Is banning prayers in school discriminatory?

Michaela Secondary School and Sixth Form lead by Katherine Birbalsingh is openly secular. It is also the BEST school in the country. It has ranked number 1 for Progress 8 in the last two years. It gets better GCSE results than many private schools despite having 25% of its pupils on Free School Meals.

For eight years they had no prayers in school, and provided no prayer rooms for pupils, making this clear to the students and parents before they chose the school.

Now, one of the school’s pupils is suing the school on the basis that the prayer ban is discriminatory. Birbalsingh is fighting back against this and wants to maintain the prayer ban for the benefit of everyone else.

Historical Context to the prayer ban

When they opened in 2014 30% of the school population was Muslim, which the school has since grown to 50%.

Birbalsingh points out that it is not possible for the school to have prayer rooms and maintain its strict ethos of silent corridors and staff attending ‘family lunches’ where children eat together in assigned groups of six.

This is because they don’t have enough space to provide prayer rooms for 350 Muslim pupils, so would have to open up many of the classrooms instead, which would mean removing bags and books and other pupils carrying all of their stuff with them. It would have knock on effects, probably meaning corridors would not be silent.

Because of the lack of prayer rooms pupils were allowed to pray outside, but somehow word spread outside the school that were no prayer rooms and an online petition was created to encourage the school to get indoor prayer rooms (which wouldn’t work).

The petition escalated into threats against school staff from outside.

During Ramadan recently this started to have a knock on effect with some of the Muslim pupils, with some of them applying peer pressure on less devout pupils who didn’t fast during Ramadan to do so.

As a result of all of the above Birbalsingh banned all prayer because it had become a divisive issue. The school had previously been a happy place where everyone got along regardless of religion or ethnicity.

The prayer ban is entirely in line with pupils of most faiths making sacrifices so all students can get along. Some Christian parents, for example, don’t like Sunday revision sessions but they put up with it for the benefit of the collective.

Relevance to A-level Sociology

This is clearly relevant to both the sociology of religion and education.

You use this to criticise postmodern ideas about education. It seems that a good old functionalist ethos of schooling where the community comes first works to get the best results!

The school has succeeded so far because all individuals make certain sacrifices for the benefit of the whole.

Now we have one pupil hell-bent on changing everything so they can get their way.

It seems to me that there is no case of discrimination here, just one upset individual who needs to learn to sacrifice like everyone else. If they get their way, everyone else is going to suffer.

Of course if you think that people CHOOSE their religion, and their way of practicing it, then it’s impossible for this to be discriminatory.

This is a very interesting case of individual rights versus the collective good. It’s a good example of how individualism has gone too far in our postmodern age, maybe…?

Faith Schools in England and Wales

28.2% of schools are faith schools, most of them Christian.

Faith Schools are schools which have either have formal links to particular faith based organisations or just have a ‘religious character’.

There are three main types of state funded Faith School in England and Wales: Voluntary Aided (VA), Voluntary Controlled (VC) and Faith Academies. Some Faith schools are also independent, or fee-paying schools.

Faith schools have to teach the National Curriculum (although not Faith Academies because all academies are exempt from this requirement) but they can teach what they like for Religious Education, limiting the content to their own faith if they wish.

Faith schools are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of faith in relation to applications if they only have a limited number of applications. For example if a Faith school has 1000 places and they only have 1000 applications, they MUST allow all of those students into the school no matter what the faith of the applicant.

However Faith schools discriminate on the basis of Faith of applicants if the school is oversubscribed, using Faith as a preference for admitting students of the school’s faith before students who do not share the faith of the school. (3)

How Many Faith Schools?

In 2019 there were 1342 Faith schools in England and Wales, meaning that 28.2% of all schools were Faith schools and the remainder, over 70% were non-faith schools (3)

What faith are Faith schools?

  • 68% are Church of England
  • 29% are Catholic
  • 1% are other Christian faiths
  • 2% are non-Christian.

The statistics vary a lot depending on whether the schools are primary or secondary.

Church of England72%34%
Catholic 26%52%
other Christian7%1%
non-Christian 1%6%

Looking at the figures in terms of raw numbers you really get an impression for how dominant Christian schools are, and especially Church of England schools…

  • 4370 Church of England
  • 1649 Roman Catholic
  • 25 Methodist
  • 72 Other Christian
  • 36 Jewish
  • 14 Muslim
  • 6 Sikh
  • 5 Hindu
  • 2 Multifaith.

There are very few non-Christian faith schools in England and Wales today.

Arguments against Faith Schools

Faith schools are selective: they take a disproportionate amount of students from wealthier, middle class backgrounds which explains their better results compared to non-faith schools.

However the fact that faith schools are selecting more middle class students results in a polarising effect with non-faith based schools having to take on a higher proportion of children from lower income backgrounds.

