Why Special Religious Instruction should stay in secular public schools

On Wednesday afternoons each week during school term I head along to a local public school and teach a bunch of public school students about Christianity in curriculum time. I had been quite reluctant to do this initially because I know the curriculum is jam packed, and though I think helping kids grapple with religion is important, I do think that in a secular context we should be helping kids navigate pluralism without defaulting to atheism or polytheism; that is, we should help kids understand and live with difference, not eradicate difference. But I’ve been convinced more recently about the goodness of special rather than general religious instruction, especially through some research put together by an academic from Israel, Zehavit Gross, and one from Australia, Suzanne Rutland, which has led to a multi-faiths body here in Queensland coming together to support special religious education (or instruction).

Religious instruction and its place in public schools has been in the news again recently because there’s a sustained campaign to scrap it from a lobby group of parents here in Queensland; they’re echoing similar campaigns in other states, and there are polls being operated by various media outlets. There was a piece a couple of weeks ago by Anna Halahoff, and Gary Bouma on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal that argued that the important role religious difference plays in a multi-faith society means that government institutions have almost a moral obligation to ensure children are exposed to religious traditions outside their own. As a public school parent, a pastor, and a special religious instruction teacher in a local primary school, deeply committed to a secular, and multi-faith Australia, and public education, I agree with them. However, in this piece, Halahoff and Bouma argued against special religious education in public schools and for general religious education. This is the line the “secular” lobby groups are now running with. I think their use of the label ‘secular’ is problematic. Halahoff and Bouma said “young Australians can attend religious schools, or religious children’s and youth groups before or after school or on weekends to assist with religious identity formation. This is not the role of public education.”

In secular, post-Christian (certainly post-church) Australia it’s an increasingly romantic notion that children (and parents) will choose such activities outside school time. It’s possible that my self-interest as a minister of religion makes me inclined to cling to any foothold still offered where the bar for opting in and out of religious instruction does not require crossing some threshold into ‘religious’ or ‘sacred’ space; but I do think religious education is part of the role of a well-rounded public education, even a secular one, especially with the ends of personal formation, well-being, social cohesion and pluralism in view. There’s also a strong educational case to be made that understanding religion, and the role it has played in society, is vital for understanding history, not simply western, or Australian history, and that such an understanding is richer when students grasp the particulars of different religious systems. Again, this is why I agree with Halahoff and Bouma that there is a place for general religious education in our schools, but I think there’s actually a good case to be made for both special and general religious education.

Christianity has, of course, played a particular role in Australian history post-European settlement, even in the founding of Australian schooling; until the denominational schooling bodies from the Catholic and Anglican churches reached an agreement with the government in the 1840s, schooling in Australia was exclusively conducted by churches. This meant schooling was sectarian. There were Catholic Schools and there were Anglican Schools. These schools would form good Catholic citizens and good Protestant citizens; fuelling sectarianism in society at large rather than secularism or pluralism. The transition of education to the states, and to a secular model where religious instruction or education was given space in the curriculum was a positive move. Special religious instruction or education is a product of secularism, not opposed to it.

The word ‘secular’ means different things to different people; its definition is contested, the sense in which I am using it is in the sense that I believe most would understand it — the idea of a separation between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred,’ but particularly here the question is about sovereignty; whether the state, or the church, is in charge. Where multiple faith options, and the option of no faith at all, exist together in a community the state either has to be neutral on questions of religion, or religious with varying degrees of accommodation. Most religious people, particularly monotheistic people, believe that their God’s sovereignty and authority is not limited to the ‘religious’ sphere, but that the state functions within God’s world. This means ‘secularity’ is always a kind of concession from the religious, an acceptance of plurality of options, this is not to argue that religious groups occupy positions of power today, certainly not any longer, but secularism, and pluralism, arose when the church was a much more powerful source of authority in the west. Secularity in the west is ultimately a concept that emerged historically both from a Christian experience of the world, and from Christian ideas about the sacred and the profane. British historian Tom Holland made this point in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, arguing that we’ve increasingly bought into a falsity that secularism emerged as a product of science and atheism.

