Should we teach more religion in schools?

Abbott Government Education Minister Christopher Pyne has announced a review of the national curriculum, claiming “concerns have been raised about the history curriculum not recognising the legacy of Western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day.” (The Australian, 10 January 2014)  But is this true?

Just who is concerned?

Certainly not to those most involved in education. Monash Deputy Dean of Education Deborah Corrigan says “there’s nothing to indicate (the national curriculum) warrants a review at this stage.” Ingrid Purnell, History Teachers Association curriculum manager, rejects suggestions the curriculum is biased: “I’m surprised by (that) concern.” (The Age, 11 January 2014)

So who is concerned? Well, at least three people. Kevin Donnelly, principal of the Education Standards Institute, which comprises one person – Kevin Donnelly.  Also possibly Ken Wiltshire, a known conservative who described the national curriculum as “a failure” – hardly an unbiased position from which to approach a major review. And Christopher Pyne.

What are those concerns?

Christopher Pyne wants to remove ‘partisan bias’ from the national curriculum but he begins by appointing a two person, politically-biased, six month review of a curriculum that has taken knowledgeable education experts from across all States and Territories six years to develop.

Let’s just look at what the national curriculum actually contains.

The Australian Curriculum, Reporting and Assessment Authority (ACARA) is the national body overseeing the development of the national curriculum. Over the past six years, ACARA has carefully and methodically built up a set of educational standards for all schools to use. The foundation for these standards is the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.  These Goals were extensively debated by all Ministers for Education from the Commonwealth, the States and the Territories and adopted in 2008 as a common aspiration. They include:

  • That Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence.
  • That all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

Hardly controversial stuff. But how are these fine aspirations to be achieved in practice?

Over the last six years, ACARA consulted with those who know most about education in academia and in the school education sector to develop the content and achievement standards to make these common Goals a reality in a new national curriculum. They also looked to the best international standards to ensure Australia’s curriculum would be world-standard.

The new national curriculum sets challenging standards, particularly in maths and science in primary schools, but at the same time tries to avoid the curriculum becoming overcrowded. Teachers will be able to include local content that suits their regions while a number of ‘general capabilities’ are addressed, things like critical and creative thinking, teamwork and ethical behaviour.

What ACARA has developed is a world class curriculum that would do much to take Australian classrooms into the 21st century. What Pyne, Donnelly and Wiltshire are really concerned about is that this modern curriculum does not promote their own ideological view of the world.

Should more religion be taught in schools?

Among their concerns is one that relates to the place of religion in schools. Donnelly claims that the curriculum “undervalues Western civilisation and the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life” (ESI blog, Nov 2013). But does it?

The ACARA curriculum promotes learning about liberal parliamentary democracy, civil behaviour and civic duty. Pretty much the defining characteristics of Western civilisation, wouldn’t you say? And not only learning about these important institutions and values but also learning how to put them into practice.  Surely we could do with a bit more civility in public and private lives.

Is Australia based on the Judeo-Christian values?

It’s often bandied about that Western civilisation is based on Judeo-Christian values, and to an extent, that’s true. But Christianity’s key ideas were already familiar territory to those living two thousand years ago. Early Christianity was itself already based on the moral philosophies of the ancient Greeks - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The Golden Rule for example, in the Sermon on the Mount – ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – appears in the Egyptian and Babylonian traditions, and is better expressed in Confucianism – ‘Do not impose on others what you would not choose for yourself’. The Greek philosopher Thales put it this way: ‘Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing’.

Further, what’s always left out of these claims is the crucial role of the Enlightenment, from which we get most of our secular values: freedom of speech, universal education, the scientific method, freedom from dogma, separation of church and state, tolerance, and of course the big three – liberté, egalité , fraternité.

So let’s not get distracted by the call for ‘Judeo-Christian values’. If there’s any gap in Australian education, it’s that there’s not enough recognition of the foundational role of the ancient Greeks in ethics, the ancient Romans in law, and the Enlightenment.


Dr Meredith Doig

President, Rationalist Society of Australia Inc.

12 January 2014


4 Comments for “Should we teach more religion in schools?”

Ralph Horner


Meredith, I just thought I’d point out that the Judeo part of Judeo-Chrisrtian (that underpins the Christian part) goes back way before the “ancient Greeks” who may well have been influenced by the same message, no matter how indirectly. I’d say the wisdom of the Greek philosophers is included within ‘the Judeo-Christian tradition’ and there is no real reason to mention them as an original, distinct and separate source.



