The children of religious parents are being targeted in an anti-religion advertising campaign by the same humanist group that was behind atheist bus ads.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) says its adverts, which read: “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself”, are part of its aim to “phase out” faith schools.
The posters show young children surrounded by religious names including “Protestant child” and “Buddhist child” alongside other descriptions such as “Marxist child” and “Anarchist child”.
Richard Dawkins, the atheist campaigner, said at the launch of the campaign: “Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a ‘Marxist child’ or an ‘Anarchist child’ or a ‘Post-modernist child’.
“Yet children are routinely labelled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labelling any child too young to know their own opinions and our adverts will help to do that.”
Ariane Sherine, the comedian who initiated the bus adverts campaign earlier this year, said she wanted the campaign to impact a number of groups.
In an article entitled “Hey, preacher – leave those kids alone”, she said: “We hope the advert’s message will encourage the Government, media and general public to see children as individuals, free to make their own choices as soon as they are old enough to fully understand what these choices mean, and that they will think twice before describing children in terms of their parents’ religion in the future.”
But the adverts have caused Christians to say that the campaign is “ludicrous”, “anti-religious” and “mistaken”.
Paul Woolley, who is Director of Theos, a theology think-tank, said: “The advert appeals to our love of autonomy and the right to choose.”
But he said that idea is mistaken and that the campaign “assumes that there is a position of philosophical neutrality out there, a value-neutral cultural space in which children can grow up”.
Mr Woolley adds: “The question is not whether or not we want children to grow up with values or no values, but which values we want to nurture in them.”
And Graham Coyle, National Team Leader at the Christian Schools Trust, which supports people involved in running Christian schools, said the BHA was mistaken in its campaign.
Mr Coyle told the BBC: “They seem to be saying that they don’t want parents to pass on to their children their fundamental beliefs – about what is right and wrong, about respect for other people and living in harmony.”
He added: “If that is what they are saying then they are asking parents to abrogate their responsibilities.
“And if parents don’t pass on these beliefs who is going to fill the vacuum?”
He also said: “If a humanist says to his child ‘I don’t believe in God’ then he is making a statement and passing on that belief.”
Revd Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England’s Chief Education Officer, writing on the Guardian website said: “It is surely central to the role of a parent, whether committed to a religious faith or not, to want to pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live.
“It is also consistent with that role to want to have those beliefs and world view acknowledged and affirmed as part of their children’s education.
“That is why we have a diverse range of schools within the state sector, from which parents can choose.
“And they choose Church of England schools in their tens of thousands because we offer a balanced education within a Christian framework. We aim to develop in children the ability to make informed choices in life.
“We aim to give them a good understanding of Christianity, and other faiths too. We aim to make them good citizens, hospitable and respectful towards people of all faiths and none.
“And, yes, we do hope that they might decide – when the time is right – that Christianity is a faith worth exploring more deeply.
She continued: “Last year, a poll commissioned by the church suggested that the majority of people agree that parents should be able to choose a state-run school for their child based on their own religious, moral or philosophical considerations.
“Two-thirds of parents held this opinion, consistent with the spirit of plurality in education which is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Earlier this year, the Guardian commissioned a similar poll, which showed that “60% thought children benefited from a faith-based education, while 69% of those with school-age children supported a religious ethos at school”.”
The Archbishop of Wales called the humanist campaign “ludicrous”.
Dr Barry Morgan said: “Children do not grow up in a vacuum or as a blank canvas but have an identity formed from a range of influences, the most powerful of which will be their parents and their culture.”
The billboard adverts have been placed in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
The last campaign by the BHA involved adverts on buses declaring: “There probably isn’t a God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life”.
A number of Christian groups countered the adverts with one message giving away free Bibles and another that said “There definitely is a God.”