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Towards a more inclusive religious curriculum



The Dalai Lama is turning 82 this July, and he may be the last in his line. The religious and political ramifications of this are often lost on the general public, because we are not actively taught it in school.

Children of different faiths sharing. Illustration by Chris JohnstonMany people in largely Christian Australia don't know the significance of a Mikveh in Judaism, can't explain why the Buddhist Middle Path is so important, or recite what the Five Pillars of Islam are. There are as many diverse interpretations of Hinduism as there are for Christianity, and there are as many insightful Buddhist stories as there are in the Bible.

I attended an Anglican school with a typical religious education course that revolved around the Anglican Church, but there was one year when we studied a bit of everything; how the three major monotheistic religions originated on Arab soil, the archeology of Mecca, the spread of Buddhism through East Asia.

We visited a mosque, a synagogue, and a Chinese Buddhist temple on a day trip within the city. It was the most inclusive year I ever had in religious education, which they really should have called Bible Studies if the school was being honest.

I found I knew more about other religions than my friends by way of reading graphic novels, which was absurd. How had comics been more informative about grieving mothers and mustard seeds, or the architecture in Andalucia, than the monolithic entity that was (and is) the national education system?

The conundrum is this: said education system has its roots in the Christian church, and is principally West-centric. Setting aside the fact that most schools do not have much control over their curriculum, it is in a school's own interest to promote the doctrine endorsed by its founders, its graduates, and the parents and government that grant the funds that continue its existence.

That is not to say that this is inherently wrong; teaching children the moral foundations of our forebears and extrapolating on their ideologies can be seen as noble work.

However, according to census data, Christianity is losing traction. In the 2011 census the percentage of people who are of other religions has risen to just under half the population, and in 2017 it may be that 'no religion' will win out entirely.


"There are so many parts of the world that have seen social and physical conflict in the name of religion. How can Australians contribute to the international discourse regarding religion if we are only familiar with one?"


At the same time, religious radicalisation has become an international concern. We have the Christian alt-right, we have so-called Islamic terrorists, and we have extremist Buddhist monks in Myanmar. I hope it is reasonable enough to say that most people belonging to any of these religions would denounce the violence and hateful rhetoric hurled around. Yet many members of the Christian majority in Australia are still sceptical of a Muslim's sincerity, or dubious at the thought of murderous monks.

So why not teach all religions at school?

Perhaps not extensively; theology can be explored in greater depth and at leisure in university. But we learn the basics of maths, science, literature and art in secondary school, so why not the same for religion? There are so many parts of the world that have seen social and physical conflict in the name of religion. How can Australians contribute to the international discourse regarding religion if we are only familiar with one?

Knowing nothing but your own religion is dangerous. There is plenty of infighting between Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Protestant, and other branches of Christianity. By learning about religions outside of Christianity, not only can we appreciate the nuance within Christian churches, we can demystify the role of headscarves, the colour orange, the reason why some gods have multiple arms or an animal head. You learn that Jesus features in the Quran and you are reminded that he was a son of Judaism too.

Learning another religion does not delegitimise your own. It instead creates an environment of tolerance that this world is in more need of, and gives students and their parents an opportunity to discuss the subject with a more open mind. By going through even the most basic aspects of each religion, it is evident that there are shared key values such as empathy and kindness, charity, forgiveness, and the sanctity of Life. One does not have to be religious to appreciate that these qualities are what makes a morally sound human being.

They are different, of course, these religions. They have evolved over history in vastly separate contexts, but they are, at their core, just trying to make us into better human beings.


Sophie ChalmersSophie Chalmers is a freelance writer living in Melbourne.

Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Sophie Chalmers, religious education, Islam, Buddhism, interfaith dialogue



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john frawley | 21 March 2017  

Interesting article .... If religious instruction were to return to the curriculum it should begin in primary school, I believe. Bias has already set in after that.

Delveen Chandler | 21 March 2017  

An excellent and timely article that reminds us that we belong to a pluralist society with more that links us rather than divides us.

