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Religious education ceasefire

  • 29 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