The Religious Education Dilemma, Again

By Legal Eagle

We just got a notice from my daughter’s state school yesterday inviting us to choose which religious education class we’d like to enrol her in. There were a multitude of choices: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Ba’hai, Buddhist and Hindu (an accurate reflection the nature of her school, I think). Finally, there was the choice to ‘opt out’ (if I do not opt out, I suspect my child will be included in the Christian RE class by default). I wasn’t quite sure what to do – the notice did not indicate whether the students who opted out have a proper program or whether they’d just sit in the library. What if Eaglet No. 1 was the only student who opted out in her class? Would that mean she was alienated from her class and set apart as odd? I must remember to ask the school what the program for non-religious children involves, and how many children take it up. I’ve faced this issue before, but managed to avoid it last year, as I outlined here.

I am not religious myself. I did once seriously consider converting to a major world religion (mazel tov to you if you guess which one it was) but on reflection I think I wanted to join that religion because I loved my friends who were members of it, and because I liked the fact that argumentative, smart people are valued in that particular community.

As I have explained in my previous post on this topic, my own experience of religious education classes was very negative, and the net result of these classes was to convert me to atheism.

  • In Grade 2, our RE teacher told me and another girl that our parents were going to Hell because they were not Christian (they are agnostic/atheistic). I lay awake that night, terrified, thinking of my parents burning in Hell. Being a logical child, I soothed myself thusly: if that RE teacher was right, and she was in Heaven, I didn’t want to be in Heaven with her anyway; she was horrible. I wanted to be in Hell with my parents, so I was not going to believe in what she said. If she was wrong, well, it didn’t matter anyway. Problem solved.
  • In Grade 3, our RE teacher told us that Jesus had resurrected her goldfish, twice, after it flopped out of the tank on a couple of occasions. The first time, Jesus ensured that a nearby drawer was open so that the fish fell into the drawer and the sound of its tail flapping on the wooden drawer alerted her to its plight. The second time, she found the goldfish on the floor and it seemed that all was lost, but upon instructions from Jesus, she put it in a saucepan and stirred it around, praying, and the goldfish recovered.

Suffice to say that these two RE teachers put me off any religion altogether for a long, long time. Why, you may ask, did I keep on going to the classes? It was weird not to go. There wasn’t a proper program and you just had to sit in the library not doing much. As a child who had been teased for being a nerd and for being disabled, I didn’t want to set myself apart.

Oddly enough, when I spent three years at a nominally religious private high school, the RE teaching was far more inclusive and respectful of other religions, and there was no mention of Hell or anything like that. I wonder if this was because we were taught by professional chaplains rather than crazy volunteers? I suspect in any case that I am not drawn to religions which try to convert me – attempts to convert me are always failure. Note to potential proselytizers: I’d far rather have the challenge of a religion which actively tries to keep me out.

I suspect that there is a religion gene. I also suspect that don’t have it, but there have been times when I’d like to have it. I just do not have faith: and I cannot help questioning. I drove RE teachers mad with my logical conundrums (no one could ever answer them satisfactorily for me either). I suspect that I inherited this from my grandpa and my mother, and I strongly suspect that my daughter inherited it from me. However, recently, when a friend’s child was desperately unwell, it would have been really nice to have someone to pray to. And at other times, I wish I had the community, comfort and support that seems to come from religion.

I’d like to send my children to an ethics class which incorporates aspects of world religions and raises questions of how we treat each other fairly. I don’t want my children to remain ignorant of religion; I think religion is important and useful in understanding why people behave as they do. My approach has been to learn as much as I can about all the different religions. But I’d really rather than my children learn about religion from people who are qualified to teach, who do not freak my children out by telling them their parents are going to Hell, and who are not insane (i.e. believing that Jesus resurrects goldfish – although, then again, who knows the mysterious ways of God?)

This made me think about Russell Blackford’s book (reviewed here). Blackford’s argument is that the state should not promote any particular religion, that there are sound reasons for making this choice in a secular society, including preventing religious persecution and religious wars. His arguments in favour of secularism extend to the way in which the state educates children. Using the notion that the state should be secular as our general premise, the state’s attitude to religious education should not be to privilege any particular kind of religion nor to require the teaching of any kind of religion. This is a premise with which I agree. However, presently, the way in which religious education is structured tends to discriminate against people who do not wish their children to be taught any particular kind of religion. I understand that in some individual schools there are programs for non-religious children, but this is not across the board.

