As the people who follow my inanities on Twitter and Facebook will know, I was really excited and looking forward giving my talk, and it I'm happy to report that didn't disappoint. There were 21 confirmants in the group I spoke to on Wednesday, most of them guys (15 I think), all of them 14 or just turned 15 years old. I was a little nervous to begin with as I had no idea whether we’d have a language problem (I explained to them at the outset that I knew enough Norwegian to know if they were taking the piss, but not enough to give the talk in Norwgian or tell them off in the same language), or if they’d even be interested in my life story and why I cared about humanist philosophy so much in the first place.
It was nice of them to tell me that they thought my talk was fun and interesting afterwards, but crippling self-doubt stops me thinking that they were being anything other than polite.
What I tried to achieve with my talk was to help them understand that when I was their age I didn’t give half a thought to ethics or morality, or god for that matter; it was all football, trying to complete Sonic 2, reading science fiction and downloading as much music from Napter as a 56kbps connection would allow. But as I grew up, how and why the world is the way that it is started to matter to me, and now that I look back, I wish that someone had been around to get me to think about these things so that I could have learned about just how bloody complicated and amazing the world is that little bit earlier.
I finished by talking about some ongoing BHA campaigns, trying to get across the message that it doesn’t matter if you call yourself a humanist or become part of an organisation; it’s the actions that stem from thinking about and trying to be a good, happy, moral person, based on the here and now, that matter the most.
Because of delays in getting the AV-equipment to play nice and then giving the kids a well-earned break after the talk, we ended up with only 15 minutes for my planned discussion on faith schools. I wanted it to be as open-ended as possible so I simply asked them for what they thought about faith schools, what might be good about them and what might be bad about them. I also asked them whether they thought that it would be a good idea to have a humanist school.
I chopped the audio it segments, which you can listen to below. I've tried to post everything that was relevant and captured well enough on my phone to be listenable. (This is my first time recording and posting audio, so please bear with me).
Whilst there mixed opinion on the merits of faith schools, the gist of their ideas was that separating children based on their religion (or, as one confirmants pointed out, their parent’s religion), creates a divided society that stops people meeting and learning from each other. On topic of having a humanist school, one of the confirmants suggested that they might not be a bad idea because ‘I think everyone should learn about human rights’ (the audio wasn’t clear enough to post, sorry), whilst another suggested that there should be humanist schools ‘because humanism is cool’ (audio 6).
In a quick vote at the end I counted three hands that thought faith schools were a good idea, seven that thought they were a bad idea and the rest (11) that hadn’t thought about it enough or didn’t have a strong opinion. I really wish we had had more time to discuss things further, but that’s just the way it goes.
If there’s one thing I learned from such a short discussion, though, it’s that 14 year old kids seem to understand the benefits of an inclusive secular education in a way that bone-headed governments and religious lobbyists don’t.
Part of the confirmations' trip to Oslo is to help them learn about the city and the facilities that are available to young people. One of the reasons for the tight schedule was having enough time to shepherd a group of 21 teenagers across a big city; if dealing with atheists is like herding cats then dealing with these teenagers was like herding kittens on acid. After a little stopping and starting we made it from the Humanismens Hus to Unginfo, a drop-in centre in the middle of town, where poeple between the ages of 13 and 26 can access free computers and telephones and get confidential advice on education, rights for youths, jobs and physical and mental health.
Many of the confirmants treated the whole thing as a laugh; they were just excited by the free sweets, grabbing free condoms and switching them for the nearby tea bags. A few of them seemed genuinely interested in what UngInfo had to offer and I spotted some of them furtively glancing through brochures and sliding them into their bags.
At 14, I was more interested in how and if I could get a job, or what to do about being bullied, than ethics, so I thought taking them to UngInfo was a great idea as it married practical advice with all the abstract thinking that makes up the rest of the course.
The next part of their packed programme was a trip to the Deichmanske Bibliotek where the confirmants had a choice between watching two films: Smaken av hund (Tastes of Dog), a documentary about how food is produced and marketed in Norway, and Benda Bilili (See Beyond), a documentary about a group of homeless musicians from Kinshasa, four of whom are paraplegic, and their struggle and inspirational rise to global fame. You can watch the trailer for the UK version of Benda Bilili, which was released last year, here.
The confirmants went with Smaken av Hund, but I was so interested in Benda Bilili that I’ve already ordered the DVD.
You can watch the whole of Smaken av Hund on Youtube (in 12 parts). It’s very much in the Micheal Moore style of documentary making, which is to say partisan, manipulative and about as subtle as a smack round the head with a battery-farmed hen, but it is informative none-the-less, and a great choice for sparking reaction and debate with the confirmants. Norway may be a land of milk and honey, but watching how that milk makes its way to my fridge left a slightly sour taste in the mouth.
Because of the tight schedule, made even tighter by trying to get 20-odd teenagers fed according to their various wants and needs, we didn’t really have time for a proper discussion about the film, which is what Bjørn usually plans. However grossed out they were by the documentary, their hunt for food before they got the ferry home led them straight to a nearby McDonalds, something that proved to be a really interesting demonstration of their teenage thinking in action.
The point of getting them to watch Smaken av Hund wasn’t to turn them into anti-corporate vegetarians but just to get them thinking about the issues and mulling over whether things are important enough to them to change their behaviour and attitudes. Most chose cheeseburgers and Big Macs but a handful of them opted just to get a milkshake. When I asked one of them about their feelings on what they had just watched and then going to McDonalds, he used a great Norwegian word, which I can’t for the life of me remember, that meant something like ‘trying to push it to the back of the mind’, and he explained that whilst he may have chosen a chocolate milkshake today he will probably go back to burgers and the like tomorrow.
Confirmation courses may well be nourishing food for hungry teenage minds, but hungry teenage bellies (and empty pockets) have limited time for considering ethics. (To my unending shame, I can really relate to this cognitive dissonance; after watching Supersize Me, both myself and my wife craved Big Macs – the mind is truly a bizarre thing).
I’m still a long way from knowing enough Norwegian to be able to be full confirmation leader, but I had such a fun time talking to and learning from these kids that it’s definitely something I will do in the future.
I hope the confirmants learned even half as much from me as I did from them and I can’t wait to do it again.