“…this is our school let love abide here, love of God, love of mankind, and love of one another.” – School prayer, Maclean Primary School (possibly paraphrased)
Religion in government run schools is a flashpoint subject. There’s nothing that will get the blood boiling for your average atheist than to have religion try to eke its way in to the school curriculum. The issue has been hotly debated in the US for years and the debate has hit our shores with the PM’s decision to fund chaplains in State Schools. The issue has been in the peripherals for a long time – last year it was the proposal to teach intelligent design in the science room – France had an impassioned debate over the rights of students to wear religious clothing to school – the secular state/church relationship is peculiar to say the least.
Surprisingly for some, the chaplaincy scheme is almost as unpopular with Christians as it is with Joe Blow atheist, albeit for different reasons. Whatever your philosophical position on the matter – Australia is a country that celebrates religious freedom – and encourages diversity of beliefs – as a result of the s116 of the constitution (which rules out an official state church). This freedom is a result of the historical hard work of many Christian men and women who staunchly fought for that right – along with fighting for other notable causes such as equal rights for women and aboriginals, the labor union movement, the founding of the Liberal party etc… where there is political or social progress in our history there’s generally been a Christian involved (some would describe the advent of secular humanism and other small l liberal advents as progress – I would argue that they’re generally an example of the use of freedoms won earlier or blatant plagiarism of ideals from historical groups). There is a strong social and historical argument for the teaching of Christianity in schools – but the context it’s taught in is open for argument – should Christianity enjoy a protected position as the religion of choice taught in RE? Should Christians be given special preference in these newly formed government funded chaplaincy positions? The philosophical answer to both those questions is probably not – if we’re upholding a society where people are free to believe whatever they want (which is as important for Christians as it is for Muslims, atheists, Jews and Mormons) we possibly need to provide equal access to all the options (an all or nothing approach of sorts).
I’ve been having some conversations with Mr Benny lately on the issue – below are some extracts from the emails we’ve sent back and forth…
“I hate school prayer.” – Ben
So do I, but for theological reasons – I don’t mind the idea of a Christian praying for the school every day – that’s great – but forcing people to pray to a God they don’t believe in is ridiculous and should be offensive to all Christians because it belittles the idea of God.
“I’m happy to have the history of religion and umm i lack the ability to express this part – i think it’s perfectly good to have the “stories” (sorry i know that’s a real bad word I just can’t think of the right one) of religion to be taught in the same way as science, maths, Shakespeare etc. My concerns stem from the fact legislation is being brought in and it is moving towards what I just mentioned, but the ideals are then being raped by religious zealots intent on promoting religion in schools. $20000 goes to a school, the discretion on who to employ is falling within the schools, you have some religious people in positions of authority, a religious chaplain is employed, and suddenly you have $20000 of tax payer’s money to have a preacher in a school.” – Ben
This argument is interesting but somewhat contradictory. Who is going to get to teach the religious subjects? Suggesting an atheist teach religion is like suggesting a drama teacher teach physics because they have some grasp of the concepts involved but no understanding. A religious teacher should be just as free to promote religion as an English teacher is to promote the beauty of the English language – or a science teacher is to promote the complexity of a plant. That’s what education is – it’s being presented with a series of views and deciding which ones appeal. Because of the “wonderful” nature of postmodernism in education there’s no truth that can be taught as an absolute anymore anyway so children aren’t being forced to believe anything. I can deny gravity if I can justify it. The anti RE argument is also completely flawed – RE in state schools is an opt out system where parents who feel strongly enough can pull their children out of a class – in an interesting side note we don’t have opt out science, or opt out maths so clearly there’s already a distinction between the subjects. What we do have is an opening for anyone of any religious persuasion to come in and teach RE – in my primary school the JWs had their own religion classes – and I can only assume if a Muslim wanted to teach Islamic RE classes during that timeslot that would be a possibility under the current legislation.
The role of the counsellor/chaplain needs to be clearly defined – and Christians are just as concerned about the implications of this legislation as everyone else – nobody wants crazy people running around on school grounds converting kids to an obscure cult. And the last thing Christians want is for a government driven by a politically correct agenda to water down the gospel into a more palatable mix of peace and love – without all the nasty bits.
“I swear, if there are reports of school chaplains directing students to prayer and such if they are approached for counselling then I will go and punch them in the face myself (that’s just student X, not a student they have a history with and know is of their religious persuasion).” – Ben
What guidance can a guidance counsellor offer – when is a student allowed to leave school grounds to seek counselling from a church – a large number of community based, government endorsed counselling services (ie the Salvation Army) are church based anyway so you’re not solving whatever your perceived problem is by keeping counsellors out of school – unless your problem is that it shouldn’t be happening at school because of your political ideology – and that’s a rabid breakdown in rationality if the ideal is more important than the people impacted. People will not be forced to use these counsellors – they’re there for those who will – and in that case it’ll be $20,000 well spent – the fact is that $20,000 will only pay about a half of a person and the other half will come from the combined churches in an area – so the federal funding is probably ensuring chaplains have an obligation to act as counsellors rather than religious salespeople.
And therein lies the concern for Christians – in paying the chaplain, the government then essentially pays to have some control over their message/methodology – which is a breakdown in the separation of church and state in the other direction – ie the state should not dictate the practices of a church. Most Evangelical Christians feel strongly about the notion of the gospel being the only way to God – any watering down of this message fails to serve their purposes as much as it would be a failing if the education system was to employ a “preacher.”
I read Premier Beattie’s plea for churches to pray for rain with interest – particularly the paragraph referring to members of other faiths as “brothers and sisters” who should be encouraged to pray to their Gods – which God will get the credit now if it rains? Seems pretty confusing to me – not to mention the politically correct agenda being pushed and signed onto by the heads of Queensland’s major Christian churches… shame, shame, shame I say.