In A Secular Age, Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor provides multiple definitions of ‘secularity’ operating in contemporary society. Secularity1 is the belief that public, secular, space is closed off to religious matters; that it must purely consider questions of material reality, such that church and state are separate because one is private and the other public. Church and state are also separate, in this view, to stop religious views shaping the public life of those who don’t share them. Secularity2 is the belief that religion is dead; that in the triumph of science and material explanations of reality, religion will fade into obscurity; we don’t need to make space for religion because religion is no longer a factor. Secularity3, Taylor’s version, recognises that religious belief and practice is declining in the west, specifically monolithic commitment to Christianity and the authority of the Church has collapsed not because ‘God is dead’ but because we now have more religious options than ever before, and the public square is not the singular domain of the Christian church, but a contested, pluralist, space; the decline of Christianity is not just the rise of ‘science’ and materialism, but the rise of choice. Religion is still a factor in public life in this sort of secularity because religious communities still persist as part of society, and a ‘secular’ approach to the public square is non-sectarian; the separation of church and state is to protect religious believers from each other, not just non-religious people from religious people, and it is to protect churches or religious institutions from the power of the state (whether sectarian, or atheist).

To be secular, then, is not to be non-religious, or to exclude religion from any place in public life or public institutions, it is to not have a sovereign power that is exclusively religious or sectarian, it is to remain value neutral on questions of the substance of religious belief, rather than to see no value.

Taylor’s account of how the conditions of belief have changed to allow this secular age to dawn aligns somewhat with the history of education, or schooling, in the west and in Australia in particular. Christians have long been supporters of schooling; one of the fruits of the Reformation and its ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a desire for literacy amongst men and women (and boys and girls), but churches have also long educated children as part of a deliberate strategy to ‘catechise,’ or raise children ‘in the faith,’ there’s some obvious truth in the Jesuit maxim ‘give me a child before seven and I will give you the adult.’ Education, or schooling, is a path to human formation, and to liberation from a restrictive social order — this, again, is a fruit of the Reformation, one charted by Taylor.

The historical development of special religious instruction as a product both of religious involvement with establishing schooling and secularism is not, in itself, an argument for keeping multi-faiths special religious instruction, it is, rather, an argument that you cannot simply remove multi-faiths special religious instruction from schools and call it “secularism.” The case for special religious instruction remaining in public schools, not simply withdrawing to sectarian private schools, or being abolished altogether is an educational one. Bouma and Halahoff made strong case for the place of religious education in public schools on the basis that it forms the types of citizens required for life in a multi-faith, multi-cultural Australia. They propose a way forward for religious education that involves “more teaching about diverse religions in all schools taught by qualified and trained teachers” and this “meaningfully incorporated into the Australian curriculum.” A fantastic proposal! Until late last year, even as a religious education teacher, I found the case for generalised religious education more compelling than specialised. As a pastor in a Christian church part of my support for the idea is that it would expose more people to the Gospel of Jesus, which I believe stacks up against other religious truth claims. As a parent, I want my children exposed to the beliefs of their neighbours, and to be having neighbourly conversations with people holding different views to our family. As a religious educator being careful not to infringe upon the school’s hospitality I was aware of the importance not to proselytise when answering questions from the children, and I was attempting to provide something like a ‘general’ account of Christianity to children whose parents had opted them in to receive ‘special’ religious education, that is, to be taught what Christians believe by a practising Christian.

The ends of special religious education are fostering belief and practice because such belief and practice is demonstrably beneficial for individual students, and the tenets of each religion taught in school, if taught and adhered to according to authorised curriculum, promote a pluralist schoolyard where children practice both differentiation from others and compassion for others, these are worthwhile educational outcomes (that children may also learn spiritual truths that are actually true is a question the state must remain neutral on lest it favour one ‘sect’ over another). The ends of general religious or worldview education are to foster understanding and empathy, rather than adherence.

My position on the place of special religious instruction, in addition to general religious instruction, shifted when I read the 2018 report ‘How in-faith religious education strengthens social cohesion in multicultural Australia’ by Professor Zehavit Gross, the UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, and Suzanne D. Rutland, a Professor emeriti in the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of Sydney. This paper made the case for the benefit of both special and general religious instruction in forming children for a secular, multi-faith Australia. It highlights particular benefits children receive not just from religious ‘instruction’ but from belief and practice; benefits I’ve observed as the Buddhist class next to my rowdy grade 5 Christians practice meditation and mindfulness. General Religious education cannot produce these outcomes, because they must disconnect religious information from religious practices, and, by adopting the secular frame, must default to a detached, objective, agnostic approach to the spiritual dimension of religious belief. Some of the benefits of religion are directly connected to actually holding religious beliefs. Religious belief and practice is connected to human flourishing. A 2018 Harvard Study by Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele found that a religious upbringing involving ‘religious participation’ (not just knowledge) is associated with “greater subsequent psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness and several health behaviours.” These are formative benefits for our future citizens, and thus for society. These benefits come from a sort of education that already has a place in the curriculum. It seems a case must be made against these benefits as worthy, or for other more worthy educational outcomes.

