The Agnostic Adoption Agency

October 2010

In the Guardian in September [2010] Francis Beckett described his vision of the ‘Richard Dawkins’ Conservatoire’, a secular school imagined as a counterpoint to Britain’s faith schools.

As the UK marks National Adoption Week it is interesting to recall that almost 50 years ago the Agnostic Adoption Agency was created, a secular organisation inspired by one of the greatest scientists of the day and designed as a counterpoint to church-based adoption agencies.In the early 1960’s when 8 out of 10 people still believed in a personal god and 7 out of ten regularly attended church, adoption was just one area of life in which religion remained prominent.

Tens of thousands of adoptions were carried out each year by civil society agencies and local authorities. Most of the former were denominational, nearly all had a bishop on their boards and thanks to the 1958 Adoption Act all adoptees were seen through the prism of religion. Under the Act a person putting their child up for adoption could set conditions with respect to the ”religious persuasion with which the infant is proposed to be brought up.”

Most parents were genuinely religious but any ambivalence would have been swept away by the adoption process. Orphans were assumed to be ‘C of E’; unmarried mothers would often spend their pregnancy in religious institutions; and when the courts asked parents ‘what is your religious persuasion?’ it was unlikely that they would make clear that ‘no religion’ was an acceptable option.

As for prospective parents, the National Adoption Society was typical of agencies when it informed one humanist that:

“we do insist that applicants should profess some religion and we ask for a reference form their priest, vicar of pastor…we do not accept atheists or agnostics.”

Theoretically, local authority adoption services were not constrained in the same way but the policies of the council or the attitudes of individual childrens’ officers were often similarly discriminatory.

Consequently many couples performed a charade of churchgoing as some do today to ensure a place for their child at a faith school. After all it was only theproposed religion of upbringing that was of concern to the authorities.

But over the previous 100 years Britain’s non-religious had bloomed into a significant and active minority, fighting for equality and establishing civil society organisations. Sir Richard Doll – the epidemiologist who first linked smoking with cancer – and his wife Joan Faulkner were two Humanists that were not prepared to deny their beliefs. After they learnt in the 1950s that they were unable to have children, without the necessary religious credentials or references they turned to private adoption.

This experience inspired them in 1962 to create an inclusive adoption agency with the Ethical Union, the forerunner of the British Humanist Association. In 1965 the ‘Agnostic Adoption Society’ was registered as a charity, explicitly open to all and operating above the minimum standards required of such an agency.

But David Tribe, president of the National Secular Society wrote in 1962 that“The only substantial solution is complete secularisation of adoption procedures”.  By the late 60s most social service departments no longer placed religious restrictions on prospective adopters and so in 1969 the ‘Agnostic’ label was dropped to become the ‘Independent Adoption Society’ and finally in 2007 was merged with the Adolescent and Children’s Trust, to make it the largest charity in the UK’s fostering and adoption sector.

The Children Act (1975) finally meant that the intended religious upbringing was no longer a condition for adoption and less proscriptive phrasing was introduced. Most recently the Adoption and Children Act 2002, requires adoption agencies “duly to consider the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background” (Italics added for emphasis).

The Agnostic Adoption Service helped hurry in a more secular and inclusive adoption sector that was less partial to religion. A sector that even this year acknowledged that religion can play too strong a role which can delay placements.

Today the adoption process is not completely blind to religion but where it remains a consideration it relates to ethnicity and the development of the child’s identity. In principle it is no longer a proxy for moral suitability.