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Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

Childhood and the Politics of Atheism

How would the politics of atheism be enriched and deepened by attending the perspectives of children? And how might making space for children shift our conceptualizations of ‘the political’?

Schools are often the object of highly-politicized debates about the place of religion and belief in public life. For instance, concerns expressed by atheist and secularist organizations about state-funded faith schools or religious symbols or practices such as prayers in schools often invoke fears of indoctrination, with the child’s freedom of belief or autonomy seen as threatened through the presence of religion. While often predicated on ideas of children as embodiments of innocence and of the future, in these debates, as Susan Ridgely argues, children’s own experiences and voices are often marginalized.

Because news media tend to be drawn to stories which frame social life in terms of conflict, coverage of these debates often portrays atheism in terms of the anti-religious stances of prominent atheist organizations and actors, such as the New Atheists, whose politically-oriented atheism centres on atheist identity politics and secularist campaigning in relation to schools. However, atheism is a much more diverse phenomenon than these institutions and elite actors, who represent a relatively narrow range of atheist perspectives. In Britain, for instance, the recent World Values Survey indicated that fewer than half the population (49%) now believe in God, and this de facto atheism – in the sense of an absence of belief in God, or living life “as if there is no god,” as historian Callum Brown puts it – is especially pronounced amongst younger generations. This raises questions about what it might look like for the politics of atheism to incorporate a much broader range of atheist and other so-called “non-believing” perspectives, including those of children, and how this might enrich and deepen conceptions of the politics of atheism.

            The relative absence of children’s voices in contemporary public debates about atheism and religion reflects how dominant ways of thinking about politics have historically excluded children. While Childhood Studies from the 1980s onwards sought to address this through emphasizing that children are political subjects, there has been relatively little attention to the fundamental question of how children actually “do politics,” as David Oswell notes in his chapter “What Space for a Children’s Politics? Rethinking Infancy in Childhood Studies” (199). Studies within the sociology of childhood have tended to focus on children as political in the sense of their being accorded rights, responsibilities and access to resources to act out those rights – in other words, modelling children’s politics on conventional constructions of adult politics (202). But, as Oswell argues, thinking about “the spaces of children’s politics” requires rethinking “dominant models through which politics has been conceptualized” in terms of a “free individual expressive subject within res publica” (203).

Rather than conventional conceptualizations, we might instead approach politics as the sharing of a common space of appearance so that public concerns can be articulated and negotiated from plural perspectives, as Hannah Arendt explored, or as, as Oswell suggests, as “the processes through which actors and resources bring about social change” (204). These conceptions afford greater space for children, inviting attention to the extent to which common spaces of appearance for children to express concerns are supported, and whether children are enabled to articulate their concerns in ways that might effect social change. Drawing on how feminist scholarship has recognized how politics is always interwoven with embodied practices, emotions, and affective registers, we might, as Oswell suggests, also explore how children’s political expressions are not only articulated through “speech” or ideas of rights and responsibilities but also through embodied, relational interactions, actions, and practices (208-210). In relation to atheism, this might include exploring whether and how atheism might be imbricated as children reveal their perspectives and concerns through both spoken and unspoken modes of expression in response to the forms of religion or secularity that they encounter in their school worlds. 

            In current research I am working on with colleagues Joanna Malone (University of York), Peter Hemming (University of Surrey) and Sarah Neal (University of Sheffield), entitled “Becoming Citizens of  ‘Post-secular’ Britain,” funded by the Leverhulme Trust, we are exploring how children in primary schools are active in expressing their own lived citizenship in relation to religion. These questions are inevitably political, bound up with how religion is interwoven – or not – in the ideas of citizenship that schools seek to inculcate, and how children enact their responses to this. Despite the growth of atheist and non-religious populations in Britain, religion remains present in schooling in a number of ways, including within Religious Education in school curricula and in the legal requirement for schools to provide collective worship or religious observances, as well as the large numbers of state-funded faith schools.

While non-religious organizations such as Humanists UK have had long-standing campaigns to reduce the influence of faith bodies within education – for instance, seeking to ensure that non-religious perspectives are taught within Religious Education – how do children who express atheist perspectives respond to the particular forms of religion they encounter in schools? Which aspects, if any, do they contest and seek to change, and which do they accept? What kinds of spaces for their politics, if any, are afforded in schools for them to articulate their views and concerns? 

