"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Accommodating Religious Practice

The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents UK exam boards has recently announced that heavily subscribed GCSE and A level exams will be held a week earlier this year to accommodate Muslim children who may be observing Ramadan and fasting during the main exam period.

This strikes me as a correct and humanistic thing to do primarily because the children and young people affected are at an age when personal, peer and parental pressure to conform will be very strong and their capacity to make well informed pragmatic choices about religion and religious practice may not be fully developed. The system should protect children from their own and their parent’s follies at this critical stage in their education so far as is practicable given fasting is a known and obvious risk factor for reduced performance in this growing minority.

This is not, to my way of thinking, about “creeping sharia” or religious privilege but about maximising the potential of a future generation of productive individuals. But…

…as a society we should be wary about giving the signal that religious practice, that’s any religious practice of any faith tradition, is an inevitable consequence of belonging to a religion. Religion and the practice of it is always a choice in a secular democracy and should not be unquestioningly pandered to in the same way we should accommodate race, gender or disability. Adult believers ought to be expected to accept the consequences of their decisions to impair their performance, career choices, health and opportunities by practicing their religion if that is the result.

It could be argued that as a formerly Christian country, British Christians are privileged in that national holidays are arranged around their festivals and this is true at least to the extent that the pagan and agricultural cycles they usurped still mark the rhythms of this country’s life. But it would make no difference to minority faiths if those holiday seasons were based on any arbitrary calendar that ignored their own traditions and just as Hindu or Muslim countries would not alter their calendars to accommodate Christians there is no reason for the UK to do so.

So, good on the exam boards for helping Muslim children maximise their potential with this small concession that will not adversely impact other children as long as they plan their revision to the timetable given (which they should be doing anyway). But let’s beware of making this a wider principle by privileging religious beliefs with a status they do not merit.

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