A letter to Queensland’s Education Minister about Religious Instruction in schools (from an RI teacher)

There are some stories in the local and national press today where some questions are being raised about the place of Religious Instruction in secular schools. I’ve recently discovered that I really enjoy teaching RI in schools. The controversy surrounds this ‘offending’ paragraph in some of the material that Prostestant RI teachers in Queensland (I’m one of these) are given to help us prepare and teach lessons in schools.

rimaterial

I thought this letter might encourage other teachers, and parents, to get in touch with Kate Jones, the Minister for Education (I emailed education@ministerial.qld.gov.au, and, if email conventions haven’t changed from my time in the secular workforce, what might be her direct email address). I reckon it’d be terrific if the department heard from a lot of teachers that RI experiences in our schools are diverse, but come from people who are genuinely thoughtful, and genuinely seeking the good of the children we’re lucky to teach. Also, I hate putting the ‘ordained’ and ‘rev’ bit in because I don’t think it should make any difference, and perhaps I over think this a little, but on balance I thought it might be more helpful not less, but I think if lots of non ‘ordained’ people from the priesthood of all believers were also to write, then that would be fantastic.

Dear The Hon Kate Jones MP,

I read a couple of stories in the media today about how RI classes in our schools – classes where parents have opted in because they identify with a particular religious view (in this case Protestant Christianity) – have involved volunteers teaching kids about sin (or will involve, in lesson 12 of the material from Connect). I started teaching RI at <REDACTED> State School about six weeks ago. I’m an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, we have a new church that started in South Bank and connecting with the local school is important to us as we seek to love and serve our community by building a relationship of trust with them. Part of this means being committed to sharing what we believe is ‘good news’ – the best news – for people. That God is real, and that he loves us even when we stuff up. Part of this also means facing hard questions from kids who are thinking through spiritual realities while they’re at school (which is perhaps a legitimate educational activity?). We definitely don’t take access to our schools for granted, and are incredibly thankful for the invitation to participate in the life of our community; nor do we want to be coercing or manipulating children into sharing our beliefs because we hold some sort of ‘authority’… RI could be a dangerous vehicle for indoctrination, and I am glad members of our community, and our schools, are being vigilant on that front!

Thanks for all the work you do as one of our elected representatives. I love the passion you bring to the education portfolio and believe education is probably the most important cabinet ministry. My wife and I are trying to navigate finding the right school for our 4 year old daughter (and eventually for our almost 3 year old son, and 1 year old daughter). It’s tough. There are so many different theories about education out there, and so many different priorities. I don’t envy you your position, but I am committed to praying that you’ll act with wisdom and help our system form the sorts of critical and creative thinkers our society needs in order to flourish. One day I might even write you a letter about how much I think our schools should foster imagination and the sense that we’re all part of something bigger than just the need to learn things in order to answer questions in a test.

In fact, this letter might even be part of that because it speaks, in some way, to the importance of Religious Instruction (or its equivalent) in schools. One thing religion does is it fires up the imagination, pointing us not just to what could be if we live selfless lives that seek to transform the world, but perhaps what is, beyond the material world. Obviously as a Christian pastor (I’m a Presbyterian Minister), I have a personal belief that God is real and so our imaginings are actually hard wired into us as part of our reaching out for the nature of the divine. But even if this isn’t true, the sort of reaching for a better life that follows being taught the story of a transcendent being who loves us and cares about how we live, and provides an example for how we should live in Jesus, and especially in his death, is, on balance, a good sort of reaching that should lead our society in good places if it continues to ‘enchant’ us; if it continues to point us beyond ourselves, and perhaps if it serves to give us perspective beyond how important the next NAPLAN test is, or whatever else is crowding our kids brains in a crowded, pressure filled, curriculum.

