A return to common sense pluralism in Victoria?

Matthew Guy, leader of the Victorian State Opposition, has announced that “a government I lead will bring back religious instruction in schools because it’s very important.”

This is encouraging news, not only for Christian families but also for Victorians in general. Let me explain.

But first of all, it is important to premise my commentary with this statement: when I talk about various policies or pieces of legislation, one shouldn’t read into this an advocation for any one political party.  I don’t believe it is the role of a pastor to dictate or to suggest to their congregation (or to others) how to vote. I also recognise that there are many important issues which influence the way we vote and on these Christians may differ. One, however, may comment on specific policies, for such things are designed to influence and to shape aspects of society, and therefore they can very real consequences for constituents. It is a misstep however for the reader to conclude that either giving praise or criticism is a signal to vote in any one direction.

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Having said that, let’s address the issue at hand.

In 2015, the Victorian State Government announced that Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes would cease in our schools, during class hours, as of January 2016. This was not a policy that State Labor took to the election.

At the time, Education Minister, James Merlino, offered this reason for SRI’s removal, ‘We can’t have kids missing out on essential teaching time.’ However, he then announced that a new program will be introduced to schools, replacing SRI, which includes instruction on faith and ethics. The reasoning behind the axing morphs again when the Australian Education Union supported the decision, stating that SRI is at ‘odds with Victoria’s secular education system’.

To be fair, Mr Merlino also made it clear that SRI could continue “outside the curriculum.” I am sure that Mr Merlino was and is aware of what every parent knows, and that is our children already have multiple programs running during lunchtimes and after school. During those breaks when they are not having sport or music practice, they need that downtime to relax and to play with friends.  Yes, schools are permitted to run SRI, but the goal posts were moved so frequently that almost no one knew what was permissible, and the red tape has been wound so tight that most schools were unable to give students an option. Despite the rhetoric about schools being allowed to run religious classes, by design, there is a massive disconnect between optics and what is actually possible on the ground.

One of the results of this move is that many Victorian families no longer feel welcomed in State Schools, and instead have been pressured into moving their children into religious schools, often at significant and unplanned cost to these families. This movement may have benefited independent schools, but our State Schools are the poorer for it. Matthew Guy’s announcement is welcoming and sends the message that all children are welcome.

It is also important to note that under the current Government (and the previous Government), important lessons were learned in relation to the training of religious instructors and to preferring an opt-in approach. Mistakes were made by SRI providers, but the sensible answer, however, was never to rid schools of these classes.

Once again, I understand that Matthew’ Guy’s announcement is enmeshed in politics and an upcoming election; so let me repeat, that’s not my interest here. What can be said is that (whatever the motivation) the Liberal’s position on this issue better reflects the Australian ethos than does the current position on religion in schools. The announcement permits and encourages healthy pluralism, as opposed to the narrow ideology that is currently being forced upon an entire generation of children.

A return to opt-in SRI also better reflects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948:

‘Every child shall enjoy the right to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.’

Art5(2) Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981)

Replacing Safe Schools with a curriculum safe for our children

Matthew Guy has also announced that a Coalition Government would remove the  Safe Schools curriculum from Victorian schools. This is a safe option for our children.

While some of the intent of Safe Schools needs affirming, it was unnecessarily but inextricably enmeshed in unscientific and dangerous theories that have potential to cause immense damage upon our children. To teach our children to respect others, regardless of their sexuality, is right and important, but to teach that gender is fluid, to encourage exploration in sex, and to encourage children to transition to another gender despite research indicating that most children will recover from dysphoria with maturity, it is morally and intellectually reprehensible to have such things taught in our schools. To label children who believe in heteronormacy as ‘sexist’ is itself sexist, and demonstrates the hypocrisy that’s woven into the program. The whole saga has been troubling; Safe Schools isn’t about anti-bullying, it’s about forcing on our children a particular and narrow view of sexuality. When the very authors of the curriculum pointed out this fact, the Government were quickly dismissive.

Since the introduction of Safe Schools, two separate and academic reviews have been conducted (the first by Professor Louden and one by Professor Parkinson), both demonstrating significant flaws and problems with material, including dependence on fake statistics, unscientific theories, and in places presenting as fact ideas that remain highly contested within the medical fraternity. Following Professor Louden’s Review, the Federal Government announced significant changes to the curriculum, but Victoria has insisted on ignoring the findings and implementing the program without change.

