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Secular Education in State Schools

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There's a debate on in NSW about religion in state schools. It seems that in NSW, state secular schools are, in practice, not secular. ‘Scripture’ lessons, or Religious Education, are mandated. And there was a talk about it on Radio National. It annoyed infuriated and enraged me. So let me demolish the ‘arguments’ in parts.

On the argument that RE is not compulsory

Now, when you ask a bible-thumper about mandated attendance, they will be quick to say ‘no it isn't, a child can always opt out.’ And that argument is superficially correct, but only superficially; it's correct in all ways except the ones that matter. For a start, it is opt-out. The implicit default is that all children will do Scripture. Second: it is mainly Christian. Other religions do hold RE, but it's all volunteer-based, and the Christians are simply the best proselytisers. Moreover, where Jewish RE exists, it is explicitly for Jewish kids; if you're not Jewish, then it's not really for you. Similarly with Muslim RE. I don't know if there is such things as Buddhist or Hindu RE, but I imagine its the same there too. But the Christians not only welcome anyone, they actively hunt down those who stray. Viz: cj@08 Nov 2010 6:49:59pm:

my nephew attending a Christian scripture class for a year. The following year he was meant to go to a Baha'i scripture class for that year.

His parents wanted him to learn about all faiths as they are not religious but want him to have an open mind about our peoples beliefs, therefore each year attending a different scripture class and there was no alternative to a scripture class at his school. unfortunately the Christian scripture teacher dragged him out of the Baha'i scripture class because she said he wasn't meant to be there! his parents weren't aware of this until the end of the school year.

When children do opt out, what do they do instead? Nothing. No, really, it's considered unfair that children get to avoid indoctrination and get that much further ahead than their peers, so it's mandated that they do nothing in that time. Anecdotes are give that they read in the library (but not study, that would be wrong), or do colouring-in, or even are made to sit on the Hot Seat in front of the principle's office.

Add to that, these people saying ‘nah, but they can opt out’, obviously don't remember what school is like. The laughter of children is, as Pratchett says, a delight until you're close enough to hear what they're laughing at. It doesn't take much for a difference like ‘not going to scripture’ to be turned into a reason for persecution. So the weaselly and pathetic excuse that ‘it's optional’ is just sophistry.

On the denial of the existence of Secular Ethics

Some mindbogglingly stupid shit has been dribbled on to keyboards on this topic. And more was spouted last night, including the number one rage button for any non-theist: “but how can you have ethics without God, durr I eat poop?” Because if we didn't live in continual fear of the Big Beard In The Sky, we'd be raping and killing each other with gay (in both senses of the word) abandon. (No, really, this daft bint really claimed that without God there would be no imperative not to kill each other.) Which is not just wrong, it's stupid, and manages to reduce the entire subject of Ethics to “If God does it or wants it done, then it's good by definition. God just happens to hate the same things I do.” Not, I hasten to add, a monopoly of Christians. (But I should point out, not a monopoly of Muslims either, so stop pretending that Christians are better than Muslims because they're Christians and not Muslim, there are other factors, which your arguments always seem to raise perfunctorily in order to dismiss without consideration, in the desperate search for a sophistic argument to fit the already decided upon conclusions. But that's another rant.)

After a lot of serious chin-stroking, these serious people have decided that because Australia is based on English culture, and that England has been Christian for, like forever (or about 1100 years, whichever), that it is simply impossible to talk about ethics without mentioning Christianity. And here's why I think that ‘argument’ (and, by extension, many of the people who make it) is stupid:

On the difference between ‘How to think’ and ‘What to think’

First: The Ethics course which has been talked about is all about hypotheticals and actual thought, so you can see where the god-botherers get upset right from the get-go. Scripture is all about telling you the right answer. Ethics is about thinking about the process which leads you to the right answer. ‘Because God said so’ is quickly revealed to be a non-starter, intellectually, however much it impressed Aquinas. So to that extent, you don't need to mention Christianity, and more the point, it is that very absence of need which enrages and bewilders the God-botherers in equal measure. You don't need God to live an examined and ethical life, and Fundies hate that.

Second: There are all sorts of things built in to English and Western culture which we've lived without quite happily. Like the Caste system.

