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Rethinking religious education


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.

Third, if the goal is to produce adult believers, the question becomes, is the current system an effective way to achieve this. The answer is no. Why?

Primarily, because growing an adult Christian (the arguments also apply to other religious group) in a multicultural, multi-faith society takes much more effort than was the case in 1947 when 88 per cent of Australians identified with a Christian denomination.

Christianity may have been the dominant ethos of those educated before 1971 when the second percentage decline in those identifying as Christians started in earnest — the first was between 1921 (96.9 per cent) and 1933 (86.4 per cent).

Concomitant cultural declines reduced the 'normalcy' of Christianity. Groups that knew themselves to be at odds with the dominant ethos, or now the various ethoi, invested heavily in faith based schooling — Catholics and, more recently, evangelical Protestants — or in parallel educational structures: an outstanding example is provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Other examples of groups putting substantial effort in education for faith development include the small groups and home study programs run by Hillsong, St Hilary's Kew, and other mega-churches. Jews have always invested in educating their young into adult faith. It is simple: those who do not take adult faith development seriously and invest in it, decline and disappear.

Moreover, offering religious education for any purpose outside the curriculum in an unassessed program taught by volunteers is not designed to engender respect for the subject matter. Would you like your children to be taught maths or science by volunteers and have it be an unassessed extra?

In short, the current religious instruction offered in Victorian state schools can no longer be seen as a well considered strategy to grow adult believers in a multifaith society. Those seeking to do so have a difficult task before them which requires far more investment of time, energy and talent if the effort is to be taken seriously and have any chance of success.

Gary BoumaGary Bouma is an Anglican priest and sociologist of religion. His work has focused on the issues facing religious groups in religiously diverse societies. His next book, Being Faithful in Diversity: Religions and Social Policy in MultiFaith Societies (ATF Press) will be launched on 26 May. 

Topic tags: Gary Bouma, religious education, ethics classes, moral, state schools, multi-faith society



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Existing comments

Right on! Education ,if taken seriously , is no place for amateurs, whatever the subject may be.

I wonder if regligious instruction, as done in public schools by volunteers, could be counter productive.

David | 27 April 2011  

A fine piece: diplomatic, analytical and quite subversive of just going through the motions. Understanding religions is essential for a good education. However what people actually choose to believe must be up to them. Interested unbelief is a valid option.

Robert Smith | 27 April 2011  

You are absolutley right Gary. 'Special' Religious Education is no strategy for addressing the world of the 21st Century. I suspect, however, that there is a problem convincing the hierarchy of various faith traditions to 'give up' what has been 'precious' for so long.

Jan McLeod | 27 April 2011  

Many years ago I taught English in a nsw western suburbs Catholic school. I was also asked to teach religious studies. A sensible agreement left indoctrination to parents. "Many paths, one heaven" compared all religions from animism to the 3 major middle eastern religions, eastern beliefs, and newer protestant sects.

The similarities in creation stories,morality,truth,of only doing to others what you would wish done to you, etc etc, gave students a better understanding of people and cultures they had previously believed to be too strange to be acceptable.God doesn't care what day we set aside for prayer but those who demand government funding and political approval for religious differences, do! Religio means "I bind" - it's a pity many people use their beliefs to separate and destroy.

Annabel | 27 April 2011  

There is but one religion, one Church, founded by Our Lord Jesus Christon the rock of St. Peter. All other "religions" today were founded by men, not God. All of us should be seeking the Truth.

It is most difficult for me to think of any Dogma of the Church that is more controversial than this. This is not any Dogma, it is the most fundamental one. While many of the teachings of the Church are under attack such as the use of
contraceptives, divorce,abortion and even the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus" is outright rejected by most Catholics.

The purpose Christ created His Church is for the salvation of souls. The idea that a person can find salvation outside the Church of Jesus Christ is heresy and offensive to those who love Our Lord. It makes His coming and suffering His Passion unnecessary if people could be saved without Him and His teachings. In short, it rejects His divinity! How could He be God if He taught that without the waters of Baptism a person could not see the Kingdom of God , if, as those who reject this Dogma would have it, a person could be saved without the Sacrament of Baptism? Did He not know it was unnecessary to die on the Cross because people can be saved without the Sacraments He instituted? Did He not know it was unnecessary to build His Church upon the rock of Saint Peter, if, as those who reject the Dogma say, a person can be saved outside of the Church? Why would He teach us :

" He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall bcondemned." Mark 16:16 ?