Parents really just want decent community focussed schools that encourage social cohesion, whereas Faith schools may have the opposite effect: by teaching pupils a particular faith they may well be isolating them from the wider community leading to increased social fragmentation.

For further arguments against Faith schools see The Humanist Society.

Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology

This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education.

I guess the existence of faith schools is an argument against the view that education is postmodern as religions are the ultimate metanarrative.

They are also evidence that schools do not promote social solidarity, at least if you believe religion is source of conflict in the world today!


(1) Education Data Lab (2022) Faith Schools and Academisation.

(2) Wikipedia (accessed January 2023) Faith school.

(3) House of Commons Briefing Library (2019) Faith Schools in England: FAQs

A Merry but Secular Christmas!

A YouGov Poll conducted last year in 2020 shows that the majority of those who celebrate Christmas (and Easter) in the UK do so in an entirely secular way.

The survey results provide some useful evidence to support the view that religion does not play a significant role in British society, as this traditionally Christian and religious event seems now to have lost its religious meaning for the majority of people.

These findings are mainly relevant to the beliefs in society module, especially the secularisation debate.

Below I share some of the findings from this recent survey. NB the Survey looked at both Christmas and Easter, but i only report on XMAS below, ’tis the season, after all!

The Declining Significance of Religion at Christmas

According to YouGov’s sample of almost 2000 people, 61% of them celebrate Christmas in an entirely secular way.

And while 31% say they ‘combine the religious and secular’ at Christmas, if you look at what people actually do, only 20% of them go to Church with 10% reflecting on the meaning of the Birth of Christ, and there must be some kind of overlap between these, so some of those 30% above may say they mix the secular and religious, but at least some of them don’t actually do anything to express that religiosity!

I quite liked this alternative way of measuring ‘religious attitudes at Christmas’ – 71% pay no attention to what the Pope or Arch Bishop of Canterbury say at Christmas…..

Although this doesn’t necessarily measure people’s level of belief, because you can be religious and yet no believe in religious authorities, but this does show us low levels of interest in formal religious hierarchies.

TBH I’m surprised that 27% of the population do pay some attention, I expected that to be lower.

Finally, the perception people have is that Christmas is becoming less religious….

While it’s interesting to know what people think, remember that questions about perceptions don’t tell you what’s actually going on, just what people think is going on!

Sources/ Find out More

You can find out more about the results from this YouGov survey here.

Spiritual Abuse – its relevance to A-level Sociology

Spiritual abuse can be defined as the weaponisation of religious beliefs in order to coerce or control someone who shares that same set of beliefs.

This may take the form of someone with power within a religious institution using their position of authority to manipulate their congregation or followers into doing what they want them to.

However it can also occur in domestic settings, with one more dominant partner using religion to exert coercive control their partner and/ or children. In most cases it is the male partner (husband) controlling the female partner (wife).

The concept of religious abuse, and the unfortunate existence of it, is most relevant to the Beliefs in Society module within A-level sociology,

Examples of religious abuse include..

  • Authorities not allowing Divorce even when there is rape within marriage.
  • The interpretation of religious texts to justify physical and economic control over another person.
  • Men hiding women’s head coverings so they can’t go out.
  • Using religious beliefs to shame people into behaving in a particular way.

Religious Abuse…. Relevance of the concept to A-level Sociology

The fact that religious abuse happens both at an institutional level and within domestic settings suggests that religion is used as a form of control, and thus is support for mainly feminist perspectives on religion.

HOWEVER, we need to be careful about how strong this evidence is – while there are no doubt cases of religious abuse, there are no statistics on them, so we have no idea of how widespread religious abuse is.

Also, the fact that we are finally seeing the concept being discussed suggests that more conservative, traditional religions are being challenged and thus losing power, which supports some postmodern views of religion.

The increasingly vocal sources criticising traditional religions views and ‘labelling’ them ‘abusive’ basically saying that such views are only one interpretation among many and the victims of such abuse are free to take on their own interpretation and ‘break free’ of cultural and domestically imposed ‘spiritual abuse’.

The very existence of a discussion which challenges such abusive practices makes it less likely that people will be prepared to put up with being victims in silence, even though being a victims is still obviously grim, and getting out of the cycle of such abuse can still be very challenging when you are trapped within it, very much a case of ‘easier said than done’.

Spiritual Abuse: Find Out More!

There is a useful definition of Domestic Abuse here at the National Domestic Abuse Hotline.

This article puts spiritual abuse in the context of Covid-19.

Dr Maryyum Mehmood is one of the main dudes studying the concept in the UK today.

Jews and Muslims Unite to Help Combat Poverty

Sociology is usually all doom and gloom, but here’s a nice example of something positive for once…

This community food kitchen in Nottingham is a joint project between Jews and Muslims which takes surplus food from supermarkets and cooks it to distribute it to those in financial difficulty.

