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Special Religious Education: Propaganda?

The NSW Education Department (the Department) guidelines say that between thirty minutes and an hour per week must be set aside for ‘special religious instruction’ (SRE). SRE is defined as instruction in a particular religion. This is quite different from General Religious Instruction (GRE), which is more of a comparative religion course. The latter should be encouraged, the former should not. To qualify that last clause, this is not because I am non-religious. It is based on the idea that if you want your child to receive religious instruction in your chosen faith, a venue exists for that: church (or other religious building). Even if the Department claims that the provision of SRE is not government funded, the fact remains that the schools are. Since this instruction is taking place in the schools, which are government-funded, this claim is misleading at best.

The Problem: Religious Propaganda as Education

It is my intention to use the christian example, as this is the religious text with which I am most familiar. Using just one example of a scope and sequence (a connected series of bullet-point descriptions of lessons across a term), we can see the great issue at the heart of this.

As an example, consider the following, aimed at stage 2 (years 3 and 4)

Aim: To help students to understand that Jesus is the centre of God’s plan of salvation for everyone. ·

Outcomes: Students learn about

  1. How events in the Old Testament make promises about Jesus in the New Testament
  2. Stephen, who spoke the truth about Jesus, even though he knew there could be extreme consequences.

Outcomes: Students will learn to

tell others about Jesus as Saviour, even when it is difficult.

Reflection and Analysis

Of all the issues with this, the greatest is perhaps the utterly uncritical nature of the content. All of the biblical text, and its claims, are presented as fact. Of course, jesus is the saviour, of course, the old testament makes promises about jesus. It is all taken as assumed fact. The reality is that the so-called prophecies in the Hebrew text about jesus were no such thing. As one example, Isaiah 7:14 about the ‘virgin conceiving and bearing a son’ is a mistranslation of the Hebrew almah (young woman) into the Greek parthenos (virgin), which informed the Latin vulgate in its virgo. Also left out is the fact that the ‘prophesy’ says that the child was to be called Immanuel and not Jesus. None of these facts that fly in the face of the christian narrative are pointed out.

Finally, of course, is the little gem where ‘Students learn to tell others about Jesus as Saviour’ – seriously. This is quite the admission that the purpose of these ‘classes’ is to ‘make disciples of the nations’ – to proselytise – to turn these children into little door-knockers before they learn critical thinking. Get ’em while they’re young.

Now you might say ‘this is aimed at years 3 and 4’. On the last point about telling others about Jesus as Saviour, that is precisely the point. But the larger issue is that religious beliefs are being taught as fact on the public dime (despite the Department’s claim). My issue is not with belief – you are free to believe whatever you wish – but academic content should be grounded in the facts. If the purpose of SRE is not academic then it has no place in education. To clarify once more, I am not trying to stamp out religion or whatever other strawman anyone would care to throw at me. I am simply asking that unexamined beliefs not be taught as fact.

The Solution, Part One: Academic Study of Religious Texts

I do have a solution though, lest I should come across as purely negative. You could examine the beliefs of any given religion from a philosophical, historical, literary or another critical perspective. Another method might be to look at what the text means rather than simply parroting what it says. As examples of academic study related to the bible, you could consider the Synoptic Problem, that is the relationship between the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke and the various source-critical hypotheses (including Q) that have been put forward. Or you could consider the historical jesus and the various models put forward to explain that, from cynic sage to apocalyptic prophet to political revolutionary and beyond. These are genuine academic inquiries that teach students methods of thinking rather than what to think.

The consideration of context, literary types (prose/verse, letter vs chronicle etc) as well as the search for bias (the anti-Petrine bias in Mark for instance) are useful skills to impart to students. This is somewhat covered in history, but applying such skills to other texts, including the bible (sorry christians, no exceptions) is an invaluable skill. Remember, this is a society in which over 70% of the print media is owned by a rank right-wing partisan named Rupert Murdoch. The ability to look for bias is critical when you live in such a society.

The Solution, Part Two: Comparative Religion

A comparative religion course (perhaps taught over several years) would outline, using the relevant text, the central tenets, beliefs and practices of many different religions. The point of such a course is not to provide propaganda (which, unpopular among the religious as this may be, is what SRE does) for any religion, but to teach the facts about them and allow students to make a choice. The structure might be to spend a term on each religion in no particular order. If desired, members of the faith could be brought in and given a chance to say ‘this is what we believe’, with strict instructions not to proselytise.

Conclusion: Religion in School

Even as a non-believer, I acknowledge that religion, for all the harm it has caused, does have a place in society. As a consequence, this gives it a place in education. However, much like how the wider society effectively neutered religion by taking away its political power, the education system needs to keep a close eye on religion in the schools (and not just the catholic priests). On a slightly more serious note, knowledge of what multiple religions believe is useful information in a pluralistic and multicultural society. However, an iron fist is needed to maintain the bright red line between stating facts and proselytising.

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  1. Ponging Wetkecks

    If somebody starts a Lord of the Rings church can they trade tax-free? Or a Church of the Blessed Tooth Fairy? What about basing a church on a Marvel Comics hero?
    Just asking, like…

  2. New England Cocky

    Uhm …. I may be a little skeptical, but at the last school there “Religious Studies” period was assigned to Friday last period when the Religious Fraternal could hold dedicated classes. This rarely happened for whatever reason (it was work?) so that period was a dedicated staff meeting occasionally interrupted with a rare “Religious Studies” class.

