It appears as though Daniel Andrews and the Victorian Government have unnecessarily pulled the plug on Religious Instruction in schools (SRI).
In August this year Education Minister, James Merlino, announced that religious instruction classes would be removed from Victorian schools from 2016. It should be mentioned that religious groups may be permitted outside class time, however the parameters for running these lunch-time groups remains unclear and uncertain.
Why am I suggesting that the Government has made a mistake? In the last 24 hours the ABC has published two articles that warrant a re-examination of SRI’s closure.
First of all, it has been demonstrated that the policy shift derives from a faulty understanding of secularism (see Michael Bird’s piece on ABC Religion and Ethics). Dr Bird refers to the ‘New Atheists’ who have redefined secularism, “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.” It is this fallacious thinking that has been pushed by groups such as FIRIS, and would seem has also been adopted by the Andrews’ Government.
One of the adverse effects of this view of secularism is that we are creating a new wave of sectarianism, where thousands of families are now faced with the dilemma of either keeping their children in a State school environment where religious toleration is dissipating, or moving their children to independent schools. Far from creating more inclusive schools, we are in danger of returning to the ugly days of sectarian divides, except this time it is not Protestant/Catholic, but religious/non-religious.
As a parent who has three children attending a State school, I value the education they receive; the teachers are excellent and the pastoral care is first rate. It is worrying though, that faulty Government policy may unnecessarily drive a wedge in many school communities, where none has existed previously.
Secondly, Michael Jensen has written a piece overviewing findings from recent academic studies, that demonstrate the positive benefits of our children learning about God and engaging with ideas found in religion.
“Here’s the bottom line. There’s been a lot of alarmist stuff written recently about the potential detrimental effects of religious teaching on young people. What the hard data says is otherwise: an active religious faith is much to be desired in young people, and the benefits of such a faith persist into old age.”
Dr John Dickson has also helpfully summarised the findings from one set of research that has been published in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2012):
* ‘Well-being’: 78% of over 300 studies report a significant positive relationship between religion/spirituality and well-being.
* ‘Hope’: 73% of 40 studies find that religion/spirituality is related to greater hope.
* ‘Optimism’: 81% of 32 studies indicate that optimism is more common among those who are religious/spiritual.
* ‘Meaning and purpose’: 93% of 45 studies find that religion/spirituality is related to greater purpose and meaning.
* ‘Social support’: 82% of 74 studies report significant links between religion/spirituality and a person’s social support.
* ‘Self-esteem’: 61% of 69 studies report a positive link between religion/spirituality and self-esteem.
* ‘Depression’: 61% of 413 studies found lower rates of depression or faster recovery from depression in individuals who are more religious.
* ‘Suicide’: 75% of 141 studies found that greater religiosity/spirituality is associated with less suicidal ideation, fewer suicidal attempts, or fewer completed suicides.
* ‘Social capital’ (i.e., an individual’s community participation, volunteerism, social trust, involvement in civic life): 79% of 14 studies report significantly positive associations between religious involvement and social capital.
While I would add certain caveats and qualifications about these findings, they nonetheless communicate that there are significantly positive social and mental benefits that derive from belief in God.
It is interesting to note that the Victorian Department of Education understand that ‘Health and wellbeing are essential for quality of life and are fundamental preconditions for learning and development’. One of the identified aspects of wellbeing is what they refer to as ‘spiritual wellbeing’. And yet the Government is truncating this very principle by taking away from students the freedom and opportunity to engage with these very things.
Dr Bird and Dr Jensen are not saying anything new, but they offer timely refutations to the popular memes about religion, children and education. Given the weight of their arguments, I believe it is reasonable for Mr Merlino and Mr Andrews to reconsider their decision about SRI in 2016.