Relevance to A-level Sociology

This is a great example of a project where religion is working to promote consensus in society, relevant to the beliefs in society module.

Although NB this is thought to be the ONLY joint project between Jews and Muslims in the UK.

But at least it goes to show that religious difference don’t have to be a source of conflict!

Just a quick post for today, they can’t all be 500 or more words long!

Please click here to return to the homepage –

Paedophile-Priests and the Declining Signficance of Religion…..

A recent report found that there have been at least 216 000 child victims of sexual abuse since the 1950s at the hands of clergy and other officials working for the Catholic Church in France.

The victims are mainly teenage boys and the figures are probably an underestimate. There could well be over 300 000 victims.

The report found evidence of 3200 abusers out of a total of 115 000 priests in France.

The report took two years and involved looking at historical records of church cases and inteviews with victims and their families.

To date (as I understand it) not one of these paedophile-priests has been prosecuted. There has been a culture in the Cahtolic Church in France of covering all of this up and allowing the abuse to just carry on even though it was widely known it was taking place.

It was only in 2019 that the Pope changed the law in the Vatican to explicitly criminalise sexual abuse, including the grooming of minors, and removed the discretion of senior clergy to simply ignore the existence of abuse if they were aware of it going on.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This grim report is of obvious relevance to anyone studying the beliefs in society option and the crime and deviance compulsory aspect of A-level sociology.

I guess students could use this material in relation to the question of whether religion causes conflict or consensus in society. Certainly now this is out in the open the church is clearly in conflict with mainstream values which see Paedophilia as one of the worst crimes.

In terms of Crime and Deviance it shows the context dependency of deviance – child abuse is universally condemned in society, but not in the Catholic Church’s recent history.

It also offers some support for the Marxist theory – that the crimes of the powerful are more costly than the crimes of the poor, and also shows us how the powerful can cover up their crimes and avoid punisment.

This will also probably lead to the further decline of the Catholic Church – now that it is out that this level of abuse has been happening but ignored it just shows how this institution isn’t really ‘sacred’ at all, it just carried on tolerating these hideous crimes to protect its own reputation.

Sociological Perspectives on Hate Crime

What is Hate Crime?

The Home Office defines Hate Crime as ‘

‘Any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic.’ (Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2018-19).

There are five main characteristics which the police monitor…..

  • race or ethnicity
  • religion or beliefs
  • sexual orientation
  • disability
  • transgender identity.

However this is not an exhaustive list and hate crimes can also be committed on the basis of age or gender, and there are calls to include misogyny (hatred of women) as a hate crime.

Hate crimes typically include any of the following acts motivated by ‘hatred’ against any of the above characteristics….

  • Assault with or without injury
  • Harassment
  • Causing fear, alarm or distress
  • Criminal Damage

All of these crimes can also be committed in general, but if a victim feels they were motivated by hatred of their religion or gender identity etc. then the police must record the act as a hate crime.

Trends in Hate Crime

Trends in hate crime vary significantly depending on where you get your data…

Police recorded Hate Crime reports that there were 103,379 Hate Crimes in England and Wales in 2018/19, an increase of 50% over the last five years:

However, the 2018-19 Crime Survey for England and Wales shows a decline in Hate Crime the estimated number of hate crime incidents experienced by adults aged 16 has fell by 40 percent from 307,000 in the combined 2007/08 and 2008/09 surveys to 184,000 in the combined 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 surveys.

Thus it’s possibly best to reject the Police Recorded Crime Stats as being invalid as a measurement of the total amount of Hate Crime committed, given that around 50% of CSEW Hate Crimes are not picked up by the police.

Sociological Perspectives on Hate Crime

Many of the earlier perspectives seem pretty ineffective at explaining this type of crime. You’d probably have a hard time trying to apply Functionalism, for example: by definition these crimes are divisive, and a reflection of conflict in society, rather than social integration, and it’s hard to see how this particular type of crime could be regarded as functional for society or in any way positive.

Similarly with other consensus theories: there’s little evidence that a breakdown of social control, a strain in society, or of subcultures being significant causal factors (at least no more than with any other type of crime) of hate crime… many of these crimes are committed by lone individuals.

It’s possible to apply Interactionism to help understand religiously motivated crime motivated by Islamophobia, given the general negative press coverage of Islam, focussing mainly on infrequent terror attacks when they happen. However, this doesn’t explain hate-crimes agains other religions or minority groups. There’s hardly a moral panic against the LGBT community for example!

Rational Choice Theory (from Right Realism) could partially explain hate crime – possibly some of the perpetrators feel as if there’s little chance of them being caught harassing their victims because the ‘general public sentiment’ is on their side, so they won’t be reported.

This does seem to be a very postmodern crime – in that it’s a negative response to the increased visibility of minority groups and the increase in Diversity in British culture in recent years, although this is a very general level of theoretical explanation.

