Secular Pantheon: what can schools learn from religions?

‘Spirituality is nothing more than the ancient and abiding quest

for something greater than ourselves – something greater than our own egos.’

Crucible Court 

JUDGE DANFORTH: A person is either with this court or against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time – we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world.


PROCTOR, his mind wild, breathless: I say — I say — God is dead!

Watching The Crucible at the Old Vic theatre in London this week, the parallels with English education were striking. Arthur Miller’s indictment of the lunacy of the 17th century Salem Witch Trials is an allegory of 20th century America’s anti-communist interrogations. But it also speaks to a modern fear of theology, and it could have been written as an allegory of an Islamaphobic inquisition in 21st century England, as Lee Donaghy and Park View school, defiant in the face of unevidenced accusations, will attest.


Propaganda Posters

I do not practise a religion, but fundamentalist atheist crusades against religion strike me as hypocritical.

Alain de Botton is changing the way many atheists and agnostics think about religion – in his own words, ‘we have secularized badly’ – instead, he looks to ‘inaugurate a new way of being an atheist’.

In a sentence, his argument is this:

“Religions are repositories of myriad lessons which can be useful for secular organisations like schools, but which have been over-hastily sacrificed and unfairly forgotten by secular minds repelled by theological doctrines.“

His TED talk is well worth a watch whenever you have 19 spare minutes:

A core idea for education that resonated with me is akrasia:a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a persistent reluctance to actually do it, through weakness of will or absent-mindedness. We all possess wisdom that we lack the strength to properly enact in our lives.’  

“We tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it. Religions are cultures of repetition. They circle the great truths again and again and again. Religions arrange time. All the major religions give us calendars. We need to structure time, we need to synchronize encounters.”

My friend and colleague Jonathan Porter, who studied Theology at Cambridge, says this line is the crux of it for him: We need institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be too undisciplined to make time for.”

Many schools, especially the best non-secular schools, already apply some of the lessons from religions, such as values, didacticism, calendars, assemblies, meals, trips and ceremonies.

What lessons can schools learn from religions more broadly? What religions provide is wisdom and guidance.


“We need reminding about what matters because we are so forgetful – many of our most important ideas get overlooked in everyday life. We know intellectually that we should be kind and empathetic – things which are easiest to forget and most life-enhancing to remember.”

“The secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude: we no longer offer up thanks for harvests, meals, sunsets, bees.”

“To be human is to partake in the dilemmas of childhood, family, work, love, ageing and dying; a common vulnerability to misfortune, disease, violence and suffering, anxiety and self-pity, disappointment, troubles, disasters and eventual annihilation, the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails. Spirituality consoles us that existence is inherently frustrating.”

Religions teach, honour and remind us of the virtues of patience, generosity, gratitude, courage, temperance, hope, forgiveness and charity; and of the vices of envy, anger, pride, vanity, greed and lust.


I asked a friend and colleague, Imad Ahmed, who is a Muslim, what he thought schools could learn from religions. He distilled it beautifully: ‘the single thing that schools can learn from religions is the teachings of values: selflessness in an egocentric world, generosity in an age where the differences between rich and poor are so stark, and to be clear-minded, courageous and just in the face of injustice, when it is hard to tell right from wrong, as it is in Trojan Horse”. The five pillars of Islam form a foundation of values for living.

Exploring the wisdom literature of Buddhism has been a revelation for me. The ideas of impermanence and transience put egotism in perspective. The four truths that our minds are agitated; that this stems from the delusions of the ego; that agitation can be cleared, and that the path to clear this agitation is mindfulness, struck me as very clear-sighted.

As De Botton says, wisdom ‘reminds us what matters for our souls – why love lies at the core of our humanity’.


Here are five guiding ideas that might help both children and adults in schools connect with the enduring wisdom of the ages. ‘Many of these methods, though remote from contemporary notions of education, could to render ideas more effective in our porous minds,’ says de Botton.