    @Ponging Wetkecks: See Murphy J for the definition of a “religion” in the Scientology Case.

  3. The Heretic

    I don’t suppose mandated Special Religious Instruction encompasses instruction that this and every other religion is superstitious nonsense ?

  4. Jack Cade

    New England Cocky

    Ah, Murphy J.

    Much reviled, in contrast with Barwick – who was as repellent a law man as ever there was. Was he Goughs ‘truculent runt’? Barwick, I mean, not Murphy.
    Murphy had the most Irish face imaginable.

  5. New England Cocky

    @Jack Cade: Whatever Murphy J many faults, he was responsible for the revolutionary social reform of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) that established no fault divorce much to the relief of Australian voters and the chagrin of the many lawyers who made a fortune from the previous Marriage Act requirements to establish martial fault.

    Barwick CJ ignored the Australian Constitution in the matter of two Senate seats for each Territory as well as betraying Whitlam in the 1975 Dismissal.

  6. Matters Not

    Teaching arithmetic, for example, to young children can be educational in that it opens minds. Students can develop logical reasoning by demonstrating, for example, that 2 + 2 = 4. Not so with religion. Because it’s illogical, (try three beings within the one God and then – Both God the Father and God the Son being divine – both without beginning and without end) it can only be transmitted via indoctrination which by its very nature closes minds.

    Always impressed with the thinking of Kemal Ataturk who argued that schooling was about the young preparing themselves to participate actively in a secular democracy. Accordingly, there was to be no religion in schools, with all schools being state funded, offering a common curriculum for each and all. (And this in a society where all are assumed to be Muslims.) If parents wanted religion for children then that was to be done outside the school and outside school hours. A private matter.

    I think he was on to something.

  7. blair

    I always taught my children not to make fun of people who believed in religion.
    they recognised early that these poor souls had been deceived by their parents and other influential delusionistas from their childhood.

    they say the love of money is the root of all evil, I think religion is just as culpable.

  8. Zathras

    I remember when the media was losing their tiny minds when they learned about externally funded Islamic Madrasas in various countries, allegedly training children to become terrorists. The motives behind religious instruction are really no different from Christian or Jewish schools and certain denominations remain closed off from public scrutiny, despite receiving generous funding from the taxpayer.

    I was forced to attend Scripture classes in Primary School during the early sixties, probably as part of the curriculum with no apparent choice offered. The more recent option of offering Ethics as a secular replacement was vigorously opposed by very vocal sectarian politicians.

    There’s a reason Church and State are to remain separate but the current trend is to use politics to enshrine and support religion through legislation.

  9. king1394

    The value of teaching a religious education class might be to help familiarise our children with the interesting bible stories and the parables that inform our culture. Leavened with a good dose of history including the Reformation, Henry the 8th’s marital problems and the treatment of heretics. Students could have a broader understanding of texts like Hamlet and Romeo And Juliet if they understood the hold religion used to have on people in earler times.
    But Special religious classes are often not taught by teachers but by religious odds and sods from, in many cases, evangelical sects with names like the 4square church who take the opportunity to put their own spin on the lessons. It might not be on the curriculum but , as a teachers aide in the classroom, I have seen proselitising and also condemnation of homosexuality in SRE classes. Fortunately, the average public high school student has little respect for these lessons, so hopefully is not scarred (or scared) for life

  10. Keith

    If the Christian religion is to be promoted in schools … which version is to be taught? The type which appears to promote cruel decision making; or, take should it take into account the parable of the Good Samaritan, treatment of money lenders, and Surmon on the Mount?

  11. Keith

    I can remember in 1961, when in high school along with other lads launching paper planes during religious instruction. Eventually religious instruction was abandoned.

    Did Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, or other prior ancestors to Homo sapiens have a soul? When did the idea of a soul originate?

  12. Jean

    Tim, comparative religion ‘using the relevant text’ would work. But who decides on what goes into courses? Assuming persons at the centre of (most) religions were enlightened and that his/her teaching got distorted over time, wouldn’t it make sense to find a contemporary teacher, or at least the works of such, before a distorted religion has a chance to evolve? Scary thought contemplating that course of action for the ever-humble ego though. For many it must feel like death, which is why humanity as a whole clunks along on 2 cylinders. And who might be a contemporary teacher at this point in time, try Eckhart Tolle.

  13. Wobbley

    Can anybody enlighten me regarding how many deaths can be attributed to religion in just the 20th century alone?

  14. Wobbley

    Religion of any denomination is evil, kills millions and should be outlawed immediately. This is nothing more than brainwashing the young. Don’t bring them to rallies to save the place NO. But brainwash them at an early age to become captured by a failed and downright evil theology.

  15. wam

    A 30 minute discussion of what makes the sects different would be an asset to any religious instruction.
    Themes could be set for a month on creation of the earth, the creation of man, the deliberate flaw in women and whether my heathen ancestors will be in heaven. All with a question time.
    I’d love to ask a rabbi, a mullah a priest RC and CE, a 7th day pastor scummo’s mob and a woman from each religion about the menstrual cycle and discharged blood and ovum.
    I expect it represents the 25% of the month when men are equal to women.
    The politician once elected cannot have a secret religion. The religion practised must be able to be questioned on the beliefs used to make decisions.

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