Possibly hate crime is a reaction to the increased relative deprivation and a feeling of marginalisation experienced by the perpetrators? Maybe they feel as if everything ‘diverse’ and ‘minority’ is being celebrated and has a place in British Culture but that more traditional British culture now has no place? So maybe there’s a possible application of Left Realism to be made here.


Hate Crime is a difficult crime to understand. It seems that many of the perspectives simply don’t apply to it, and those that do only seem to apply at the most general level.

So maybe this is a type of crime that defies sociological explanation?

NB – there may be quite a lot of it, but remember that if you take the CSEW stats, hate crime is actually going down, while the police seem to be getting better at reporting it, so whatever the causes, maybe it’s not all bad?!?

Lakewood Church and the Prosperity Gospel

Three out of four of the Largest churches in the U.S. preach the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ – these are megachurches which preach the idea that God is a spiritual source which individuals can call upon to ‘enrich’ their lives – popular buzzwords include ‘hope, destiny and bounty’, and the sermons are filled with optimism, with the Christian themes of guilt, shame, sin and penance hardly ever being mentioned.

Lakewood Church.png
Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Texas

These mega churches are attended by 10s of thousands and watched by millions, and it’s estimated that one in five Americans now follow the ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which is a sort of cross between Pentacostalism and Faith healing and run by celebrity mega preachers such as Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland.

Joel Osteen’s sermons draw in a massive 7 million viewers a week, and more on Satellite radio. Apparently he practices his sermons for hours, until he gets them exactly right, totally polished.

Osteen’s Church is the ostentatious Lakewood in Texas, and it brought in an income of $89 million in 2017, the same year it failed to open its doors to those driven to homelessness by Hurricane Harvey, at least until a social media backlash forced it to do so!

Osteen himself has a personal fortune of around $60 million and speaks broadly for the broken middle classes of America. He is a fan of Positive Thinking, as is Donald Trump.

Underlying both Trump’s and Osteen’s idea is a belief that God underwrites the justice of the marketplace – or put another way, the market rewards those who work hard!

Sociological Perspectives on Lakewood

The best fit perspective here seems to be Marxism – this seems to be a modern day version of the religious/ ideological justification for wealth and inequality in America.

Although a deeper question from this perspective is why so many people are stupid enough to believe this?!?

Perhaps it’s because it’s just too hard to accept the truth that it’s neoliberalism which has made so many people rich at the expense of so many others being relatively or absolutely poor.

Or perhaps it’s simply because it fits in with the neoliberal ideology, and the widespread acceptance of the prosperity gospel in the states is a sign of how far gone so many of the population are!


Adapted from The Week 18 May 2019

Contemporary sociology – religion in the news

Three very recent examples of news events relevant to the sociology of religion.

  • Austria recently joined the list of European countries banning the wearing of face veils in public – the headscarf is now banned in primary schools, but not Jewish or Sikh head coverings. Other EU countries to have done similar recently include France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. This could be interpreted as a moral panic over Islam, differential treatment for women maybe?
  • Hindu agains Muslim violence in India – this documentary is a useful, and shocking example of religiously inspired violence, evidence for religion as a source of conflict. The ruling party in India is the ‘Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata party (BJP)’, so there’s an argument that the state is actually supporting violence against Muslims, who are a religious minority in India.
  • Several states in the US are introducing bans on abortion – the religious right supported Trump in 2016, and now he is an outspoken supporter of anti-abortion policies.

LifeLines – A Perfect Example of a Postmodern Approach to Religion

Lifelines: Notes on Life and Love, Faith and Doubt is a new book published in November 2018 written by Martin Rowe and Malcolm Doney, and to my mind it’s a perfect expression of a postmodern approach to religious belief.

The two authors are (respectively) a volunteer priest and one volunteer vicar in their local parishes, and this voluntarism ticks the postmodernism box straight away – no doubt being a volunteer enables them to ‘dip into’ their religions and be involved without any of the more unpleasant commitments associated with going ‘full clergy’.

To be honest I haven’t read it, but I caught a review of it by two people who had on Radio four on Sunday morning. (FINALY I get some payback for all the religious content I’m not normally interested in on a Sunday morning!).

I’ve a had a quick browse of it and it basically provides tips on how to ‘lead a good, happy life’ and reflections on some of life’s ‘deeper questions’ and ‘moral issues’ – and the advice comes from people of many faiths, and no faith, which is kind of blurring the boundaries between the sacred and the profane.

You might describe the book as well suited for our pick and mix approach to religion today, and it certainly seem to be ‘anti institutional’ yet ‘pro-spirituality’, at least judging by the brief extract below…

Anyway, just a quick update….. seems like a relevant piece of contemporary evidence for aspects of the beliefs in society course!