What has happened in Victoria over the past 3 years is that a ½ hour opt-in religious program was removed and then replaced with compulsory curriculum (not only Safe Schools but also Respectful Relationships). In addition, the Government began designing a ‘general religious’ curriculum course for schools, which is to be compulsory across our schools (I am not aware if this course has been implemented as yet).

Don’t fall for revisionist views of secularism

According to The Age, “Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said special religious instruction had no place in the curriculum of secular public schools.

She said there was already room to learn about religion and its role in society and history in state schools.”

“But it shouldn’t be taught by unqualified people who come into the schools with a very different purpose.”

These remarks prove the point. Contrary to Meredith Peace, secular does not mean non-religious or keeping religion out of public education and other public domains. The definition of secularism is not private religion, as Peace implies. True secularism allows for and encourages the plurality of ideas.

Also contrary to Meredith Peace, it is sensible that those who teach the Bible, should be qualified people (whether teachers or volunteers) who understand and believe the Bible’s message, rather than skeptics who explain away and misrepresent the Bible’s message.

Neutral education is a fairy tale, and it’s simply disingenuous for anyone to suggest such. This bias is clearly demonstrated by the Department’s own statements in the draft general religious studies program. As someone who holds an honours degree in theology I am in some way able to speak to the following statements.

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.”

Some of the above statements align with Christianity, while 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 to be taught about any and all religion?

Would we want our children being taught maths by a teacher who doesn’t understand algebra? Would we be happy to learn that the school biology teacher doesn’t believe in male and female anatomy? Is it acceptable for sports teachers to deny the value of physical exercise? Why is it, therefore, acceptable when it comes to Christianity specifically, and religion more generally.

This is not about imposition, this is about recognition.

Why shouldn’t we give our children an opportunity to explore the greatest book that has ever been written? A book to which we owe more than any other? A book that has given shape to millennia of civilisation (not only in the West but also in the East), and has given our society its ethical and political moorings?

An intolerant secularism that is claiming the public space.

The version of secularism that now dominates much public and political conversation in Victoria feints intellectualism and freedom, but it is simply the guise for a new wave of intellectual totalitarianism, where dissent is squashed by a tirade of shout downs.

Barney Zwartz made this astute comment in the The Age,

“This attitude masks a more serious problem in the widespread contemporary misunderstanding of what “secular” means, one that I suspect is shared by Fairness in Religions in School. It has never meant, as many imagine, the absence of religion from the public arena but simply that no religion should be privileged (as, for example, the Church of England is in Britain).

Properly understood, that works to protect people of all religions and none, and to foster an open, vibrant, tolerant public culture.”

Are we so frightened of the Bible that we must prevent our children from spending 1/2hr of the week from exploring it in a safe and fun environment? It is sad to see children having taken from them the freedom and opportunity to explore what is the greatest book to have influenced Australian life and culture.

I said it in 2015, and it remains the case today; 20 years from now, a generation of Victorians will look back upon the decisions that have been made, and we will recognise the diminished experience that we have given our children, having kept from them the very ideas that gave birth to Augustine and J.S Bach, C.S Lewis and Martin Luther King, and many of the greatest thinkers, scientists, artists, writers, and humanists of history.

I would encourage the Government to reconsider their own policies on these issues, and to realign them true secularism and with best scientific and medical research. Surely for the good our children and the future of the State, it is worth it.

NSW is removing Safe Schools. Could Victoria follow?

It was announced today that the NSW Government is scrapping the controversial school curriculum, Safe Schools. From July, not only is the Federal Government stopping its funding of Safe Schools, but the NSW Education Department will introduce an alternative program. The content of this new program is yet to be released, but early indications suggest that it will be a broader and more inclusive program, and one that does not depend on the now debunked gender theory.

Safe Schools is presented as an anti-bullying curriculum, and is designed to teach children acceptance of other children who are different to them. The emphasis however is on sexuality, and teaching a flawed view of sexuality and encouraging young children to explore these alternative sexualities for themselves.

Safe schools was originally an opt-in program, but it is now compulsory in all secondary schools across Victoria. Many primary schools have also signed up.

One of the chief authors of Safe Schools, Roz Ward, defined the curriculum’s intent as follows: 

“Programs like the Safe Schools Coalition are making some difference but we’re still a long way from liberation,’’ she said. “Marxism offers the hope and the strategy needed to create a world where human sexuality, gender and how we relate to our bodies can blossom in extraordinarily new and amazing ways that we can only try to imagine today.”

