Marilyn Mason

7 Une 2005

The O Project’s Hamish MacPherson talks to Marilyn Mason about her experience as a humanist on Kingston’s Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education

Marilyn, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I was Education Officer for the British Humanist Association (BHA) for the eight years up to my retirement in February 2006. It was a job that drew on my previous experience as a teacher, and my interests in philosophy and writing, as well as being very much in tune with my beliefs – and also one where I had to learn a lot very quickly.

Like many people, I had been a humanist for a long time, probably since my teens, but only identified myself as such rather late in life, helped by conversations with a colleague in the RE department.

Also like many people, I was initially drawn to the BHA by frustration with the conventional Christian funerals of my elderly relatives, which were completely unsuitable and irrelevant for both the deceased and their families.

You sit on the Kingston SACRE (Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education). Can you tell me what that involves?

I am a co-opted member of the SACRE; in a smallish SACRE that rarely votes on issues, co-option has made little difference to my status.

SACREs are responsible for overseeing RE (Religious Education) and collective worship in local state schools and local voluntary controlled schools, and mine meets three times a year, in the evenings.

Like much council business, SACRE meetings can be rather formal and bureaucratic, and some of the discussions are not particularly relevant to humanists or our interests, but I participate when I can and have helped with information, syllabus review, proof-reading and attending the occasional external meeting on behalf of the SACRE.

I was invited to give the annual SACRE lecture in 2006, which was probably the first time the rest of the SACRE had really heard my views on RE in general (we rarely discuss general issues in meetings).

I also acted as co-ordinator of an inter-faith conference for local sixth formers, jointly planned by the SACRE and the local inter-faith forum, and I was on the multi-faith conference panel.

How did you first get involved?

I applied to my local SACRE when I first worked for the BHA, and I think was accepted partly because I had some relevant experience by then, and partly because I had met the Chair, who was Education Officer for the Free Churches Council and attended many of the same meetings as I did.

How did the religious members react to your application?

I don’t know as I wasn’t there when my application was discussed, though I think that my Free Churches acquaintance was very supportive.

SACRE members have always been polite, though I think some of them have wondered who I was and why a non-religious person might be interested in RE. The 2006 SACRE lecture was a useful opportunity to clarify this.

What have been the positive outcomes?

Better understanding of Humanism on the SACRE at least, some positive relationships with some members, a tiny reference to teaching about Humanism in the latest local syllabus, and the occasional adjustment of RE language or tasks to make local RE more relevant to all pupils – very modest gains really.

Have you gained anything personally from SACRE?

One of my tasks at the BHA was to support other humanists on SACREs, and though they all operate differently, it was very useful professional experience to be on a SACRE.

From a personal point of view, I have learnt a bit more about the workings of my local council, Ofsted reports, and local schools’ performances, met some nice “ordinary” (as distinct from official national representatives) members of faith groups and, if I hadn’t already been working in the field at national level for the BHA, I would have learnt a vast amount about contemporary RE in schools.

Did you have any contact with religious organisations beforehand?

Yes, many, both before and since, as part of my job. For example, at the Department for Education and Skills, Department of Health and Qualification and Curriculum Authority working parties and meetings, and RE Council and Sex Education Forum meetings.

Do you remember what your initial thoughts were about working with religious groups?

I was fairly open-minded about it, having known and respected many individual religious believers and having found working in a Church of England school and sending my children to Church of England schools fairly painless.

Of course, national organisations are different and were initially a bit intimidating, particularly as RE was a new subject for me. I started off sharing many of the usual humanist prejudices about RE and was initially rather pessimistic about what could be achieved with religious groups or on my local SACRE.

Have these changed?

I found many of those working nationally in RE much more welcoming and helpful than I had anticipated.

Humanists working in RE and values education before me had earned a fair amount of respect for the BHA, and I was generally well received, particularly by those who knew something about humanist beliefs and values and our intentions in education.

Collectively, we all wanted better RE and better trained RE teachers, even if we often differed about what exactly that meant.

I found the RE world small and kindly, and receptive to Humanism and to humanists in a way that it might not have been to militant atheists, because people recognised that we had values, many of which they shared, and because none of us were setting out to convert the others or thought that that was the function of RE.

Have you encountered any resistance from either humanists or religious individuals?

On my local SACRE, perhaps the most, though not very, resistant have been local councillors who tend to be on the SACRE because they are religious believers and interested in education, but not necessarily specialists in the broader issues of religious education.

I did encounter strong resistance from one or two members of the local inter-faith forum when I put out a tentative feeler about joining, and some suspicion when working with the inter-faith forum on a local youth conference – but also support and friendliness from other members.

When I applied to be co-ordinator for the conference, I was asked if I could be neutral – though I’m pretty sure that my predecessor, a schools Christian worker, hadn’t been asked that. In fact, I think I can be more neutral between faiths, none of which I share, than someone committed to one of them!

Where do you think this resistance comes from?