1. Paragons

A pantheon compendium would be scheduled of the lives of great role models, their virtues and a calendar of deathdays of those like William Shakespeare, William Wilberforce, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Emmeline Pankhurst, Abraham Lincoln, Sophie Scholl, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Benazir Bhutto, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

2. Parables

The greatest secular and non-secular texts and their morals would be revisited with scheduled sermons and re-readings, such as the Testing of Job, the Good Samaritan, Aesop’s Fables, Confucius’ Analects, the teachings of the Buddha, Cicero’s On The Republic, Shakespeare on power or The Seven Ages of Man, Mills’ On Liberty, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Hesse’s Siddartha, The Dalai Lama’s Art of Living, Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and many, many others.

3. Service

Communal meals with predefined thoughts for the day would have choreographed rotas and thanksgiving mechanisms: 

“We have no mechanisms for the expression of gratitude, shifting us fractionally off our accustomed egocentric axes. Meals would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths on predefined topics: what do you regret? Who can you not forgive? What do you fear?

“To ensure that profound and dignified personal bonds can be forged, a tightly choreographed agenda of activities may be more effective than leaving a group to mingle aimlessly on its own and the arrangements into which we commonly segregate ourselves.”

4. Sermons

Enduring truths and redemptive or consoling images would be on permanent display in themed galleries, and assemblies would be less like lectures and more like sermons:

“We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. What’s the difference between a sermon and our modern, secular mode of delivery, the lecture? Well a sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable, because we are in need of guidance, morality and consolation — and religions know that.”

5. Pilgrimages

‘Architecture places us for a time in thoughtfully structured space to educate and rebalance our souls’. Trips would be structured encounters with and thoughtful journeys to monuments, memorials, museums, theatres, architecture and art galleries, as well as spiritual trips such as star-gazing or an annual Zen nightfall moon-watching ceremony, or to places of worship like churches, cathedrals, temples, synagogues and mosques.


There is much that De Botton omits from his book. Shockingly, a digital search for the word ‘Muslim’ shows ‘no results’; for an American and English audience, a search for the word ‘christian’ produces ‘108 results’. Counterposed with Simon Sebag Montefiure’s book Jerusalem, which I’ve just read, an anthology of fundamentalist crusades and atrocities, and juxtaposed with religious conflict in Ireland, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, silence on the violent schismatic divisiveness of religion seems surprising. But atheist regimes in Germany, Russia and China turned brutally murderous. Violence is not the monopoly of religion. Nor is social change the preserve of atheists: Wilberforce, King, Teresa and countless other reformers were preachers. Neither is wisdom the monopoly of religion: atheist writers like Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and countless others have much to offer. But let’s not let the wisdom and guidance of the religions get lost in the evangelical atheist zeitgeist.

As de Botton says, “the wisdom of the faiths belongs to all humankind.”

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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8 Responses to Secular Pantheon: what can schools learn from religions?

  1. Pingback: Zealotry, non-thinking and devaluing the present: three things schools should NOT learn from (some) religion | For The Love Of It

  2. I’m a bit unsure about this movement to extract stuff out of religion and use it in a fully secular context. Whilst it is true that there are methodologies of remembrance employed in religions, they tend to flow from the religious calendar, and reinforce the fundamentals of the belief system under consideration. Given that religions are complete ways of life, this approach makes sense. It is worth noting, I think, that these remembrance systems aren’t aimed at children, though. They are aimed at the adults, and are an attempt to help the believing adults to be constantly aware of the faith system and the implications of the faith system to the life of the individual. Children are basically hangers on, imo. Consequently, it is the content that matters most, not the methodology employed. What world view do we want the students to have? Once this question has been answered, then the methodology best suited to bring this about can be explored.

  3. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. Pingback: Secular Pantheon? Oh noes! | e=mc2andallthat

  5. Paul says:

    Hey Joe – you were right, there is a lot I don’t like about this post 🙂 I broadly agree that the positive behaviours and structures you list are lacking in our society. But I feel we need to be careful when suggesting that we need to learn from religion. Although lots of good behaviours occur within the bounds of religion, a lot of bad ones do too. I would guess that some secular schools get this right already – I would hold them up as the examples to follow, not religion.

