Recent events at St Heliers School and appearances on TV of parents from the school who took their complaints to the Human Rights Commission have resulted in a storm of responses from those who support religious indoctrination of young children in secular state schools. Rather than reply to individual critics I have prepared a response covering common objections to secular education in New Zealand.
The different terms used to describe the programmes run by evangelical Christian denominations in New Zealand state schools can be confusing. The Christian Education Commission, previously known as the 'Bible In Schools Leage' calls it 'Christian Religious Education' or CRE. Some shorten it further to 'religious education', which creates a misunderstanding that these classes are balanced and objective study of all religions, which is quite the opposite of what they actually are.
I refer to the classes conducted by religious organisations in New Zealand public schools as 'Religious Instruction'. This is the term used in the legislation that allows it to occur in the Education Act 1964, and so should be neutral.
1) Isn't it good to teach about religion?
Religious Instruction classes specifically teach the doctrine of the religious organisations conducting the programmes. For the vast majority this means a carefully constructed curriculum to teach children about the Christian God and Jesus as redeemer. There is of course nothing wrong with teaching these things in a Sunday School context where children attend with the consent of parents. It teaches only a highly sanitized version of Bible stories with the sole purpose of reinforcing the religious messages they wish to communicate. Some people call this 'indoctrination'.
These classes are not teaching an objective or unpartisian view of religion. They teach only about Christianity from the point of view of evangelical believers.
The Secular Education Network supports genuine religious education, where students are taught about all the major world religions in a objective and impartial manner. We agree that genuine religious education classes do have value. There is the opportunity to do this in social studies and history classes within the curriculum at a more appropriate age. There is no need to close schools and request permission for balanced and impartial study of religion. However, this kind of impartial study is at the polar opposite to sectarian Religious Instruction classes held out of official school hours.
2) Doesn't religious instruction teach my child values?
One of the most popular arguments for supporting Religious Instruction is that it gives our children values. Even among atheists this perception is common. However, there are some major flaws with this idea.
The New Zealand Curriculum specifies a set of values that schools should endeavour to instil. The values include excellence, innovation, critical thinking, diversity, equity, community, integrity and respect for others. Our educational professionals are taught how to instil these values in our children. So either the school is doing its job well and Religious Instruction classes are not required, or the school is not doing its job and relying on the Religious Instruction class, in which case only children that are not opted out are taught any values.
The problem with leaving instruction in values to Religious Instruction class is that the values are incidental to the core message of religious belief. The core message of Religious Instruction class is belief in and worship of God and his son Jesus. Every single lesson plan revolves around God belief. Only some of the lessons teach the values we would recognise from the New Zealand Curriculum, and some like critical thinking are actively discouraged.
Perhaps most damaging isn't the explicit curriculum, but rather what the Religious Instruction class teaches about segregation, exclusion and intolerance. What kind of example are we setting when we segregate children based on their religion? How is this teaching children the values of tolerance or respect for others? How is this building a united community? Our schools should be an example of the values we hope to impart to our children.
3) Isn't Christianity part of our tradition and history?
Some academics appear to believe that Religious Instruction classes give children the opportunity to learn about their heritage and history. Isn't the existing social studies and history curriculum already up to the job? The New Zealand social studies and history curriculum gives children an appreciation of world religions, taught in a balanced and impartial way.
However, we do not teach complex ideas to children at age five. Subjects such as social studies and history wait until children have developed their critical reasoning skills and can understand complex issues.
What is certain is that children will not learn any appreciation for history at age five in a Religious Instruction class. Religious Instruction is not a history class. Children get taught Bible stories, sing songs, listen to prayers, and learn how loving Jesus was. It would be a grave mistake to believe that Religious Instruction classes gives children a robust appreciation of New Zealand history.
Volunteers who take Religious Instruction are not equip or qualified to teach history or social studies. They have been given a simple curriculum designed specifically to promote faith in God. Of course many people consider such instruction good and wholesome. To those people I suggest you take the opportunity to go to one of the many Church services on Sunday where your children can take part in Sunday School.
But please do not pretend that a historical or traditional position of privilege accorded to Christian belief in New Zealand schools gives you the right to access all children. There are many practises that are traditional that we have allowed to fade into history. Sectarian religious instruction in state schools exists to impart doctrine, not teach history.
4) Shouldn't the majority decide which religion to teach?
School Boards of Trustees are elected by the community. There is an argument that we should allow these democratically elected boards to decide which religion should be endorsed and supported. Are we not a democratic society?
The primary issue with this argument is exposed when you replace the word 'religion' with 'political party'. If schools were given the power to decide which political party could come in and teach the children about politics the injustice would be clear to all. Imagine the school giving a specific political party the right to come in and instruct the children in the correct political belief. Imagine that parents were not informed of the instruction. Imagine parents would have to opt out in writing when they discover the classes are occurring. New Zealanders would never tolerate this kind of political intrusion into schools, but for some reason continue to accept sectarian religious intrusion into state schools.
The New Zealand Bill of Rights and Human Rights Act ensures our freedoms are not violated. Having the local community vote to exclude your religion while including the majority religion is clearly inequitable, unjust and a violation of our right to freedom of belief. In summary our basic human rights should not be swept away by the fickle opinions of a local majority. We need to protect minorities with laws that are equal for all. The State should treat everyone equally under the law.
5) Why are you taking away my human rights?
It has been suggested that by removing Religious Instruction from public primary schools we are denying Christians their freedom of religion. They cry out that they are persecuted and their right to freedom of belief is violated. Why should a few people stop what the most other people want?
What is really occurring is that special rights granted to Christianity are being withdrawn. Nobody is burning down their churches, or banning personal prayer in schools, or prevented them from running Religious Instruction classes outside school hours. In fact given the decline of religious attendance it would be a positive boon for Churches to encourage their members to attend church and send their children to Sunday School rather than leaving religious instruction to these voluntary Religious Instruction programmes which are not specific to their denomination.
Church attendance has been in decline, with many churches closing down through lack of support. Having Religious Instruction in state schools has arguably reinforced the decline of church attendance by giving parents a way to give their children nominal Christian instruction while not going to church on the Sabbath. It would therefore be a potential benefit for church attendance if Religious Instruction in state schools were terminated, thus encouraging parents to attend church and children to attend Sundays Schools.
The Secular Education Network supports the idea that all beliefs should be treated equally. The state or one of its proxies should not endorse any particular religion. We insist that no religion be given special access to our vulnerable children in public schools. We do not want our children treated like second class citizens in their own country because they do not believe the school approved religion. Schools should not be in the business of approving religions at all.
Christians continue to have all the same rights and freedoms as any other religion. Its just that now they are losing special rights that other religions did not have. The resulting wailing and crying like spoilt children who have broken their favourite toy is unbecoming of mature adults.