The lacklustre debate on what role, if any, religious education should have in public education has limped its way back into the media. In Victoria, special religious instruction (SRI) is provided to public schools by volunteer groups. Although a few different religions are represented, the majority of volunteers come from Access Ministries, an inter-denominational Christian body. Although parents can opt their children out of the program, no alternative education is provided: where their classmates hear the Good News, these children sit in corridors and play with Lego. A group of parents believed that this was discriminatory and the Humanist Society of Victoria complained to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission on their behalf.
Less than a fortnight later, the Victorian Government announced that it would increase funding to SRI volunteers. Last Friday’s 7.30 (Victoria) on the ABC reported that the case would be heard by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal later this year.
Evonne Paddison, Chief of Access Ministry, wrote in The Age earlier this month that SRI is important for students because it "is their only introduction to the faith and the values of Christianity". Bafflingly, she declares that it "is not the school’s prerogative to refuse religious instruction; the discretion in the act clearly relates to the providers". That is, she thinks it wise and sensible that a part of the "core curriculum" is determined by somebody outside the formal education system. It would be like taking home economics out of the hands of experienced teachers and placed in the completely unbiased hands of the local KFC: expect your kids to come home and tell you about the health benefits of the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices.
A more nuanced position is advanced by The Age’s religion editor, Barney Zwartz. Zwartz concedes that SRI is problematic: it only reaches about half of Victorian students (instead of all of them); it only teaches Christianity; and there are anecdotes of volunteers proselytising. He mixes this argument in with a lengthy warning that "the secularists cannot be let loose to devise a compulsory religion/ethics program for schools" and an assertion that "Christians are entitled to require that [Christianity’s] influence [on Australia’s politics and values]be fairly taught in government schools".
To reconcile this tension between the need for religious education and the inappropriateness of the current situation, Zwartz argues that SRI should be replaced with "a formal course taught by trained teachers, introducing students to the various religions and non-religious ethical theories but advocating none".
The atheist response to religious education in schools has ranged from Catherine Deveny tweeting "teaching religion is child abuse" through to the more reasonable statement from Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS): "religious instruction is best dealt with in a family and church community, but … knowing about religion is part of a good education." The Humanist Society also advocates a humanist course of practical ethics, following the volunteer-based model used in NSW.
These atheist positions aren’t new. Even before the current discrimination case arose, Tom Frame noted in a 2009 article in New Matilda that the Secular Party was explicitly opposed to religion in schools and asserted that "religion is intrinsically evil and needs to be eradicated for the sake of the public good". Religious education in schools (particularly public schools) is a long-standing issue for atheists.
Despite being an atheist, I received religious education both at my public primary school and Anglican secondary school. The volunteer-run sessions at primary school were mostly a waste of time: there are better ways both to educate and to convert than colouring pictures of Jesus and singing ditties about Christ.
On the other hand, the secondary school classes — taught by real teachers with real degrees from real universities — helped me to develop the language and ideas to express my atheism. Religious education challenged my existing beliefs and taught me how to research rational answers to questions. This isn’t surprising: education — from religion to biology to history — is supposed to challenge existing beliefs and teach how to research rational answers to questions. Inspired by this education and encouraged by an excellent teacher, I even took Text and Traditions in Year 12. Despite all of this, I remained an atheist. Not everybody has a positive experience with religious education, but those who do show that good educational outcomes are possible if there are adequate resources.
The problem is not religious education. The problem is volunteers are grossly inadequate substitutes for professionals with the skills to challenge and develop students. Children’s education should not be handballed to well-meaning amateurs. It certainly shouldn’t be handballed to non-professionals who want to "transform this nation for God". We don’t let people walk in off the street to teach biology. We ought not to let volunteers "teach" religion or humanist ethics. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
Zwartz may go off on tangents but his proposal for a formal course should be preferred by atheist groups. First, it normalises atheism in a way which outright exclusion and alternative courses do not. By removing the children of atheists from the classroom, it encourages the narrative that atheism is an aberration. If you (or your parents) are atheist, you need a "special" class and can’t participate with your "normal" class. An inclusive religious education keeps atheist kids with their peers and maintains their social position in the classroom.
Second, it promotes mainstream religious beliefs among the children of theists. It would be nice if churches and families could be trusted to teach orthodox and mainstream religious views. Alas, views are pontificated in private — especially in regional and underprivileged areas — which would inspire Thomas Aquinas to rise like Lazarus and transubstantiate heads with his foot. Disgusting theological views proliferate, especially when religion is expelled from the public sphere. It’s true that mainstream religion promotes evils such as homophobia. Even so, it is difficult not to prefer the views of the Catholic Church (homosexual acts are sinful which should be repented) to the views of the Westboro Baptist Church (homosexuality is a sin which causes earthquakes). Ideally, neither viewpoint would exist, but you can at least debate with one of them. Education is anathema to fanaticism.
Finally, it would promote a better kind of atheism than the nauseating "New Atheism" which is currently in vogue. "New Atheism" is the ironic name for a nascent religion notable for propagating the demonstrably incorrect views of old white guys. It’s difficult to understand why Catherine Deveny couldn’t spot the obvious falsehood of her Dawkins-inspired tweet (clue: child abuse is horrific; teaching religion isn’t). It is outright shameful that many New Atheists agree with this sentiment. Contrary to the New Atheist views, teaching children how to discuss their beliefs with others encourages tolerance and understanding. Further, it nurtures their abilities to question their views rationally and to engage the criticism of people with different beliefs. These skills are worryingly absent from public atheism, and it’s a skills shortage that can only be corrected with properly resourced education.
Religious education is important for all children, and it is worth teaching properly. Atheists get no benefit from segregating themselves.
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