As I noted in my previous post the Victorian Education Department has forced public primary schools to run Christian religious education programs when schools and parents did not want such programs. This is despite the fact that s 2.2.11(1) of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 (Vic) states only that ‘special religious instruction may be given in a Government school in accordance with this section.’ (emphasis added). The Victorian government said that “may” in this context should be interpreted as “must”, in accordance with a purposive interpretation of the Act. Prior to the last State Election, the Labor Government prevented the institution of a humanist ethics course in Victorian schools for children who did not want to attend a religious class. The Humanist Society of Victoria has instituted proceedings alleging that the State Government contravened s 37(2) of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 (Vic) which states:

(2) An educational authority must not discriminate against a student—

(a) by denying or limiting access to any benefit provided by the authority;
(b) by expelling the student;
(c) by subjecting the student to any other detriment.

(This Act has subsequently been replaced by the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), but s 38(2) of the new Act is in identical terms.)

The argument is that because many schools do not provide a class for students whose parents do not want them to attend religious education, students are subjected to detriment and suffer discrimination as a result. The case is due to be heard in around two weeks time. The organisation FIRIS (Fairness In Religion In Schools) is counting down the days until the case is heard, and has created an e-mail list for interested parties. I will be very interested in the outcome. I’ll let you know what the outcome is when I hear.

I reiterate: I do not have a problem with Christian people teaching their children about their faith, or Hindu people teaching their children about their faith, or whoever. That’s a decision for individual parents, and it’s certainly not appropriate for me to push my beliefs onto those people, nor would I ever do so. Nor do I have a problem with religion or spirituality per se. I can see that it has valuable aspects, as I acknowledge above. I have a very diverse and multicultural group of friends — I have been maid of honour at a Jewish wedding and a Muslim wedding in the same month — I challenge anyone to beat that!

I do have a problem with the lack of viable options for non-religious parents and children in relation to religious education programs. I also have a problem with the way in which religious education groups seem to take advantage of the fact that children do not want to be excluded from activities in which their peers participate. At the very least, there should be a dedicated program available in state primary schools for children whose parents do not adhere to any particular religion. I’d prefer some kind of humanist ethics program with considerations of comparative religion. In this pluralist day and age, where there is rightly no state religion, we should cater for all sections of society.


  1. Tim Mulligan
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    (1) Why are government schools involved in religious education?

    (2) Should they be?

  2. Mel
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    If you lived in Indonesia you would be in jail right about now.

  3. Posted February 17, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Tim: the short answer is that Australia’s anti-establishment clause is not interpreted as strictly as the US one, despite being expressed in similar language. Australia is, however, a much more secular country than the US. If anyone knows how this came about, please share!

  4. kvd
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I always put that down to the difference between their Pilgrims and our convicts. I could expand, but I think best to leave it at that. It is a very interesting question, however answered.

  5. Posted February 17, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    S 116 of the constitution explicitly refers to the Commonwealth (i.e. not the states) and education is (typically) provided by the states.

    If you lived in Indonesia you would be in jail right about now.

    I can see a drinking game there…

  6. Posted February 17, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    the short answer is that Australia’s anti-establishment clause is not interpreted as strictly as the US one, despite being expressed in similar language. Australia is, however, a much more secular country than the US. If anyone knows how this came about, please share!

    A chicken and egg question! Love them 🙂

    (1) Australia was settled later. This mattered: the US had religious refugees and religiously motivated settlers far more than Oz because that was such a bigger issue in the C17th than in the cusp of the C19th.

    I believe NSW was the first settler jurisdiction in the British Empire to have full freedom of religion.

    (2) Australia lacked religion-based politics, partly due to (1) and partly due to the British state being stronger (and the indigenous folk much less effective at violence), so folk were less reliant on churches as centres of social organisation.

    (I am reminded of P J O’Rourke’s comment about Waco being a bunch of armed religious nuts in a fortified compound: “who do they think founded this country?”)

    The consequence was:

    (3) Religion just did not politically matter as much, so folk got less het up, so the establishment clause jurisprudence did not become so angst-ridden. In the US, the establishment clause is clearly seen as a barrier against incipient theocracy. Nobody thinks that is a looming danger in Oz.

    Also, Americans just get more het up over Big Principles in Wars of Religion/Enlightenment style. Oz is the Benthamite State: utilitarian pragmatism rules. Another result of being originally settled in different centuries.

