Parents at St Heliers School in Auckland can apparently breathe a sigh of relief. Their children will remain shielded during school hours from the controversial topic of religious education. After receiving complaints from a handful of parents, including a complaint to the Human Rights Commission (currently in mediation), the Board of Trustees has backed down; and will no longer deliver religious instruction during school hours.
A small victory for secular education in New Zealand?
Or a worrying sign that parental concerns over religion are standing in the way of kids getting a well-rounded education.
Let's look at the facts. New Zealand is a secular society. Just over a half of New Zealanders' identify with being Christian. There is a general decline in Christianity in New Zealand, but there is an overall increase in non-Christian religions. Mostly attributed to the fact that those born overseas bring their beliefs with them, contributing to a general increase in those identifying as Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim.
Given these statistics, why should we have religious education in schools - particularly Christian education? The Secular Education Network (which backed the parents' complaints) suggests on its website that religious education is a form of "indoctrination". They would prefer, it seems, to have children grow up in ignorance of Christianity - the religion that has profoundly shaped who we are as a nation - than have them exposed to a subject which has contributed more than any other to a diverse range of topics; such as the arts, politics, law, and literature.
Let's look at the Bible. It is filled with metaphor, symbolism and conflict, making it one of the most complex reads. It crosses historical, theological, and literary genres. It is the basis of much great literature and art, from Milton and Shakespeare to Da Vinci.
In 2009, an exhibition in the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow caused a stir when an open Bible was placed in the gallery next to a container of pens with the words, "If you feel you have been excluded from the Bible, please write your way back in to it". The point being that the Bible is one of the major texts by which we start to understand our place in the world and our relationship to others. We can either reject its relevance and influence as a spiritual doctrine, or accept it. But either way, it is hard to deny its relevance as a starting point in Western culture. Just as it would be hard to deny the relevance of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Koran in the East.
Andrew Motion (Poet Laureate for Britain from 1999-2009), and self-described atheist, argues that children need be taught about the Bible because it is an "essential piece of cultural luggage without which they will struggle to understand great literature". Parents who don't believe in God, have nothing to fear from their children learning about the Bible, and ignorance of the Bible, he argues, is a "serious handicap for those studying literature".
So is this a true victory in St Heliers, or is it a worrying trend? It depends on how you want your kids to grow up. To me, it seems that children denied information about religion are being denied a well-rounded education. Even the world's most famous atheist, Richard Dawkin - author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion - has admitted to celebrating Christmas and singing carols. He has made his reputation arguing against religion, but if he was denied that information as a child, then his work would have little power or purpose.
The Human Rights Commission is still considering its response to the complaints which will raise complex issues of discrimination on both sides of the argument. Until then, we will just have to wait and see if other schools follow suit.
• Dana Wensley has a PhD in law and ethics from King's College (London), and specialises in commenting on social and political issues
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