Lyn Allison

Atheist Society at the Unitarian Hall

9 August 2011

Religion and Education

In my ideal world, religion would be an entirely private matter, determined by individuals once they had weighed up the pros and cons of various alternatives - a bit like buying a refrigerator.

People would join religious organisations without being coerced, those organisations would be democratic and accountable to their members, accountable to governments for taxes on profits and have no exemptions from laws that apply to other individuals and organisations, including criminal matters.

And children would be exposed to religious dogma only when they had the maturity to decide for themselves whether it was for them or not. Of course deciding on a religion is much more tribal than buying a fridge and practice of your parents is more likely to determine your religious belief than any other factor except perhaps your place of birth if you happen to have been born in Iran or Ireland, Tibet or Timor. The more involvement of religion in the affairs of state, the less choice there is for the citizens of that state.

The shift away from religious observance altogether in the last 50 years in most prosperous countries, has more to do with better education, exposure to more diverse cultures, the liberation of women from endless child-rearing through the Pill and their subsequent engagement in the economy, globalization, developments in science and technology, IT and communications more generally. Also the failure of the churches to move with the times, to evolve and become more relevant to today's society was in my day and still is a turnoff for young people.

In Australia the churches see running or getting into schools in a hip, youth friendly sort of way, as the only way to recruit back into the fold.

Evangelical brokers for chaplains in schools and SRI, Access Ministries, say "Our vision is to reach every student with the Gospel. Join the vision and help us transform this nation for God".

Religious organisations are good at lobbying and have seen to it that religious people to run for parliament, indeed to aspire to positions of influence across society - the Catholics in the public service and in trade unions - and they have dutifully protected religion's privileged position.

My proudest moments in the Senate involved undoing the work of arguably the most devout and most devious of MPs - Brian Harradine. A Catholic extremist, he bargained away the sale of the first part of Telstra for a ministerial veto over the abortifacient, RU486 and had the Dept of Foreign Affairs ban our money being used in any country for anything to do with abortion. This had the flow on affect of reducing by more than a third the amount Australia spent in aid on contraception.

But, despite my best efforts, religion is firmly embedded in education in three main ways:

I'm opposed to all three practices but will focus on the National Schools Chaplaincy Program.

Commenced in 2007 by Howard Government in an election year - $165m for two rounds, capped and therefore limited reach. In 2009 the Labor Government - topped it up by $42.8m to go out to 2011 with a promise of a review.

Pre election Julia Gillard pre-empted the review and ‘recognised the valuable contribution this program makes to many Australian Schools' and 1000 more schools would receive funding until 2014 with a promised $220m extra. This means total spending would be $437m.

Program currently funds chaplains in just over a quarter of all schools - 2681 - at $20,000/year over 3 years. 28% of government schools have chaplains, almost 100% in Qld, 17% Catholic schools, 45.6% independent schools.

54% are in primary schools, 21% combined and 25% in high schools. The vast majority are Christian, provided by Christian broker organisations; Scripture Union, Access Ministries and GenR8 Ministries and there can be no doubting their evangelical objectives.

In the forward to a book on school chaplains, Scripture Union's CEO, Tim Mander admits "To have a full-time Christian presence in government schools in this ever-increasing secular world is an unbelievable privilege. Here is the church's opportunity to make a connection with the one place through which every young person must attend: our schools."

The Scripture Union believes and expects its chaplains to believe that "... the Old and New Testament Scriptures are God-breathed, since their writers spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit; hence are fully trustworthy in all that they affirm; and are our highest authority for faith and life." (Scripture Union - Aims & Beliefs.)

A directive from a Scripture Union International says "We believe that our mandate is to bring children and young people into the life of established churches by programs that serve them in environments in which they feel comfortable." And,

"We believe that, in the case of families that are not Christian, the evangelism of the whole family rather than of children in isolation is still our objective. However, if this cannot immediately be realised, we believe that God still calls us to evangelise children themselves."

The NSCP guidelines proscribe proselytising, but it's not defined and no objection has been made by the Government to Chaplains saying prayers at whole of school assemblies so presumably that's not proselytising. Most principals don't see it as their business to know what's actually going on in the classroom and elsewhere.

There are few complaints because, parents and children are not warned to look out for it. Imagine a six year old saying; hang on a minute, that's proselytizing. Despite their claims to the contrary brokers would not appear to be instructing chaplains to avoid proselytising, indeed Access Ministries implores their chaplains to "....reach every student with the Gospel. Join the vision and help us transform this nation for God"

Christian prayers, bible studies and Christian religious symbols are now the norm in everyday public school life.

