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The practical difficulties of teaching 'religion' in the school system

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 29 August 2003

The new Governor General, Michael Jeffery, in an address to Australian Religious Press Association (ARPA), has reignited the debate about the teaching of religion in school. He sees religious education, in which students are taught the universal values of respect for others, as a solution to the social breakdown we see around us, especially among the young. He says that "In Christianity, for instance, we try to live according to Jesus 's teachings, which place regard for one's fellow human beings as a priority. We need look no further than 'Love thy neighbour as thy self'."

Few commentators would disagree that there is a spiritual void at the centre of our culture that is filled with consumerism, sport and individualism. Some would see that this has to do with the decline of the Christian church. While I sympathise with his analysis I disagree with the way the Governor General assumes that religion, especially Christianity, produces ethics.

Christianity is not primarily an ethical system. It cannot be reduced to the ethical sayings of Jesus and when it is it loses its most compelling aspects. If Christianity were simply an ethical system, Sunday morning in church would consist of a seminar in ethics. While this may be true at some times for some groups, for the mainline churches Sunday worship is just that, worship. While this includes a teaching office in which ethical issues may be raised, its main focus is an interaction with God via word and sacrament. For God does not reveal an ethical system, as is more the case in Islam, God reveals Himself. Therefore, Word and Sacrament are understood as a communion with God. It is this meeting with the divine that transforms the worshipper. In Baptism the old self is put to death and the new raised as Christ was raised. In the sermon Christ is represented to the congregation. In the Eucharist the congregation consume their God in the hope that they will become what they eat. It is this transformative power of worship within the Christian community that forms our desires, ameliorates our fear and anxiety and sets the stage for the good life, ethically speaking.


This is quite different from the idea that we belong to the Christian community in order to learn values. That would be to put law before grace. The big break-through of Pauline theology is that the law does not lead to life but to death as any parent will testify. When law is primary in our relation to others then that relationship perishes. Therefore the saying of Jesus to "Love thy neighbour as thy self" can never be imposed as law but must be understood as promise. When this "commandment" is understood as promise it tells us that the meaning of our lives resides in the one next to us, in a relationship that is conditioned not by law but by love.

There is some evidence that concern for the other is innate: a small child is already equipped by evolution to live in community. Therefore it is not values that the young lack (what about the not-young?), rather it is that, in the absence of a truth-carrying tradition, they quickly succumb to anomie and alienation and are ready victims of the distorting effects of commercial and popular culture that leads the heart to desire the wrong things. When there is an absence of purpose and meaning any superficially glamorous idea may find its place in the human heart.

Religious education, if there is such a thing outside of the church, cannot be used as a source of values mainly because these values would be disconnected from the Christian story and Christian practice. One asks why should a person take note of a set of values derived from a tradition they have no contact with and that has been stripped of the flesh of worship?

It is sobering to note the very small percentage of students from the Catholic school system that continue to practice their faith after they leave school. Here is a system that does not have to worry about the separation of church and state, employs practicing members of the church, has a long tradition of theological study and enquiry, and even given all of these advantages, they do not succeed in producing people who cling to the tradition they were raised in. How much harder is it for government schools that do not have this freedom for religious teaching and practice?

If our community were serious about religious education in schools then they must overcome the following obstacles. The first is the ideology of the separation of Church and State that arose out of the tussle for power all those years ago. The original controversy was about who ran the country and was resolved in the state's favour. Religious education is not about challenging that decision, not about establishing a theocracy but is directed towards providing students with knowledge about the religious tradition that is at the base of Western culture. As for the other material taught in schools, religious education must be undertaken for its own sake and not focused on outcomes as narrowly defined by the present-day managerial fetishism. Outcome-focused education smothers the adventure of learning because its aim is short-term and denies the freedom discovery and the mystery of learning. Teaching religion that is directed towards inculcating values is likewise a distortion of the education process and would be spotted as such by the students.

Neither is religious education, any more than any other subject, a violation of individual conscience. In a truly academic atmosphere students would be able to raise their own questions and objections to the material. Part of our problem in this country is that we do not recognise theology as being an authentic academic subject, thanks to the privatisation of religion and the extension of the church and state divide to education. But theology can be taught with little denominational bias as a rich academic discipline that will reward students in many ways, one of which may be that they will begin to interpret their lives in terms of the Christian story and hence achieve the Governor General's aims.


Just as students are taught the history of their country and the structure of its political institutions, so they should be taught about the religion that has had so much influence on our society. There is no need to teach the other world religions because they have not been major players in our formation. The idea that we teach comparative religion in order to be fair to the others reduces such education to the museum of culture in which we can proceed to inspect the beliefs of others safely on one side of the glass of the displace cases. This will convince no one let alone transfer values.

If religious education is to be taught in schools it must be resourced in a similar way to the other subjects. Just as we would not expect a teacher to teach science or art without a bachelor's degree so we should not expect religious educators to do otherwise. And just as the other teachers believe in the content of their subject so too must the religious educator. Who ever heard of a chemistry teacher who did not believe in the periodic table of the elements or a biology teacher who did not believe in Darwinian evolution! Because religion has become a private matter we expect teachers to teach from the heart without the broad theological education that includes church history, Old and New Testament studies and systematic theology. Only by establishing professional teachers in the schools who have an ongoing relationship to the students will we avoid the religious outsider who comes in for a brief period to talk about God and who is almost universally scorned.

All of this is a big ask. We would need adequate training for religious educators, something that our universities are ill equipped to carry out. Religious education would have to compete with all of the other subjects for time. But most of all there is the problem of a religious education divorced from a worshiping community. This is, at the moment, only possible in Church schools and even they are not doing a good job of it.

While I welcome the advocacy for religious education from the Governor General we must not underestimate or mistake the task at hand. On the face of it the Governor General's suggestion that religious education in schools will provide students with the values they need to lead a good life is fraught with difficulties. He is right, however in suggesting that there is large scale alienation in our young people and that this has something to do with the absence of a theological framework to life. That is why they are so prone to shallow pop culture and consumerism and indeed do not see a reason for living. This is the breeding ground for the drug culture and the crime that goes with it. The focus on values is far too narrow to address our situation here. The antidote to alienation is not values clarification but a tradition that involves, fascinates, provokes and is thick enough to sustain a lifelong involvement. In short, the crisis of our society is not the lack of values but the absence of meaning.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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