  7. Posted February 17, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a controversial thought:

    Catholic countries tend to be less fanatic. They’ve been to a large extent inoculated against it by Bad Experiences(tm) with religious hierarchies. See Spain, Mexico etc.

    Australia, with a rough demographic of 1/3 Catholic, 1/3 Low-Church Anglican, 1/3 everyone else, and a 70% non-participation rate (meaning most don’t take it seriously), has been spared both the “priest-ridden” society of Ireland, and the Bible-Belt mentality of parts of the US.

    Churchgoing does not play a leading role in the community, as it does to an extent in the US I find astounding.

    We have “working-mens clubs” along the line of the 19th century UK model instead. They do good meals too.

    I’m all for religious education, especially comparative religion, the similarities between Babylonian and BIblical creationism, and teaching what the Bible actually says about Cosmology. The stars fixed to the firmament that keeps the “waters above” out.

    Then 1 Corinthians 13 is a good follow-up, and Matthew 22:39-40, along with Rabbi Hillel’s remarks from 50 years earlier that this was cribbed from. You need to show that just because there’s an accretion of fairy-stories and superstition, magic underwear and golden tablets, that there are some deep truths in there, amidst the nonsense.

    Really being taught what the Bible actually says (look at the luridly pornographic violence in Judges 19 – gang-rape, dismemberment etc) is a great way of creating secular humanists. Even the most fervent believer can’t escape the strong stench of bovine excrement.

  8. Tim Mulligan
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    My thinking, albeit hypothetical, was that, because government schools are involved in religious instruction, there must be a consensus in Victoria that they should be. This is what I was thinking of as a “cause.” Is this true?

  9. Posted February 18, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    Catholic countries tend to be less fanatic.

    Except both Communism and various forms of Fascism were stronger in Catholic countries than Protestant ones. (These two things go together: there was nothing like a powerful revolutionary socialist movement of the left to make folk embrace counter-revolutionaries movements of the right.)

    But it is true that the Catholic Church has become the worst at keeping its flock in line. (In Oz, Catholics are the denomination whose adherents are least likely to think homosexuality a sin, for example.)

    Still, I am reminded of the witticism about contemporary Latin American Catholicism: the Catholic Church chose the poor and the poor chose the Pentecostals.

  10. Adrien
    Posted February 18, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Atheists should support compulsory Catholic religious education. I mean it. Everyone should have to endure a couple of semesters of some Franciscan nutter. It’s the primary source of all atheism. 🙂

    Catholics are the denomination whose adherents are least likely to think homosexuality a sin, for example

    How could we. Most of our religious instruction is conducted by homosexuals.

  11. Posted February 18, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Or have a number of different nutters in the room and let them have at each other in front of the students.

    I went through a Catholic primary school and a Christian Brothers secondary school, and I don’t recall there being many significant nutters. The most extreme thing I can recall is the year 8 teacher I had that insisted we dedicate all our homework to God, and then later declared that I had evil looking eyes. I was put off mostly due to the sheer dullness of the experience and the complete lack of relevance to my life.

  12. Posted February 18, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Someone else had to write AMDG on top of every paper, by the looks…

    The foundation of my irreligiousness was what happened to my parents (one Catholic, one Protestant) when they wanted to get married. It was the sort of ‘sectarianism is really awful’ story that puts you off religion forever.

    I formed the view that I didn’t want to be around people like that, either now or in any putative afterlife.

    I went to a religious high school, and was put off monotheism in general and Christianity in particular by the following:

    1. The attitude towards a gay friend, whose school days were rendered miserable thanks to bigotry.

    2. Being expected to help people who hated me because I was clever, and who expected assistance as of right. This expectation was gendered – I was expected to sacrifice myself because I was a girl; the same expectation was not directed at boys. I am not a particularly compassionate person at the best of times and tend to have little sympathy for self-inflicted harms, so this really put me off.

    3. I just don’t think Jesus is a very admirable character – rude, aggressive and entitled. Of course Muhammad is much worse – a warmonger and pedophile – while Buddha was merely a deadbeat dad. I really do think we can do better than fawning over people who are basically knobs. There are plenty of good people to copy out there; Hillel is one of them, but there are also non-religious examples, like Marcus Aurelius (who seems to be a genuine exception to Lord Acton’s dictum).

  13. Mel
    Posted February 18, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    “Catholic countries tend to be less fanatic.”

    The unsavoury link between Church and State in Ireland has been laid bare by the child abuse scandal in that country.

    desipsis @6:

    “I can see a drinking game there…”

    I was referring to this Indonesian case.

