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Core curriculum as rubbery as ‘core promises’?

By Cathy Byrne - posted Thursday, 15 February 2007

With both parties bidding for the Christian vote, and Muslims stepping up to the New South Wales political plate, it will be interesting to see how Religion Education will be included - or not.

Will Australia follow the over-simplified US debates where “our” religion is better - or of positioning religion as a choice between science and God? Or will the study of the world’s religions as cultural, social and philosophical forces be seen as way to enrich our children’s global perspectives?

Many Australians suffer under pre-conceptions of non-Christian religions. And yet, levels of broad-based, comparative religion education in Australian schools compare poorly to those in the United Kingdom and many other western nations.


Non-denominational studies have been implemented in only a handful of state schools, and universities are cutting religion courses. Last year’s HSC religion curriculum had the comparative elements removed. Why? Will the Howard view on the history curriculum carry over into religion, with some parts edited out as “non-core”?

Australia can protect its diverse and cohesive society through knowledge about the “other”. Religion is not the preserve of the “right”, nor righteousness the preserve of Christianity. Rather, education about religions (the differences and similarities) should be the right of all.

Such education need not placate injustice or tread softly around the tricky “religious” issues in the name of protecting multiculturalism. Rather it can expose these usually “political” issues to internal challenges within the communities in which they exist.

If everything must have an economic rationale, then: how can Australians succeed in foreign market opportunities without understanding the many and varied religious nuances? Economics courses insist on an international approach to law and economics, yet the “culture study” they offer barely touches religion - often the cultural foundation. How many of our international business students with their sights on Asia know the first thing about Muslim history? About Buddhist ethics? Or about Brahmin social structures?

Let’s not forget that any form of extremism generally leads to trouble. After all, history shows that most religions are guilty of heinous crimes, and neither science nor religion reign exclusively - they overlap. Between the fundamentally religious and the clinically atheist, there is a vast, valuable space. It houses many uncertain ideas about god and the universe. It accommodates philosophical positions where a human being may express both noble and fallible qualities, where rational critique does not rule out metaphysical possibility.

Since atheist Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion was released, there has been a flurry of “science v religion” letter writing in my local paper. Sadly, the extremes from both sides get the most space. Even Mr Dawkins ignores the entire swathe of Eastern thought, which has much to teach us about the science-religion overlap. Some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism for example, incorporate both rational mind analysis and experiential mysticism. Sadly, Dawkins dismisses all mystical experience as insanity, which (for a scientist) seems a tad presumptuous.


When setting a curriculum which will shape the minds of our future leaders, we should heed the message of the unaligned agnostics who, when asked for ultimate truth, bravely answer: “I don’t know yet”. In the din of the “god” v “no god” debate, with the “your god” v “my god” explosions in the background, it is important to keep the doors open. Who will write the national curriculum for religion? Will a review committee be established in the same way that Centacare won the pregnancy counselling service? Will the school chaplains be anything other than Christian?

It is possible for secular governments to accept and honour religion but not use it as a basis for legitimacy. Australia could be a model of a secular religious democracy - but which religion? Without an agnostic framework, how can a religiously diverse country hope to maintain a democratic ideal if one extreme is pitted against another? Or indeed, if one religion is deemed “core”, and another deleted as extreme?

There is much in the science of religion worth understanding. The false religion-science dichotomy, and the extremisim in some religious sects can be removed through an agnostic approach to education.

Cross-cultural dialogue, rather than violent flag waving could become the activity of proud Australians. “Faith in” is not “knowledge of”. Both science and religion could use more of the latter. More knowledge of more religions - their ethics and philosophies, may enable future economists to trade in spiritual capital, Nobel physicists to study the quantum possibilities of meditation, and allow religious ethics to expand into environmental stewardship.

Establishing a national curriculum seems such a good idea. Let’s just be careful about who decides what is worth learning.

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About the Author

Cathy Byrne is a Ph.D. scholar at Macquarie University’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion. She is interested in the policy and practice of religion education as a strategy for managing religious diversity.

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