Good? Why is it good? It might have been good if you were one yourself, but if you are not, you might face interesting problems further in life. Like whether to have a nuchal scan for Down syndrome chance in pregnancy.

‘Why’ my friend’s husband questioned, ‘would we need any tests? You know we will keep this baby anyway, don’t you?’

No, she actually did not know that. Hmm. Slight problema here, I say.

With us, things are easier, as we both believe, or, rather, don’t believe, the same things. And yet, we will have questions that need agreeing upon in advance. Especially now,when I realize just how religious the UK state education is.

The next morning, we were getting in the car to go to the beach when my child exclaimed ‘Oh my God!’ about something.

‘Don’t say that’ Husband corrected.

‘Why can’t you say ‘God’?’ She asked happily from the back. ‘He is the man who sits in the sky, daddy. You can’t see him because he is there, and we are down here, but he is always in the sky, you know?’

‘Oh, is he?’ Husband gave me a sideways glance. ‘And who told you that?’

‘They told us at school!’ She replied proudly, and we both just stared ahead in silence for a moment.

Not only it is assumed that all the children in this country have to be brought up to have an imaginary friend; it gets even more entertaining when they attempt to cater for all tastes and cultures! Doing some reading on the subject, I have come across this entry in a discussion forum on the Richard Dawkins Foundation Facebook page:

“My five year old goes to a UK state school. This last month he has "celebrated" Dwali with a disco and Eid with a feast and he's just about to do Christmas with a nativity play.

This keeps all the parents of different religions very happy. All catered for. Has anyone stopped to think what this is doing to our kids?

He has no idea what is going on. He quotes a mish-mash of religious mumbo-jumbo to me and is confused about what he is being taught, what to think or even (and this is what has PISSED ME OFF) whether it is RIGHT or SINFUL to question things. He has started to think God made the world because he is TAUGHT it in school in a song that they sing. He needs regular de-programming as I explain that no, we do not need to put a sign to Ginesh on our front door, and no we are no fasting for Ramadan. And no you can't say that Abdul is wrong. But yes, he is. And No, Daddy is not going to hell.

Oh fuck. What are they doing?

Someone - please calm me down before I go up to the school and lamp someone.”

So, yes. If you are religious, the UK schools will respect, cater for and honour your views. Because, religion deserves unquestionable respect. Like at my work, where we just got told we have to provide foot-washing sinks for Muslims in all buildings.

But what if you, as a family, are not religious? What if you don’t really want them to teach your 4 year old at school that there is an old man sitting in the sky? Should you not be given a choice, somehow, in this free society?

Some people believe there is a man sitting in the sky,’ I told my child that morning. But we don’t.’ I felt that was an honest and fair answer. Not much else I could say or do.


  1. Stumbled upon your blog when I was actually looking for Alekper Aliyev's... Just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. What you write does matter. I’m an expat from Baku myself, happily living in NYC. Every now and then though, you can’t help but feel like a weirdo, not really belonging here or there, to paraphrase you. It’s comforting to know there are other “weirdoes” like me out there : ) Reading your blog reminded me of a Halloween night a few years ago. I lived up in Harlem then and was taking the 3 train downtown for a party. Working class of Harlem wasn’t in the mood to celebrate, so I ended up being the only dressed up person on the train. Naturally, feeling like a freak for four long stops. Finally we reached Time Sq, and other “freaks” got on, and one of them even complemented me on my costume, and THAT felt awesome!

  2. Scary, weren't you raised in a kind of religious environment? You were wearing that badge with young Lenin's portrait on it, then you were wearing a red tie. I am not sure about "komsomol", but you could have been a member of that religious group as well. Research shows that one of the main strategies to expand a child's learning capacity is to teach him "disrespect". The child should be taught to challenge opinions imposed on him. What are parents for? I remember my father refusing to answer my questions when I spoke Russian to him, and my school teacher insisted on us talking Russian at home (stupid as she was)! Learning to challenge opinions is good!

  3. Religion is always a controversial matter, whether you are a believer or you are not.

  4. a man sitting in the sky.. societies r very discriminative and "sinful" in this. why shouldn't it be a woman instead? reflective post, well done.


