Teaching religion or teaching about religion?

Meredith Doig / 31 October 2014

This article was first published in Winter issue of The Australian Rationalist, June 2013.

Anna Halafoff is a research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University.

The role of religion in Australian schools has been vigorously debated since the 1870s, but it has recently generated considerable controversy, particularly in the state of Victoria. Christian volunteers currently teach the vast majority the students who elect to take Special Religions Instruction (SRI) in Victoria’s government schools. Minority faith communities, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs also provide SRI programs while the Humanist Society of Victoria’s proposal to teach Ethics as a non-religious SRI alternative was rejected in 2009.

In early 2010 the case Aitken and Others vs. Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) was lodged at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), in which three families claimed that their children had been discriminated against as a result of their choosing not to participate in SRI classes — given that there was no non-religious SRI option available in Victoria. This case stimulated extensive public debate and calls for the introduction of education about religions and beliefs (ERB) which would incorporate teaching about diverse religious and non- religious worldviews by qualified teachers. It would be included in Australia’s new National Curriculum and be provided from the first years of schooling. Presently, such programs are largely taught in faith-based schools, while few government schools provide ERB — and then only in years 11 and 12.

The United Kingdom, by contrast, has been cited as a leader in developing ‘world religions education’ programs since the 1970s. Canada also introduced an inclusive ethics and religious culture program in its government schools in 2005. Religious education in Australia’s state schools has been described as lagging far behind other nations.

Due to globalisation, societies such as Australia have become increasingly culturally and religiously diverse. The 2011 Australian Census reported a relatively slight, yet significant, decline in Christianity  (63.23%  in  2006  to  60.53%  in  2011)  and  rise  in Buddhism (2.09% in 2006 to 2.43% in 2011), Islam (1.70% in 2006 to 2.19% in 2011), Hinduism (0.74% in 2006 to 1.27% in 2011), Judaism (0.44% in 2006 to 0.45% in 2011) and Other Religious Groups (0.52% in 2006 to 0.74% in 2011). Those declaring ‘No Religion’ also significantly increased from 18.48% in 2006 to 22.08% in 2011. However, as outlined above, [quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]the way in which religion is taught in Victoria’s government schools does not align with these demographics.[/quote]

Up until recently, public education has been the responsibility of state governments in Australia. Consequently, each Australian State has its own unique history, laws and policies concerning teaching about religions in government schools. The place of religion in Victoria’s state schools has long been debated, largely due to different perceptions of what constitutes a secular society and thereby a secular education system. The secular clause in the 1872 and 1928 Victorian Education Acts prohibited religious education from being taught in Victorian Government school curricula yet allowed for religious instruction (RI) to be delivered by volunteers from Christian organisations before or after the prescribed four-hour school.

After considerable pressure from religious groups, the Education (Religious Instruction) Act of 1950 maintained the four hours of secular instruction provided by teachers, however it was permitted to teach RI during school hours by accredited representatives of Christian religious groups. These RI programs were voluntary and students could be excused from attending at their parents’ request. The 1950 Act also allowed Jewish RI to be provided in Victorian Government schools on a voluntary ‘opt-in’ basis.

Australia was a largely  Christian nation in the 1950s, but it was about to experience significant cultural and religious transformation. Diverse religious groups, including Baha’is, Buddhists and Sikhs, were permitted to deliver RI programs in Victoria’s state schools, alongside Christian and Jewish providers, in the late 1990s in response to increasing religious diversity. The 2006 Education and Training Reform Act, distinguished ‘special religious instruction’ (SRI) from ‘general religious education’ (GRE) and finally included the provision for teaching GRE within the core curriculum by qualified teachers given that education about diverse religions does not contravene secular principles. However, to this date there has been no allocation of financial resources by the DEECD to provide GRE curricula, or to train teachers to deliver GRE programs, other than in years 11 and 12.

The 2006 Act defined SRI as ‘instruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs’ and GRE as ‘education about major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world’, and stated that except for provision of SRI, ‘education in Government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’.

As briefly described above, despite increasing religious diversity in Victoria, Christian volunteers currently teach the vast majority of the students who elect to take SRI in state schools and although there is a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. Ethics SRI remains prohibited in Victoria. [quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Scholars have raised concerns that allowing a potentially narrow religious message to  be  taught to young Australians could lead to interreligious ignorance and heighten social tensions among Australian communities.[/quote]
A number of recent Australian and international studies have also acknowledged the positive role that ERB can play in promoting social inclusion and countering extremism and recommended that ERB be included in the curriculum from the first years of schooling. Indeed, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) published the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools, in 2007 (OSCE 2007) yet Australian schools are yet to comply with these guidelines.

