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Rethinking religious education

  • 27 April 2011

Given the current debate raging about religious education in Victorian state schools and its relevance for other states, it is time to go back to first principles and ask, What are the aims?

If the aim is to inform students about religions, there is little question that this is best done within the curriculum by people trained to deliver such content in a way that engenders respect for religion, as well as for other beliefs and ethics. In a society like Australia, this means education about many religions. Those working to revise the National Curriculum are wrestling with this.

If the aim is to educate about morals and ethics, critical reflection about these matters belongs in the curriculum, but indoctrination into one or another system of ethics belongs at home, and in the educational programs of religious and other groups.

In the West, Hollywood took over ethics and moral education from churches in the 1930s and 1940s, producing movies that addressed moral issues. Now television sit-coms provide the place where most Australians are exposed to ethical issues and their resolutions.

A group whose beliefs motivate them to take a different moral and ethical view must take on the challenge to provide alternative forms of education — a straight uphill battle requiring a great deal of effort, care and time. An extra-curricular, half-hour session per week will not achieve this aim.

If the goal of religious education in schools is to produce an adult believer in a particular religion, several issues become clear. First, this is the only reason that religious groups should financially support religious education in schools.  

And, if this is the goal, I find it hard to legitimate tax dollars being spent to provide such education, even if the support goes to more than one religious group. It is a clear case of the state promoting religions, and of religions relying on state support to survive.

It is the responsibility of each religious group to train its people, educate them in the faith, and develop their own ethical and moral approaches.

If the goal is to produce believers in a particular religion, the opt-out system in Victoria is unethical because it pressures students to attend the mostly Christian classes. An opt-in system would be ethical as it would allow parents to make an informed decision regarding their children's education, so long as the options were explained and information was provided about what the curriculum included.