  5. Ha ha, very good!

  6. Hi,
    I was having similar thoughts last school year while we celebrated all festivals. And it's good as i suppose it broadens your mind. But. At the age of 5, i believe it is too confusing. My son went through a stage asking whether everyone were RC, otherwise he was not talking to them. That did not come from home, but from some boy at school who said muslims should stick together and he worked out that he needed his "own" friends. Finally he understood it did not matter what religion people were. And it must be hell (sorry) for the teachers. So therefore, stop all, leave it to the families and everyone is happy.
    We have not got a massive problem at home as none of us is extremely religious. I am meant to be RC and grew up in a very religious country in a relatively religious family, but i am not a blind believer and starting to question lots of things we do and that is just not good. My husband was born into a RC family, but brought up by C of E family and is just not bothered which church to go to (so we do not go anywhere). And i thank my lucky stars that this is our situation as i could not (now i understand) be bringing up a child with someone who had strong religious views. i respect people believing what they choose to, i go to church when i am down, but simply because i find peace in there and can think.
    Jurate x

  7. @Sofisticos: I still think religion is more damaging to this world than Lenin ever was, but I see your point. I like your view on challenging the rules though. :) I hope you are right!

  8. @Jurate: Your situation sounds very real and normal.:) I never really thought about religion this much back home! Now, when I look back I can't even answer whether someone I knew, a friend or a boyfriend, was religious or not! You know? I never thought it was a big deal. But when you face some questions, like how to bring up a child, or whether to have a pregnancy test...some curious things can happen.

  9. @Limerent: Have you seen Dogma, the movie? They had Alanis Morissette appearing as God at the end.Very good.:)

    @Anonymous: Wow, Harlem! What is it like??

  10. As it is almost impossible to regulate what our chidren hear and learn in public it becomes much more important that we keep an open mind and be willing to discuss all questions openly.
    Personally and in my family (kids all grown up) we are pretty much unaffilated with any religion but am happy to say are willing to understand that lots of people believe in a religion and/or need to believe in a religion. Best thing I can say is that if our kids hear things in school we need to reinforce that some people believe it happens that way but this is how we see it.
    Robert Hienlien in his book Time Enough For Love (the story of a 3000 year old many and all that he had learned) made a great statement at least I thought it was great, he said somehting like this ïf belkieving in god makes you happy and feel more comfortable then you should be happy with your beliefs, however much like mastrabation you should go in the bathroom lock the door do the things that make you feel good then wash your hands before you go back into the public world.
    Most all things in religion that dont hurt people should be accepted by all, EXCEPT people that go door to door trying to peddle there own beliefs to others. A bounty on Jehova Witness door pounders is a charity i would donate to.

    Great thoughts Scary Thanks


  11. Jay,

    Theoretically, I like this nice and peaceful concept of everyone believing in what they like. What a lovely world would we all live in! But, sadly, in reality, there are too many examples where people are prepared to kill others who dont like THEIR imaginary friend. That bothers me.
    As for Jehova Witness...I am just curious about this 144,000 of 'special' people who will go to heaven to be with God. What happens to the rest of them? What if there are no more spaces left?

  12. Scary,I loved finally answer to your child.Reading your blog I imagine how openhearted and honest person you are.Of course,someone calls you weirdo,never mind,just go on.Koroche,plyun6 i razotri,sorry.

  13. Hello Scary Azeri,

    Hmm, I don't know how I feel about this one. I don't by any means consider myself a religious person, although I do believe in God who watches our every move which, I guess, makes me a Theist. Anyway. I am all against religious education myself. Perhaps this stems from my bias as a believer in God, but I don't think that constant references to God in expressions that have become almost idiomatic can be considered a manifestation of religious zeal. I was not raised Muslim myself, but I do occasionally resort to using words like 'Allah qoysa', 'mashallah', 'inshallah' and 'astagfurullah', because they are just part of common Azeri folk culture having partially lost their religious connotation, and as a result, part of who I am. Besides. We have a gazillion of examples, where people were raised in a religious setting and grew up atheists, or were raised in an areligious setting and grew up religious (like all those head-scarved damsels we can come across in Baku). My point is, surrounding or secluding a child from religion will not mean anything in the long run. In fact, interfering into her every use of the word God will only raise her interest in the subject. And when she is mature enough to make her own decisions, none of this will matter.

  14. @Maple Leaf: Hi, thanks for your comment. It is not an easy subject. Yes, kids rebel, so it is important to just give them a balanced, fair outlook. I would like her to learn to question things she gets told. I don’t think she should be completely excluded from any knowledge of religion; it is impossible but also not right. Neither do I mind the cultural aspect, such as Christmas, or me saying 'Inshallah', which I also do, even though I dont believe in anyone watching me from above. :)

    She needs to know, but I just worry about the way it gets presented to them at such young age. I heard kids get most influenced between the ages of 4 and 7. Your brain sucks everything in like a sponge. That is why things she gets taught as 100% truth will have some affect in the future.

    I am curious how they teach them in Baku these days? Because, curriculum must have changed since I was a child. I wonder if they have religious education these days?

