Brian Rudman: Suffer, little children - and watch out for the spaceship

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With 1.3 million New Zealanders - 32 per cent of the population - happy to declare themselves heathen in last year's Census, I'm not sure whether to laugh or protest over plans hatched at the "InterFaith Dialogue" to introduce comparative religion into classrooms.

Paul Morris, professor of religious studies at Victoria University, says the idea is not to force someone into a religion, but rather to inform them about different religions. What was important, he said, was increasing "religious literacy".

The worry is, how can we be guaranteed that teaching about religion won't slide into teaching religion?

Last year, 32 per cent of us said we had no religion, another 6.1 per cent didn't answer the question and 5.8 per cent objected to answering.

So how do you start teaching comparative religion in classrooms where at least a third of the kids are blissfully ignorant of the 1001 religious beliefs, Christian or otherwise, laying down where they came from and where they are destined to go.

To be even-handed, if we are to have religious studies in our classrooms, at least a third of the time should be spent teaching the kids that many New Zealanders regard religion as bunkum - and more importantly, teaching them that it is perfectly all right for them not to believe in supernatural explanations at all.

At least a little Anglican or a little Jew would have some sort of reference point when teacher plonks them down on the mat and tells them, surprise, surprise, there are gods other than their family's particular deity floating up there in the sky. There's the Scientological one, for instance, who arrived in a spaceship.

But where would you start with little heathens? It's like the forbidden fruit and the Garden of Eden all over again. In their state of blissful ignorance they will be told by their trusted teacher that somewhere in the never-never are dozens of competing gods and beliefs, over which hundreds of wars have been fought, and millions martyred.

What guarantee is there that on hearing this, a young non-believer or two will not begin to feel deprived and convinced they have to make a choice?

Who knows, an impressionable young teenage mind might be quite tempted by the virgins on offer to the martyred zealots of one particular faith. For once, I go along with the old belief that ignorance is bliss.

Mind you, where would you start? Christianity itself is confusing enough. Do you start with the traditional bro'Town version, with God in flowing white gown and beard floating about on his cloud in heaven after creating the universe in six days 6000 years ago, complete with a fiery place called hell where sinners are doomed to burn and sizzle in agony for eternity?

Destiny Church's Brian Tamaki is a dedicated follower of the traditional model, referring to it as his New Zealand heritage. But there are other Maori who regard Christianity's impact on old New Zealand less enthusiastically, noting that as the missionaries persuaded their ancestors to close their eyes in prayers to the new white God, the Pakeha speculators stole the land from beneath their feet.

A genuine course in comparative religion would also have to discuss Bishop Tamaki's pre-Christian heritage, a time when Maoridom seemed to have more spiritual beings per square metre than anywhere else on Earth.

Like the moa and the huia, they've all disappeared, except for secretive taniwha which rise up from swamps and river beds every now and again, demanding a tithe from Transit New Zealand.

In a time and place when everyone was a believer in competing supernatural explanations to life and death, any attempt to lessen tensions by building "a bridge" between the various faiths would be laudable.

But in a community where a growing number of us have moved on to more rational answers, using kids' classrooms to compare these dying religious beliefs smacks of desperate marketing.

If the grown-ups want to play show-and-tell and make-up, why don't the mullahs and vicars and the monks exchange pulpits for a day?

After all, it's the parents who need interfaith dialogue, not their innocent kids.

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