The problem is, if we teach kids what life could be like, and their experience doesn’t line up to that, we’re only teaching part of the picture. We’re missing the point that Christianity includes a sense that things in this world, and in our lives, don’t always match up to how they should be. If we don’t teach about sin, and its universality, we miss the point that we’re to be driven by a longing for something better, while realising that it won’t always line up with what we achieve. We also miss the point that the great news of Christianity is that Jesus deals with sin, he doesn’t just give us a pattern for life. We can’t inspire kids without teaching them exactly what it is that Christianity teaches about the problems in our world, and how those problems shape, and are shaped by, the problems with the way we live. I can totally see how if Lesson 12 of Connect was taught clumsily, or from bad intentions, it could end up being used for guilt based manipulation, and no doubt different teachers approach teaching RI differently. I don’t know every RI teacher in the state, but the many I do know are both:

a) Aware of the privilege it is to teach kids what we believe, and perhaps inspire them towards living lives of love, where their confidence is placed not in their ability to be good, but in God’s love;

b) Aware that this privilege will be lost should we abuse it and veer into coercive or manipulative behaviour.

I thought it might be instructive for you to hear about how RI works, and how this material shapes the experience, in reality from an RI teacher. I’m not sure I’m normal, but anecdotes form data, and I’m happy to ask other teachers to share their experience too, especially if it helps us establish trust in the communities we are trying to love and serve. I get 30 minutes with a class of kids a week. By the time the roll is taken and the kids are settled, its 20. By the time we establish some sort of rapport with the kids, as guests who they see once a week its 15 minutes, and because we’re ultimately keen to answer the questions that kids are wanting to explore about different topics, and about the particular religion they’ve opted in to learning about, we try to spend as much time as possible answering these questions. This leaves us about 5 minutes a week of ‘teaching’ time, at least in our class, and in that time the Connect material serves as a guide but not a master. Most of the time we tell a story about Jesus that introduces a concept from the week, and then we ask kids to interact with the story and ask their own questions. When we give answers we don’t give ‘imperatives’ but say “as a Christian, I personally believe X,” because Protestant RI covers a multitude of denominations, with different beliefs about finer points of doctrine we can’t even be dogmatic about our own beliefs, we have to honour the many other traditions that might be present in the room. It’s complex to navigate this well, and I’m sure I make mistakes, and others might too, but I believe the benefits to our society, and our children, make these occasional clumsy moments worth it. I’m certainly hoping that my own children will be encouraged to think beyond math and science, and consider how they might best contribute to the peace and flourishing of our community, and how they might live in a secular, post-modern, world alongside people they disagree with, without wanting to exclude those voices and perspectives from the table.

Thanks again for all you do. If there’s any capacity for me to be helpful as the department considers its response to the RI material, I am willing to be of assistance.

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell,

Pastor, Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank

Benny on religion

In these initial posts I thought I would continue the Christian themes that are abundant on this blog, so I thought I would comment not on why/why not I believe certain Christian beliefs, but rather my opinion of religions as a whole.

A little background, I think it would be awesome if there is a God, and it would be almost as awesome if people were born believing in God and this never changed. This would be good as everyone could just live out this life, and then move onto the next one. It would be one big spring break. I also think that this would probably make the world a much less stressful place, and everyone would treat each other better. There would be no need for selfishness, no reason to feel sad if anyone was lost, this world would be only temporary.

However, moving away from the crazy perfect dream, in the actual world it is difficult to tell if religion has more beneficial points than bad points.

Nathan and I have had the discussion of the origin of morals before, which I firmly established my belief that morals aren’t a derivative of the Christian faith. Still, I accept the role of religion in developing many people values, morals and ethics, and I think for the most part Christianity does instil people with a certain standard of goodness. From this perspective, if the Christian faith was more dominant, maybe we would have a better moral grounding, however it is hard to tell. It is possible that morals developed to an extent through general life experience. Maybe religion helps people developed these attributes at a greater rate. This seems likely.

