Removing religious education from schools condemns our children to ignorance about a key dimension of human life.
IF a devout group of naysayers get their way there will come a time, soon, when there won’t be any sympathetic religious instruction in our schools. It’s time for those who know the positive benefits of religious education — the parents, teachers, and principals — to speak up before a dreadful decision to cut programmes across Europe is made.
None of us wants our children proselytised. That’s a given, and religious education programmes should never be set up to convert anyone. At the same time we do want our kids to learn a bit about the story of the Bible, the life and teaching of Jesus, and the ethics that shaped much of our world. To deny children this is to deprive them of their own cultural backstory.
I speak as a Christian but I am sure my Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist neighbours will be able to read my argument through their own lens. Few things are more culturally influential than religion.
The main arguments against sympathetic religious education miss the mark. Some of the naysayers cite anecdotes of kids going home to mum in tears after a scripture teacher’s insensitive remark about sin, or their denial of Santa, or because a piece of literature was handed out that does drift into proselytising. This can, and should, easily be fixed with better protocols and training.
Others climb the secular high-horse and intone about the separation of church and state as if we were living in the United States. But much of Europe’s roots lie in a more sensible “soft” secularism: Religion should neither be imposed nor excluded. Well-conducted religious education programmes reflect this balance perfectly. It is available but voluntary, and ethics classes offer an excellent alternative.
Others suggest religious education creates divisions. After all, it has the word “religion” in it. But there’s no evidence of that. It isn’t even intuitive. Dividing students into school houses, sports teams, grades, reading levels, boys and girls, and religious education tracks, is perfectly normal and healthy. These kids will grow up in a society that includes people of all faiths and none. Shouldn’t they learn to navigate the vibrant differences of our pluralistic society? Religious education has an added built-in safety mechanism, since each religion’s curriculum teaches respect for all.
Finally, some anti-religious education campaigners propose what they call a“neutral’’ approach where the teacher, rather than volunteers, takes kids through all of the world religions as part of the curriculum. It sounds plausible but in reality is unworkable. With everything else teachers have to know and do, they are never going to be able to understand the Bible as well as, say, the middle-aged mum from the local church who’s been reading scripture for decades. And that’s just the Christian text. Imagine insisting teachers learn the vast intellectual traditions of the Talmud, the Upanishads, the Tripitaka, the Quran and Hadiths.
Religion is one of the most significant features of culture through the ages and parents should be able to allow their kids to give it a sympathetic hearing in a trusted environment.
Author, historian and founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney. A version of this article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph (Sydney).