It is predictable that, come the Easter Weekend, there will be a number of articles in the newspapers on religious matters. Interesting to read this year’s offerings in The Saturday Age (which arrived a day early yesterday).
The editorial (“Let’s not make a religion out of secularism”) starts off well, and ends well too. But it seems like it was written by two different people, because another emphasis entirely inserts itself in the middle to tow the editorial line.
Let’s look at the start:
THERE was a time when those who prophesied the death of religion portrayed what would follow that demise as a blissful era of tolerance, freedom and respect for the dignity of all. When the world had cast off its superstitions, so the argument went, the greatest cause of hatred and dissension would be removed. It has not happened. In part this is because, despite all the confident predictions, the death of faith is not in sight – not even in the avowedly secular West, and certainly not in other parts of the world. But it is also because the predictions themselves have taken on a particularly strident and belligerent tone. Religion of any kind, but especially the monotheistic faiths that were formative influences on Western civilisation, is routinely characterised by campaigning secularists as not merely false but as the root of all evil, too. Adherents of those faiths are spoken of at best with condescension and ridicule, and sometimes with outright hostility. Ironically, there is often an evangelical fervour in this anti-religiosity, which, by denying all intellectual and moral legitimacy to that which it opposes, has acquired some of the worst traits of the faith of past eras.
This lurid secular evangelism was evident in some of the presentations at last year’s Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. More disturbingly, it can also be heard in some of the contributions to the continuing debate about religious education in Victoria’s government schools.
There isn’t a word there that I disagree with. When, against this background, the current “debate about religious eduction in Victoria’s government schools” is then raised, I found myself thinking: “Am I about to read a retraction, or perhaps (more within the realms of possibility) an softening of the “strident and belligerent tone” that this paper has taken in the past on this issue?”
Not a hope. For immediately the editorial changes “voice”, and adopts the very “strident and belligerent tone” of which the first paragraph complained:
This newspaper agrees that the present system must be scrapped: it is not the role of a secular education system in a pluralist democracy to proselytise for any particular faith, or to facilitate proselytising by others. Yet that is effectively what now happens. It is partly a consequence of the Education Department’s bizarre reading of the Education Act, which construes ”may provide special religious instruction” to mean ”must provide …”, and partly because pupils are not required to opt in to such instruction but rather are permitted to opt out. But mostly it is because the chief provider of special religious instruction, Access Ministries, regards its task as the imparting of faith, and in order to do so relies on teaching of untrained volunteers who consciously set out to proselytise.
It really is beyond belief that the two paragraphs were written by the same author. The editorial continues with the now familiar refrain that we should scrap Special Religious Education in favour of
a religious education curriculum whose content is not restricted to the teachings of any particular religion, and which would be taught by trained teachers whose aim would not be to make converts.
Again, the old “either/or” proposition, with strong emphasis on the “or” at the expense of the “either”.
Surely it is not too difficult to understand that the one need not require the exclusion of the other, and that a truly open and tolerant “secularism” would allow both? Even an eight year old child would understand this.
In fact, on the very next page of the same newspaper, an eight year old child shows that she does understand it. “Nicola Iser, Age 8” provides the “Saturday Reflection” (not available online), in which she says:
“I want to learn about all religions in the world – where, why and what does it all mean? And I want to lean a bit ech week like I do with my Christian education classes at school. I don’t want less CE, I want mor RE – all the religions with classes each week right up to year twelve.”
See? Nicola gets it. Why can’t The Age? It seems that the editors at the age are like Fr Bob Maguire, to whom Peter Craven refers in his op-ed piece
Believers or not, we should keep alive the story of Easter:
It was interesting to see Father Bob Maguire say the other day that he was all for broad comparative religious education because he thought it would militate against the kind of sectarianism that can lead to religious hatreds.
I wonder. Often it’s the immersion in one religious tradition that leads to an apprehension of another.
Precisely. Learning a religious tradition deeply enables you to have a standpoint from which to understand or appreciate other religious traditions – both in the way they are similar and the way in which they contrast.
But then, when the Editorial reaches it’s final paragraph, it seems as if the keyboard has been handed back to the author who wrote the opening paragraph, and we get the following:
Abolition of the public holidays associated with the principal Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda, however secular they may be or whatever faith they hold. So while Victorians are enjoying this Easter long weekend, it is worth taking time to reflect on the fact that the secular state arose from the agitation of those who were trying to establish freedom of religion, not to ensure freedom from religion. Not only would it not have occurred to them that religion should be banished from public discourse, they would have regarded such a notion as a new form of tyranny. As indeed it would be. Whatever the future of religion may be in this secular nation, even those who adhere to no faith should acknowledge how much of their own world view derives from the faith of earlier centuries. The notion that all human beings are equal in rights and dignity now seems inherently secular, but it first gained currency in a world in which the vast majority believed that all people were created in the image of God. That belief gave the idea of human dignity a political impetus it has not lost, for believers and unbelievers alike. We should not let our children grow up in ignorance of how the world came by that idea.
That paragraph could have been written by Pope Benedict himself. Again, I haven’t got any argument with it at all. If only whatever the first author wrote in between the first and the last paragraphs had been saved from the circular file and allowed to stand without the editor-in-chief butting in with his ten cent’s worth in the middle.
(As a footnote, one other piece worth reading in The Saturday Age this weekend is Barney Zwartz’s well considered reflection on whether the spate of natural disasters we have been experiencing are a reason to give up on God: “The meaning of suffering”)