  15. Scary Azeri, between the ages of 4 and 7, kids are also told that Santa Claus leaves them presents under the tree. And many parents seem to encourage this. Yet kids choose for themselves whether to believe that or not when they're older. If to you God is just another myth, then you shouldn't be worried. You or the mister wouldn't reprimand the child for mentioning other things you don't believe in (like Santa Claus), right?

    No, they don't teach religion in Baku, but I heard that in some schools they recently introduced a hazy subject called 'Ethics' which is supposed to be a secularised summary of basic dos and don'ts.

  16. Not everyone is capable of thinking for themselves and making the right (read moral) choices. Religion is supposed to fill that gap. Yet some of the worst people we could think off go to church/mosque/temple/etc regularly and happily sin all the time.
    So whether we’re theists or atheists, teaching our kids to think for themselves AND make moral choices is the hard work of a parent. We can’t & shouldn’t delegate that to school or community or anyone else.
    As far as kids learning to respect other people’s beliefs, it can only be a good thing. But it would only work if the idea of tolerance is supported at home and in the community at large.

  17. Far too many aspects to this to tackle it in brief so my only comment (as a parent with 2 atheist children - one of whom is married to a Muslim, the other to a Catholic - 1 Catholic child, and 8 grandchildren of various persuasions - or rejections), is that kids have ways of absorbing, understanding, processing these big issues in far more sophisticated ways than we do. Let them have magic, fairies, Hogwarts, Starmen, Transformers, even an old guy sitting on a cloud. But let them know that other people may have different Starmen, old guys, etc.

  18. @ Scary:

    "@Sofisticos: I still think religion is more damaging to this world than Lenin ever was, but I see your point."

    Do you see his point, or are you merely being polite? Because it sounds like he is claiming that atheist movements *are* religious movements - specifically, that Lenin's ideas were religious. I think that a very strong case can be made for atheistic movements being "religions" in the sense of their adherence to ideology, their faith in their beliefs, and their willingness to sacrifice for a cause.

    People often forget that, like Communism, National Socialism was an atheist movement. A friend of mine once told me that he knew of a Nazi who was caught by a mob, hung upside down, and immolated. He gave a salute as he hung there, burning to death. "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake;" Matt 5:10.

    Of course, this is only one incident; it is preferable to draw conclusions on the basis of scientific surveys than hearsay and personal experience. So a left-wing psychologist by the name of Altemeyer carried out research on atheists - specifically, a group of "active" atheists affiliated with atheist clubs in San Fransisco, comparing them with religious fundamentalists. And Altemeyer found they averaged far lower on his measure of right-wing authoritarian than the fundamentalists did. Yet when measuring the atheists' dogmatism, he found their scores were high - just like the religious fundamentalists scores. Atheists are not as different from their opponents as they would like to believe.

    Let me say in closing that I realize how difficult it is to put your opinions up for others to judge the way that you do with this blog. It is even more difficult to be both honest and have friends. I am being honest about this because I respect you and I believe that you will realize this is not a personal attack any more than my ribbing about cars was. But over the years I've learned to keep things that I know - things like this, which can be easily and casually substantiated by pointing to a large body of research - to myself. No one likes having their basic assumptions called into question.

  19. @Mark

    I believe that you should be able to have an opinion, even if your opinion is not socially acceptable by the majority. I have friends who have God. I might not quite understand how it is possible, but I try to accept it. It is part of what they are and what they believe, and they are still my friends.

    I don't feel aggressive about atheism. I just dislike people treating anyone who are not religious as dirt just because they can. It seems very easy to do it in this world. It was a shock to me as I grew up in a very different society.

    And no, I don’t take your comment as a personal attack, not at all. And I am happy to be questioned on my personal assumptions; otherwise I would not bring them up in public.

    And this brings us to what to me is a very clear and basic difference between religion and atheism.

    A defining feature of all the religions is that they are founded upon a unquestionable, fundamental and axiomatic truth that is FAITH.

    Atheism on the other hand, is a position based upon consideration of evidence, and most atheists can and will question it. And as a result of questioning and searching for answers, will not accept something just because other people say it is. Should conclusive or even sufficiently convincing evidence of existence of any supernatural being suddenly arise, then the atheists will happily admit they were wrong. And this, to me, is where the main difference lies.

    Finally, a strongly held position does not make one religious. Unless you believe in a supernatural super being you are not, by definition, religious.

    Re: Stalin, Lenin, Hitler and the rest: The cult of personality is a different concept to atheism.

