Religion in Schools (Again)

March 7th, 2014 by Dylan Leave a reply »

Religion and Politics are usually high among lists of subjects that should never be discussed… Does that also apply to blog posts?

Regardless I plan to tackle the subject of religious instruction in state primary schools, again. It’s something I feel increasingly passionate about. If you follow me on Twitter or are a Facebook friend you may have noticed.

To me the idea of providing religious instruction in school, especially to 5- and 6-year-olds, is just wrong. I don’t care what the religion is, or how supposedly neutral the course is, it’s just not right. I want to see it stopped. Outright – not just in my kids’ school, but also in all New Zealand state schools.

However that does not mean, as some would suggest, that I want to see school sanitised of any and all religious references. Of course schools will mark traditionally religious events like Easter and Christmas, but I also expect them to do the same with Diwali, Matariki and any number of other culturally religious celebrations that have an impact on the school community.

What Is CRE?

The most common term for religious instruction in New Zealand is CRE – Christian Religious Education – sometimes abbreviated RE (to avoid the explicit reference to Christianity, one assumes). Although the names vary from school to school – it’s also called RI (Religious Instruction), Bible class, Bible in School, Values in Action and other things.

Precisely what it entails is frequently misunderstood. Many of those posting in comments sections and providing vox pops interviews for TV news shows seem to believe it’s a class that provides some level of education about religions. It’s not. It teaches about only one religion, Christianity, and it doesn’t do so in an objective and detached way. The classes are taught by church volunteers with very little oversight, from one of a number of church-created syllabuses.

Is It Evangelism?

While representatives of religious instruction providers will claim publicly that their programmes are not about evangelism, it’s hard to see any other reason. The programmes are targeted mainly at Year 1 and 2 students, aged 5 and 6. In better resourced areas the programme is extended to older year levels, but those will be dropped in favour of the earlier years if resources are limited.

It’s undeniable that many Christians see the young as a vital ‘mission field’ as this video demonstrates…

The Churches Education Commission, the country’s largest religious instruction provider, have described schools as an under-utilised mission field, pointing out that “the children are right there and we don’t have to supply buildings, seating, lighting or heating.”

Similarly the Te Awamutu Bible Chapel, who provide the CEC programme in 127 Waikato schools, describe their vision as:
“To see ‘Today’s Children’ growing up with an understanding of the Bible that will ultimately lead them to a personal faith in Jesus.”

Why Not Just Opt-Out?

My children do opt out of the weekly CRE programme. Luckily at their school there are well managed alternatives for children who opt out, but in many schools that’s not the case. Parents are often told that “no one opts out” and “it would be a lot easier just to attend” – if they persist then their children find themselves with no clear alternative for the 30-minutes that classrooms are closed. In some cases they are virtually abandoned in the school library, in other cases they’ve been told to pick up litter, or even sent to the back of the classroom where the religious instruction class was taking place, as if being punished.

This simply shouldn’t be a decision parents are forced to make, or a choice children are forced to cope with.

It’s Just A Noisy Minority!

In most cases it is a noisy minority on both sides of the argument. In the recent case of Milson School the Board reports that 64% of parents were in favour of religious instruction classes. What they don’t say is that of the whole school population only about 45 families returned their response. Of those 45 there were 64% in favour, although the questionnaire offered multiple options for the classes including before and after school. The remaining 36% were opposed to the CRE classes. In practice this means about 9% of the school was in favour, and about 6% opposed. 85% of the school didn’t bother to return the questionnaire.

However proper actual research company UMR found that only 27% of those surveyed believed that schools should include classes on Christianity taught from a Christian perspective.

It’s also worth noting that Christians in New Zealand are now a minority. At only 47% Christians are now outnumbered by those who are, in one way or another, not Christian. This is very different to the situation when the Education Act first declared the nation’s schools secular in 1877, where more than 95% identified as Christian, or 1964, when the Education Act was rewritten specifically allowing schools to “close” for religious lessons, where more than 80% were Christian.

What About Another Perspective?

I’ve challenged a number of supporters of religious instruction to think about it from a different perspective, as yet I’ve received no direct response…

The thought experiment is this:

Would you still be as supportive of the idea of religious instruction in schools if the religion were not Christianity?

Imagine that your child went to a school that started running a new religious instruction class. Provided by the local mosque it was effectively a Qur’an in Schools programme. It would teach children about morals and values through stories from the Qur’an. It would explain that Muhammad was God’s last prophet, and of course that Jesus was a prophet too, although not the son of God, and that he was never resurrected.

Would this still be something you were comfortable with?

You can, of course, still opt your child out, but they may have to sit alone in the library and they’ll miss out on all the fun games, activities and stories their friends get to enjoy. Also they will get 30-minute less class time per week (a total of 20-hours by the end of the year).

I don’t suggest this because there is anything wrong with Islam compared to Christianity, or that this is somehow inherently worse. I suggest it because it’s exactly the same, except now, instead of being something they believe, it’s a completely different religion and set of beliefs.

Of course this could happen – ultimately the decision to offer religious instruction is made by the school’s Board of Trustees. If the Board members were supportive of this idea, and a Mosque were willing to run the course then there’s nothing to stop it. The law makes no distinction about which religions may provide instruction.

Why Should It Be Offered?

While many are quick to offer reasons that the status quo should be maintained – it’s always been this way… We celebrate Christmas and Easter… People can opt out – there are fewer people offering reasons to offer the classes in the first place.

Some suggest that many parents want their children to learn about Christianity – which is fine, but they are more than capable of teaching their beliefs at home, and of course there is always the option of Sunday School at their local church.

Others make claims about the need for morals… Something something, youth of today, something something. Of course this ignores the fact that morals and values are part of the New Zealand Curriculum. They will be taught by classroom teachers in the class. Offering an optional, extracurricular, religious class can’t count toward that curriculum requirement. And, of course, there’s no evidence that being Christian or believing in God actually makes anyone a better person.

I simply cannot see any reason that should justify a programme that takes children out of their normal classroom schedule for up to 20-hours a year to offer instruction in a religion. That is especially true when you consider the other impacts that programme has, such as forcing parents and children to make a difficult decision about being excluded from the activities their peers are participating in.

So What To Do?

Simply put: repeal Sections 78-80 of the Education Act 1964.

You may notice that I mentioned the 1964 specifically. The Education Act is one of very few acts where there are two different versions in force at the same time. The Education Act was rewritten in 1989. If you review The Education Act 1964 as it stands today you’ll notice that almost all sections are repealed by the later 1989 act.

As far as I can tell there was a deliberate decision made when redrafting the Act in 1989 to avoid including anything to do with religious education so that there would be no debate on that point. All the rest of the law was revised and updated, but that section was left entirely intact.