Chaplains are typically described as schoolyard friends. Scripture Union encourages their chaplains to get kids into out-of-school activities, where there is no teacher or parent scrutiny.

A Scripture Union Queensland newsletter declares: School chaplaincy, camps and missions are exposing thousands of young people and children to the good news of Jesus every year."

"Last year alone, over 2500 kids went on SU Queensland camps where many committed their lives to Jesus for the first time." (2006 Scripture Union newsletter).

"We intentionally make opportunities to present life-giving messages that invite children to respond positively to Jesus. Our approach is urgent because children will, by their nature and because of the world in which they live, turn away from God unless they are evangelised and nurtured." (Scripture Union International, 2005);

I presented a paper to a conference of combined independent, religious and state school parent associations about 2 years ago criticizing the program. To my astonishment the two authors of a study into the Chaplains Program from Edith Cowan University presented their report together with a long list of what they deal with on a regular basis. It included mental health problems, bullying, substance abuse and relationship issues. Access Ministries website proudly relayed a message from a chaplain that "in the last week I've got two grade 5 kids on suicide watch.

The Edith Cowan University study: The Effectiveness of Chaplaincy provides data on both the formal qualifications of chaplains and the issues they dealt with in the past fortnight, based on survey responses.

In most states, the only qualification a person needs to be a chaplain is to be associated in some unspecified way with a church or religious organisation.

According to the federal government guidelines, chaplains are supposed to "play a significant role'' in helping schools "support the wellbeing, values and spirituality of young people''. But they are not to counsel children, or "provide any services for which they are not qualified''. This is at least ambiguous, probably contradictory.

In their submission to the never-ending Commonwealth Department Review of the NSCP, the Australian Psychological Society expressed severe concern about this: "When chaplains work outside this role, the risks to both students and schools are immense and will ultimately result in significant costs both financial and human."

There is "clear evidence schools chaplains are engaging in duties for which they are not qualified ... that church organisations and ministries are supporting school chaplains in their boundary violations ... and that the government is complicit in encouraging dangerous professional behaviour by funding school chaplains independently of other services carried out by professionals who are both qualified and registered."

Perhaps the most vulnerable group is teenagers wondering about their sexuality. In a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee regarding the Marriage Equality Bill 2009, GenR8 Schools Ministries says they "utterly reject and repudiate" the assumption that homosexuality should be regarded as "acceptable sexual behaviour". One can only wonder what sort of counselling chaplains provided by this organisation would provide.

The Rationalists Society put in a submission to the Commonwealth Review stakeholder consultation process and we were interviewed prior to the discussion paper coming out earlier this year. Who knows how long the next part of the process will take. It's already two years since the now-PM's promise. The Commonwealth Ombudsman initiated his own inquiry into the program and reported last month:

Funding for chaplains is an arrangement directly between the Commonwealth and chaplaincy brokers, bypassing state governments and school administrators.

He found there has been insufficient guidance by the Department in relation to:

? the consultation that schools were expected to undertake as part of the application process

? key terms used within the program guidelines and code of conduct

? minimum qualification requirements

? the promotion of complaint-handling processes and escalation procedure.

And he essentially found that there is currently no direct means by which the Department can hold schools or education authorities to account for the quality of the monitoring they undertake.

He rejected the department claims that there had been relatively few complaints.

On the subject of proselytizing, the report says:

2.26 The objective of the Chaplaincy Program is to place people with religious beliefs into schools. On considering the role of chaplains, as set out in the Guidelines, it is anticipated that chaplains will provide some level of spiritual guidance to students. This means that there is some tolerance for chaplains talking about their faith within their school community. However, the Code of Conduct places a limit on the extent that a chaplain is permitted to talk about their faith, through the prohibition on proselytising.

2.27 The prohibition of proselytising is designed to protect students from being unduly influenced by a chaplain's religious beliefs. However, there is limited value in such a protection if there is no guidance provided about the difference between a chaplain merely talking about their faith and proselytising. This makes it more difficult, except in very extreme cases, to determine whether a chaplain has crossed the line. This in turn makes this part of the code of conduct almost impossible to enforce, limiting the protection the code of conduct was designed to provide.

He was critical of the fact that chaplains were counseling with no qualifications to do so and had unlimited access to children. This was a case study cited:

Parent, Mr Y advised that it is his experience that the chaplain at his school has unfettered and unsupervised access to students.