If “worldviews education” is as beneficial to producing well-rounded participants in a multi-faith society as Halafoff and Bouma argue, and I believe this to be the case, then why not both? Why not recognise the personal and social value of religious belief and practice, and the knowledge of other religions, in a secular, multi-faith world? Why not recognise the fundamental place religion has in the fabric of our society and the individuals in it and devote adequate curriculum time to forming our junior citizens with a vision of flourishing that goes beyond seeing children simply as future cogs in an economic machine?

Schools inevitably form children with some vision of the good, and curriculum selection is always ideological, and in some sense always ‘religious’ in nature. The academic and author, David Foster Wallace, a man reportedly haunted by the question of what place religion, or the transcendent, should occupy in his life famously observed “everybody worships something,” and that the only choice we get in this life is the choice about what to worship. Our schools, whether or not special or general religious education are part of the curriculum, are already forming and churning out worshippers. They were built to do this very thing in a previous, more explicitly religious, age, it would be a shame (and bad for our pluralist, multifaith, society) for our schools to so favour the Gods of economic production, technological development, and wealth that there was no space left in the curriculum for children to learn about the place of religion and worldviews generally in our society, and to explore the belief and practice of one or more of these faiths particularly. I purchased a copy or replica ‘school readers’ from the early 20th century at an op shop, and was shocked by how deeply religious the content was; one (available online) features a story about Jesus titled “Our Best Friend.” These readers aimed to foster not just reading but values; to form children. State schools have recently been encouraged to purchase Suzie the Scientist readers that will teach literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the same time. This doesn’t represent the end of teaching values, but changed values in the curriculum. The case for more STEM and less religion in the curriculum is not religiously neutral, it represents the triumph of a modern religion in capturing our shared imagination and orienting us towards a vision of the good life built purely on making cool stuff, and getting wealthy, in material terms.

A secular state, and its educational arm, is not sectarian, theocratic, or ‘atheistic’, but nor does it exist to promote bland agnosticism towards religious questions. A secular state might reasonably, in the face of the evidence, recognise the vitality and goodness of religion. The individual and social benefits either come purely from the ‘immanent frame’ (as philosopher Charles Taylor describes the ‘here and now’) and limited to psychological benefits and wellbeing, or found through connection to a transcendent reality, whether that is the Christian God who reveals himself in Jesus, Allah and Mohammad as his prophet, or the pursuit of Nirvana via the teachings of the Budda. The secular state in a pluralist context is called to remain value neutral and non-sectarian on the latter questions, but not the former question about whether or not religious beliefs, practices and religious institutions are a civic good and part of the fabric of our society. It cannot be neutral on the question of the goodness of religion itself because the quest for some divine truth does not just seem hard-wired into us, but also into the DNA of the western world, producing schooling as we know it, and many of the values we cherish — including secularism and pluralism. Societies that choose to reject the place of the religious quest tend towards totalitarianism rather than pluralism. It is societies that truly value the freedom to pursue religious truth that allow more than one option on the table. Our schools might be places that reflect that, and to continue the metaphor of hospitality, they are perhaps best to do this with courses prepared by chefs conversant with the textures of their own cultural practices; offering a menu for students and their parents, rather than some sort of fusion dish prepared by a generalist, that seeks to value all flavours but ends up unrecognisably muddled.

Public schools are a great breeding ground for a pluralist, civic, democractic society where we learn to listen, empathise, and navigate genuine difference. The worst thing possible for such a goal is religious parents withdrawing their children into religious enclaves; a return to sectarian schooling. Such schools can be designed either to protect children from other religious ideas, or, increasingly because of a belief that these schools, with a commitment both to special and general religious instruction, and a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond the here and now. As a proud public school graduate I’ve unashamedly been devoted to the good of secular public education for the sake of pluralism, and exposing my children to ideas and influence foreign to those practiced in our family and our church, both through curriculum time, and relationships with children and their families whose values, or worldviews, differ from my own. I find this conviction wavering in recent times as I’ve perceived the common definition of ‘secular’ shifting from ‘non-sectarian but open to religious belief and practice’ to ‘closed off from religious belief and practice.’ Ironically, I find myself drawn to the sort of schools that offer both general religious instruction and special religious instruction (albeit typically of an exclusively Christian variety). The danger of enclaves, whatever brand of religion they form around, is that in the absence of multiple perspectives and a commitment to a pluralist vision of life across difference, such enclaves have the capacity to foster various forms of radicalism of the sort that demand a public sphere that is not multifaith, but monotheistic; not secular, but sectarian. A secular education in a multifaith, pluralist, society will involve both special and general religious education, there might even be time left in the curriculum for STEM.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the pastor of City South Presbyterian Church, a church in Brisbane, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus. If you'd like to support his writing financially you can do that by giving to his church.