Either he is God and we better listen and believe or he was a crazy man. It should be obvious to see that belief in salvation outside of Christ and His Church is not only heresy but it rejects the Divinity of Christ!

It is easy to prove the Lord gave us this doctrine, the Apostles taught this doctrine, preached by the Fathers and has always been believed by the faithful. In fact, this dogma has reached the highest teaching authority of the Church, it has been defined. Therefore, no one, not even the Pope can change or water down this dogma as it comes from God Himself. The following are the three definitions. Remember a definition is infallible and therefore ALL CATHOLICS are bound to believe,
or else forfeit there own salvation.

" There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved." ."

(Pope Innocent III, Fourth Lateran Council, 1215 A.D.

" We declare,say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every
human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff."

(Pope Boniface VIII, the Papal Bull " Unam Sanctum", 1302 A.D.)

" The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and
schismatic's, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her. and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgiving, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian solder. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, not even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church."

( Pope Eugene IV, the Papal Bull " Cantate Domino", 1441 A.D.)

These are the Three Infallible pronouncements of Holy Mother the Church. If anyone reads in
these pronouncements that somehow people outside the fold can be saved, they really have no
good will and do not want to know the truth. There are many quotes from Popes, Saints,Fathers and Doctors of the Church all teaching the same thing. It is not a teaching of hate, on the contrary it is a teaching of love. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. If we know our neighbors are not Catholic and therefore cannot receive the sacraments, as Catholics we are to help them understand they need to come home to the one true Church outside of which no one can be saved.

Now lets look at just a few of the teachings from Holy Scripture:

" He that believeth and is Baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned."

(Mark 16:16)

" I am the way and the Truth and the light. No man cometh to the Father but by Me."

(John 14:36)

" Jesus answered: Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy
Ghost, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God."

( John 3:5)

" I am the Vine , you the branches: he who abides in Me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for without me you can do nothing. If anyone not in me , he shall be cast forth like a branch and wither, and they shall gather him up and cast him him into the fire, and he burneth."

( John 15:5-6)

" He who is not with Me is against Me; he who gathers not with Me scatters." ( Matt: 12:30)

12 Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved. ( Acts. 4:12)

"Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, going forth out of that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment, than for that city." (Matt. 10:14).

"If he will not hear them, tell the Church. And if he will not hear the Church, let him be to the as a heathen or a publican." (Matt. 18:17).

"the Lord daily added to the Church, such as should be saved." (Acts 2:47)

The Gospels are quite clear we need our Lord and His sacraments for salvation. We have a duty
under universal charity to tell all those separated from the One True Church that they must enter the Catholic Church before they die, if not their souls will be lost forever. In the spirit of true Catholic ecumenism let it be your mission to make known the love of Christ and His Church. Do not rob your friends, co-workers and neighbors of the chance to find their way home.

Trent | 27 April 2011  

It seems they like torturing kids even at school with words and discrimination. I hope those the kids who take a religious class wouldn't take on a fight with those the kids who don't take part. I do support religious education - rather multi-religion education for critical thinking aiming to produce smart kids. I don't support sex education; it should be taken by social study in which students directly approach the real social issues - not scenarios. Religious study and social study can go together - and should include philosophy as well; then atheism etc can come together too. Those together can make a few year study course I think.

AZURE | 27 April 2011  

In the ACT it seems to be an opt-in system as I recently got a phone call from the school because apparently we missed a form for Christian education and hence my daughter was stuck sitting outside the office and was sure I would be happy for her to go (which I was). What was interesting was that many of her friends come from different faith backgrounds (eg Hindu, Islam) but their parents had all signed the form. I had spoken to one about it before. Her perspective was that she wanted her child to get more moral teaching than the school was providing and she saw the Christian education as a way. I find it interesting that often it seems to be not those of other faiths but in fact those of no faith that are most eager to argue on behalf of those of other religions in this debate. However I do agree wholeheartedly with this article, in that I would appreciate my children being taught about all religions in a non-judgemental way.

