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Religious education ceasefire

7 Comments
Fatima Measham |  28 July 2011

The conflict over religious education is not new, though it certainly seems to have sharpened recently.

The stoush calls to mind the debate in the United States over 'creation science' and its place in the curriculum. This debate also has a long history: from a 1968 US Supreme Court ruling that allowed evolution to be taught in Arkansas, to a Pennsylvania district trial in 2005 which rejected intelligent design as material for science education.

The lingering conflict turned schools into a battlefield, raised questions about the influence of Christian lobbyists, separated the fundamentalists from the moderates, and defined secular education as a democratic value.

We see these elements in Australia today, as challenges mount against volunteer-run religious instruction in state schools. With Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile holding industrial relations legislation hostage over Special Ethics Education, the whole business has become pretty serious.

The resistance to ethics classes exposes the anxiety over a dramatic reduction in church access to students, via scripture lessons. Not surprisingly, when the Anglican and Catholic Churches did not see any impact on Special Religious Education (SRE) enrolments, they reversed their opposition.

Moreover, when details of the ethics curriculum became available, the Anglican Education Commission decided that 'it's nothing to be frightened of'.

Indeed, both sides actually have the common goal of cultivating moral sensibility in young people. They will never agree as to how this may be done, but at least they can work together to ensure that students can safely explore the bigger questions in life, including how to live with others.

This is a higher, more inclusive goal. After all, when it comes to the challenge of lived authenticity, there is no dissonance between 'ethics' and the Gospels, or even other traditions such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. Whether you believe or don't, you are expected to act with integrity.

So where does the conflict really lie? The answer can be traced to a changed social milieu.

When churches were given the privilege to access students in the early decades of public education, it had tacit approval from a population that was overwhelmingly Christian. In the late 1940s, 88 per cent of Australians identified with a Christian denomination. Religion was simply the fourth 'R' after reading, writing and 'rithmetic.

But societies change. In the 2006 census, the proportion of Australians nominating Christianity fell to 64 per cent. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes the following year found that only a quarter of those affiliated with major Christian denominations attend church weekly. Meanwhile, the number of Australians nominating 'no religion' continues to grow (19 per cent in the latest census).

In other words, the change in parents' expectations regarding religious education is merely an extension of the shifting attitudes to religion itself. They do not distinguish between chaplains and religion instructors, resisting both as instruments of proselytisation. When the dominant provider of religious education is a Christian organisation, it is difficult to convince them otherwise.

Some of the resistance is nuanced. Many families still support a structured teaching approach to social values. They recognise that their children have significant opportunities at school to begin orienting their moral compass. They are also keen to help their children navigate a social landscape that is more characterised by diversity than ever.

In this regard, New South Wales has led the way in its introduction of ethics classes as an alternative to scripture.

In other states and territories, many children who opt out of SRI end up in a half-hour limbo while their classmates receive lessons. It is an unacceptable vacuum in learning, and parents are rightly incensed that they are not presented with comparable options.

Christians should also be rejecting this state of things.

We all have a stake in providing every child with genuine opportunities to think deeply about what it means to be a human among other humans. In the end, it doesn't matter where they sit when they do this, as long as they are given the space. 


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer. She blogs and tweets


 



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It is disheartening that both Catholic and Anglican administrations in Sydney could respond positively to ethics classes only after it became clear that SRE
was not at risk. How about evidencing a measure of faith (both in the Holy Spirit and the integrity of the community) at least once in a while, Eminences?

Fred Green 29 July 2011

It's just my opinion but I find this article pretty facile. It makes some unhelpful generalisations and assumptions. The author does not suggest that she has studied the situation or spoken to the people involved. Maybe she has. The problem is that chaplaincy and religion/ethics education is so widespread that serious comment needs to reflect serious engagement and understanding.

A statement like: "This is a higher, more inclusive goal. After all, when it comes to the challenge of lived authenticity, there is no dissonance between 'ethics' and the Gospels, or even other traditions such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. Whether you believe or don't, you are expected to act with integrity." sounds reasonable but, on examination, is simply glib. "Lived authenticity" within a gospel framework will necessarily be different to "lived authenticity" within a purely secular ethical framework because of the foundations of the ethical response in each case. And because one is self-directed and one is (for those who accept a living, relational base for Christian faith) a response to an encounter with the divine as well as the human condition. Integrity is a far more subjective notion than this comment suggests. Religion and ethics are (or should be) close companions but they are not twins.

