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Now more than ever children need a firm grasp on religion

By Ted Witham - posted Friday, 6 July 2007

If history is any guide, Zelda Bailey (On Line Opinion June 22, 2007) and the Humanist Society of Queensland are unlikely to get their way in Queensland’s new Education Act. Their fundamental demand, that humanism be taught in State Schools, is itself reasonable, but the politics balancing the churches, the Government and Education Queensland always favour the mainstream voices, whether or not clergy, politicians and bureaucrats speak with integrity and courage.

Indeed, the history of religious instruction in state schools has been marked not by a consideration of the needs of equipping students adequately but by the shrill insistence of churches and other interest groups that their interests be met.

Secular, free and compulsory education was legislated in all states in the second part of the 19th century. In the eastern states serious and nuanced debate occurred around the notion of secular school systems. (When Western Australia got around to setting up its state education system in the early 1890s the ideological debate had really run its course.) The demarcation was broadly between those who believed that secular meant simply “run and financed by the state and not by the churches” and others who fought for an ideologically secular curriculum.


The churches’ public argument was that the state education system should reflect Christian thought and belief because Australia was a Christian nation. That the churches were able to assert this as fact illustrates their political power. The idea that Australia should think of itself as a Christian nation was in reality strongly contested throughout the 1800s but deists, free-thinkers and humanists never gained the political traction they needed to influence the ideology of the actual curriculum.

It’s no surprise then that in every state religious education was contentious and in every state except South Australia a dual stream of religious instruction was mandated. “General” religious instruction was to be given by the regular classroom teachers and “special” religious instruction was offered to children by representatives of their denominations.

Therefore in this climate the requirements for religious instruction were both controverted and compromised. The Protestant churches were prepared to accept Government control of the curriculum only if their special interest was reflected in the dual general/special religious education provisions.

While the dual provision of general and special religious education was a compromise, it also had another effect. General education about religion should protect students from indoctrination by giving them the tools to reflect critically on belief systems. What the classroom teacher cannot do by law, however, is provide the sympathetic “inside the skin” view which is also necessary for students to understand how believers tick.

My Mauritian colleague visiting Australia could not “get” cricket. He had read the rules of cricket, but he needed a cricketer to actually explain what the game was like. Watching cricket being played gave some understanding of people’s attachment to the game. To really gain a deep appreciation, however, he would have needed to actually play a game of cricket. That would not necessarily persuade him to become a cricket aficionado, but would have provided real insight into what cricket was all about.

Students also need to “get” religious belief. They can read all they want about the religion of Islam, but unless they hear from and see Muslims as they practice their faith, they will never understand why some Muslims promote peace and others board buses dressed in explosives.


The “special” religious education provided by the faith groups can provide this deeper and essential insight into what believing is about. Special religious instructors should show respect for the children they are teaching by making no assumption about the children’s faith-stance, even those whose parents share the beliefs of the instructor. In a democracy leaving the child free to make her own decisions about belief is a foundational principle for both religious and secular educators.

Wisely and effectively taught, general and special religious education together should provide students with a rounded understanding of what human beings believe and why.

So as a Christian I have no in-principle difficulty supporting the humanists in Queensland in their plea to offer special religious education to children of humanist parents. To do otherwise is to claim unwarranted privilege in a free society for Christianity. However, the reality is that classroom teachers in primary and in high school Studies of Society and Environment (the logical place for religious studies) are given no encouragement to teach widely about religion and few resources to do it professionally.

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About the Author

Ted Witham is the Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education (Inc.). He was Executive Director of The Churches’ Commission on Education in WA, and an on-call consultant to the Curriculum Council of WA (Religion and Life curriculum). You can read his blog Mind Journeys here.

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