The religion in schools debate is heating up again — this time with a group, Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools, calling for a parliamentary review of Religious Instruction (RI) in state schools.
by Anna Halafoff and Gary Bouma
Australian states vary significantly when it comes to RI and what they teach, or in many cases don’t teach, about diverse religions and non-religious worldviews. The lack of diverse worldviews education in Australia’s state schools is somewhat of an anomaly, given international best practices in this field, the religious composition of Australian society and the lived experiences of young Australians.
Most Australian states, except for South Australia and Victoria, still allow volunteers from religious organisations to provide confessional, RI — also known in some states as Special Religious Instruction (SRI) or Religious Education (RE) — in school time. These classes are optional, and only provide instruction into one major faith tradition, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or Baha’i. NSW also provides a non-religious ethics option. Most schools only offer Christian RI, due to shortages in volunteers from less well-resourced and less-established minority faith communities.
Supporters of RI programs claim that they are beneficial for teaching values that only religions can instil, and for providing “safe spaces” for religious young people from both minority and majority faiths in largely secular schools and societies that can be hostile to religion. They have also recently stated that RI is needed to advance respect for multiculturalism, foster strong religious identity and counter extremism. These arguments are highly problematic.
First, values of respect, understanding, care and compassion are universal values found within many religious traditions, spiritualities and non-religious worldviews. They are certainly not the domain of religions only. Moreover, experts in preventing violent extremism (PVE) have argued that “Values Education,” especially that advances Judeo-Christian values, or even religious values more generally, over and above other values, actually risks creating and/or exacerbating social exclusion of minorities and enabling far-right discourse. Both of these outcomes can thereby potentially increase susceptibility to alienation, violence and terrorism.
Second, while RI may indeed provide “safe spaces” for religious minorities — especially Jewish and Muslim students given rising antisemitism and Islamophobia — there is no need for this type of instruction to be provided within school hours in public schools. Young Australians can attend religious schools, or religious children’s and youth groups before or after school or on weekends to assist with religious identity formation. This is not the role of public education.
If we genuinely wish to counter prejudices against and negative stereotypes of religions, be they religious minorities or majorities, the most effective way is to include more teaching about diverse religions in all schools taught by qualified and trained teachers and to have this meaningfully incorporated into the Australian curriculum. Given the large proportions of young Australians who are not religious, or who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” this type of education in the twenty-first century must also incorporate non-religious and spiritual worldviews, as well as religious ones.
A nationally representative study of Australian teens has recently demonstrated that young people who have participated in education about diverse religions — or General Religious Education (GRE) — have more positive views of religious minorities than those who have not. Teens who have had GRE also said that it helped them understand other people’s religions (93 percent) and that it was an important thing to study (82 percent).
Inspired by international best practices, Victoria replaced RI with Learning about Worldviews and Religions in Humanities and Ethical Capability and as part of their Respectful Relationships strategy in 2015. It’s about time that Queensland and other Australian states did the same if they genuinely wish to foster socially inclusive and non-violent societies. Moreover, doing so would properly reflect the diverse range of views and values held by Australia’s school students.
Anna Halafoff is Associate Professor in Sociology and a member of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. Gary Bouma AM is the UNESCO Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Relations — Asia Pacific, and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University.