Gerard Rummery | 22 March 2017  

I couldn't agree with you more Sophie. World religions should form part of the curriculum in all schools.

Angela | 22 March 2017  

I remember, many years ago in the late 1950s, at The Cathedral & John Connon School in Bombay - a school very similar to Melbourne Grammar where I finished my education - we had some wonderful books on Hindu legends (the Ramayana) and Asian religions (bear in mind The Cathedral was Anglican and at that time there were still quite a few Europeans there before most of us left to go 'home' to the UK or Australia, Canada etc.) . Of course growing up in multi-racial, multi-cultural Bombay (Mumbai) was an experience which has stayed with me. One thing which worries me is what friends tell me is the watering down of religious education at Catholic and other mainstream religious schools in Australia so any religious education will have to have a dual focus: Christianity and other religions. Of course, the State educational systems may not tolerate any even broad general outline of Christianity, which is terribly sad because it means most Australian school children will miss out on learning about their own traditional religion. Your article is timely. I wish people in the educational system would read it and take its suggestions on board.

Edward Fido | 22 March 2017  

" they are, at their core, just trying to make us into better human beings".... Unfortunately many, if not all, think that the way to do this is to restrict the scope of development of individuals to that of the vision each religion embraces as THE one and only path up God's Mountain. But all God's Children are scattered around the foot of the Mountain, and have different terrains to traverse before ascending via the path available to them. To ignore the value of other paths is bad. To reject them is worse. The most pernicious of all is to attack and try to destroy them. We need to recognise good-will where it resides and encourage harmony and cooperation among ALL God's Children.

Robert Liddy | 22 March 2017  

This is a very good, interesting article. However, I point out that in the past there was an arguably similar course in the Melbourne Year 12 curriculum and which was not restricted to "religious schools". That subject was Biblical Studies and it covered, inter alia, Islam, Buddhism, the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as one of the Christian Gospels. I studied that subject in Year 12 in 1969. Melbourne University also had a similar course in its Arts curriculum, which I also studied. I have found that it has held me in good stead ever since and has enabled me to think more deeply about many issues, currently for example those surrounding Islam and the way people argue about it. Thank you for reminding me of that period of my life and why I enjoyed those years studying that subject.

Peter | 22 March 2017  

Sophie has raised an important issue that of education for a multicultural society. It reminded me of the public debate that occurred a few years ago when John Howard initiated his chaplains policy in schools. I thought then that this could minimise the education about other religions and philosophies. In addition, many schools used these chaplains as counsellors when many did not have the qualifications to be so. I think that it is important for there to be

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 March 2017  

I think we do well to remember that life begins with the episodic; starting with the progenitive it moves to the protective and on to the projective in the wide world. As adults we are involved somehow with projects in our times, with stuff we think is worthwhile doing (orthopraxis). Religion, its myths, narrative, rituals and its doctrines (creed/ orthodoxy) are contextual self-validations of what we think is worthwhile doing. Of course, if religious observance becomes the first project that is worth our doing in life we are in trouble. So back to the episodic in life as the ground of our mutual understanding. There is more than one exemplary occasion of this in the Christian Gospel.

Noel McMaster | 22 March 2017  

NSW HSC Studies of Religion is a 1 and 2 unit course that was approved for study towards the HSC in 1991. The first exam was 1994 and there have been three revisions to the syllabus. The course is about living religious traditions with a focus on religious expression in Australia. In 1994 there were 3919 candidates of whom just 94 did 2U. In 2016, 15 511 students sat the HSC ain this sublet and 41% sat 2U. After English and Maths, Studies of Religion had the fourth (4th) highest number of candidates. Government, Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Independent schools offer the course. As far as I am aware there is some Religion Studies course in the other States.

