Hon. Martin Dixon
Minister for Education
Parliament of Victoria
Like an increasing number of Victorian parents, the Rationalist Society of Australia is concerned and perplexed about the state of secular education in Victoria.
As you will know, the Education and Training Reform Act 2006makes a clear distinction between General Religious Education and Special Religious Instruction.
Most reasonable people would support the need for General Religious Education in the school curriculum, and indeed the Rationalist Society would argue it is necessary if there is to be genuine freedom of religious belief. Freedom of religious belief implies informed choice and if someone is not familiar with alternative religious and ethical traditions, they are not in a position to freely choose their belief system.
Most reasonable people would not however see Special Religious Instruction as a legitimate part of a secular education system. The Act defines SRI as ‘instruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs’.
The Act is thus contradictory. On the one hand it says education in Victorian schools should be secular; on the other, it allows for ‘instruction provided by churches and other religious groups andbased on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs‘ (italics added) – which is clearly not secular.
It is important to understand in this context what we mean by the word ‘secular’.
We believe a truly secular society is equally advantageous to religious believers and to those for whom religious belief is irrelevant. A secular society upholds universal human rights such as freedom of belief and freedom of expression. A secular society does not forbid religious believers from promoting their views and values in the public sphere; but neither does it allow religious views and values to claim any greater ‘truth’ or any greater value in the political sphere. A secular society reminds those who strongly object to religious belief that those very same freedoms of belief and expression properly extend to those who hold beliefs in the supernatural, however irrational they may seem to be.
But a secular education system does not facilitate religious indoctrination nor promote one particular religion or set of religious beliefs over any other.
And yet this is exactly what is happening in Victorian government schools. The administration of the Act by your Department is such that school principals are required to facilitate access by religious organisations so they can indoctrinate young minds, and the “Religion for Life” syllabus by ACCESS Ministries is delivered in the vast majority of cases, making a mockery of genuine diversity in our consciously pluralist society.
Some people authentically object to a truly secular society: these are people who believe that ‘truth’ is derived directly from their deity or from their sacred text and that nothing less than a unilateral imposition of this ‘truth’ on all members of society is acceptable. Of course, such people are usually called religious fundamentalists — and their views and values should not legitimised in a modern democratic society. The first and foundational freedom of a modern democratic society is the freedom to defend itself against those who would annihilate it.
Given the appeal of a truly secular society to both believers and non-believers in a genuinely pluralist democratic society, the Rationalist Society calls upon you and the Victorian Government to ensure the education provided in government schools does genuinely remain secular.
Rationalist Society of Australia