The end of secular education?

The Age has published an article that every Australian ought to read, for the implications of what has been written could forever change the face of Australian education and society.

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Photo: Nick Moir. Taken from The Age

 

 

Anthony Bergin and Clare Murphy from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, have argued that we must give away the idea that we are a secular nation and have secular education, in order to introduce a program into schools that teaches students about religions. Berlin and Murphy have recognised that some young Muslims in our country are being ‘radcalised’, and key to prevention they believe is teaching religions in our schools.

“Our future is as a multi-faith nation. It is better to speak of Australia not as a secular society, but rather a civil society where there’s freedom of religion and separation of religion and state.

Education ministries speak about secular education because of the mantra “free, secular and compulsory”. But it’s time to change the discourse; why call it “secular instruction” when teaching about the histories, beliefs and practices of the major world religions, as well as the role and function of religion in society, is simply “educational” and should be seen as a normal part of the curriculum.”

I want to affirm Anthony Bergin and Clare Murphy’s aim to prevent future attacks. I agree that there is a threat being realised with young Muslims becoming ‘radicalised’, and we need to find ways to avert this evil pathway. But I am  concerned by the answer they offer.

First, is it the role of Government to teach religion?

This is one of the reasons why Church groups were invited into schools to teach SRI. Society had acknowledged the role of Christianity and thus believed in giving students opportunity to understand its basic beliefs and practices, but these half hour lessons were optional and not taught by teachers.

Is it really wise for the Government to step-in to the role of teaching religion? Do we want that?

The state school that my children attend have a set of values. These values are taught and encouraged, and they do so effectively without need for a curriculum on world religions.

Secondly, there is no neutral theological ground. This is one of grave misnomers that secularists pontificate; they see themselves as religiously neutral and therefore objective, but that is no more true than there being fairies living in my back garden. The worldview one holds inevitably informs and skews the way we understand alternative worldviews. Anthony Bergin and Clare Murphy offer a clear example of this failure:

“Teaching about the role of religion in society and in the creation of social unity might help students distinguish between religion and ideology.”

Outlining the difference between Islam as a faith and Islamism as a political ideology could help young people make sense of the way fundamentalist and literalist interpretations of religions become political movements, some of which turn violent. Teaching about religion could also assist in countering right-wing extremism by reducing the fear of difference.”

The reality is by far more complex. There are Muslims who would accept the above statement, but many would not and with warrant. Separating theology from ideology fails to grasp the very nature of Islam, and ignores the teaching of the Koran and the Hadiths (see this piece in The Atlantic). What Bergin and Murphy have done is erroneously imposed onto Islam, a view of religion that derives from Enlightenment and Kantian constructs.

Bergin and Murphy also include this strange paragraph, which further evidences their failure to understand religion, and so provides another reason why we must be  careful about introducing any religious course into schools.

“In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews has ordered special religious instruction classes to be held outside school time from next year, and replaced in school hours with content on world histories, cultures, faith and ethics. We don’t know what’s  taught in the religious classes of Muslim schools, just as we don’t know what’s  taught in the Rudolf Steiner, evangelical Christian and Brethren schools.” 

I am not sure whether Bergin and Murphy are attempting a moment of political correctness or whether they genuinely believe that the SRI program and Christian schools are also dangerous. Either way, mentioning them in this context is poor form; there is simply no parallel between what is happening amongst some young Muslims and with Christians teaching students the Bible.

Bergin and Murphy’s own ideological agenda comes into the open when the say,

‘Providing students with the basic principles of major world religions in their formative years would provide a safe space for students to raise questions about religion that may be uncomfortable, but which require answers from a responsible and open mentor, and are better addressed sooner rather than later. It would assist them to engage meaningfully in a conversation about religious identity and celebrate religious diversity.’

To what extent should our children be taught to ‘celebrate religious diversity’? This is hardly a theologically neutral statement. There is a sense in which we want our children to recognise the reality of religious diversity, and to respect people who hold different views (Christians will take it further and say we should love them), but celebrate? Certainly, we should be thankful that we live in a society where freedom of religion exists, and we can celebrate that, but the word is loaded and can assume that all religions have the same merit or veracity. In other words, any course that teaches the sameness of religions fails theology 101 and insults the people who hold to their faith.

Thirdly, on a practical note, my understanding is that where students are being ‘radicalised’ in schools, it is in Islamic schools and not the State system. In other words, the course  is made redundant because it won’t reach the people it is designed to influence.

I don’t want to see the end of secular education in this country.  Indeed, it is my Christian theology that convinces me about the separation of church and state, not its absence.

Bergin and Murphy’s proposal is rash and it will remove one of the fundamental building blocks of Australian society, namely the separation of church and state. They have admitted that this so, but they believe the cost is worth it. My sense though is that they are falling into the fear trap that ISIL is setting around the world; they want us to change our ways, they want us to turn on each other and to restrict freedoms.

It is not the role of Government to teach religion. I recognise that the issues are incredibly complex and we must do something but this proposal is thwart with problems. Are we really willing to sacrifice secular education? I pray not.

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2 thoughts on “The end of secular education?

  1. If I were to make an amendment, or rather a clarification, the model for Church/State in Australia is not what we find in America. Our model permits religious input & influence in our Governments but not control. A perfect example of this was the SRI program in schools, where students were free to engage in the teachings of Christianity (and other religions should the school request). These classes were however optional and were run by an approved organisation rather by the Government.

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