For example, he explained that three days after his five-year-old daughter started school she came home and told him, ‘Today I played hide ‘n' seek with Mr Chappy!'

This caused him some concern as he understands that the chaplain does not hold any qualifications in education, early childhood learning, counselling or psychology.

Mr Y advised that he then became aware that the chaplain is a missionary of a local Christian church and that this church has an agreement with the school to use its facilities on weekends to, among other activities, conduct miracle healing sessions. Mr Y advised that this church is also part of a religious movement which believes childhood behavioural disorders are caused by demonic possession.

Although Mr Y recognises that the chaplain is generally cited as being a "good bloke" by many at the school, he is seriously concerned that if he requests that the chaplain has no access to his children there will be no choice but to exclude his children from regular play time, school sporting activities, school camps, and the

numerous other school activities in which the chaplain is heavily involved.

Because of these issues, Mr Y believes that the implementation of the Chaplaincy Program at his local primary school is starting to foster principles of exclusion and discrimination, and he also believes that chaplaincy is becoming a divisive issue within an otherwise harmonious school community.

The Department does not give any direction to schools how they formalize contact arrangements between children and chaplains or indeed parents. Some schools have opt in, others have opt out arrangements.

Ron Williams a Qld parent of four is currently challenging the Commonwealth before the full bench of the High Court over the NSCP arguing that the program imposes a religious test on officers funded under the program. The states will respond tomorrow - the NSW and WA AGs have joined the action, agreeing with significant elements of Williams' arguments, SU appears on Thursday.

Here in Victoria the Humabist Society is taking a case to VCAT saying Special Religious Instruction is discriminatory for non-Christian families. The required mediation failed yesterday and the matter has now been listed for a 3-day hearing at VCAT beginning 12 December. This has been a very effective campaign that has managed to get some of Christian churches and a number of other religions on board as well as lots of families telling their stories and a network of Humanist Society groups in schools.

You know you are being successful when you receive a letter from SU's lawyers alleging infringement of copyright over a blog. Mike Stuchbery, journalist with the Age blogged:

I managed to get my hands on a copy of the new Access Ministries resource for use in classrooms, a graphic novel named ‘Man Hunters‘ by Richard Smith, and, well, I'm flummoxed. It's a weird sort of publication, ostensibly mean to impart good, Christian values, but mostly comprising gunfights, bloodshed, messages of revenge, violence and clumsy renditions of the racism of the time. As a historical text, it's shamefully bad stuff. It's also ridiculously anti-science. Also, it seems to advocate killin' cops. In all seriousness, I'd be very worried if I found primary school kids reading it.


I have no problem with the subject of religion being part of the school curriculum - religions have shaped the course of history and the good and the bad in that history should be discussed so young people learn from it. But I do have a strong objection to volunteers of uncertain training and backgrounds instructing, Sunday-school style or worse, in our schools.

This is why:

Disconnect: The objectives of education ought to be fostering inquiring minds, reason and evidence whereas religion teaches dogma and slavish belief in that for which there is no evidence.

In fact religion stresses the importance of suspending disbelief -- the more you have to do that, the stronger your faith.

Premature: Children are not sufficiently mature before they are 12 or 14 to understand the concept of religion.

Dangerous: While religion is typically sanitised for small children the bible is full of dangerous values of discrimination, vengeance, violence, etc. There is also a high risk of improper behavior - only NT has a code of conduct and accountability is anyway diffused. Religion is no guarantee against abuse and exploitation

Religion in schools takes away parents' rights:

And finally, religion is misogynistic: The Christian religion, is the construct of men who lived 2000 years ago in the middle east, is inherently discriminatory against women. The debate concerning women and the church now tends to be confined to the ordination of women, which of course has its roots in the biblical insistence that women remain silent in church.

Yet, a century ago, prominent women, particularly American suffragette, prolific writer, and outspoken feminist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, openly challenged the authenticity of the Bible as the word of God, arguing that the subjection and degradation of women throughout was entirely invented by its male authors and that God's intention was for gender equality.

With a team of fellow feminists, she set about writing The Women's Bible which would provide a feminist critique; a much needed tool if women were to rise up against religious oppression. It said in its introduction:

The bible teaches that women brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced.

Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on man's bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire......

It would be good to hear our atheist prime minister railing against the raw deal religion has given women and using this to argue for separation of church and state but I fear we will all die waiting.