The National Secular Society have more faith in evangelism than we do

I was scrolling through twitter (as you do) and landed upon this from the National Secular Society:

Interested in what they perceived as ‘missionary work’ and their view of just how evangelical groups were ‘exploiting’ schools, I thought I’d see what they were getting at.

I am particularly interested in this because I see the issue from two different sides. I used to be a Religious Studies teacher in secular comprehensive schools. I also taught a bit of History and Politics, but RS & Philosophy was the main gig. So, I know precisely what we are doing and looking for when we invite outside speakers into our lessons.

I never invited outside speakers into the school that did not serve the curriculum we were teaching. They were never invited in without a clear remit of what they were there to speak about. The pupils never had outside speakers put in front of them without some preamble about who the speaker was, what they had come to talk about and why they were there as far as what they were meant to be learning was concerned. As you would expect, outside speakers included people of all religions and none talking about their specific religion/philosophy/ethical system as it pertained to whatever it was we were studying. After all, RE is mainly concerned with learning about what different religions, philosophies and ethical systems believe about the world and how to navigate it. The whole point is to aid our understanding of what different people think and why so that we can understand each other better and engage more helpfully with one another. It is also about helping students learn to think through these issues for themselves, teaching them critical thinking skills and philosophical ideas. You need to engage with a range of views to do that and always best to do that with the actual views of proponents of these positions rather than attempting to (often badly) explain what people think for them.

The other side of this which interests me is the evangelical mission side. I have been into schools with evangelical groups who are there – quite pointedly and upfront – to speak about their faith. I never did this whilst I was an RE teacher and certainly never in my own school. I didn’t feel that was appropriate. I was initially even very coy about admitting in front of any pupils what my own faith was. As I previously commented here:

I remember a discussion with a head of department regarding my being a Christian. I said that I was coy about it in the classroom because I didn’t want the pupils to say things just to impress me or write essays to curry favour. My high view of myself was quickly deflated with a simple question, ‘do you really think you have that much influence?’ From that point on, I was less quiet about it when it came up and – as far as I can remember – nobody changed their views or opinions because of it.

But I have been invited into schools on an evangelical ticket to talk about that. So, I have seen this question of outside speakers from both sides of the fence.

But the NSS have their concerns. They believe evangelicals are using the laws around daily acts of worship and the naivety of schools to get a foot in the door and proselytise pupils. They claim:

Our state schools are being targeted and exploited by evangelical groups as part of their missionary work. Schools are often acting with good intentions, but are too often naive and un-prepared to set appropriate boundaries. Meanwhile, parents are too often not informed of the visits of backgrounds of groups.

Apparently, they think schools are a bit stupid. They think that RE teachers don’t know when they have invited evangelicals into the school and, when they do, they might talk about their particular brand of evangelical Christianity. The NSS see clearly what schools do not: evangelicals might try to share their faith in a school that has invited them to share their faith so that pupils might hear about their faith and critically assess what they think of it.

They insist, ‘None of the [school] policies clearly prohibited religious proselytization, nor required a teacher/staff member to introduce an external visitor and make clear that they are representing their religious views.’ But what do they think happens at the beginning of a lesson where an outside speaker has been invited in? Do they reckon ‘who is that?’ won’t be the first question pupils want to know? That will be followed up by ‘why are they here?’ and – the favourite question in every subject including and beyond RE – ‘what is the point of this?’ Some explanation of who this person is and why they are here has to happen, whether a policy says so or not. I’ve never not seen it happen.

I am most surprised that they single out evangelicals on this front. Muslims, Hindus, Atheists and all manner of others are frequently invited in – with children taken to their respective places of worship too – to hear from the horses mouth what they happen to believe about things. The school actively ask them to come in, speak about their faith and are entirely unsurprised when they come in and share about their faith because that is what they have been asked to come and do! I’m not sure how else they hope students will helpfully engage with viewpoints beyond their own otherwise. Teachers can teach these views if they want, but usually they do a much worse job of describing what people actually believe than proponents of that belief themselves. Why are the NSS singling out evangelical Christians?

I also wonder whether the NSS think this view should be taken for all other outside speakers too? Should everybody have to explain their particular ethical framework before speaking to children? I think they should. But that means one can’t hide behind a veneer of ‘neutral secularism’, as if there is any such thing. If we want our children to learn critical thinking, it helps them to be know who is saying what to them and what vested interests are at play. I have no problem with asking evangelicals to tell people they are evangelical and this is what they understand about the world within that framework. But I think that should apply to everyone in all subjects. Everything that involves interpretation – from our scientific observations to our history through to our religious and philosophical frameworks – will be impacted by our prior assumptions. It helps children to know the stable from which interpretations are coming.

I also wonder whether the NSS are willing to apply this to apparently secular positions? They seem keen to make sure parents are aware of which outside speakers will be in school. Personally, I am all for that. I think parents should be able to withdraw their children from lessons that they believe are excessively ideologically driven. Which begs the question whether they were they supportive of the Muslim parents, for example, who took issue with the secular sex education curriculum being taught in Birmingham? Are they supportive of parental choice and information about what their children will be taught in this instance, or are they only concerned for parental choice when it comes to religious views they don’t hold?

On this I probably agree with the NSS, I do not think there should be a legal requirement for assemblies of a ‘mainly Christian nature’ in schools when the majority of families sending their children to the average comprehensive do not identify that way. And the drivel that tends to pass for ‘mostly Christian’ is, in my view, more damaging to any efforts at evangelism than helpful. Most of it isn’t what evangelicals would consider very evidently Christian. If I shared the NSS view, I’d be campaigning to keep this in law! Those evangelicals that do go in and share what they consider to be Christian are usually announced as people with a faith – and usually announce themselves as people with a faith – that they are there to share. Often, it is the local evangelical pastor or vicar doing it! You would have to be a cretin of the highest order NOT to know that, especially as they tend to say ‘I’m the pastor from such and such a church’.

But that, neatly, brings me to the point. The NSS have far more faith in evangelical mission than evangelicals do. Whilst I am sure some examples might be found from somewhere, I am not aware of many people who trace their conversion to Christianity down to some assemblies and RE lessons they heard at school. But they are convinced this is a major evangelistic tool. They seem to think somebody standing at the front of a school assembly, simply sharing what they happen to believe the Bible says and why they think it matters, will be impacting children up and down the country in profound ways. That is a faith which is lacking in many evangelical believers, even those inclined to go into schools who believe the opportunity to be really solid.

But just imagine having that much faith in the power of a testimony or sharing our faith. The NSS believe that we will unduly influence children simply by taking a 5-minute slot in an assembly. Most of us don’t reckon we would have that impact in a month of Sundays! The NSS think that a little 5-minute God-slot at the beginning of a day of learning every now and then will lead to conversion, or at least serious questions being asked. I’m not sure many of us have that much faith in our ongoing, regular evangelistic efforts. Why is it that the NSS have more faith in the power of evangelism that evangelicals do?