It would be wrong to suggest everyone who supports the program views Safe Schools as does Roz Ward, but it is telling that one of the chief architects has admitted that Safe Schools is less about anti-bullying, and is designed to educate and influence a new generation of children to the values of marxism and to its accompanying sexual ideology.

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One year ago, the Federal Government made numerous changes to the curriculum, following widespread concerns regarding the appropriateness of material and the promotion of third party websites whose content could not be approved.

The Victorian Education Minister responded by saying,  Canberra was caving in to the bigots, and announced Victoria would not implement any of the amendments.

At the start of this year, the NSW Government introduced even more overhauls, including that gender fluid theory could no longer be taught in schools.

Only Victoria has made Safe Schools compulsory for schools. Each school can decide how much of the curriculum they wish to use, but the material to be used must be that which is set by the education department. This makes sense, except that Safe Schools is, to quote Professor Patrick Parkinson from the University of Sydney, ‘dubious’, ‘misleading’, and ‘containing exaggerated claims’.

Concerns over Safe Schools has received some bipartisan support in NSW, with Labour MP, Greg Donnolly saying,

“Politicians in one state do not generally take kindly to colleagues in another state giving them advice. There can be exceptions but the unwritten rule is that if you stick your head out and give advice across the border, you are likely to get it knocked-off. With that said, let me now give some advice to my Labor colleagues in Victoria.

The Safe Schools program that the Victorian Government is imposing on public schools in that state is political poison. While it may be just starting to show up in focus groups and other polling activities undertaken by the Labor Party, do not underestimate its malignancy. When it fully manifests, it will be like a fully laden freight train that you will not be able to stop.

The problem for the Premier and the Minister for Education is that the Safe Schools program from the get-go was never about anti-bullying. It was about inculcating into school children hard edged sexuality and gender ideologies. The same ideologies that are examined and debated when undertaking Gender Studies units at university. The same units that such students elect to do by choice; no compulsion or requirement. Not only are these ideologies being presented to school children as a matter of fact i.e. sexuality and gender are not to be understood in any other way, but parents are being kept completely in the dark about what is being presented to their children and by who.”

As it stands, there are children in Victorian schools currently transitioning on account of what is being taught, despite best medical practice stating that most children with gender dysphoria will grow out of it by adulthood and will happily conform to their birth gender. Many Victorian families are being pressured because they cannot subscribe to the curriculum, and feeling  pushed out of the public system. Children who believe heterosexuality is normative are labelled  as sexist, and the program is built to reframe their thinking until they believe that all sexual preferences and practices are legitimate human expression, and perhaps they might wish to explore these for themselves.

Being a Victorian, I understand our reluctance to listen to our northern neighbours. After all, has anything good ever come out of Sydney? I totally get why Victorians build rhetorical walls to keep out this colony of convicts. Listening to a New South Welshman may sound like a Banshee singing Justin Bieber, but on this occasion we Victorians are fools to ignore such sage advice.

Mr Andrews and Mr Merlino, as a Victorian and parent of 3 children, I strongly urge you to re-examine your position on Safe Schools, and the unscientific and harmful gender theories now being forced upon our children. It’s ok to once in a while  redress mistakes and poor policy; humility is in fact a virtue that we value in our political leaders.  In winding back ‘Safe Schools’ and aspects of the ‘Respectful Relationships’ program, we do not have to wind back the clock on caring for children who may be working through issues of their own sexuality. We want to see them safe and flourishing, and this is achievable without having to promote ideology that is demonstrably skewed and unsuitable for the classroom.

An Open Letter for Daniel Andrews and James Merlino

I have a question that I would like to ask of Daniel Andrews and James Merlino.

Any Government will introduce policies with a mixture of success, and with varying responses from the community. On occasions I have affirmed changes implemented by this Government, as well as  highlighting concerns.

The reason for making this letter public is because the question is pertinent to many thousands of Victorian families. Indeed, it is a question many people have raised with me this year.

I appreciate that our members of Government have very busy schedules, with many demands on them, and so it perhaps unlikely Mr Andrews and Mr Merlino will read this letter for themselves, although an acknowledgement would be welcomed and seen by many Victorians as a positive sign from an inclusive Government.

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Before asking my question it is important to provide some context.

