The great debate: faith-based religious education in schools

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In February, five Christians and an atheist debated at The Wheeler Centre ‘for’ or ‘against’ the statement: ‘Faith-based religious education has no place in public schools’.

A full house, as well as long lines behind the audience participation microphones, demonstrated public interest in the issue – traditionally fraught with controversy and passion – is as high as ever.

First to speak was Marion Maddox – professor of politics at Macquarie University and author of Taking God to School. She argued for the proposal, along with David Vann – author and professor at the University of Warwick, England; and Peter Sherlock – Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity and lay canon of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Prof Maddox referred to SRI (Special Religious Instruction) classes as “at best, a free period; at worst, chaos”.

“Research finds SRI tends to be more conservative and tends towards biblical inerrancy. Volunteers are chosen for faith not qualifications,” she said.

Prof Maddox cited recent research which shows a significant number of surveyed students who attend SRI report being told they will burn in hell if they don’t adopt the beliefs.

“Students deserve to learn religion with vigour, like maths – using inquiry and questioning. Why does religion deserve anything less?”

First to speak against the proposal, was Nick Carter – journalist, author and visiting fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies – who was joined on the ‘against’ panel by Justine Toh – senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity; and Tim Costello – CEO of World Vision Australia.

Mr Carter began by posing the question – what are we asking teachers to do?

“Leave children more knowledgeable, able to read and write, teach them about cultural influences,” he said.

“We also want them to be conscious that they’re not the centre of the universe – we want to develop decent human beings with inner strength and resilience, the ability to make amends; humans who seek to leave the world a better place. What parts of the curriculum teach this?

“Christianity has been an enduring set of values for two millennia. Even if we made it up, we should still listen to it – or would we declare our ancestor’s wisdom worthless?”

Mr Vann spoke second for the proposal.

“Understanding religion can help us understand humanity. All three of us support comparative study of religion on the ‘for’ bench.  The fact of a faithful person’s belief will affect how they teach about the spectrum of faiths.

“Access Ministries [an inter-denominational provider of Christian education in Victorian state schools] offers anti-education. A crusade to convert. And poses the risk of indoctrination rather than study,” Mr Vann said.

“I’m interested in how our gods reflect our humanity. Someone teaching from the view of personal faith won’t have these questions, however.”

Ms Toh, second speaker against the proposal, argued that faith-based religious education was more upfront than comparative religion which, she said, may seem value-free on the surface but would still operate from a bias.

“There’s great value in hearing from firsthand experience. The best teachers in school didn’t just impart knowledge but were thrilled by their subject.

“Today religion is taboo. We think people of faith should leave behind their convictions – but there is no neutrality; everyone has vested interests. To insist today that we don’t want to hear from faith-based people at all just swaps one position for another.”

Mr Sherlock was the last speaker arguing for the proposal. He argued that religious education is essential but needs to be comparative, critical and professional.

“As is, we have well-intentioned amateur instructing of children, of one aspect of a religion. Religious studies are worthy of the best teaching techniques we can offer. Anything less turns religions into fairy tales.”

The last speaker to argue against the proposal was Mr Costello.

“To say we know what secular means and we can just elide faith-based religious education, I think is naïve. Big issues, like climate change, need morality,” he said.

“Many multi-faith countries would say, ‘How do we be secular?’ Our western culture is based on Christian-Judeo religion. We indwell that story. We should be dealing with the bad stuff and improving our programs – we can mend it, rather than throw the baby out with the bath water.”

At the end of the debate 71 per cent agreed that ‘faith-based religious education has no place in public schools’. 27 per cent were against the proposal and 2 per cent were undecided.

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