Must parents be zealots for their children's education? : DILEMMAS

This week's problem: the only good primary school in the neighbourhood is run by the church and in order to get their small son a place in it, Patrice and her husband are obliged to attend a church service every Sunday - even though they are non-belie
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Were she a committed Buddhist, Muslim, humanist or atheist, Patrice might have some grounds for feeling hypocritical when she and her husband attend church each week. But they are not. When it comes to religion, they are sort-of, kind-of types. And so are lots of the people found in pews every Sunday.

They go for friendship, out of a sense of duty, because their parents did; they are drawn by the music, the singing, the language... or just enjoy an hour of stillness in their week. Ask any members of the congregation; if they're honest, they won't all claim to believe. Most would like to believe, or believe now and again.

Anyway, Patrice and her husband may believe much of the Bible is a load of codswallop, but you'd have to be almost a satanist to feel like washing your mouth out after saying the words "love your neighbour" or "God is love".

Why does the church school demand that parents attend church every Sunday before they accept children as pupils? The church surely knows half its communicants, before the choice of pupils is made, are of course there more for the teachers than the preachers. But perhaps seeing whether the would-be pupils' parents can take the discipline of getting up earlier than usual and attending church each week does at least sort out the very keen from the luke-warm. And it weeds out those parents who are not even prepared to give religion a try. Arguably it is also a legitimate way of getting more bums on pews.

The ultimate purpose of Patrice and her husband is to find a better education for their child. The requirement for their chosen school is that they go to church for a period of time before a decision is made - which they are doing. Whether they want their child brought up with Christian dogma shovelled down his throat is another matter, but he will have parental scepticism at home to keep everything in perspective. At least if he decides in the end that religion is not for him, he will have something to reject. And, most importantly, something - if only an idea of something "other" - to return to at a later stage if he changes his mind about spiritual matters.

Patrice loves her son and wants the best for him. She also clearly has a conscience as big as the Ritz. As we all know, these feelings rarely have much to do with religion, but it seems to me as if she has already won herself a passport into the kingdom of some kind of god, whether she likes it or not.

I hope the parents of this child will spare a thought for the victims of their fraud. Church schools are often oversubscribed, hence the requirements for Church attendence and parish commitments, and there are often genuine church attenders who are unable to find places for their children.

We spent a worrying month before Christmas waiting to hear if our daughter had a place at a church school because there were so many applications from temporary believers. It is possible that they may be disappointed once he starts - prayers up to five times in a day, visits to the local church and a heavy emphasis on Christian attitudes to life. So, please leave the church schools to those children for whom they are intended.

Geraldine Mclay, Essex

I am a firm atheist who has found herself attending church every Sunday, along with my three children, in order to gain a place at a highly desirable secondary school. At first, the idea filled me with horror - I cannot bear hypocrisy and to connive in this bare-faced lie felt shameful.

However, I consoled myself with the thought that my children would not necessarily follow my way of thinking and should be allowed to have a choice in the matter of their religious beliefs. They all attend the Sunday school, and thoroughly enjoy themselves. I do not pretend to them that I believe and make a point of giving them the alternative point of view whenever possible. I enjoy the music, I relish the unanswerable points that each week's sermon raises for me, and I do not join in the prayers.

Listening to the Old Testament readings and the prayers, I have realised that although I will never feel less than hypocritical for attending, I am not the only one there guilty of this "sin". The hypocrisy of religion is solemnly paraded for me every week, with its Biblical tales and preachings that have no place in the real world, held up as moral values we should all follow.

I hope that my children will at least gain a balanced view of religion from our combined teachings and I know that their destined school will be worth the sacrifice on my part.

So do not agonise unnecessarily over your decision - if you put your children first, surely that is a Christian act that any churchgoer would condone.

Anonymous, Cambridgeshire

I am surprised to find myself recommending that Patrice and her husband attend their church for the sake of their child's education, while possibly bringing some benefit to themselves.

Having no real convictions and feeling the need to wear a label saying `I don't believe it you know', I began to go to the Salvation Army over- sixties' club, simply for the singing and I told the officer I had no religious convictions.

I find, however, that there is something about true believers that rubs off on others and at least does them no harm. So we must not be too spiky. Many people who attend church cannot honestly repeat the creed - and they may well believe it was Constantine who rather imposed it on his rabble for the sake of unity.

Anonymous, Nottinghamshire

The school is obviously a good one, and maybe a contributory factor is that it is a church school. Patrice is giving her son the best chance in life and the great gift of being able to discover faith for himself. He will hopefully receive good education and a chance to make up his own mind about Christianity and faith generally.

It is all very well to allow young people to make up their own minds on this subject but how can one make a decision about religion when one has been brought up in a spiritual vacuum? If he receives a Christian education, he will be in an excellent position either to reject or embrace Christianity or, indeed, any other faith.

My advice is definitely to send him to this school.

Yours sincerely

Alison Carman, London

NEXT WEEK'S DILEMMA

Dear Virginia,

Ever since she was sacked from her job last year, my wife has become more and more housebound. She used to ask me to do the shopping on my way back from work because I passed a big supermarket, but now she is even asking me to go at weekends. I have noticed we go out less and less, and she has been "ill" on the last three times we've been invited out. Her parents asked us to lunch this weekend, and though she was keen, she suddenly cried off, saying she was too busy. When I said I'd go anyway, she burst into tears and begged me not to leave her alone. It seems she might be suffering from some kind of phobia. But I am reaching the point where it is also starting to affect me. It's too much of a burden, working and doing all the outside chores, and not even going out myself. And yet I feel terribly cruel if I so much as bring up the subject.

Yours sincerely, Greg

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 071-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know.

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