Introduction of ‘General Religious Studies’ in Victorian Schools

When I first became a parent someone gave Susan and me this wise advice, ‘whenever you offer a criticism or correction to your children, make sure you also give them 10 encouragements.’  I’m pretty sure we haven’t made it to 10 every time, but we try.

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When it comes to the education of children in Victoria, I could easily mention 100 things that are fantastic about our schools and teachers. As a parent with 3 children in school, I am very thankful for the education they are receiving, and for the care and expertise of their teachers.

Having said that, I do not support everything that is being implemented by the Education Department, especially  issues relating to directives from the Education Minister, Mr James Merlino.  In 2015 the current Victorian Government made several drastic and unnecessary changes to our education system in regard to SRI (and other related issues); these have been discussed at length on other occasions. In 2016 the changes will continue, and it is important for parents to be made aware.

Our State Government is introducing material on General Religious Studies (prep-year 10). This is one of two curriculums* that is replacing SRI (which can now only take place outside of normal class hours, along with an extensive list of new measures). The other program is Building Respectful Relationships.

In this post I wish to raise 4 concerns regarding the General Religious Studies.

First, the freedom to choose religious education has been taken away from students and parents. Whereas families once had choice and could opt-in for religious classes (whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist classes), they are no longer given the option.

The material has been made available for this year, but due to certain issues (relating to training, I believe) the course will become compulsory in both State and Catholic schools from January 2017.

Second, can the Education Department guarantee that the General Religious Studies material will be accurate and taught impartially?

Learning about other religions is important and useful, and at home we ensure our children can learn about what different people believe. 

About teaching religion in schools, there is a significant ideological issue at stake, is it the role of Government to teach religion? Apart from that, my concern is, will educators ensure that each religion is explained and taught with fairness and veracity?

Neutral education is a fairy tale, and this is clearly demonstrated by the Department’s own summaries of the 5 major religions. I am not an expert in Hinduism, Islam or Judaism, although I can (in my view) find fault in these representations, but as a Christian with an honours degree in theology I am in some way, able to speak to the published presentation of Christianity

According to the Education Department these are the ‘key premises’ of Christianity:

“There is one God, consisting of the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. God became human in the person of Jesus, the Son.

People have one life and its purpose is to live in a loving relationship with God, with others and with the world. The life and teachings of Jesus show how this is done and make possible the life-giving changes needed in individuals and society. Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit and are called to demonstrate God’s love, compassion and justice in all their relationships and interactions. Most Christians believe in an afterlife; that after their physical death, they will live forever with God.

The Bible is the sacred text for Christians. The Bible has two parts, known as the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament contains Jewish books and teachings, before the time of Jesus. The New Testament records the teachings of Jesus as well as the history and teaching of the early

Church which is based on the teaching and example of Jesus.”

There are certainly statements here that align with Christianity, but others are blatantly wrong, and some of the most central tenets are altogether missing.

Here is one example of a basic error, ‘Most Christians believe in an afterlife; that after their physical death, they will live forever with God”. No, all Christians believe in an afterlife, and this life beyond death will be physical.

Notice how there is no mention of sin, Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection, and of salvation on account of God’s grace. There is no mention of hell. Without these things there is no Christianity. It is not enough to make the excuse, we can’t say everything in a few paragraphs, the core of Christianity has been ripped out and in so doing it is presenting a Christianity that is inauthentic and inaccurate.

To quote the Bible, Christianity is about ‘Christ and him crucified’.

My point is this, if the Education Department is unable to fairly and accurately summarise the Christian faith, how can we trust what they want taught about any and all religion?

One of the stated aims is that it ‘should include…opportunities for critical thinking.’ That’s a fine intention, but if my children are to be taught any religious studies, I want them learning the facts, not an erroneous and sloppy version that looks more like a fake painted by a liberal secular humanist on a bad hair day.

Thirdly, one of the concerns aimed at SRI was that instructors were not only explaining what their religion believes but were encouraging students to practise and participate, in a variety of ways.

The Facts Sheet given to school Principals by the Victorian Education Department (November 2015) makes it clear that as part of General Religious Studies, teachers may organise for students to celebrate festivals belonging to the different religions. They cite examples including dressing up for Diwali (a Hindu festival celebrating their understanding of spiritual victory), making Christmas decorations, and sharing sweets for Eid (a Muslim festival).