Hi Meredith, you say:
“These Goals were extensively debated by all Ministers for Education from the Commonwealth, the States and the Territories and adopted in 2008 as a common aspiration. They include:
– That Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence.
– That all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.
Hardly controversial stuff.”

The mandate for “all young Australians” to become “active and informed citizens” is highly controversial.
How early do children need to be exposed to political causes and urged to form opinions on how the country should be run?
What exactly is an “active and informed” citizen and why isn’t it enough for some young Australians to become good citizens?
Who decides what are the “national values” that citizens must be active and informed about?
Why are those national values listed in the Melbourne Declaration as “democracy, equity and justice” which just happen to be the preferred values of left wing parties?
Why aren’t freedom, responsibility and independence listed as national values?
Isn’t the real purpose of the Melbourne Declaration to coach future voters at the earliest possible opportunity and at the most impressionable age?

Nicholas Jackson


The heritage of the nation of Australia is a Judeo Christian foundation. Our laws and governance principles are based on the Bible. We acknowledge God in the preamble to our constitution. We begin Parliamentary sittings with the Lord’s Prayer. There is much more than “the golden rule” to the Biblical foundation we inherited from Great Britain. Institutions like hospitals, universities, schools, charitable organisations were initiated within a Christian context and society. There are many sayings we use in English to this day that come from the King James Bible.
With the arrival of the First Fleet, the first thing that was done was a chaplain praying and sharing a sermon from the book of Psalms in the Bible.
The Portuguese explorer De Quiros 400 years ago pronounced over Australia and the south Pacific that these were the Great South Lands of the Holy Spirit.
Australia has had a major part in helping the Jewish people – the 800 light horsemen who took Beersheba from the Turks in WWI were very aware of the Biblical significance of what they achieved. Australia has backed the Jewish state of Israel since 1948.
We should not make light of this heritage. God has blessed us as a nation because of it. The West has prospered because of the enlightenment of the Bible for many generations. If we turn away from this we will fall as a society and forfeit the blessing.

Meredith Doig


Well, Nicholas, I guess we just disagree with you on most points:
– while it’s true Australia has been influenced by Christianity (hard to ignore it when for most of the last thousand years one was burned at the stake, thrown in jail or at least socially outcast if one did not claim to be a Christian), our founding fathers actually made a positive decision to NOT follow the mother country and NOT have a state religion.
– Christianity is itself mostly based on older traditions, and particularly on ancient Greek moral philosophers
– our laws and governance are NOT based on the Bible; they are more based on Roman law and then a thousand years (since the Magna Carta) of common law
– I agree there are many religiously-based welfare organisations. There are also many non-religious welfare organisations (Oxfam, MSF, Save the Children etc, plus most community based volunteer groups)
– I agree there are many sayings we use in everyday language from the King James bible. Also from Shakespeare. So what? This just means that literature has been influential in the past. It is not evidence that it is true.
– where is your evidence that the ‘first thing’ done upon the arrival of the First Fleet was a chaplain praying? Even if it did happen, this would not be unusual given the dominant role of religion in those times. Again, this does not constitute evidence that we should simply repeat the circumstances that existed at the time.
– same comment re De Quiros: so what? This is not an argument for continuing the misguided beliefs of those days.
– not sure what relevance your comment about the 800 light horsemen is: are you trying to say that this constitutes evidence of our “Judeo” heritage? I am sure the role of the Australians in Palestine during WW1 was political and military, not religious!
– if you actually look at the national curriculum, it doesn’t ‘make light’ of the role of religion in Australia’s history. But it puts it in context rather than promoting it as ‘true’. This is what education should do – give students a realistic view of what was going on at the time, and encourage them to question and research for themselves. It should NOT mandate that any single viewpoint is the only correct one.
– you say “God has blessed us with a nation”. This assumes God exists. I don’t happen to agree with that assumption and a quarter of Australians don’t either.
– I agree the West has prospered because of the enlightenment but not the ‘enlightenment of the Bible’ but the Age of Enlightenment, which challenged the political power of the church, introduced universal education, and freed the people of their enslavement to superstition and bigotry.

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