Beth | 27 April 2011  

I think most Christians choose this faith because they think it is the religion that holds the most truth.

Giving equal weight to other religions that hold less truth is just politically correct nonsense.

The formation of Australian Democratic society holds a great debt to its European Christian origins, more so then any other religion, so we should cling to that wich is part of our culture and that which is true.

Alex | 27 April 2011  

At the beginning of my Religious Education career I taught 'Scripture' in Government High Schools in Greater Western Sydney.

Often my classes were filled with students of a variety of denominations and faiths who attended 'Catholic Scripture' because they were interested to hear and see what was going on.

My classes were neither opportunities for proslytising nor moments for evangelisation. How could I claim to be the soul educator of the young men and women in my class at that time?

I did, however, take the opportunity do as Jesus did... so I welcomed each and everyone of them in and invited then to see and question.

Ryan McBride | 27 April 2011  

I think the churches can fund chaplaincy which has not thought of proselytising as it is a means of providing extra love and care for those in need. I do think the state gets off easily by having an extra staff member funded by the churches. The other side is that now the real ecumenical activity at least here in WA is the fundraising to support the chaplain, and this has meant some decline in church funds as well.

Marie Wilson | 27 April 2011  

Does Trent understand the meaning of 200 words? Is Trent an astroturfer? His blog is a perfect example of why we need good informed religious education. I wonder how many Australians born after Gary Bouma's magical 1971 would even understand what Trent is talking about? Trent is in need of a wider definition of religion.

QUESTION MARKS | 27 April 2011  

Gary's article was thought provoking, I have taught religious studies for the past twenty years and in that time my thinking has changed considerably. Religious Education or Studies, I think enables or gives students the opportunities to see life from other perspectives. It does require skilled and knowledgeable practitioners to engage students to think.

If this world needs anything at this moment is nations/states/countries, that it citizens can live with s sense of purpose and knowing that they can make this world a better place to live.

Paul Donnelly | 27 April 2011  

I agree with Gary's views. I taught RE /Religious Studies in Catholic High Schools for three decades. I learnt that I was one of many voices in the lives of my students.Most young people do not attend Church and many familes are nominal Christians let alone Catholics I was never sure what impact , if any, I had on my students' values. While I support the need for young people to learn about ALL religious beliefs, This is one way to remove bigotry and misunderstandings between religious groups.

Catholic Schools exsist to pass on Catholic tradition.Using RE classes to 'convert' is a big NO NO ! That is not a teacher's role.
I also take strong exception to the rant by Trent. This sort of thinking leads to intolerance and conflict. Jesus in my humble opinion, I have 12 years part time theological study to back my view, intended to reform the faith of his fathers. He certainly did not start a Church, that was a post resurrection event, at Pentecost (Acts). I often wonder what he would think of today's "church". Remember he was highly critical of the Temple heirachy of his time.Education IS for the professionals!

Gavin O'Brien | 27 April 2011  

It is refreshing to hear such words of sanity regarding religious education coming from within the church. If only it were the educated theologians like Gary who were allowed to teach scripture, instead of poorly trained volunteers who may or may not have their own agenda in front of our impressionable young children.

My children aren't allowed to attend scripture not because I don't want them to learn the morality of the Christian faith, but because I have no idea what agenda or personal interpretation their enthusiastic but untrained volunteer might be pushing.

Eliatan | 27 April 2011  

Funny Gary Bouma saying that now, a few years ago he said supported the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance act allowing 6 months jail for severe ridicule of a religion, Bouma supported the repressive laws against free speech. Gary argued against critics of the vilification laws and in public argued for them "Costello is Wrong on Vilification Laws", The Age (1 June 2004). Gary stated that "Costello simply does not seem to understand the need...". Gary wanted religion taught in "EVERY" subject area, now he has modified his tune because he looked such a fool supporting actions by Muslims against Catch The Fire Ministry. http://www.hereticpress.com/Dogstar/Religion/Vilification.html#biased

Tim Anderson | 27 April 2011  

A very good and realistic article. In N.S.W. in the 1870.s The State became involved in primary education. While the Roman Catholic Church insisted on maintaining their parish schools. The Church of England and other Protestant denominations allowed the State to take over primary education as long as they were given the option to have contact with their pupils for religous education of one hour a week. This act is still in force and exploited by the churches involved. In 2011 both the education systems and society at large are very different from those of the 19th century.