In other words, not only is this new religious content compulsory and fails at a basic academic level, it is encouraging students (regardless of their own religious convictions) to participate in activities of other religions. I have no doubt that this will be deeply troubling for many thousands of Victorian parents, from different religions.

Fourthly, class room teachers will be required to teach the material, although under very strict guidelines a visitor may be invited to teach certain aspects.

I have a very high regard for the teachers at my children’s school, but I suspect that very few if any have qualifications in theology or philosophy. I imagine it is difficult enough for them to teach the many different subjects they are already putting together each year, let alone teaching theology, something which would normally require a four year university degree!

I understand that teachers will be presenting overviews, not deep theological treatises. However, even a simple grasp of the 5 major religions requires significant learning, and what of students when they ask teachers questions about these religions? Will they be equipped to answer? I certainly hope they won’t be relying on the current information that the Department are providing, given its flawed representations

I have been informed by the education department that the content must be taught (from 2017), but it will be up to each individual school as to how it will be taught.

What can parents do?

Speak to your school principal (and council) and graciously explain your concerns to them.

Write to your local member of Parliament, and kindly and succinctly express your concerns.

———————–

Technically, the General Religious Studies is not a curriculum, but content which can be fitted into various areas of learning at school, for example it may appear under ‘Civics and Citizenship’ or ‘Ethical Capability’

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24 thoughts on “Introduction of ‘General Religious Studies’ in Victorian Schools

  1. Hi Murray,
    I have just come across your blog and just read this post. If it is true it exposes the hypocrisy of the Victorian Department of Education. Thanks for posting it.
    Would you be able to post some links to the actual General Religious Studies curriculum material and the Facts Sheet that you write of? For some reason a search of the Victorian Education and Training website doesn’t turn anything up — maybe I’m not looking in the right place!
    Thanks.

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  2. Hi,

    I understand, accessing information on this isn’t easy, and part of the issue is that the guidelines & directives keep changing.

    The Principal’s Fact Sheet is not (to my knowledge) accessible online. There is however a Fact Sheet available for parents.

    http://victoriancurriculum.vcaa.vic.edu.au/the-humanities/introduction/about-the-humanities – the PDF contains information as to what should be taught about the 5 major religions

    http://victoriancurriculum.vcaa.vic.edu.au/Search?q=religion – search under religion.

    Some of my information comes from correspondence with the Education Department and with the Government. If you have questions it can be helpful to ask your local member and they ought to access the same information as I have received

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  3. In this article you state: “In other words, not only is this new religious content compulsory and fails at a basic academic level, it is encouraging students (regardless of their own religious convictions) to participate in activities of other religions. ” but last December you were unhappy about restrictions around singing carols where non-christian children would participate.

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    • Yes, but no where did I suggest that it should be compulsory. It is one thing for schools to have freedom to sing carols of a Christian nature, and another to force children’s participation against the conscience and/or permission of the parents

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      • So it sounds like a simple opt-out process would be sufficient? Or was there some other way you envisaged it being managed for the children when carols were to be sung?

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  4. How hard can it be? If you want a religious education for your chilld, send them to a religious school.
    Let the government schools teach the curriculum, the not fantasy, hatred and exclusion of religion.

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    • 1. I value a secular education
      2. Christians have as much right to attend a public school as anyone. Are you suggesting Christians and religious people are not welcome? I certainly hope not.
      3. Your second sentence is self-evidently unreliable.

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  5. Hi Murray,
    I presume you didn’t actually mean to say that ‘all’ Christians believe in an afterlife? Was that a typo, perhaps?
    Regards
    Tom

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    • Belief in heaven and hell is one of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. They are taught by Jesus, and by biblical authors, as well as in the Christian creeds. To deny life beyond death may sit comfortably in an atheist worldview but it is a logical and integral part of the Christian faith

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  6. I think I did answer the question above. A naturalist-this-life-is-it view of the world counters what Christians believe.

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at, that one can be Christian and not believe in an afterlife?

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    • But Murray, as someone with training in theology, you must be aware of the Christian non-realists. There have been some very prominent church figures who hold this view and deny the existence of an afterlife.

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      • I am aware of a few theologians and self-confessed Christians who would deny resurrection, and heaven and/or hell, but the very fact that they do is a denial of the christian faith.

        That assessment is not just mine, but it is exactly what Jesus himself taught when refuting the Sadducees (who were resurrection deniers) and by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

        If someone wishes to call themselves a Christian and yet deny what Jesus teaches, they are free to do so, but it is a self-evident contradiction and absurdity.