    My main thoughts:

    – Religion teaches faith – belief without evidence – which is highly anti-education.
    Religion teaches that it is good to believe without knowing why, because at the end of every quest for knowledge is a god or a passage from a holy book. Secular reasoning is the key thing which has given us the wealth of education and knowledge we now have.

    – You don’t *need* religion to have all the positives you attribute to religion.
    The positives you see in religion are not exclusively religious. They were around before religion and they can exist without it. Moving away from religion doesn’t mean you move away from good behaviours like repetition and making time for gratitude. I agree that religions are repositories of *some* good behaviours, but so are lots of secular groups (not enough, though, as you imply).

    – Religion does not encourage wisdom.
    I think it encourages reflection, but wisdom does not come from authority (god, bible, etc). Wisdom comes from objectively considering facts and values. You can only get this through secular reasoning without appeal to a prescribed absolute morality.

    – The good values that religion teaches are usually for the wrong reasons. Instead of saying ‘be kind’ because it’s the right thing to do (or because you would want to be treated that way), it says ‘be kind’ either because it’s what god told you to be, or because that way you’ll get into heaven. This absolves the individual of seeking to understand why doing good is a good thing.

    So I agree that Botton has assessed secular society absolutely correctly, and we need an influx of positive community behaviours and structures. But I believe these structures are *human*, not the preserve of religions (your final line). And so I would wish the call to action to be:

    ‘Make society a better place by introducing these behaviours [..] because it benefits society and the individual’
    rather than
    ‘Make society a better place by introducing these behaviours [..] because religion does them and look at the good they’re doing with them’

    I know you’re not exactly claiming the second one, but I think calls to ‘be more like religion’ can be twisted to the service of religious advocates who would introduce sectarian or segregative practices like faith schools.

    I currently participate in the Sunday Assembly, which is like a non-religious version of a church celebration. It drops the bits which talk about god and the bible, and it keeps the things that promote good values and behaviours, like gratitude, singing, reminders of good morals, deep contemplation, silence, friendship, and charity. (Incidentally, I heard that Botton didn’t like SA because he felt it copied his School of Life.)

    If you haven’t already, ask Casper about his quest to become a unitarian preacher 🙂

    Some other thoughts I had:

    – What is a fundamentalist atheist? I think what you might mean is ‘fervent’. To be described as atheist really only means one thing, it’s a position you hold on one question: “Is there a god?” It says nothing about that person’s opinions about education, gratitude, or seeking feelings of transcendence. It’s not possible to be fundamental about not believing in god – that’s like being a fundamental non-astrologer. Why do you think atheist crusades against religion are hypocritical?
    – Thanks for introducing me to ‘akrasia’. Definitely a huge part of learning and bettering oneself.

    • Paul, I am a believer. I do not accept that faith has to be belief without evidence. I only became a believer as a result of exploring the evidence, and deciding that the evidence produced the best description of reality……in my opinion. The evidence wasn’t only ‘scientific’, but was mostly around the issues of origins and purposes, but I am a scientist and evaluated that evidence against the alternative explanations. I won’t go on (Joe’s blog is faith neutral). However, I wish to see a fully secular education system, with RE lessons which explore all the major faiths prevalent in the UK (including humanism)…..I am not keen on faith schools….probably for similar reasons to you.

      • Jackdaw says:

        Well of course there are REASONS for believing.
        If you’re not engaging your intelligence in making an act of Faith then it’s not Faith. It’s fundamentalism.
        Nothing that is reasonable is antithetical to Faith and if there is a conflict then the Faith claims must be laid to one side.
        The corollary of this, however, is, as the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel correctly points out, that rationality is not reductive to biological mechanisms.
        If a believer accepts rationality and an atheist accepts a fuller more philosophical understanding of rationality then there is space to live. Relativism squirms at this point because with rationality comes the question of truth. But if we don’t rediscover our capacity to learn truths then we’re stuffed. It’s just going to end up with who has the biggest arsenal of weapons to defend their point of view.

        Fundamentalists (extreme believers), Nihilists (extreme relativists), and Reductionists (Richard Dawkins and other teenagers) will not be able to accept that deeper understanding of rationality. All the rest of us will.
        Because Isis really ARE a bunch of crazies.

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