By Ian Harris Otago DailyTimes March 14, 2014
Indoctrination, instruction, education . . . the latest stir over religion in state primary schools seems largely a battle of semantics. The Secular Education Network has conjured up a spectre of Christian zealots “indoctrinating” children with their own take on Christianity, implicitly misleading them while forcing the children of non-Christian or anti-religious parents to take refuge elsewhere. “Get religion out of secular education,” the network demands.
If religious volunteers are indeed “indoctrinating” children – and no doubt this has happened in some classes and perhaps still is, though rarely – that would be of serious concern. School boards should ensure that doesn’t happen.
But secular education doesn’t mean that teaching has to be secularist. The basic meaning of “secular” is “of this time and place; not under religious management or control”. It implies no core hostility to religion. It is neutral.
And religion is certainly relevant to this time and place, influencing deeply how billions of people in cultures around the world live their lives. Children growing into that world will be better prepared if they are aware of that. To rule religion out of education on the basis of some parents’ aversion to any or all religion would be to sell our children short. It would reflect not a secular but a secularist stance, with minds closed ideologically against religion.
Religious “instruction”, as provided for in New Zealand’s Education Act, is also not the best term. It smacks of instructing children in what they must think and do, making it only a gentler cousin of indoctrination. Some religious schools are masters at that, but instruction of that kind does not belong in a secular school system. Religious “education” is another matter, and here it should not be hard to find common ground. For schooling should above all equip children to think for themselves about issues that will be important in their futures, including finding meaning in their lives.
This can only be helped by seeing how people in their own communities and around the world do that – which is where religion comes in. As a total mode of the interpreting and living of life, it is hugely influential in shaping people’s cultures, attitudes and behaviour, both positively and negatively. But the study of any and every culture, including our own, would be grossly deficient if it barred any consideration of religion.
A valid criticism of the present framework of religious education is that it applies only in primary schools, whereas wrestling with the great questions of life, which are also those of religion, requires the kind of abstract thinking that develops in the teens. Children who leave primary school with only a child’s perception of religion may therefore end up thinking that’s all there is to it, and reject it accordingly. At the very least, education should leave minds open to growth and further possibilities.
England has a more sensible approach, though there, too, there is pressure for change. Religious Education is compulsory in all state schools – and the British Humanist Association agrees it should be in the national curriculum.
The humanists envisage a subject “which helps young people to form and explore their own beliefs and develop an understanding of the beliefs and values different from their own; enriches pupils’ knowledge of the religious and humanist heritage of humanity and so supports other subjects such as history, English literature, art, music and geography; and allows pupils to engage with serious ethical and philosophical questions in a way that develops important skills of critical thinking, reasoning and inquiry”. One such approach, of Christian provenance, already operates in many English schools. It interweaves five strands:
Exploring key biblical stories and themes, which help explain why the West is as it is, including so much of its literature, art and music.
Providing the tools to think through current ethical issues, including sexuality, medical choices, racism, the environment, the “just war”.
Exploring ideas central to religion and values, such as arguments for and against the existence of God, and problems raised by evil and suffering.
Introducing young people to world religions other than their own, including atheism (itself “a total mode of the interpreting and living of life”).
And, importantly, helping children to appreciate the value of stillness, providing a point of repose amid the noise and bustle of daily life.
Done well, such a curriculum would promote understanding, tolerance and compassion as children prepare for the complexities of life in a shrinking world. A pity the Secular Education Network isn’t putting its energies into achieving something like that.