The extensive public debate, particularly surrounding the VCAT case that was heard in March 2012, leant significant urgency to this issue. While VCAT dismissed the case in October 2012, and then denied an appeal, it acted as a catalyst for some of the above research to be taken seriously by state actors and diverse religious and non-religious communities. It also galvanized into action groups such as Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS), and the Religions, Ethics and Education Network Australia (REENA) which has been disseminating research findings and awareness of problems with current SRI/SRE models and benefits of ERB.

These developments led to the DEECD making two significant changes to the SRI policy in August 2011 before the VCAT case was even heard. These changes include a shift from an opt-out to an opt-in system and to a commitment that children who choose to opt-out of SRI would have to be engaged in meaningful activities. There is still much that needs to be done in order to at least make SRI more equitable, and to ensure that Victoria’s government schools are resourced to provide ERB. Until the current SRI funding model is reviewed, in which the controversial Christian SRI provider ACCESS Ministries has received substantial state support for providing both SRI and Chaplaincy programs while other faith groups have not, Christian SRI maintains a privileged position in a state school system that is supposed to be secular.

On a more optimistic note the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the agency responsible for the development of Australia’s National Curriculum, has met with REENA scholars and peak religious and non-religious community leaders, including humanists and rationalists, on several occasions to discuss ERB in the National Curriculum. Education about diverse religions and beliefs can be taught within subject areas of History and Civics and Citizenship, and in general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities such as Intercultural Understanding and Ethical Behaviour. Opportunities for appropriate resource development and dissemination, drawing on local and international best practices and resources, are also being discussed at national and state levels.

REENA is committed to working together with ACARA to ensure that education about diverse religions and beliefs is adequately developed and implemented across the National Curriculum to increase awareness of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews and to provide a critical education about the role of religion in society. The contentious issue of SRI/ SRE in government schools, however, remains to be adequately addressed, despite increasing pressure from academics, parents, teachers and religious and non-religious community leaders.

Scott Hedges is a researcher on secularism in Australia and a member of the steering group of Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS).

Stanley Milgram performed an infamous series of experiments in the 1960s in which he measured the willingness of the study’s participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.

Teachers in Australian and New Zealand schools are involved in a similar exercise. It can be conceived of as a “religious education Milgram experiment”, because, like the participants in the original study, the authority figures who employ them order teachers to administer a program of religious instruction in our schools that conflicts with their conscience, training, and professional code of ethics. Teachers comply with this system, against their wishes because they are ordered to do it by people in authority.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]There is nothing singularly important about knowing about religion; the challenge is best understood as one of education. Since religions exist, and play a role in our world, they can and should be understood for what they are, where they come from, how they evolved – and the role they play in human society. None of this is complicated or terribly controversial.[/quote]

More controversial, and complicated, are the claims and demands which increasingly vocal, and sometimes violent, religious extremists are making when they believe others are encroaching on their doctrines or considering them to be irrelevant or, worse, morally questionable. Yet no conversation about this is ever going to happen in a world where we cannot even by honest about the failure of the current system.

What teachers are ordered to do in our schools is best understood as a system of outsourcing whereby religious groups operate franchise programs in their classrooms. This program is not new, nor has it ever been a commitment of the education system per se. Neither is it something that teachers support. It creates  obvious entanglements between religious groups and public officials and is a capitulation of an important  principle that once animated Australian schooling, whereby ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ instruction were considered distinct ideas. The latter is the purview of churches (and now mosques, temples and synagogues) and the former is accountable to the citizens through oversight of specialists employed by the government.

This separation was an essential and indispensable innovation in Australian life. The citizens of Australia pay for education, which is accountable to professional standards. Churches, whose doctrine is not subject to any standards boards, are free to teach  their beliefs free of any interference so long as they are not violating the law. This state of affairs is the soul of religious freedom and toleration, essential to a pluralist society. Religious education in Australia, therefore, has never been under the control and purview of the education system itself. It is a kind of kick back demanded by religious entities, agreed to by a government that nominally approves and authorizes the program.

While the earliest efforts at education in Australia followed the old model of calling on the church to run schools, Australia eventually felt confident enough to base its education policy on what was, at the time, a world leading innovation in education: a system based only on offering secular instruction in its schools. Trusted churches were allowed to attend to their doctrines without government involvement or oversight.

