Welcome to the Education Culture Wars

The Rationalist Society supports Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Belief. But freedom implies informed choice. If someone is not familiar with alternative belief systems, how can they freely choose which religion or belief system to follow?

This is why the RSA supports the provision of General Religious Education in schools - so students have genuine freedom of choice. Religion has been a significant factor in the history of humankind, for good or for ill, and still motivates both the ‘better angels of our nature’ and its darker side.

In Victoria, ACCESS Ministries are responsible for 96% of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in schools. The syllabus they use has been shown to fail both educationally and theologically; it certainly does not provide students with an understanding of a range of alternative belief systems. It is, rather, an overt attempt to ‘make disciples’ of children, particularly of primary age school children. For the most part, parents are blissfully unaware of this insidious phenomenon.

The debate over the place of religion in Australian schools has a long and rancorous history. In Victoria, the Education Act of 1872 enshrined three principles: that government education should be free, compulsory and secular. Churches have been fighting back ever since.

In the 1950s they had a major win. Following intense lobbying, SRI was allowed during school hours (previously it was only allowed outside school hours). This made it much easier for churches to administer SRI by staggering volunteer time over the whole school day.

In 2005, the Bracks Government sought to update the Education Act by, amongst other things, giving schools authority over whether or not to offer SRI. Once again, the churches fought back furiously, and won: until recently Victorian Education Department policy was that schools had no choice – if an SRI volunteer was available, they were obliged to provide a time slot during the school day.

Over recent times however, Departmental policy has changed in two regards. Firstly, the previous ‘opt out’ system has been replaced with an ‘opt in’ system. That is, parents must positively state they want their child to attend SRI, whereas previously it was assumed the child would attend unless the parent specifically wrote to the school to say no. Secondly, it seems schools can now decide whether or not to offer SRI, even if a volunteer is available. While the first change was expressed in an updated departmental form, the second change is not widely known and has not been put in writing.

Why parents should be concerned

In 2004 the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation published a paper called The Evangelisation of Children. Authors of this paper included Wendy Strachan of Scripture Union (Australia), and Graham McDonald, founder of the Australian Christian Heritage Foundation. This paper calls for a world-wide effort to disciple children “no matter how diverse their family or faith background”, recognising that children are “a neglected mission field … more open and receptive to the gospel than at any other time in their lives”. It urges overcoming ‘barriers’ like families who “may resist the involvement of their children in Christian programmes because the family either embraces another religion or has no religion” (pp 4 to 9).

In a series of recommendations that would make a corporate planner blush with envy, the paper goes on to recommend strategies for making disciples of children by:

  • partnering with governments, businesses and NGOs
  • creating a critical mass of organisations to influence mass media operators
  • using curriculum, as a resource, as the “servant of evangelisation”
  • using sport and music, branding and marketing, technology and social media to push the message (pp 15-21)

This is all based on a set of unwavering beliefs, including that:

  • children “belong to the creator God”
  • God is able to sort out the messiness of children’s lives as they “confess their sins”.
  • God is an “unseen all-powerful friend who listens to their prayers and answers them”.

And on it goes. Now you might be thinking this is not actually happening in laid back, secular Australia, but not so. The syllabus used by ACCESS Ministries is the embodiment of these recommendations. Professor Marion Maddox, an expert in theology and education, considers the syllabus presents a literalist version of Christianity that “is unequivocally evangelical”, that “relentlessly pushes … students towards cultivating an individual faith” and that urges the view that “being (or becoming) a Christian is the only acceptable life choice.”

Welcome to the Education Culture Wars.

Dr Meredith Doig

President, Rationalist Society of Australia Inc.

12 January 2014