    PS Sofisticos is not a he, it is a she.:) Just so you know. :))

  20. @ Scary:

    The reason I believe atheism is best considered a religion is not only because its members share a common set of beliefs and attitudes on religious issues, but because atheists do indeed have faith in these beliefs.

    An atheist who lacked faith would be an agnostic. Although I have pondered the issue of God for most of my life, the best I can come up with is that maybe there is a God, and maybe there isn't. Theists make a lot of arguments about a deity, but most of them require me to accept a dubious history provided by their specific holy books. Atheists, on the other hand, don't make any arguments of their own; they are left putting out the fires set by theists. Fine, theists can't prove they're right. But just because theists make bad arguments doesn't mean that God does *not* exist - it just means that we don't really know.

    So how do atheists know? It's a big universe. In order to know that there is no God anywhere, a person would have to know much more about the universe than I know right now. Atheists don't seem better informed than I am. But somehow, atheists still know that there's no God? Persistent belief, arising from a lack of evidence or proof, is faith.

    And athetists actually have *more* faith than believers do. In Altemeyer's and Hunberger's book, "Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers," they report that 96% of atheists have no doubt about atheism, while 33% percent of Christians admit to some doubt about their god. This is a big deal, because Christians are taught and encouraged to have faith, yet they still doubt their position at higher rates than atheists do!

    You may like to think that atheists would be quick to change their position were they ever shown evidence that they were wrong. But Altemeyer's dogmatism scale, on which atheists do score high, is precisely a measure of a person's willingness to change his beliefs. In order to score high on this scale, a person must agree with statements like:

    "I am so sure I am right about the important things in life, there is no evidence that would convince me otherwise"


    "there are no discoveries or facts that could possibly make me change my mind about the things that matter most in life."

    None of this paints the picture of "totally non-religious" people, Scary. Atheists have a set of shared beliefs held with more conviction than is justified by reason alone. What do you think we should call this? A political platform? A hobbyist group? Because when I stand in a crowd of atheists talking about Richard Dawkins or the evils of the Bible or how Einstein was an atheist or how only they can see the truth, it sounds indistinguishable from religious jargon to me.


    P.S. If Sophisticos is female, she must be a powerful person indeed!

  21. @Mark: This discussion can really go on forever, as this is quite a common disagreement. :) I don't know if I am more agnostic or atheist. I think? I am an atheist, because, however hard I try to think of any-slightest!- possibility that there is a supernatural being somewhere in this universe, my logic does not accept it. Thus, I must be 99.9% atheist. However, if by some miracle I find a proof that there might actually be some supernatural being up there, I am happy to say 'Wow, fantastic! I was wrong. I might get to see my grandmother again after all!' (if of course, I don’t end up burning in hell, which might then be the case)

    So this is how I feel. I cannot speak for some other atheists that you might have met. I just know how I feel, and what evidence I read about. To me, it is about a probability based on science and evidence. And not a blind, unquestionable faith. And that to me is the difference.

    Tell me one last thing though. Do you believe in fairies? Because technically, there is no proof they don’t exist. I tend to believe strongly they don’t. Does that make me a religious person? :)))

    Peace, friiendship, festival! :)

  22. Hi, I am writing from Sheki, it is small city in Azerbaican. I don't know did you ever visited Sheki.To day Sheki is getting religious city day by day. I was child but I remember the end of Sovet era. There was no religion and life was so easy, attitude of people to each other was grate. There was no talk about something being open or close. I see how my city has changed due religion I hate it. You can obviously see how certain groups use religion to control people. What is incredible for me in religion is that religios people are talking on behalf of Allah.
    My daughter goes to schoool and there is a few topics that are about religion in there text books. Ones I heard how she reading the topic about religion. She was repeating to herself our religion is Islam, our profit is Muhammad. I found it not right teaching child religion, child is child without life experience, to teach child a religion that teacher believes or auther of the text book means not to give choice for child.

  23. @Rena: Oh, so they started teaching about Allah in Azeri schools then.

    I have been to Sheki, it is a beautiful place. I hope it remains that.

    Some of the comments here were great, I hope you looked through them? I agree that every parent has a job to try to help children to decide for themselves, and to question what they are being taught as facts.

  24. @ Scary regarding fairies:
    The known life forms on earth are myriad and strange. If there is life on this planet, and if the universe is populated with uncountably many planets, I think it is likely that many other planets also contain life. And if there is life on many other planets, then there are probably (though not necessarily) beings on one of those planets which roughly correspond with our concept of "fairies." Is this not obvious?

    It seems to me that, if we can trust our children to think about God in a similar way, without jumping to conclusions and without holding fast to beliefs in the face of the evidence, then the Gods they teach about in public school can threaten our children no more than Ded Moroz.