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Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Inter-religious education essential for NZ schools

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

How ironic. Bible in Schools teachers - slammed by some for preaching "fairy stories" from the Bible - aren't permitted to tell primary school children that Santa and the Easter Bunny aren't real. These are sacred cultural icons, after all.

We're debating religion in schools again. Last week, the father of a 7-year-old girl complained his daughter was consigned to a "naughty corner" at a state school, while classmates were next door in a Bible-based "values" class "singing, doing fun activities and hearing stories".

A picture of her sitting, apparently alone and dejected, accompanied the story.

To be clear, the girl's parents had objected to the religious nature of the class.

But the message of that image was clear. This is what opting out of our version of religious instruction looks like: exclusion.

I should confess that when my children were in primary school, I was happy for them to attend the Bible in Schools programme, even though I was a non-believer at the time (and had been since I was 12).

I didn't see this as at all inconsistent.

Nor did I hold any fears that my children would be brainwashed into beliefs I'd long since rejected (no more than I feared that they'd believe in wizards after reading Harry Potter - forbidden fruit in some conservative Christian households).

I had, after all, grown up in a devoutly Christian family: church every Sunday, and Bible readings and prayers every evening. I learned to read through the Bible.

The beliefs didn't take root, but the values proved harder to shake. I couldn't imagine my children growing up without knowing and understanding the Bible. I regarded it as essential to their knowledge of Western literature, history, culture. I still do.

But this was a lot to ask of what turned out to be a 30-minute, state-sanctioned Sunday school class delivered by church volunteers.

The debate about religious education in our secular schools is stuck in a tense stand-off.

It falls within a wider discussion about the place of religion in the public sphere.

At one end are the secular rationalists, determined to expunge all traces of religion from the public square.

At the other are conservative Christians, anxious to protect the privileged position of Christianity in New Zealand culture.

In a paper based on research for her PhD thesis, Otago University scholar Helen Bradstock argues that the two ends have dominated and constrained debate.

"The secular rationalist socially constructs a world in which religion is irrelevant in the public sphere. Schools should be 'religion-free zones'. In this discourse 'secularism' in its most extreme form can amount to established - or state sanctioned - unbelief ...

"When viewed through the secular rationalist lens, even knowledge about religion is in the realm of belief, not fact."

The polar opposite is the conservative Christian position, which endorses "public recognition of Christianity in New Zealand" and points to the "formative influence and majority status of Christianity".

Both need to make room for another approach. One which recognises that we are an increasingly multicultural society. And is less precious about keeping religious discussion out of a public square that is far from neutral or value-free.

As Alain de Botton argues in his book Religion for Atheists, "Our public spaces are not even remotely neutral." They are covered, he writes, "with commercial messages". We, and our children, are constantly assailed by the seductive, "siren calls" of advertising.

"Atheists tend to pity the inhabitants of religiously dominated societies for the extent of the propaganda they have to endure, but this is to overlook secular societies' equally powerful and continuous calls to prayer."

The prominent theologian Sir Lloyd Geering has noted that in the UK, religion is a compulsory subject in schools.

"It was felt that these were the sorts of things that were essential to pass on to children. Britain is far ahead of us in this respect. What is taught in British schools is what is taught here in universities as religious studies. But that's what should be done in the schools."

Here, we've been unable to draw a distinction between teaching religion and teaching about religion.

Although the 1877 Education Act established the secular nature of primary school education in New Zealand, the 1964 Act legalised a system of religious instruction led by church volunteers in state primary schools.

That's led to a confessional approach to religious education, which sits outside the primary school curriculum and out of reach of academic scrutiny.

Helen Bradstock argues for an egalitarian, liberal approach to religious education.

We should be aiming, she writes, for "secular, inter-religious education" that is taught within the curriculum, as in the UK.

It would teach about Christianity and other major world religions, but not endorse any one belief system. It would recognise diversity and respect human rights but wouldn't compromise the secular nature of the education system, since religion would be treated as an aspect of human culture which is a legitimate "form of knowledge" or object of study.

We don't have a choice. In increasingly multicultural New Zealand, as Bradstock argues, inter-religious education in primary schools has a critical role to play in the growth of multicultural awareness and the promotion of social inclusion.

Such education is most effective, studies show, "when difficult questions relating to conflicting world views are grappled with, debated and not avoided in classrooms".


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- NZ Herald

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