However, what I think is more beneficial to the development of good societal morals and ethics is the community group that religion often fosters. Church groups bring people together, teach the group the expected standards of behaviour, and the younger generations learn how to behave form the older. This almost tribal oversight on the development of younger people I would think would result in them developing better behaviour principles. I would think that belonging to a community group would benefit the morals of people almost as much as being within an organised educational institution and even a strong family unit.

Where clashes occur is across religious boundaries. It seems religions aren’t good at being friends. And some religions aren’t even good at liking their own members if they aren’t religious enough. This is a major mark against religions, and causes divides within the larger community. This concept is one of the prime reasons I do not like any religious divisions in schools. There are enough artificial lines drawn in other areas of society along religious boundaries. I strongly believe that if anything we should be trying to get schools as culturally diverse and free from any types of potentially dividing lines as possible. This means removing all religious-focused educational institutions, and trying to ensure that we preserve this one institution where developing children interact with children from other cultures and religious backgrounds. I understand that many will feel this somewhat impacts on their religious choice and ability to make decisions for their children, however from a whole-of-society standpoint, I think this aids in developing a more inclusive, open society.

Further, religions, relevantly the Christian religions, are not tolerant. Some say they are, but they are not. To some extent I think Nathan has both become less tolerant and more acknowledging of the fact the Christian religion is not tolerant. I think it is important not to get confused between the recognition that different views exist, the tolerance of different views such that there is a willingness to allow those different views to be incorporated into society alongside your own.

This is not the case with many religions, well at least western religions anyway (but I’m not overly familiar with the religions of the world, so I am likely unfairly stereotyping far too many religions into this broad religion umbrella). In the grand scheme of things, it has to be said that rarely do religious ideals greatly impact on non-religious day-to-day choices or lifestyles for the most part.

However, the laws that religion has spurned, as well as the societal stigma’s and opinions in created still remain, and often it is certain minority or misfortunate groups that they have the most impact on. I find it absolutely infuriating at the thought of gay people being beaten or discriminated against on religious basis. Nathan seems to have an issue with same sex marriage due to the potential impacts it could have on family units. There are arguments on either side of this, many difficult to truly validate (such as studies that tells me that traditional families are better/worse than a different family type), but at least if they are approached logically and rationally, I am willing to think through them, and come to a conclusion. I like rational arguments and evidence. What I find more difficult is arguments based on religious grounds. I accept that religious people developed personal values around their religious beliefs and values. However, I find it unfair and unjust to regulate the lives of others based on such groundings.

I am also becoming concerned that Christians have a certain superiority complex that extends further than their belief they have the correct theological choice. As already mentioned, it includes Christian’s belief in their superior moral compass, but I think it also may extend to thoughts that Christians may be just generally more enlightened in all contexts. However, Christians probably make this argument against non-Christians.

There is also a tear within myself to an extent. While I want to preserve everyone’s right to choose and practice their own religion, I also realise that the way in which religions impede upon each other, it is not realistic to believe all these different views could live contently side by side. I think this source of conflict has a negative impact on society.

Finally, I don’t mind being preached to. while I think a lot of non-Christians are bothered by this, I think most of my religious friends understand certain boundaries, and for the most part in Australia it is quite easy for Christian and non-Christian groupings to get along quite easily. In fact, the way smiley puts it, if my Christian friends didn’t try to drag me in once in a while, they are probably not being a good Christian in trying to save their friends. That said, the extent some people have gone to spread the word I think has been somewhat unacceptable. Organisations that organised for missionaries to enter countries where Christianity was not welcome is a grey area I find somewhat difficult to vindicate. They may be heroes of the religion, but again it shows an element of elitism that exists within a group that is willing to do this. It may have been done with the best of intentions, but in the big picture, being so direct may have done more instances of harm than good. And it unlikely caused further tension between already strained international ties.

So to be a true Christian, you seemingly have to take the good attributes with the bad. And, from the requirements of Christianity of spreading the word and living by the bibles teachings, it seems that there is no solution for the incompatibility between the Christian v non-Christian world.