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.

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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’

Return of the Christmas Grinch

The Grinch has jumped off the pages of Dr Seuss and has landed in town.  In Victoria, the current Government have informed state schools that Christmas celebrations can continue, but  references to Jesus Christ are discouraged and may even be outlawed.

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Like blowing out candles and eating a birthday without celebrating an actual birthday, it’s ok to celebrate Christmas, so long as we avoid talking about its actual significance.

The Bible is now banned from being mentioned during school time and no more prayers. Even hymns are prohibited, although carols are ok.  Can anyone tell me how a school is meant to differentiate between a hymn and a carol? Does that mean Jingle Bells still rocks, but Away in a Manger has been thrown out?  Are songs about an obese man obsessed with dressing in strange costumes in, but songs about the birth of Jesus  are out? We can mention the reindeer but not the donkey, the elves but not the shepherds?

Perhaps this has less to do with religion and more about discriminating against classical music in favour of crappy pop songs. After all, has there been a genuine classic Christmas song composed in the last 50 years? Any school performing Handel’s Messiah had better watch out.

To be fair, Education Minister, James Merlino, has said, “As with other curriculum decisions, schools will make the decision as to which Christmas carols feature as part of classroom activities.” So maybe, just maybe,  there is still so room in our schools to sing  ‘Joy to the world’.

I like the Grinch; when he’s mean he is funny, and in the end the Grinch realises the folly of his ways, but real life isn’t always so comical.  We can easily close our children’s books but we should not be so quick to overlook our history books.

There is a lesson from history that the Daniel Andrews’ Government are ignoring, and it is a lesson that was taught at the very first Christmas.  At the time when Jesus was about to be born, Joseph and Mary were knocked back by the BMA (Bethlehem Motel Association); no one wanted them, and so Jesus was born in a cave where animals sheltered at night. When news of Jesus’ birth reached the Government, they didn’t take it too well. In fact , the man in charge, Herod, sent his cronies across to Bethlehem to stamp out any mention of Jesus.

Well, we know how history ended up, Jesus won, and Herod and the citizens of Bethlehem with their closed door policy have been booed into incongruity ever since.

These new  Herodian-like policies in our schools ought to be respected; they are stupid but we must obey them, for the Scriptures tell us to do so (Romans 13). However, I think it is wise for us to revisit history, because by giving it the cold-shoulder we are bound to repeat the same errors that others before us have made.

While Herod hounded and Bethlehem was brusque, at the same time some of the smartest people and the lowest people of that time,  did go to Bethlehem seeking Jesus and in finding him  worshipped him as king and God. History remembers well the Magi and the Shepherds .

If you’re not a fan of Herod, and you do love Christmas, why not visit one of the many churches that will be celebrating the birth of Jesus and singing all the carols we love? And maybe do it soon, just in case someone has the cracker idea that talking about Jesus in Church is no longer a tolerable thing to do.

There is an invitation to Mentone Baptist’s Christmas services here. Indeed, I would like to extend an invitation to Mr Andrews and Mr Merlino to attend our Carols Service on December 20th, 6pm. You and your families are very welcome to join us.

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Is it a donkey? Is it a lion? What has happened to freedom of speech?

“You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.” (Shift, in The Last Battle)

I can’t remember many times when I have found myself agreeing with Germaine Greer, but on this occasion I am at least sympathetic with her situation. A petition with over 800 signatories is pushing to ban Germaine Greer from giving a lecture at Cardiff University, on account of her views about sexuality. That’s right, one the world’s most outspoken voices on women’s rights and sexual liberties is apparently too orthodox for these students.

1445718397585The author of the petition commented, ”Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether.”