My experience has been that the most resistance and anti-humanist, anti-atheist feeling comes from those least knowledgeable about it – prejudice, in other words – or from those who interpret any opposition to religious privilege as hostility to their personal faith.

In my various encounters with believers, I found fervently religious school students probably the easiest to antagonise or upset, even though I always tried to describe and defend humanist beliefs positively, rather than by being negative about their beliefs. But it isn’t always easy to talk about humanist beliefs without offending believers by implicitly, or even explicitly, criticising their beliefs or, if one is polite or positive about some aspects of religion, by appearing patronising.

Probably my most hostile encounters have been with conservative Muslims, both students and adults, whose misogyny and absolute belief in the omniscience of the Qur’an can make constructive dialogue a challenge. But I’ve also had some very encouraging and positive conversations with Muslims, young and old.

Have there been any other obstacles or difficulties?

On my SACRE and on other forums I have almost always been outnumbered by all the faith group representatives – representing humanists can sometimes feel rather lonely, and, while organised Humanism remains so small, one is always vulnerable to the accusation that one isn’t really representing anyone much.

Perhaps the biggest difficulties on my SACRE are my boredom  and their niertia. Inertia mainly due to limited funds for syllabus development and their very limited appetite for substantive change.

So how do you deal with the resistance and ill-feeling?

Antagonism seems to be avoided in most adult multi-faith encounters by avoiding raising and arguing about differences – groups and organisations tend to focus on the task in hand, not theological differences – and by the principle of “charity”, that is, not assuming the worst of other people, and I think this a largely good thing.

On the SACRE, long and co-operative service has probably overcome some misgivings about my presence. When outnumbered, one has to remember (and say) that the religious minorities in Britain number far less than the non-religious population.

Beyond that, I haven’t always succeeded.

I tend not to want to join clubs that don’t want me, and by nature I’m probably not persistent enough to overcome all obstacles and prejudices – if you can’t get a foot in the door and actually meet your opponents, prejudices do persist.

But outside work, I have, like most, worked with people of many different beliefs on various causes and campaigns, where religious belief is rarely, if ever, an issue.

From a humanist perspective why do you think it is important co-operate with our religious fellow-citizens?

Religious extremism seems to be on the rise, and the Government seems to have no idea how to deal with it, opting instead to emphasise and exacerbate religious identities and divisions by encouraging “community leaders”, faith-based welfare, and faith schools. So perhaps it’s up to all of us, whatever our beliefs, to demonstrate that people have more similarities than differences, and that we can live and work together without serious friction.

I think there are so many pressing problems – such as climate change, world poverty, war – that we really do have to pull together if we are to overcome them, not dissipate our efforts in squabbles about religious doctrines and traditions (most of which, let’s face it, mean nothing to humanists, so perhaps we could ignore them, or at least the harmless ones).

Do you have any tips, advice or principles for people that might want to get involved in similar work?

I’d advise focusing on what you have in common with the others – the task, the cause, the fact that we are all human – and arguing your case coolly and rationally and politely.

Don’t let being outnumbered or patronised get to you – there are in fact many of us (see the BHA website for some supportive statistics), and you will also doubtless find allies amongst the religious believers.

To avoid misunderstandings and talking at cross-purposes, terms (like for example “spiritual” or “moral”) sometimes need to rigorously clarified before dialogue can proceed.

When differences are insurmountable, you may just have to agree to disagree – you are very unlikely to convert people with strongly held beliefs to a humanist worldview.

Do you see any limits to dialogue with religious people?

Dialogue may be limited by our inability to fully understand religious belief or to join in their prayers and services, however multi-faith – and theirs to understand non-believers.

We are never going to agree with the some of the concerns of some religious people, for example that society is becoming “too secular”..I wish!… or the oft expressed beliefs that everyone is religious at heart and that we will all repent on our deathbeds.

Is there anything you’d like to see humanists do differently?

I think we should stop criticising and mocking religious people, particularly Christians, for believing things that they don’t in fact believe.

Many religious people are only nominally members of faith groups, hanging on to the community and its culture and traditions long after they have cast off most of the beliefs.

I know that many humanists think that this is weak and hypocritical, and it would certainly be much easier for organised humanism if all these “fellow- travellers” came out as humanists, but I also think we should recognise that clinging to traditions and to comforting beliefs are aspects of human nature and learn to live with then.

We should also stop assuming that all religious believers are hostile to us and everything we stand for; for example, many religious believers share humanist/secularist opposition to faith schools, and many support voluntary euthanasia.

Is there anything you’d like to see religious people do differently?

Some religious people, though by no means all, still think they have a monopoly on moral values and behaviour – and it is always annoying and offensive when they say so, particularly if they are in positions of influence.

One of the benefits of inter-faith dialogue is that faith groups, officially at least, rarely say anything bad about each others beliefs and values, and I’d like to see that minimal respect extended to us too.

And I’d like some religious people to stop trying to impose their beliefs, rules and values on everyone else, for example on abortion and voluntary euthanasia, or teaching creationism in Science lessons, or insisting on collective worship in schools.

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