Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: It's Yahweh or the highway

Religious instruction in schools is divisive. Photo / Getty Images
Religious instruction in schools is divisive. Photo / Getty Images

Religions do a little good and a lot of bad. But you don't have to believe to see that starving people need feeding and the homeless need a roof over their heads. However, to hate someone and want to kill them because of the god they worship takes a leap of faith.

Which is why so many people are sensitive to the notion of children getting religious instruction in a third of secular schools.

I've written before about the advisability of children being taught what all religions believe so they can understand the way their adherents behave - the more the better given the panoply of faiths that are afflicting the world in their extremist forms, from the hate-filled Muslim radicals of the Middle East to the hate-filled Christian radicals of the American south.

But the sort of religion being taught in our schools is not the comparative, make-up-your-own-mind variety. Much of it is clearly a matter of "Yahweh, or the highway".

The instructors know that there are lines they should not cross, but you don't have to spell it out for kids to realise that, even though the teacher isn't actually saying they will burn forever if they don't believe, that's the risk they could be taking.

State schools, being secular by definition, effectively have to "close" for a half-hour or so to allow religion to be taught - transformed into a sort of intellectual transit lounge where the shackles of reason are thrown off and replaced with the loose-fitting robes of superstition.

Although we can't be sure of the exact nature of what is being poured into all those young minds - because 56 of the schools providing religious instruction say they don't know what's going on in those classes.

Seriously, if that was your school and you had to answer that question, wouldn't you just lie rather than admit you didn't know what was happening in your own institution? Or at least make it your business to find out so you could answer the question with a bit more than a shrug and a "dunno".

We do know that the most popular programme uses Christian Bible stories to illustrate positive qualities. But why should this be restricted to Christian scripture only?

Many of those virtues taught by the Churches Education Commission can be found in the holy writing of other religions: respect and good manners in the story of Arachne, turned into a spider for disrespecting the Greek goddess Athena; unselfishness in the pronouncements of the Buddha; reliability and trustworthiness exemplified, sometimes negatively, by Oden and Thor in the Norse Edda; self-discipline and self-control throughout the Hindu scriptures, and respect for rules in the writings of L Ron Hubbard.

Since there was a flurry of fuss about this not so long ago, things have changed somewhat. Children whose parents require them to be exempt from religious ed are not being forced to sit in a corner and made to feel like they've done a bad thing and made Jesus cry.

They're given alternative activities and made to feel like they've done a bad thing and made Jesus cry.

So there's one important aspect of religion being taught in the most practical of ways - it's separating believers and non-believers in school just like it does in real life.

I stood in the duty free shop recently, staring at the rows of duty free cigarettes with the smugness of an ex-smoker - and given my high default level of smugness, it was a wonder anyone could move for the amount of smug in the air. It was worse than Saturday morning in a Grey Lynn cafe.

But I found myself wondering why we continue this practice. Why do we make it more affordable, if only to the extent of 200 fags a trip, for someone to maintain their pernicious habit by giving up our tax?

And why is it a treat? Something most people only get when they go on holiday? "How can we make an already great time even better? I know. Cheap poison!"

The duty free allowance is just prolonging the agony for sufferers, and it's probably time we kicked the habit.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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