  14. Posted February 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], AMDG, that’s it!

    I really do think we can do better than fawning over people who are basically knobs.

    It may be overly pessimistic, but I’m not sure character will ever win over charisma in terms of popularity and irrational devotion. I never saw much wrong with Jesus and generally took the Gandhi view of the divergence between his teachings and the behaviour and teachings of Christians. Then, I never did care enough to critically read the bible so might just be under the influence of propaganda.

    [email protected],

    I was simply joking that doing things (or being called out for doing things) that would be illegal were you in another country could form the basis of a drinking game.

  15. Posted February 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    You would get blathered pretty quickly, I suspect!

  16. paul walter
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    Basically I’d subscribe to LE’s view, a general, simple intro to philosophy and metaphysics and bit of comparative religion- not indoctrination, US style. Intrigued at Lorenzo’s backgroundings again and agree with Zoe and SL that there some strong comments, thoughts and quotes from thinkers from all the major religions, add them to the musings and ideas of great philosophers, all neglected and gathering dust, for want of the right approach to thinking about them and investigating them further.

  17. TerjeP
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    My wife is a scripture teacher. Given that she does not believe in God I find this odd. She reasons that the alternative is to have a God botherer teaching scripture to the kindergarten kids.

  18. TerjeP
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    p.s. She is also on church council which really perplexes me. But it seems to make her happy.

  19. su
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know about Victoria but in NSW the historical basis for RE in state education is that when the state took over responsibility for education they did so by taking on pre-existing religious (Anglican AIU) schools and the agreement made at that time included a clause about maintaining religious instruction in schools. A Principal of a state primary told me the story, so I assume it’s accurate but I admit I haven’t checked.

    My experience is very similar to yours LE, religion in state schools is often taught by fundamentalist evangelists and is much worse than religious education in private schools. My state primary school had Chick tracts in the library–sectarian, fundamentalist pornography. Fortunately there was no RE after about year 3 for me (QLD in the seventies) so the damage was minimal.

    Like you LE, I believe that the urge toward religion must be largely innate and that I simply don’t have that module. I wonder whether there is a large overlap between religiosity and a tendency to look to outside sources to explain internal states. I know that I have experienced sensations that, judging by descriptions I have read, are very similar to religious epiphanies but I instinctively saw those sensations as originating from within, possibly because they usually happen when I’m exercising. The first time it happened I was riding my bike home from school and was just passing a particularly unprepossessing part of my suburb housing industrial buildings and a boat yard. A very strange place in which to suddenly feel like you are boundariless, suffused with joy and that you have been granted the wordless answer to an unposed question. Thank the FSM I am lacking the necessary module, otherwise I may have imposed a boat-based cult upon the world.

    My son’s state school simply ignored my instruction that my children not be included in RE. None of the teachers were prepared to supervise non-religious children. I found this out when my son came home and re-enacted a crucifiction. Fortunately he is now an atheist; hyperliterality and religion are a terrible combination.

    My other son, who has very poor receptive language, amuses me by singing his own mondegreen of one of those fundy, happy-clappy monstrosities they teach children in RE: “He leaves, he leaves, Christ Jesus he Leee-aves.” Amen to that.

  20. Adrien
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Ba’hai, Buddhist and Hindu

    Interesting list; because of something that it leaves out.

    If, um, they taught that in schools as a religious denomination, I suspect it might actually do quite well. It is after all much more part of the legacy of Western Culture than the Ba’hai faith

  21. LJS
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Su, religion as an explanation for runner’s high/”the zone”? I must be closer to god than I thought, given that my activity level gets me a good rush several times a week. I always thought Dad was on to something with his Sunday morning runs, while Mum dragged us off to church 🙂

  22. paul walter
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    If Adrien is refering to “secularism”, yes of course. “Secularism” at least what it might be, would be keystone to a prospective course of my conception

  23. Posted February 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    PW I think it’s paganism – ancient religions of the Classical era. Hinduism, of course, shares similarities with these.

  24. Posted February 19, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Hell’s bells, Su, Jack Chick tracts – that’s a blast from the past. I can remember people handing those out in the Queen St Mall (90s?). I don’t think there were any at school, but you never know…

  25. su
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Hell’s bells exactly : ) One of those tracts gave me nightmares, literally, for some years, it was so graphic. Actually, even the standard illustrated Children’s Bible in the library had a particularly explicit illustration of the murder of the innocents.

