When I was a young public school teacher, still in thrall to my Catholic education, I overheard a visiting clergyman inciting his Scripture class to hatred by telling them lurid lies about the behaviour of popes. Much later I learned that his accounts, while lurid, might not have been lies at all. But that’s another story.
Incensed, I marched to the Principal’s office and demanded that he either go and stop the clergyman lying or allow me to do it. He stunned me by explaining that a visiting clergyman could say whatever he liked to children in his Scripture class.
To say whatever he liked? To require the children to believe whatever “truth” he had faith in?
I was not allowed to ask my students to believe whatever I liked. I could only ask them to believe what the curriculum allowed - things whose truth was supported by adequate evidence. Why was he different?
Little has changed. Anybody approved by a religious organisation to teach Special Religious Education (SRE) in a public school can still insist that children in their Scripture class believe things supported by nothing more than the faith of some adults. For example, the children might be exhorted to believe that:
- the universe as we know it was created a couple of thousand years ago by God in the manner described in the Bible;
- while there is only one God, he is actually three different persons who are all the same;
- one of the God persons got himself born as Jesus Christ to a human virgin and subsequently made dead for three days so that all humans could be spared the eternal damnation they deserved for being careless enough to have had two sinners as their ultimate ancestors;
- certain people, even grotty kids you ran around with at school, provided they got hands laid on them by a fair dinkum successor of the apostles, only need mutter the right incantations over some bread and wine to change it into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ; and provided also, as Richard Dawkins reminded us, they have testicles.
SRE teachers can go further. A couple of years ago, my six-year-old grandson came home from a Scripture class to defy his mother with the obviously coached formula, “Anyway, you are not the boss of me; God is the boss of me”. Within a week, I heard a Victorian mother on a Four Corners program complaining that her young son had begun defying her using exactly the same formula. Presumably, the high-profile church involved had developed teaching kits to ensure that all defenceless Australian children in their purview would know that they owed their allegiance not to their parents but to an invisible, all powerful spirit.
In no other subject in the curriculum would teachers be allowed to exhort students to believe such baseless “truths”. Why are SRE teachers allowed to peddle them?
For readers unfamiliar with the Ethics controversy in New South Wales, parents have finally rebelled against an arrangement under which schools are not allowed to teach the non-Scripture students anything useful while the SRE classes are in progress. This is to ensure that children are not tempted away from SRE by the availability of a more interesting option. In 2010, against the vigorous protests of the Anglican and Catholic Archbishops of Sydney, the government allowed a trial of an Ethics class alternative to SRE in a handful of public schools. Very recently, the government announced that it would allow the Ethics class alternative to SRE to be implemented generally from 2011. The protests continue.
In an IQ Squared debate conducted after the trial program but before the government announced its decision, two of the speakers for the Ethics class alternative stressed that they were not opposed to SRE and, indeed, hoped that it would continue to flourish. They were arguing only that parents who did not want their children to attend SRE should have a worthwhile alternative. They were probably being politically astute and realistic but many of us feel their position is wimpish.
We can see very powerful reasons why children should be taught about what the various religions believe and what is in their religious books. As prominent atheists insist, it would be unfair and stupid not to teach children about the Bible, say, as ignorance of it would leave them unable to take many of the cultural references in western literature and art. A similar observation could be made about the major non-Christian religions and their holy books.
Children should also be taught a balanced set of facts about the good and bad things that have been done in religion’s name. They should be taught that religion has been, and still is, a driving force of many of the greatest human achievements. They should also be taught that it was, and still is, a crucial factor in many of humanity’s worst atrocities.
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