I was involved in R.I in country N.S.W. in the early 1970's. Many older clergy still insisted om "Indoctrinating" the children in"The Faith" with little dialogue or questioning as if they were the extension of their congregation. When the children reached High School they often reacted with riotous behaviour. The Anglican Church with a new generation of clergy set up the General Board of Religious Education to evaluate the whole structure of religious education both in hurch and public schools. Other churches took similar measures.

In the Anglican Archdiocese of Sydney they still think in terms of indoctrination in the ethos of their brand of Calvinism. Attempts by the education authorities to have classes in ethics which are essentially studies in philosophy as an alternative for those who opt out have been condemned by the Anglican Church because it seems that many children have transferred because they find them more exciting than the normal R.I. The Church is afraid of losing their captive audience.

In Victoria classes have been inter-denominational for many years. The syllabus has been more concerned with life issues and the general background of the Christian Faith and not indoctrination. It seems some fundamentalist christians are trying to hijack the system and impose their narrow interpretations of the bible.

In Europe several universities were originally secular foundations now have biblical and religous studies. In this modern world one cannot study such subjects as history or literature without understanding our christian heritage developed from our Judaeic-Christan, Greek and Roman backgrounds It is absurd to treat "Religion" as some sort of spare time hobby that many correspondents in the newspapers seem to believe./

John Ozanne | 28 April 2011  

I guess Trent has the right to believe anything s/he chooses to believe, but is s/he really suggesting that what s/he has posted here should be the substance of religious education in the twenty first century?

Ginger Meggs | 28 April 2011  

Gary, your article 'Rethinking Religious Education' reminds me of my article, 'The Lost Child', (The Tablet Educational Supplement, 13 March 1982). Little seems to have changed since my then plea for replacing religious indoctrination of a captive audience, dragooning of children for 'confirmation', compulsory Mass attendance, etc.; with education based on dialogue, mutual respect and example.

Religion teachers please note the 2nd Vatican Council's 'Dignitatis Humanae': ". . . in spreading religious belief and introducing religious practices, everybody must at all times avoid any action which seems to suggest coercion . . ."

As Francis of Assisi advised his followers: "When preaching the Gospel, use words only if necessary."

More challenging, more dignified and more effective.

Gordon Rowland | 29 April 2011  

The proposition is OK. The problem is finding the people to lecture on religions without bias.

I am a confirmed atheist and sought to raise my children without religious dogma whilst teaching tolerance to all forms of religious belief.

In Primary School, I stipulated on their enrolment,they were not to attend RI periods and instead were to spend the period involved in enrichment reading in the Library. I discovered that my instructions were being ignored by one teacher because of her religious zeal. I had to enforce the issue. I have attended to my childrens spiritual development and am pleased to say they have grown into tolerant individuals with a healthy knowledge about their mortality. They have always had access to sectarian material and attended a couple of churches of their own accord to satisfy themselves but have not chosen to adopt one.

BRIAN T. MANNING | 29 April 2011  

My reaction to Trent's contribution is that we must believe that either: the papal pronouncements he quotes are not infallible, or God is unjust. Does he believe, for example, that every person who lived in Australia before the beginning of the 19th Century was condemned to Hell?

Gavan | 29 April 2011  

An interesting and thoughtful article, as are some of the responses - like Annabel's. As a teacher, and with two children in a State primary school, I've seen many RE and CE lessons run by good-hearted volunteers first hand. Without exception, the sessions I've seen were designed to create believers, not sceptics.

Given the diverse religious and non-religious beliefs of Australians, it doesn't make sense to me that this kind of proselytising activity be publicly funded and provided to all students unless they opt out.

John Thomas | 04 May 2011