    Can I claim crucifiction as a Freudian slip rather than yet another appalling lapse in basic spelling?

  26. Posted February 19, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Su, I’m going to have to let your Freudian slip through, if only because I want to steal it!

  27. paul walter
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    LE anticipates me…back after five minutes…
    I see the problem.
    WTF was sh-t like THAT doing in a school library?

  28. su
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    To be fair to the QLD education system, they weren’t catalogued and in the stacks, I think a teacher brought them in and they were in a big box, but being cartoons, they were quite popular, at first.

  29. paul walter
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Terje raised a point, against the flow that still gave me pause for thought.

    The situation he describes involving his wife had me back to my own childhood and the feeling that not all of this may need be bad. From memory, neither school RI or Sunday school, or the (Methodist) church camp we did in the hills for a week or two were usually all that bad, as to experience (provided they didn’t god-bother us too much). Nor were those experiences a lot different from the recollection of a favourite abiding memory of childhood; out on the mats on sweet weather days, while Miss Smith (true – that was her name) read us the Magic Faraway Tree.

    Thinking on it, isn’t this the sort of event we expect of a community, in a civil society? Perhaps computers control everything now, as we become more atomised and more control freaky, for the isolation?? Su and LE are right- there is no reason why the lexicon is not broad enough to provide the tools for describing different types of religions or philosophies in terms of metaphysics, theology (which involves a decision concerning broader metaphysics) deism, polytheism, humanism, monism, dualism etc?

    You get the feeling the problem starts when education stops, indoctrination begins and descriptive stereotypes, racist or sexist, come into play, as perhaps happens with fundamentalism.

  30. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    PW, those tracts are one of the most blinking awful things you could ever read, aren’t they? Note to Catholics – you’re right up there with the Antichrist for Jack Chick. And Dungeons and Dragons players – it’s all a ploy to convert you into heathens…

    Witches, LE… witches.

  31. paul walter
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    I don’t think people take horror seriously much any more.

    The ‘sixties and ‘seventies were the era, what with Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen, along with pulp horror fiction and the glamorous, nasty antics and music of rockstars, in an era when recreational drug use was widespread for the first time, along with their side effects.

    The last great film of the era was Silence of the Lambs, which was also the first movie of a new era defined by a move away from things that go bump in the night to a fascination with forensics and psychopathology. The last spasm for horror came with TV’s XFiles and Buffy – muted, treacly offerings that substituted boy meets girl in a crypt for real horror.

  32. Posted February 21, 2012 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Ah, DEM, that does take me back. Su, feel free to exorcise your Jack Chick demons by clicking on DEM’s link and having a good laugh!

  33. Patrick
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    PW, for horror, try ‘I saw the Devil’ (if you can find it, not acceptable to Australian censors I believe!)

  34. Ripples
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I find the solution to the RE teacher and hell question in the original post to be a very elegant examination of the issue especially in regards to the fact LE was in grade 2. I am pretty sure grade 2 me lacked the critical thinking skills to manage that little puzzle.

    In my experience of RE if you asked questions that were to probing or critically examined the claims of the religion you were held to be a trouble maker and likely to be punished for your attempts at critical thought.

    In grade 10 at high school I was sent to the office to be reprimanded as a trouble maker.

    I had asked the RE teacher which holy book was right. I proposed that the Christian bible had some issues in that there were a variety of versions and translations of the bible that were in some were tangibly different.

    I continued the argument along the lines of, if they couldn’t keep their own book in order then how could it be superior to the other religious books? As such I argued using the bible as a basis to prove the existence of God failed as the assumption said book was the authority was unsafe. I then challenged the instructor to prove a case for a god without using the bible.

    To me at the time it was a fundamental issue that needed to be addressed so to be able to move on. It was a genuine question that underpinned any further examination of the subject. The response was to be sent for punishment as being disruptive and argumentative.

    It was likely my first real questioning of the whole religion thing as my exposure had been highly limited. No church, no mass, no Sunday school, no prayer at home. My folks were just C of E for the census and marriages. I had been told god was real but that was about it

    A critical thinking class would have been of benefit more than the RE ever was. Such a class may have granted me the tools to answer my own questions or pose said questions in manner that would be constructive.

    I am inclined to consider public rights and private rights in this matter.

    I guess I am more inclined to consider Freedom from Religion in the public sphere is an essential requirement to underpin the Freedom to Religion in a private sphere.

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