On Religious Education and Education in Religion

I just want to make a few observations on the debate currently surrounding “Religious Education” in Victorian state schools. My point is largely about the importance of making distinctions (so important in any debate about anything).

At the end of last month, an article appeared in The Age entitled “Backlash as God forced into schools”. At the time, I thought “That’s funny, actually. I didn’t think you could ‘force’ God to be anywhere he didn’t want to be.” Someone else wisely added “And isn’t God everywhere anyway?”

Be that as it may, extra fuel was thrown on the debate by this article in The Age this week: “Academics call for review of school religious teaching”. I know and have worked with all the people who are named in the article. I attended a consultation on the issue last year at Monash run by the folk named in the article, and heard all their arguments.

Essentially, we are talking about two different things. On the one hand, there is “Religious Education” and on the other there is “Education in Religion”. The first refers to education in a specific religious tradition, the second refers to education in religion as a social phenomenon.

I believe that the latter has value even in a secular education system, as it is really education about an important aspect of our multicultural society. I do not believe it is wise or profitable to play “Education in Religion” (or “Religious Studies”, if you prefer) off against catechisation in one’s own chosen religion. Because I also believe that in a society which upholds freedom of religion – that is, which recognises the important role in which a freely chosen religion plays in the life of its adherants, their families and their community – no student should be hindered from learning about their own spiritual tradition. It is a part of a wholistic education.

The fact that we have “Religious Education” in our state schools has an historical explanation, which there is no need to go into here. I do want to protest, however, against the point of view expressed in the letter signed by Gary Bouma, Anna Halafoff, Cathy Byrne and Marion Maddox that “the current model (volunteers teaching about Christianity) is exclusivist and at odds with government aims to promote social inclusion.”

For a start, the current model is not “exclusivist”. As Anna Halohoff admits even within the same article, “minority religions do offer education, and Victoria had Baha’i, Jewish and Greek Orthodox programs”. It is true that the current system relies on volunteers (which is not a bad thing at all – classroom teachers cannot be expected to have the necessary knowledge or training for such a task). It also depends upon parental request for such classes to be offered in any given school. This might mean that smaller religious communities struggle to find suitable teachers or very many opportunities in which to offer their classes, but the system as such is not to blame for this. Any religious group, who provides volunteer teachers and who have support from the parents who belong to that religious group, is free to offer this kind of “religious education”.

Anna’s complaint that in these lessons “children still got only one perspective” is as it should be in “Religious Education”. There is nothing wrong with this as such – in fact it is a positive thing, as it respects the religious identity of the individual student. Providing education in a specific religion for a specific religious group is as valid as providing particular cultural or linguistic education for a particular cultural or linguistic group. If the Education Department wished to include a subject which provided “Education in Religion” then that would be a positive adjunct to “Religious Education”, not a replacement for it.

I don’t believe it is helpful to play these two off against each other. It is a “good thing” that we have, by historical circumstance, the legal right to provide “Religious Education” to students of a particular religion who do not have the opportunity of attending independant schools specifically run by those religions. It would also be a good thing if “Education in Religion” was included along with “Education in Culture”.

There it is. That’s all I wanted to say about the matter.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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