There has been considerable debate on whether there should be religious education in schools, but there is one controversial line of thought that has yet to be fully explored. The thought is simply that religious education can help to promote and secure a secular state.
Before I explore this further, I want to address a recent and somewhat troubling argument offered by some "defenders" of religious education. The argument is that those who have objected to it are a minority and that their views should not overrule that of the majority. It seems reasonable to defend the rights of the majority, however the latest census figures reveal that the majority of New Zealanders are not Christian, and the content of religious education that is under debate is primarily Christian in nature. Accordingly, the "majority rules" argument cannot be easily applied to Christian-focused religious education, since Christians are a numerical minority.
I'm not a Christian, but I have a deep respect for the Christian tradition and I feel very comfortable sharing with my children a number of Biblical narratives. For example, I related to my children the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story had them utterly intrigued and we had a wonderful conversation about helping others, even if you didn't know them.
A diehard cynic may dismiss the parable as a story for simpletons. But if we take a moment to consider the parable as mature adults, there emerges a rather wonderful line of thought. The Samaritan is good precisely because they offer help and assistance in a way that is unconditional. This parable captures an idea that is foundational to a secular state - that the dealings of the state are in no way meant to be prejudiced by considerations of religious belief, culture and ethnicity. The secular state is meant to behave in much the same way as the Good Samaritan.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is an example where religious tradition affirms a core principle of a secular state. Accordingly, religious education can promote and help secure the future of a secular state through engagement with religious tradition.
We can further develop this line of thought by considering the objections critics have raised against religious education.
The objections raised, as it turns out, help to develop the view that religious education within a secular state can have a number of positives. Overall, there are five objections; let's consider each one in turn.
• A secular state shouldn't teach religion. While it is true that the state should not be in the business of promoting religion, it cannot totally exclude it either. After all, religion plays an important role in a number of subjects such as politics, history, art, literature and philosophy, and it would be a travesty to teach these subjects with religion blacked out. Religious education can be a forum where these issues are raised and critically discussed.
• Religious belief is a matter of personal choice, and children shouldn't be preached at. Given the prevalence of religious belief, however, is it not be a good idea for children to be given tools that empower them to make good choices? Religious education can do this.
• Religious education as it is currently practiced involves meaningless activities that may not have any learning outcomes for students. The issue here is with how religion is taught, and not with religion per se. I acknowledge that the syllabus may need to be reconsidered, and a government agency may be best placed to review and monitor the syllabus. This can be done if religious education is incorporated into the mainstream curriculum at all levels.
• Students who opt out of religious education face being ostracised. If true, this is disappointing, since you'd think those attending religious education classes would be better behaved. If those who opt out are being ostracised, then there may be a problem with what students are being taught. This again raises the question of whether religious education needs to be incorporated into the mainstream syllabus at all levels. Once religious education is part of the mainstream, it can then be reviewed and monitored effectively - no one needs to be ostracised.
• Society is now multicultural so Christian-focused religious education is no longer appropriate and focusing on only one faith tradition may alienate many students.
Critics suggest that our multicultural society is a reason to abolish religious education, but there is another option; we could open up religious education in a way that exposes students to the diversity of religious belief.
The challenge is to open up religious education to reflect this diversity, include religion in the mainstream at all levels, and equip students with the tools that will allow them to make good choices about their own beliefs.
These challenges can be met, but it will require our secular state to behave like the Good Samaritan.
Dr Zain Ali is head of the Islamic studies research unit at the University of Auckland.