Addressing these questions, our project is a multi-sited ethnographic study examining the experiences of children (aged 8-11 years old) with a broad range of religious and non-religious identities and beliefs – including atheist children – as well as their parents, in four contrasting areas in England, Wales, and Scotland. Comparing the experiences of children in these different fieldsites reveals how forms of atheism – as well as the politics interwoven here – vary across places. One of the schools is a community school in a small former mining town in South Wales – which according to the 2021 census is amongst the least religious parts of England and Wales. In this school, if we describe the children as “atheist,” this is in the sense of atheism as “without God” – and thus the children here were for the most part living “their lives as if there is no god” rather than self-identifying as atheist. Some children here, when asked whether they had a religion, were unsure what “religion” meant, while some – not necessarily self-identifying as atheists – explained that they did not believe in God.

For the most part, issues of religion and belief were of relatively little salience for children in this school, with many commenting that they were not interested in religion. Yet at the same time, they also articulated a politics of mutual respect in relation to religion. For instance, when asked whether she was interested in religion or spoke about it much, Hallie a ten-year-old pupil, replied, “No, it’s just that we respect everyone’s religion or who they are because we’re not like one of those people who they’re like, ‘No, we don’t really allow that.’” Here we see how alongside her atheism, Hallie was keen to emphasize the importance of respect for religious difference and to distance herself from those who might not share this stance. Despite her relative lack of interest in religion, she noted she would feel comfortable expressing her non-religious perspectives with her classmates, commenting “because I’m fine with their religion, they should be fine with mine because I don’t have one and I’m fine with theirs, then they should really support me for not having one.” 

This political ethic of mutual respect in relation to non/religious difference was also articulated by children in our other fieldsites. Michael, who was a pupil at a superdiverse primary school in northern England, and was unsure whether he was an atheist, likewise articulated the importance of respect. When asked what he felt was important in the school in terms of how people treat each other, he replied, “be respectful to anyone’s beliefs. If they think that something’s better than another, then just be respectful.” He and other pupils at his school were much more interested in religion than the pupils at Hallie’s school, chatting, for instance, with their Muslim, Hindu, or Christian classmates about particular aspects of religious practice or belief.

This emphasis on respect for religious difference strongly resonates with another research project I have been working on with Rachael Shillitoe (University of Birmingham), entitled Non-religious Childhoods: Growing Up Unbelieving in Contemporary Britain, which focuses specifically on atheist children in three different primary schools in England, and also reveals that they mostly express an ethic of respect for religious – and other kinds of – difference. In both this and the “Becoming Citizens of Post-secular Britain” project, we found that atheist children often expressed critiques of the presence of Christian prayers in collective worship in schools, or about the dominance of Christianity in Religious Education (RE) lessons.

These critiques were sometimes articulated verbally, for instance, describing the repetitive focus on Christianity as “boring” or commenting that they preferred learning about non-Christian faiths. But they were also expressed through non-verbal means, for instance, in a rural Church of England school in southern England, many children expressed a critique of the dominance afforded to Christianity in RE – in contrast with the lack of curriculum time afforded to atheist or non-religious perspectives – through their relative non-engagement in these lessons. Moreover, this non-engagement was not limited to atheist children, revealing how atheist children’s stances on the place of religion in their school worlds are not unique to them and may be widely shared by children with a range of religious perspectives. Yet, this non-engagement in RE was not a feature in all schools – in the superdiverse school in northern England, for instance, many children spoke about how much they liked RE and engaged enthusiastically in discussions and activities in RE lessons.

If, following Oswell, we conceptualize the political as the process through which social change happens, then the expressions articulated by children who embody a broad range of stances – including atheist, theist, and diverse non/religious perspectives – of respect and equality in relation to religious plurality are political in the sense that this ethic helps to normalize a pluralist politics in relation to religion. At the same time, children’s political agency to effect curriculum change, for instance, in relation to aspects of RE that they do not agree with is limited. However, the ways in which children do or do not engage with the forms of religion they encounter in RE – with enthusiastic engagement in some schools contrasted with critiques or quiet refusals in others – can also be seen as political in the sense that the children are co-constructing spaces in which particular religious, atheist, secularist, or other stances in relation to the place of religion in public life are felt as desirable or undesirable. And in this sense, they also effect social change, albeit in a different register from adult actors who have responsibility for shaping education policy on these issues.

While many of the political stances we saw being expressed are not unique to atheist children, they nevertheless contribute to opening up the diversity of the politics of atheism. Indeed, these children challenge the often-narrow range of anti-religious atheist voices that tend to be most amplified in the politics of atheism. The children’s respectful and pluralistic stances in relation to religion contrasts, for instance, with the more strident tones of New Atheist perspectives, inviting further attention to the practices, relations, and interactions through which this lower-case politics may be enacted in everyday spaces such as classrooms and children’s interactions

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