“While debate in a university should be encouraged, hosting a speaker with such problematic and hateful views towards marginalised and vulnerable groups is dangerous. Allowing Greer a platform endorses her views, and by extension, the transmisogyny which she continues to perpetuate.” (quoted in The Age October 25, Petition calls for university to ban Germaine Greer from event over ‘hateful’ transgender views)

Based on this explanation it sounds as though Germaine Greer must hold some very distasteful views about transgender people. However, when I listened to Greer’s views, it appears that the accusations are false. The point that so riled these Welsh students is that Greer believes that surgical and hormonal treatment does not make a man into a woman. In fact, Greer does little more than state a biological fact. Listen to this interview by the BBC (language warning):

The allegations are so ridiculous; I feel like I need to rub my eyes to make sure that I’m not living in some fantasy land. But no, this isn’t Narnia or Animal Farm.

The allegation of transmisogyny maybe unfounded, but that doesn’t matter because the accusation itself is an effective way to silence opposing views.  It may not have worked in the case of Germain Greer, not but not everyone is boisterous and thick skinned.

These students from Cardiff University have used a tool of debate that is becoming all to common:

  • Silence your opponents by accusing them of hate.
  • Silence your opponents by insisting that their views will lead to abuses.

No one is doubting that homosexual and transgender people have suffered abuses, and speaking out about such treatment is only right. The issue here, however, is not about protecting transgender people from hate and abuse, it is about denying people the freedom to discuss and disagree with the current sexual milieu. What makes this whole approach particularly ugly is that it is using people’s vulnerabilities and fears as a smoke screen for social engineering.

Germaine Greer is not the first victim of these Calormene-like speech police, this is the growing experience for many groups in the UK, Canada, Germany and the USA; especially Christian groups.

Sadly, this change of climate is also moving over Australian society, and a cold winter is gradually freezing out free speech. Take for example, Bill Shorten’s op-ed piece for Fairfax on the issue of the plebiscite for same-sex marriage:

“But I don’t think enough attention has been paid to the biggest risk a plebiscite brings – the danger and the damage of unleashing a divisive, drawn-­out debate.

A plebiscite could act as a lightning rod for the very worst of the prejudice so many LGBTI Australians endure. A platform for people to attack, abuse and demean Australians on the basis of who they love.”

In other words, we should by-pass public opinion because public views may not necessarily conform to the progressive agenda.

“You thought! As if anyone could call what goes on in your head thinking.” Just as Shift challenged the Bear who dared question him, we seem to be  moving toward a democratic totalitarianism, where society permits us to support same-sex marriage and sexual fluidity, but we are no longer free to offer a dissenting voice. Nowhere is this more evident than perhaps in Victoria where the Daniel Andrews’ Government is introducing policies that deliberately target the removal of Christian ideas and values from the public arena.

Deitrich Bonheoffer observed how the Reichstag Fire Decree of 1933 changed the public space in Germany. He wrote,

“Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press, on the rights of the assembly and association, and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”

We have begun down this insane path, and if the media and certain political parties are anything to go by, the journey is just beginning.

In light of this, I offer these 3 suggestions:

1. Don’t accept the premise behind the case for marriage change. Disagreement and disapproval does not equal hate. The Bill Shorten’s and Cardiff students of this world would have us believe that there are only two roads to travel, either total acceptance or hate and fear. Both options are untenable. Christians know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers us a third way, that of loving and reasonable disagreement.

2. Don’t yield to the pressure and remain silent. It is important for the plurality of Australian voices to be heard in the public space.

3. Speaking up is no longer free; it will come at a cost. Our situation is unusual in light of world history; we have enjoyed social freedoms that people in many other parts of the world have never experienced. It has been possible to speak openly without any genuine sacrifice, perhaps a few crude comments thrown our way but nothing more. We need to wake up to the fact that Australia has changed, and for Christians, Jesus’ words about taking up our cross may become more than just words.

A donkey dressed up as a lion is still a donkey, no matter how much a monkey tells you otherwise. That old Narnian like Bear, Germaine Greer, has spotted a fraud in public discourse and we Aussies’ would be wise to also question the course that national conversation is now taking.

Puzzleaslan

New evidence suggests that the closure of SRI was a mistake

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.

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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.

He says,

“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.