Religion is part of our rich tapestry

John Dickson makes a case for the importance of Special Religious Education in schools.

If a devout group of naysayers get their way there won’t be any sympathetic religious instruction in our schools. It’s time for those who know the positive benefits of the Special Religious Education (SRE) — the parents, teachers, and principals — to speak up before a dreadful ­decision to cut the program is made.

None of us wants our children proselytised. That’s a given, and the program was never set up to convert anyone. At the same time we do want our kids to learn a bit about the story of the Bible, the life and teaching of Jesus, and the ethics that shaped much of our world. To deny children this is to deprive them of their own cultural backstory.

I speak as a Christian but I am sure my Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i, Hindu, and Buddhist neighbours will be able to read my argument through their own lens. Few things are more culturally influential than religion.

The main arguments against sympathetic religious education miss the mark. Some of the naysayers cite anecdotes of kids going home to mum in tears after of a scripture teacher’s ­insensitive remark about sin, or their denial of Santa, or because a piece of literature was handed out that does drift into proselytising. This can, and should, easily be fixed with better SRE protocols and training.

Others climb the secular high-horse and intone about the separation of church and state as if we were living in America. But Australia’s roots lie in the more sensible “soft’’ secularism of Britain: Religion should ­neither be imposed nor excluded. Well conducted SRE programs reflect this balance perfectly. It is available but voluntary, and ethics classes offer an excellent alternative.

Others suggest SRE creates divisions. After all, it has the word ­“religion’’ in it. But there’s no evidence of that. It isn’t even intuitive.

Dividing students into school houses, sports teams, grades, reading levels, boys and girls, and SRE tracks, is perfectly normal and healthy. These kids will grow up in a society that includes people of all faiths and none. Shouldn’t they learn to navigate the vibrant differences of our pluralistic society?

SRE has an added built-in safety mechanism, since each religion’s curriculum teaches respect for all.

Finally, some anti-SRE campaigners propose what they call a “neutral’’ approach where the teacher, rather than volunteers, takes kids through all of the world religions as part of the curriculum. It sounds plausible but in reality is unworkable. With everything else teachers have to know and do, they are never going to be able to understand the Bible as well as, say, the middle-aged mum from the local church who’s been reading scripture for decades. And that’s just the Christian text. Imagine insisting teachers learn the vast intellectual traditions of the Talmud, the Upanishads, the Tripitaka, the Quran and Hadiths.

Religion is one of the most significant features of culture through the ages and parents should be able to allow their kids to give it a sympathetic hearing in a trusted environment.

I don’t think it should have a privileged status. An option of half-an-hour a week sounds about right.

But removing the program isn’t neutral. It’s an act of cultural vandalism. It condemns our kids to ignorance about a key dimension of human life.

Dr John Dickson is an author and historian and the Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.