Also: "In other words, the change in parents' expectations regarding religious education is merely an extension of the shifting attitudes to religion itself. They do not distinguish between chaplains and religion instructors, resisting both as instruments of proselytisation. When the dominant provider of religious education is a Christian organisation, it is difficult to convince them otherwise". There are certainly issues that need to be addressed by the providers of R.E. and chaplaincy. I spent 15 years closely associated with one such group and I know the tensions, many of which are not comfortable to name for the churches involved - even internally. My experience was that those most closely involved always prioritised the students, not the church. Education and the freedom to think about life, God and relationship in a productive way was what we fought for.

To suggest that parents do not or cannot distinguish between educators and chaplains and see both as "instruments of proselytisation" is an extraordinarily arrogant assumption. It ignores the reality of a hugely successful chaplaincy program that has the backing of teaching staff, students, parents and the churches in most areas. It ignores the incredible, non-coercive, welfare and counselling assistance that these chaplains have, do and will provide to young people they care about and encounters in their darkest and lightest moments. It assumes that all parents are uninformed, reactive and negative about the faith perspective.
R.E. and chaplaincy have both been through difficult and challenging stages. Each state does it differently (I'm in SA) and no two programs or chaplains are exactly the same. Christian provision of chaplaincy must be challenged in a changing society but I can only hope that those new providers will come at the task of engaging with young people in schools with the same determination, intelligence, thoroughness, creativity, compassion and love that I have witnessed in my state and schools.

I also hope that religious bodies continue to provide R.E. and chaplaincy services and to educate about the value of religious faith. In Australia we live in a social and religious paradigm that is historically extremely unusual. The world around us remains driven by religious values and our geographic isolation will only be exacerbated if young Australians encounter the world without a clear understanding of faith based identity.

Steve Daughtry 29 July 2011

Let's get something straight at the outset please. There really should be no room in our state schools to have teams of volunteers come in and spruik their wares to our children. We pay teachers to teach, and as public servants there is some control over what and how they do it. Volunteers are not so policed, and few are qualified to teach, which is why mayhem rules when RI classes are on run by volunteers. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children about their faith, if they choose to. It is not a responsibility of any state, unless we are to live in a theocracy, to promote, or denigrate, any religion at all. PZ Meyers has a take on these chaplains here: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/07/theyre_like_lice_you_cant_just.php

Harry Wilson 29 July 2011

Fatima, I think the debate on evolution being taught in the US goes back much further than 1968. Google the Scopes Monkey Trial.

ErikH 29 July 2011

The reality is that the ethics classes should include all children and not be run in opposition to what used to be known as Scripture.

The opportunity for religious education should not be limited to the christian faiths. They are two different areas of study and both are important. A volunteer doing this needs to be as professional in their teaching as any other teacher. Payment doesn't guarantee professional behaviour.

Margaret McDonald 29 July 2011

Such a shame that there is still so much controversy over R.E. versus Ethics classes.


Children are not forced to go to R.E. (or Scripture as its sometimes called) but permission is given by the parents as to whether the students attend; Catholic, Jewish, Anglican, and sometimes other faiths are represented. Parents who object to R.E. for their children now have the Ethics alternative instead of spending the 30 minutes playing or sitting in the library. How can this eminently sensible solution be regarded as damaging? The R.E. teachers are volunteers and any expense involved is carried by the relevant churches. Anyway, how much "damage" can be wrought in a weekly 30 minute class? A prayer or two, a hymn maybe sung, a story about Easter or Christmas. Parents who feel that their children are missing out by not attending the Ethics classes could bring up the ethical dimension over the dinner table, maybe once a week. Good for the children, even a challenge for the parents.

Mary Maraz 30 July 2011

'We all have a stake in providing every child with genuine opportunities to think deeply about what it means to be a human among other humans.' And amongst other animals, too, I hope.

Penelope 09 August 2011