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  7. Someone might argue that there was no physical and historic battle of Gallipoli in 1915, and that all the accounts we read are merely metaphorical. I could hold that interpretation, but it’s absurd and counters common sense. Likewise is suggests Jesus’ teaching on resurrection, heaven and hell are purely metaphoric.

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  8. Murray, whether you agree with their theology or not these people are Christians – they call themselves Christians, others call them Christians and they are priests and bishops in Christian churches all around the world – and they don’t believe in an afterlife. Obviously this is what the Dept were referring to when they said ‘most’ Christians believe in an afterlife. It seems that the Dept has quite a good grasp of current theological views.

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  9. I disagree. According to that rationale, schools should also teach 6 days creationism because a few scientists hold to it, or that flat earth beliefs should be taught because a few people have this belief.

    About the Dept grasp, the afterlife point is only one of many faults in their explanation of Christianity. The biggest one of all being the absence of the most central and crucial teaching of Christianity, namely the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. How did they overlook that one?

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  10. No, Murray, your analogy is incorrect. The analogous case would be that we should teach that: ‘most scientists believe in the big bang and evolution’; just as the Dept says we should teach that ‘most Christians believe in an afterlife’. Both refer to teaching about the beliefs of a particular group and both are true in the same way.

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  11. It is because of people like you that I have to waste 1 hour each week sitting in a classroom and pretend to learn something while less than 15% of my school’s populations attends (only) Christian scripture and learns that they should believe in an afterlife because apparently their parents do. This 1 hour is not only a complete waste of time for us, but also for our ENTIRE teaching staff who have to sit and supervise us. They are paid approximately $60 for this one hour. In schools worse then ours, teachers cannot even complete their work in this time as they have to make sure disruptive students don’t end up strangling each other.

    I understand that parents should have a say in what their children are learning and not learning, however by exposing children to such…strong ideology at an age as young as 7 YEARS OLD, we are not letting them develop their own opinion or even think for themselves. Isn’t having a religion a basic human right? If you think your religion is the religion that you and your family should be following, how about you leave your child to explore it AND other religions while they are still a child and then gradually they can choose what is the right belief system for them. I mean, if you think your religion (and by this I mean anyone’s religion) is the best one in the world, then your child should eventually come around to your type of thinking right? If so then you have nothing to be afraid of. The only reason you would have to subject your child to this sort of brainwashing is if you doubted they would think that way if they were left to have an open-mind. My point is that parents have the right to have a say in what their kids learn, but don’t kids have a right to actually think for themselves before A PERSON WHO HAS SPENT FOUR YEARS STUDYING THEOLOGY AT A UNI tells them right from wrong. They literally cannot even read yet.

    if someone doesn’t like the way the government schools are run, they could always attend a private school. I’ve heard they’re really great. You spend thousands of dollars every year and then they just change the name of the subject “religious studies” to “Science” and then all of a sudden you get to high school and realise wow, there are other religions out there and there’s this thing called evolution. (I actually have a friend who thought this).

    I feel disadvantaged as a student knowing that children in VIC will be receiving a chance to think outside of what their parents are forcing onto them while us student in NSW continue to suffer because of a minority. Its not that the majority is atheist, they are just people who are not interested in brainwashing their children. I can only hope that such a modern and educated move will be taken by the NSW DEC.

    Also, who are you to decide what a Christian believes and does not believe. I’m sorry, do I not live in a free country? I’m 15 years old and I am glad my parents didn’t push me into something I’m not sure I agree with unlike what happens to those children who attend such scripture classes, regardless of the religion being taught. Furthermore, if you still feel oppressed by the tyranny of the Department of education, you are free to exempt your child from these classes:

    “In accordance with the Act (section 72[1],[2],[3]) principals are able to exempt a child from attending a class in any part of the curriculum at the parent’s written request, as long as the principal is satisfied that the request is made on the grounds of conscientious objection*. The principal will subsequently notify the parent of the decision to grant, grant on conditions, or refuse the request.” – from the department’s website.

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  12. “If someone wishes to call themselves a Christian and yet deny what Jesus teaches, they are free to do so, but it is a self-evident contradiction and absurdity.”

    Wow I think the biggest absurdity is that people believe something unproven that was written in a book 2600 years. Of course, this is not the only religion that does this. In fact, I am thinking about writing a new fantasy story; possibly involving wizards and witches much like those found in the Harry Potter novels. Hopefully someone will find it a couple of thousand years later and turn into a religion for me 🙂

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