SRI (Special Religious Instruction) was a ½hr/week  opt-in program in schools. A variety of religions were offered, depending on parental interest. In August 2015, the Government announced that the program would be removed from class time, and only made available under very strict guidelines (such that very few schools now have the resources to run the program). In the place of SRI, a new program was introduced, Building Healthy Relationships. This curriculum is to be compulsory in all primary and secondary Schools. It is presented as an anti-domestic violence program, an issue which Mr Andrews’ has rightly identified as a major community concern.

There is a lot of useful material in this program, but unfortunately it is aggressively and unnecessarily promotes gender theory. It teaches children to explore alternative sexualities, provides information for children as young as 12 for having sex, and speaks of heterosexual marriage almost exclusively as a ‘power structure behind which domestic violence occurs.’

In the mean time, a separate curriculum, Safe Schools, has been investigated by the Federal Government and much of the material deemed inappropriate for school children. This Federally funded but optional program has been taken up by the Victorian Government. They have rejected the decisions made by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, they have promised to fund the program if needed, and they have announced that Safe Schools will be compulsory in every Victorian Government School.

The main architect of Safe Schools, Roz Ward (from La Trobe University), has made it clear that the program less about anti-bullying and is primarily designed to introduce Marxist ideology into schools, in order to change children’s beliefs:

“Programs like the Safe Schools Coalition are making some difference but we’re still a long way from liberation… Marxism offers the hope and the strategy needed to create a world where human sexuality, gender and how we relate to our bodies can blossom in extraordin­arily new and amazing ways that we can only try to imagine today.”

Safe Schools not only describes heteronormality as wrong, it labels children who believe in heterosexual normality as “sexist”. It is somewhat ironic that an anti-bullying program specifically gives derogatory names to children who do not support its contentious ideas.

On top of these programs and other initiatives, The Age announced yesterday (May 8) that the Government is also considering introducing into Victorian schools another program about LGBTIQ ideology, the Gayby Baby education toolkit, which is being released this week.

The Director of Gayby Baby, Maya Newel, believes the program is a “no brainer”, saying, “It’s 2016 and something like 30 per cent of children are not raised by biological heterosexual parents, so we’re not just talking about children in same-sex families, but also divorced families and kinship families and so on. Not only will this be the first resource to represent same-sex families, it will also be something that can really dive deep into family diversity as a topic.”

While Newel concedes that the 30% is not all made up with same-sex families, she does misleadingly say, “30 per cent of children are not raised by biological heterosexual parents”. She thus gives the impression that same-sex families are indeed common place. However, according to the 2011 Census, 0.1% of all Australian children live in a home with a couple of the same gender. Not only are the majority of children raised in homes with a mum and dad, most of the other 30% lives in homes where the intent was for children to have a mum and dad, but due to divorce, death, and other circumstances the children are unable to live with both parents.

If we are going to use statistics as argument for changing school curriculum, surely we ought to present the numbers accurately. And also, if 0.1% of the population warrants another sexuality program in schools, then surely the 60% who have at least a nominal Christian affiliation, warrants introducing a Christian view of marriage and family into schools! Don’t worry, I am not actually arguing for that, but simply pointing out the irony in Newel’s argument.

According to The Age,

“As part of its lesson plans, students will be encouraged to deconstruct the stories of the four main children featured in the documentary (whose parents are gay); reflect on families that fall outside the “traditional” family unit; and challenge gender stereotypes.”

“Victorian Equality Minister Martin Foley said the state government would be “only too happy” to lend its support to the resource, “because it fits with our notion that to be a successful and equal society then there has to be a place for everyone”

Given this context of our State Government introducing multiple new curriculums on the same topic of sexuality, my question is this, are families who do not subscribe to views on sexuality as prescribed by the current Government, still welcome in Victorian State Schools? If the answer is yes, are these families permitted to express their views? Will children who articulate a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim view of sexuality be protected in our schools from bullying? Will they be encouraged to share their opinions without students and teachers belittling them?

Last Wednesday, The Australian reported a story of a Frankston family who have been forced to leave their local school because their daughter was subject to bullying for holding Christian beliefs. Perhaps this is an isolated incident or should Victorians anticipate this to be common practice? After all, if gender theory is taught as fact, should we not expect alternative views to be rejected and spoken against in our schools?

Mr Andrews and Mr Merlino, we understand the direction you are taking children’s education in Victoria, but what remains unclear is whether Victorian families remain free in our schools to engage in, to question, and to offer alternative ideas to the ones now promoted. 

I appreciate your time in reading and considering these questions.

Kind Regards,

Murray Campbell

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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The logo presence does not represent a Govt endorsement of this article

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’

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.