Vicar's Blog

 ‘That faith based religious education


has no place in public schools.’





Debated in the Melbourne Town Hall


Wednesday February 26th.






Marion Maddox – professor of Politics at Macquarie University and author of ‘God under Howard’ and ‘Taking God to School’- led the charge for the affirmative side by narrating a litany of horror stories – that is alleged howlers by Christian Religious Education (CRE) teachers and Access ministries and of withdrawals from CRE teaching by mainline churches in 1980s. (It may be questioned though whether certain churches can still be considered mainline, given their aging and declining numbers. These have been replaced by more vibrant churches in the volunteer ranks).


The picture was painted of CRE as taught by enthusiastic amateurs of largely conservative evangelical persuasion, with Access Ministries itself pictured as an evangelical missionary organisation by its own words.


It was argued that CRE teaches only a narrow segment of the Christian faith, consisting largely of bible stories with an evangelical spin and practice, such as classroom prayer.


It was also argued that the segregation of students on the basis of participation in CRE contradicts the general value of inclusion upheld in schools.




Marion asserted that Australia is behind the rest of the world where General Religious Education is the norm. Our children deserve to learn about faiths in a comprehensive way from trained professionals, ‘not just a strained fraction’ from enthusiastic amateurs, she said.




Peter Sherlock – Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity and lay canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne - further reinforced Marion’s strongly argued case, arguing for the critical study of comparative religions in both Primary and Secondary schools by professionally trained teachers. He said that the teaching of religion exclusively in Primary Schools only made it more likely that it would be dismissed by students along with other myths and fairy tales as they matured. He claimed that it was all too easy for religion to be cheapened in the eyes of students through being taught by well intentioned amateurs. He emphasised the need for questioning to be encouraged rather than ‘instruction’ given.He believes it is time for Religious Education to ‘grow up’. He observed that the 2006 Education Act allows for a General Religious Education program in schools. All that is lacking is a curriculum and training. He yearns for the churches to put the energy currently used to support CRE into such a development. He also noted that only one public school offers a religious study subject from the two options available in VCE.




David Vann – Internationally best selling author and professor at the University of Warwick, England – spoke second for the affirmative case and also maintained that the teaching of religion is important, particularly in a pluralist society, and believed that it was impossible to be taught objectively or non-politically by adherents of the faith being taught.


He was of the view that the complexity of the subject really precluded it being taught prior to secondary school as anything less than indoctrination. ‘The faithful mind is an essentially fettered mind’ he said.




For the negative case (confusingly those in favour of faith based religion in schools) Nick Cater -journalist and author of the best selling book, ‘The Lucky Culture’- spoke of the importance of values and altruism, identifying the teaching of religion as important in its influence on the cultural values we uphold and the access it gives us to search deeper questions of meaning, the experience of love and of emotional transcendence such as that inspired by listening to music. He sought to allay any concern that faith based religious education was a contradiction or threat to Australia’s secularity, stating that Australia was settled post enlightenment with the benefit of freedom of worship.


He said we don’t reject subjects because they are badly taught, but look for better ways to teach them. He emphasised that the motion was that there be ‘no faith based religion…’ rather than ‘no bad faith-based religious education’ which was how he saw the approach of the opposition. It was not clear, however, how Nick’s arguments contradicted those of his opponents, all who affirmed the teaching of religion in schools, though not by volunteer adherents of these faiths.




The most impressive speaker for the negative case was Dr. Justine Toh –senior research fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity. She directly challenged as naive the assumption that the teaching of Comparative Religion by professional teachers was value neutral. She challenged the very concept of Comparative Religion as built on the assumption that the truth is unknowable. Unpacking the oft used illustration of the blindfolded people trying to identify an elephant and defining it differently by its various parts, she charged the comparative approach with being blind to its own bias and patronising in its approach to the religions.


The truth is that the elephant is clearly identifiable when one removes the blindfold.


She claimed that faith based religion is honest and transparent about the perspective that it is coming from.


She also asserted that Comparative Religion neglects viewing religion from the inside – the perspective of the believer – which is intrinsic to understanding that faith.


She stated that the debate topic in the affirmative implies that religion has no place in public life, which denies ‘the elephant in the room’. The idea that the Public Square should be a ‘neutral faith free zone’ simply swapped one alleged imposition for another.


She affirmed that faith motivates people for the common good. Ruling out discussion of deeper questions such as the faith based religious context provides suggests that education should not concern itself with the ultimate questions of life.




Tim Costello – CEO of World Vision and former Baptist Pastor - defined the original purpose of separation of church and state as being for the purpose of protecting religion from being compromised by the state, not the other way around, which is how the phrase is currently used by opponents of CRE. He further defined ‘secular’ as meaning that no particular religion would be privileged. (Of course, this referred to the denominations in the 19th century context). He further stated that every world view is faith based. So secularity is not faith-free as it purports to be.


The Bible stories (which the affirmative case found unimpressive in an educational environment) are the roots of our culture and are profoundly important.








The chairman of the debate acknowledged its focus on Christian Religious Education given the predominance of this type of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victoria.




An interesting aspect of the debate was the fairly ready acceptance by the negative side of the validity of claims of bad teaching, so forcefully presented by the affirmative side. Yet I question the stereotype of the one dimensional CRE teacher who does not countenance the frank questioning of the beliefs being described. It is such open questioning that animates the CRE class and is so fruitful for the time spent. There are also classroom teachers present in the room who provide a degree of accountability for the volunteer teachers.


The complete affirmation of the place of religious education in schools – via Comparative Religion by trained teachers - certainly rendered Nick Caters speech relatively ineffectual.




The Affirmative side were considered to have narrowly won the debate by a comparison of pre-and post-polling, with over two and a half times as many people in attendance in favour of the motion.


Certainly they were the more impressive debaters, particularly Marion and Peter. However, it seems evident to me - and Peter Sherlock apparently realises this in his appeal to the church– that the bar has been set too high by this side, and in practice, their policy of professionally taught Comparative Religion would be the death of any religious education in schools. Where would you find sufficient teachers capable or students or schools so motivated to make this subject viable, particularly given the low interest in the current VCE options? Justine Toh’s probing analysis could not be shaken off, being also acknowledged by one of the opposing speakers.




One disappointment in my mind was the low level of astute engagement by one or two of the speakers with the specific arguments presented by the other side. However, the context is an emotional and pressured one, and I think the positive attitude of the Affirmative team to religious education – defined in its terms – took some of the wind from the Negative team’s sales.




One of the outstanding elements of the debate was its rarity. It was a breakthrough of sorts to hear religion being discussed publically and intelligently. Furthermore, to have it affirmed as having a place in the public sphere amid a courteous debate was a radical and positive thing.


I also think it needs to be said that fine sounding arguments which make much of sparse negatives, do not thereby invalidate the importance of the devoted and thoughtful commitment of thousands of community volunteers who consistently share with students the history and culture shaping person of Jesus. His historical reality and influence is unjustifiably ignored by the vast majority of those who inhabit our public space.






Rev. Wayne Walters