Religion still has a worthwhile place in the classroom

SRE is a social good because of all the ways Australia is no longer a Christian country.

The recent storm of controversy over religion in the classroom has everything from mum-and-pop activism to comparisons to Nazi Germany. But if you look past the furore (and Führer), there's a case to be made for religious education, writes Natasha Moore.

You could be forgiven if, over the past few weeks, the storm raging in that particular teacup known as Special Religious Education in NSW has passed you by completely.

After all, scripture in schools is one of those issues where the outrage generated on both sides of the question seems inversely proportional to how uncontroversial it is to most of the population. 

But if your past fortnight has been serenely untroubled by the twists and turns of this story, frankly, you've been missing out. It's got everything from mum-and-pop activism, the virtues of censorship, and moral panic about the dangers of sexual abstinence to government over-reach and jokes about book-burning. Which, naturally, invite the inevitable comparisons – without which no popular debate would be complete – with Nazi Germany.

It's a heady mix of Machiavellian manoeuvring and Helen “won't somebody please think of the children” Lovejoy hysteria. P&C meets House of Cards. George Orwell meets Liane Moriarty.

The story begins with a parent-run Victorian lobby group called Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS), whose avowed aim (in keeping, presumably, with their vision for treating religion fairly in schools) is to “formally cease the practice of volunteer-run special religious instruction (SRI) during school hours”.

FIRIS asked a Victorian sex educator to write an analysis of Teen Sex by the Book by Dr Patricia Weerakoon, a book they claimed (erroneously) was part of the SRE curriculum in NSW. They then dubbed the analysis “the Carson Report”, after its author, and sent it off to the NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC).

The “report” raised concerns about the effects of discussing potentially nefarious ideas like abstinence and monogamy in the classroom – concerns that were picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald and followed, on May 7, by a hasty directive from the DEC suspending the use of Weerakoon's book and two others in government schools.

Last week, the DEC overturned the ban, affirming that Teen Sex by the Book did not form part of the curriculum and should not be used in schools (as it seems it had been, in a few schools outside of Sydney). It also lifted the ban on the other two books, written by John Dickson and Michael Jensen respectively.

In a letter to the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and official authoriser of the curriculum, Glenn Davies, the Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, accepted the Archbishop's assurance “that sensitive, age appropriate delivery of SRE is an integral part of the training of SRE teachers in the Diocese of Sydney” and promised to “immediately discuss the matter with SRE providers as a first step” if similar concerns surface in the future.

Merely a droll tale of mountains and molehills? Or one (mildly absurd) skirmish in a larger clash of views?

Some context seems in order. It should be noted that scripture classes are opt-in, with alternatives for different denominations and religions (or, where volunteers are available, for secular ethics classes). They take up no more than an hour of class-time a week; and it makes sense to have each religion taught by someone who understands it “from the inside”, so to speak.

But that doesn't exempt SRE teachers from the DEC's over-arching concern with the wellbeing of children in schools, and nor should it. If, as FIRIS has suggested, the classical Christian view of human sexuality were being taught in such a way as to imply homophobia or victim-blaming in cases of rape; if matters like divorce or gender roles were being discussed without sensitivity to students' circumstances; if children were being subjected to “scare tactics” that push them to embrace faith for themselves – those would be serious failures of training and/or oversight that it's in everybody's interest to fix.

No doubt the quality of SRE teaching (like all teaching, for that matter) is uneven, in some cases even facepalm-worthy. And the time may come in NSW, as elsewhere in Australia, where scripture classes for any religion are no longer seen as providing a worthwhile service – in which case they ought to be abandoned.

SRE is not a social good because Australia is a “Christian” country. To the contrary, it's a social good because of all the ways that Australia is less and less of one.

For now, though, the number of parents who do opt to send their children along to SRE suggests that it still serves some purpose. On the whole, parents with no personal commitment to a faith tradition are still happy for their kids to acquire a basic understanding of Christianity. For a generation that doesn't imbibe this stuff with their mother's milk the way their grandparents mostly did, an acquaintance with biblical themes, stories, and language – with David and Goliath or the resurrection, with “eye for an eye” or “turn the other cheek” – offers a passport to accessing everything from Dante to the foundations of our legal system.

SRE is not a social good because Australia is a “Christian” country. To the contrary, it's a social good because of all the ways that Australia is less and less of one. Classes that offer kids, as part of their school experience, a familiarity with one of the world faiths – whether their own or someone else's – function as a recognition that religion is a real and meaningful part of many people's lives, and of the pluralist society in which they are growing up.

It's worth making sure, then, that SRE is done well. Scripture classes should regularly make clear that the beliefs they are describing are not held by everybody. They should encourage discussion and the sharing of opinions, asking children and teenagers to consider rather than accept the views introduced. They should present the key tenets and a general sense of the faith in a way that is respectful, alert to the sensitivities of students, and engaging – but not with a view to conversion. Religious adherents with a more ambitious agenda for SRE need to recognise that all this is simply good manners on the part of those invited into the public space of government schools.

The classroom is assuredly not a recruitment centre for the devout; but it's also not a religion-free zone. “Secular” education, as the historians tell us repeatedly, has not traditionally meant that religion is artificially excised from school life. Rather, it has sought to ensure that no one religion is favoured or pushed at the expense of another. Special Religious Education – non-compulsory, with a range of options, taught by believers whose role is not to make new believers – fulfils that brief.

It should be said that the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) has no vested interest in SRE (although my colleague, John Dickson, has been one of those bemused to find himself elevated in 21st-century NSW – however briefly – to the august ranks of banned authors, keeping incongruous company with the Solzhenitsyns and the D.H. Lawrences of the last century).

If and when parents and educators decide that there is no longer a place for scripture in schools, it is CPX's hope that Christians, along with volunteers from the other faith traditions, will bow out gracefully. But we do think it would be a loss for all involved – and a blow for a model of education, and of society, that sees the sincere presentation of different worldviews and ethical systems as a means of enrichment rather than a threat to the status quo.

Dr Natasha Moore is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared at The Drum.