Janet Morrissey | 22 March 2017  

Loved the analogy, Robert Liddy. It provided me with a very new and, I think, valid perspective.

john frawley | 22 March 2017  

Thank you Sophie for reminding us all of the need for a basic understanding of the various faith traditions. As you pointed out this tends to promote tolerance and respect for others. As a past member of the executive of the AARE(WA) I am proud of the professional development opportunities the association ran in conjunction with those of Jewish faith. Their rabbis, and their senior students provided many Catholic Christian teachers with a far greater appreciation of Judaism than many had previously. At the time of my retirement the association was reaching out to the Islamic College in Perth for similar reasons. We are enriched by our understanding of each other: of that there is no doubt.

Ern Azzopardi | 22 March 2017  

In South Australia as part of the SACE there is a subject called Religion Studies at Stage 1 and 2. We offer this at my school, which is a large Catholic coed secondary college. As part of the Year 12 course, students are encouraged to look at issues from a variety of religious perspectives, and also do depth studies of two major world religions. We focus on Christianity, as you might expect, and also Islam. Understanding others' beliefs is an essential first step if Australia is to be a truly inclusive and tolerant pluralist society.

Moira Stevens | 23 March 2017  

Thank you Sophie for this excellent article! Keep up the good work!

Dr. Amy Daniel | 23 March 2017  

Perhaps we need a compulsory subject called 'Religion, belief-systems, ethics and philosophy', a subject in which students are encouraged to understand the context in which different religions and belief systems have evolved, the roles and purposes which they have served, their relationship to ethics and morality. I'm not talking about religious instruction that narrows the mind, but education that broadens it.

Ginger Meggs | 24 March 2017  

I note, not without some concern, the very pragmatic view of religious education and religion itself in some responses here, whereby the value of religion is estimated only by its usefulness to individuals and society. Along with this, some of the postings tack shy of the primacy claims evident in the New Testament for Christ as the unique and supreme manifestation of and way to God.In multi-cultural antiquity, especially Rome, witness to the Gospel defied eclecticism and indifferentism, and was characterised by a counter-cultural rather than assimilationist relationship with mainstream society.

John | 24 March 2017  

John, I'm not 'tacking shy' of the primacy claims of Christianity, but all religions have primacy claims, and to preference one above the other surely leads to religious instruction rather than religious education. The latter would surely require a study of all such claims, not with the purpose of finding the 'true' one, but rather with the purpose of understanding why religions invariably have such 'primacy claims', the contexts in which they emerged, the purposes which they serve, and the collateral effects to which they give rise.

Ginger Meggs | 26 March 2017  

Ginger, the primacy claims of any religion rest largely on the authenticity and credibility of their founder. These credentials can be thoroughly examined in the world's main religions and one's judgment will decisively affect which religion, if any, one professes. Christ, who, as the Christian church confesses, claimed to be "the light of the world" and "the way,the truth and the life", instructed his followers to "teach . . . all nations." It is a non-negotiable premise of evangelisation in a religious community which accepts in faith that proclamation and instruction are unavoidable, even inherently commissioned. This datum does not necessarily imply that there is no truth in other religions; nor does it license adherents to categorically disrespect other beliefs. Indeed, early Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria affirmed whatever was true as proceeding from the Eternal Word, part of the Creator's providence and compatible with explicit Christian revelation. What's more, why shouldn't one embark on a search with the purpose of seeking truth and a commitment to it? It seems to me that truth, of its nature, engenders conviction and the desire to communicate. And how can there be education without some instruction?

John | 27 March 2017  

John - St Paul - inspired by the light and life of Christ and the political world events of his time wrote: "Is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too." I wonder how Paul would respond to today's world. Is he not the God of Muslims too? Maybe you'd accuse St Paul of eclecticism or indifferentism..

AURELIUS | 08 May 2017  

Not at all, Aurelius - rather, I'd recognise that St Paul is affirming in the passage you cite the universality of God's fatherhood; a different exegesis from one that negates real distinctions between claims of divine revelation.

John | 05 June 2017  

I do agree with you Sophie, and I am wondering why the "Study of Religion" subject that my daughter (late 1980s) and later my granddaughter (in past couple of years) undertook in early high school is not more widely available. Both girls attended church schools and both loved and excelled in the subject.

Imelda O'Loughlin | 23 June 2017