Many Christians believe that churches are the best place to instruct children in faith. But a significant number, generally the more fundamentalist ones, believe that you  cannot  have true education that is ‘secular’. No real confusion exists in the education profession about what is ‘religious indoctrination’ and what is reading, writing, math, language, history, arts, and science (aka, secular subjects). In the same way that no one is seriously confused about how indoctrination differs from education, no-one believes that limiting public instruction to secular subjects, limits children and families from being religious, just as it doesn’t prevent them from playing tennis.

To some factions of the church, however, any system of education that does not include a means to indoctrinate children in religion, can be accused of being a threat to religion. The teaching profession does not struggle to understand these issues, but they have been subject to orders from above. First in NSW, in 1880, then in 1950 in Victoria, church activists struck on the idea, not of forcing state school teachers to do what they were professionally opposed to, but instead to order them to administer a system where the church did the instructing while the teachers kept order.

Though all Australian teachers have now come under orders of one variety or another to facilitate the activity of religion in schools, teachers and school administrators  have never been happy with it. Nowhere has this struggle been more active than in Victoria.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]In the early 1970s the Victorian schools admitted that the system of letting church volunteers use the schools was so broken that a large public report was commissioned to recommend scrapping the system and replacing it with what would be thought of as “General Religious Education”. [/quote]This was called “The Russell Report”, and it stands as an unsurpassed analysis of the problems with Australian SRI. It carefully picks through the issues of how to teach religion in an educational way that would not offend the conscience or professional standards of teachers. In 1976 the Crown Solicitor reviewed the report, but found that the recommendations of the committee were not sufficiently clear to avoid breaching the secular clause in the Education Act. The report was put on a shelf and forgotten. The teachers, who were in favor of reform, remained under orders to watch as volunteers conducted instruction.

In 1998, the Government, facing a growing diversity of religious expression that did not exist when the 1950 legislation was enacted, created an extension of SRI to non-Christian groups, by means of a contract with an interfaith body, “Religions for Peace” which maintain a Religious Instruction Secretariat. This group in turn works with interested parties in the Baha’i, Buddhist, Orthodox Christian, Islamic, and Sikh “communities” to encourage more and different kinds of Special Religious Instruction in our schools. While this expansion was never debated by the legislature, nor sought by the teaching profession, the fact that the system catered only to the Christian religion set up an obvious inequality. Rather than roll back the 1950 legislation, or dust off the work done by Russell, as teachers would have preferred, the government effectively ordered the participants in the religious Milgram experiment to increase the dosage of SRI.

The ‘Milgram experiment’ escalated when the authority figure continued to order more and more outrageous acts until the person subject to the orders broke down sobbing or refused to co-operate. A similar situation exists in our schools. The groups who teach SRI are increasingly blatant about their goal of indoctrination and proselytizing, and are continually refining their material to be more and more offensive to professional educators. There are signs that the limits of professional endurance with this abuse are approaching. As the groups who control the religion franchise in our schools become increasingly intent on dropping any pretense of being educators, and move closer and closer to simple proselytizing, the teaching profession’s limits are being tested.

On the first day of Special Religious Instruction my daughter received a worksheet. On it, it had a magnifying glass. She was instructed to draw a picture of herself in the glass – the subject of Special Religious Instruction is actually you and your relationship to God. The child herself is the object of the church’s interest, and the message they have is about the imperative of forming a relationship with Jesus. The activity asks the child “who am I?” My daughter’s name is Janet, so she wrote “Janet” in the correct blank. Then it asks: “who are you?” The religion teacher wrote, “Ms. Marion”. Then it asks: “who is God?” – and the answer to that question is found in the Bible, John 1:18 – “Jesus shows us what God is like”. If this seems to you like anything other than an exercise in proselytizing to very young children, you flunk.

This is the first lesson and the subsequent lessons are not really any different. The teachers are told to stand there and watch. They know that this not “education” – it’s a blatant missionary exercise. There are certain sectors of the academic community who advocate something called “General Religious Education”. Some sectors are calling for this to be called, “Religion and Beliefs Education” or something even larger in scope “General Religion and Ethics Education” (GREE) – the list of calls on our schools is potentially endless.

Personally, I think the legislators who wrote the 1872 “Secular, Compulsory and Free” Education Act had it right. Churches should attend to the instructional needs of their congregations without any involvement from the Minister of Education. The legislature should not order state employees to oversee evangelism and proselytizing in our schools as they plainly do right now.


All the more reason.