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
- How events in the Old Testament make promises about Jesus in the New Testament
- 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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