Religious symbolism in classrooms has again become an issue in European countries, with the European Court of Human Rights ruling against Italy in a case brought by a mother who wanted to ensure a secular education for her children.
She complained that in every classroom in the school in Northern Italy, there was a crucifix on the wall. Such an endorsement by a secular educational establishment of a particular religion denies the right of the child to choose whether or not to believe it. It also restricts the rights of parents to bring up their children in a manner consistent with their convictions. So said the ruling.
This recent judgment was understandably unpopular with the Catholic Church, which denounced, through a Vatican spokesman, the interference in such a "profoundly Italian matter" and argued for respecting the country's Christian heritage. Such appeals to culture, though, demanding respect for traditional symbols, are controversial not least because in Italy, the hanging of crucifixes in classrooms was established through the Lateran Treaties between Mussolini's Fascist party and the Vatican.
Mussolini negotiated the Catholic Church's acceptance and support of the fascist state by making Catholicism the state religion. Mussolini instituted a fascist education regime, backed by the Catholic Church – in the classroom, the use of fascist education books was presided over by the crucifix on the wall.
This close link between the Vatican and fascist regimes of the past inevitably suggests a parallel between political indoctrination and religious indoctrination.
It is clear that the church authorities see the ban of religious symbols in classrooms as a fundamental attack on their rights, but it is worth questioning first why this is seen as such a serious challenge, and second, why they feel it is so important to display Christian symbols to children.
The old Jesuit motto "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" is a potent indication of the power of indoctrinating young children. Religious institutions are very well aware that inculcating belief in young children is essential for maintenance of membership and recruitment into their churches. They do it because it works. Any restriction on their access to young children will mean that many more children will grow up willing to question the rationality of a belief in a God.
They argue that it is essential that specifically Christian values be taught to children, and that in the absence of religious teaching, they will grow up without the right moral values. But this claim is specious. We get our moral values from the society we live in, and it is difficult to find any specifically religious values that are not also secular values. Almost all societies promote social cohesion: consideration of others, equality before the law, protection of the individual and property. In fact, the morality of society generally is broader than the relatively restricted moral precepts of religions.
Educating children in a secular environment does not in any way limit their ability to develop morally and ethically. In fact, a strong case can be made that they will be ethically stronger if they do not wrap their moral values in religious dogma. Being able to see the relativity of values across cultures, to accommodate a range of beliefs, to understand the social differences and similarities between societies, to appreciate the historical development of social institutions (including churches) – all that helps children develop a much more solid and personal morality. A secular education provides a more secure and consistent basis for ethics and morality amongst young people.
Europe has moved towards protecting children from indoctrination, both religious and political. It has behind it the cultural experience of the mass indoctrination of a generation into political ideologies that led to conflict and slaughter on a world scale. In the madrassas of Pakistan, that process of indoctrination is still happening. Small wonder then that the Court in Strasbourg is conscious of the power of such influence in the education of young people.
And although the religious institutions want to distance themselves from association with those regimes which indoctrinated children into political ideologies, instilling religious belief in children is not so very different. The overlap between religious and secular values may appear to make it seem less of an issue, but in that case, why are the churches so upset by the ruling? Children can develop morally and ethically without religion and they should be given the opportunity to do so.
The only clear, consistent way to protect the rights of children not to be indoctrinated is to support full secular education, free of religious bias, without the presence of religious symbols on the walls, without daily prayers, without the expectation that the children will subscribe to a set of religious beliefs.
They should be informed about those beliefs, without any expectations that they will subscribe to them. They should be taught about the ideas. There is a world of difference between teaching children about the factual nature of the world, and teaching them religious beliefs. We want children to be able to see the difference between fact and belief and make their own decisions.
So what happens to the wearing of the hijab, the yamulka, the cross worn around the neck, the fish badge? Individual students making a statement about themselves, about their own beliefs, surely have that right. It would be an infringement of their right to express their beliefs to ban such elements. These are not symbols backed up by the authority of the school, as they would officially be if placed on the walls.
But having teachers wearing similar symbols is problematic. Because they are role models, because they exercise authority, because their knowledge and judgment are sources of respect, they could well be inadvertently or deliberately using that power relation to influence the pupils' beliefs. Teaching beliefs is not the same as teaching factual material and it is essential that a distinction is made between them. It is of course a matter of professional integrity for teachers that they refrain from influencing their pupils in this way.
There will be strong opposition from the European churches, who see the ruling in support of secular education as a challenge to their rights. But we should all be questioning the rights they claim to have access to children in the context of education, and why they regard it as so important. It's not a question of respecting heritage, or history, or culture. It's about recruitment into religious beliefs. Should we really still be subjecting our children to such treatment?