The elephants in the (class)room: Why faith-based education has a place in public schools

Justine Toh on why she believes faith based religious education has some place in public schools.

Last week, I participated in Melbourne's first IQ2 Debate for 2014 on the motion, “Faith-based religious education has no place in public schools.”

It's a subject on which passions run high, particularly in Victoria where Access Ministries, a Christian organisation that provides volunteers to teach Christian religious education (CRE) in public schools, is locked in a battle with the lobby group Fairness in Religions in Schools, whose members want to abolish any faith-based instruction.

There are two reasons why I argued, against the motion, that there is some place for faith-based education in schools. And those reasons have to do with elephants. Let me explain.

First, there's the elephant that everyone insists they can see. This elephant is taken from the familiar story of blind men trying to describe a pachyderm. One man feels the tail and says the elephant is thin like a snake, while another touches a leg and claims the creature is thick like a tree, and so on. This story is often told to illustrate the limitations of the various religions as they attempt to describe ultimate reality – here represented by the elephant.

This story is relevant to the debate at hand since those who want to remove faith-based religious education from schools often want it replaced by General religious education (GRE) where religion is taught like any other subject: delivered by a professional teacher rather than a volunteer, and in a neutral fashion that neither assumes a confessional faith, nor cajoles (at best) or indoctrinates (at worst) students into adopting one.

GRE, then, might adopt a comparative approach that assesses the tenets of the various faith traditions and their distinguishing characteristics. Such an approach might seek, for example, to impart to students the way that Buddhism describes reality in a manner akin to the first blind man saying the elephant is thin.

There is something to be said for this approach, but we're kidding ourselves if we think it is value-free. For while GRE purports to teach students about the different ways that religions describe the nature of reality, the only way the story of the blind men and their elephantine investigations makes sense is if someone has access to the bigger picture. Such an elevated perspective assumes the ability to see, not only the whole elephant, but the way that the different religions blindly attempt to get a grip on this unwieldy beast.

This approach can't help but recall GRE's methodology that surveys the various religions, their features and characteristics, from a privileged viewpoint. The trouble is, however, that such a “bird's eye view” is exactly what comparative approaches deny to each of the religions. That is to say, GRE seeks to contextualise the truth claims of every faith while excluding its own from scrutiny. And while some may hold that GRE is less of a belief system and more a tool or mode of analysis, its methodology is frequently preferred by those who believe that truth is unknowable and that the best we can do, therefore, is simply describe religions as they attempt to interpret ultimate reality – which sounds suspiciously like a value judgement.

So my first reason that faith-based religious education should have some place in schools: comparative religious approaches are no more neutral than their faith-based counterparts. The latter, at least, are upfront about claiming to see “the whole elephant.”

My second reason is tied to the first: religions that claim to see “the whole elephant” can help to deal with life's complexities in a way that apparently objective approaches cannot – especially when it comes to the difficult question of suffering.

This point is well made in an episode of American drama Breaking Bad that dealt with the aftermath of an air disaster over Albuquerque. A special assembly at the local high school was called to enable students to vent their feelings about the tragedy in which 167 people lost their lives. One girl stood up and asked how, if God was good, he could allow such an awful thing to happen? The principal's response was gentle but firm: “Can we just keep it secular, honey?” Off limits for discussion, then, was the elephant in this particular (class)room: the problem of pain, evil, and the character of God.

It's understandable why the principal didn't want the session to feature any talk of God. Presumably she felt, along with many others today, that issues of faith are so potentially divisive that they're best explored in private rather than in public, since the latter is supposed to be a neutral, value-free zone. Yet atheist philosopher Michael Sandel rubbishes the idea of neutrality in public debate. Even if we could set aside our personal convictions, he argues, “doing so would cut ourselves off … from a range of considerations that often matter in the way we govern our lives together.”

To insist on ruling out any talk of God, therefore, denies a voice to those members of the public or, in this case, school students, who are interested in raising those ultimate questions. Perhaps this is blowback from Christendom, when Christian voices monopolised debate and imposed their agendas on others. Seen in this light, the contemporary attempt to silence religious voices is understandable. But it can't help but feel as though we're simply swapping one imposition for another. And this is exactly what's going on when the principal in Breaking Bad rules out any discussion of such transcendent matters, no matter how gently the student addresses the student.

The principal also sends the message that education has nothing to do with ultimate questions of life: Why are we here? How do I cope with death? What is the meaning of it all? If education sees part of its task to be preparing the whole person for life and empowering them to make decisions for themselves, then ruling out the measly half-hour or so of special religious education, where such questions could get an airing, doesn't exactly help students grapple with these basic issues of life they'll have to face sooner or later.

Faith-based religious education has some place in public schools because, like it or not, matters of God and ultimate meaning are the contemporary elephants in the classroom. We can refuse to acknowledge their presence, but they simply won't go away.

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.