In the 1950s the Humanist Margaret Knight contributed two ground-breaking BBC radio broadcasts on morals without religion, aimed at non-religious parents. In her first broadcast, Mrs Knight said that her talks were aimed at ordinary men and women who wondered what to teach the children about moral behaviour, when they didn’t have any religious beliefs. Her second broadcast ended with the words, “I have never yet met the child – and I have met very few adults – to whom it has ever occurred to raise the question: ‘Why should I consider others?’ Most people are prepared to accept as a completely self-evident moral axiom that we must not be completely selfish, and if we base our moral training on that we shall, I suggest, be building on far firmer foundations than if we base it on vague and obscure and dubious statements about the supernatural government of the universe.”
The reaction to Mrs Knight’s broadcasts was predictably hysterical and abusive from those who believed that children must be indoctrinated as good little Christians. One journalist described her as “a dangerous woman” and “a menace”. There are still people who think like that today – if anything, there seem to be more of them. Their reaction to the liberalisation of Religious Education shows this.
Humanists feel very strongly that children should be taught about right and wrong, and set an example of good behaviour. However, we also feel that a child has a right to be taught these things without the indoctrination of religion from the age of five or younger. A Humanist approach to parenting is a balanced approach, thinking through any course of action rather than slavish adherence to someone else’s rules. It means being consistent; not swinging between extremes of total indulgence or total repression. It means teaching children to understand themselves as co-operative individuals, part of one human community, with all the responsibilities and rewards that entails.
Parents can’t be perfect; they can only do their best. The golden rule of Humanism is ‘don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like done to you’, which can be applied to parenting as to all other relationships. Despite all the publicity given to so-called family values and the alleged perils of single parenting, children will usually do well if they’re loved and cared for, whatever sort of family they come from. Good role models aren’t stereotypes. To help a child face life with confidence, teach him or her to think, answer his or her questions. Often a questioning, critical attitude is seen as a problem; it holds things up, interferes with timetables and commitments. Harassed teachers and parents brush questions aside with impatience, conditioning children to regard asking questions as a nuisance. In adulthood people who’ve learned to react, not think, become bigots, ready to accept any suggestion of ‘them’ being different from ‘us’.
A leading Humanist, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, said ‘Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do’. In her book, ‘Morals without Religion’ (now out of print), which includes the scripts from her broadcasts, Margaret Knight wrote, “The essence of Humanism is that it is non-supernatural. It is concerned with man rather than God, and with this life rather than the next. Its morality derives from altruistic principles, reinforced by training, not from divine commands; the moral act, to the Humanist, is the act that is conducive to human well-being, not the act ordained by God.”
See also “Parenting without God – experiences of a Humanist mother” by Jayne Wynne Willson, available through online book sites.
Comment from a friend, after reading the above, “…we also feel that a child has a right to be taught these things without the indoctrination of religion from the age of five or younger”. My friend wrote that this struck a chord, “…because today, on Radio 4 I think, there was a programme about Dave Allen, and one of the subjects discussed with him was his anger at religion and his Catholic religious up-bringing. He recounted that he had been admonished by a priest not to do naughty things ‘because God is not only three beings (God, Father, Holy Ghost), he is everywhere, and sees everything that everybody does, do you understand?’ Dave Allen had found it difficult to understand because, at the time, he was four years old!” (Dave Allen died in March 2005).