On the Caste system in the Mediaeval Polity

When the Magna Carta talks about Trial by Peer, it meant something very specific: The Mediaeval social structure had the Three Orders of Man: Those who Pray, Those who Fight, and Those who Work. The Prayers were the Clergy, which was in practice anyone who could read Latin. Those who Fight were the Nobility, the gentle folk (to call someone a Gentleman was explicitly to refer to them as of Noble blood). Those who Worked, or in other words, the other 95% of the population, were the commoners, from the richest merchant in London, to the meanest serf. Trial by Peers meant that only Nobles should be on the jury for Nobles, only Clerics could judge Clerics (and they used their own Canon Law to do so: their own private law, literal privilege), and Commoners would have guilt decided by other Commoners. In a court instituted by their Lord, with a Judge appointed by their Lord. Where village-level xenophobia was strong, and strangers could, and as far as we can tell often were, accused of crimes because they were foreign and there, and found guilty because they were strangers more than by the facts.

As far as the system as a Caste system was concerned, you could become a Cleric, but otherwise you were strictly Noble or Common, and different laws and penalties and rights applied depending on who your grandfather was. This why being made a Knight was such a big deal: it was explicitly raising a man from being a Commoner to being a petty Noble in one hit. And centuries later, why rich merchants went to so much effort to buy Baronetcies: it wasn't just a matter of conspicuous consumption and vanity, it really was the purchase of a new social standing, the purchase of membership to a different and distinct social stratum. (Of course, the distinction was in its last practical days by the end of the 19C, but the call was still strong.)

To be fair, this was a civil structure, not a religious one, but the Privilege of Clergy was one held on to for a long time, and in England still, the two houses of parliament are the Commons, where the commoners sit, and the House of Lords, where the Nobility and Clergy join in patrician-like oversight of the rabble in the Other House.

But still, a strong, if relatively simple Caste system lay at the heart of the Magna Carta, and thus at the heart of the Common Law Legal System. That contradictions and confusion was already strong in the system at the time (what with poor Peers and rich Commoners) does not reduce that fact.

Yet we see it now as an anachronism. All men are (now) created equal, and have equal rights and duties before the Law. It doesn't matter who your grandfather was. By the same token, the Christian basis of Common Law, where it has led to good theory and practice, can be removed, leaving the theory and practice behind. A solemn affirmation has the same legal force as a hand on the bible. Why not make it that a hand on {holy book} is just a special case of the Oath, being an affirmation to tell the truth? (Unless it already is, I don't keep up with such things.)

Just because something has been a part of our system for a thousand years, that doesn't make it necessary or still relevant. The status of Women as not legal people was also current at the time. The existence of maleficent witchcraft and demonic influence was a Legal Fact. To be gay was a literal crime against God and Man. We got over the need to give these things legal force (mostly). Why stop there?

On Cultural baggage

One caller said that she had taught children who had no idea what the Apple symbolised in art. Who had no idea that it was connected to Genesis, or how, or why. And that Scripture classes were necessary to inculcate these things, these ideas which should be taken as granted.

Really? I call shenanigans. Sure, these things are important to understanding our culture. So teach them as part of cultural studies, not RE. Why? Because when they're taught in RE, they're taught as being Truth. That's a whole other thing, a whole other set of baggage from simply understanding the symbolism. And while you're teaching the cultural significance of Original Sin, why not include the Journey to the West? Why not the war between Osiris and Set? Why not the Titanomachy and Ragnarökkr and the Táin Bó Cúailgne?

As far as I can figure it, it's because the Christian Chauvinists simply can't stand the thought of sharing.

My final argument

Now, the discussion on Radio National was very collegial and chummy. A lot of mutual stroking was going on behind the microphones. You can think of it as the stroking of egos, if you like. You might also think of it more as an epistemological circle jerk, but I couldn't possibly comment. And in amongst this happy chat about whether Ethics could be taught without Christianity (as I say above, a stupid question, but one which everyone treated as meaningful and serious) and whether children really need an alternative to religious Scripture lessons, there was one question which was noticeable in its absence in the discussion between these learned men:Why are they teaching Scripture in State Schools in the first place?

Why is it that children are assumed to need Religion taught as Truth in public schools? Why are secular schools a party to religious indoctrination? Teaching Ethics is another question, a different question, one which already has a good case for it to be taught to all children. But that's not the real cause for the Christian Autocracy's massive hissy-fit: they just don't want to have an alternative. They don't want to have to share. They want their time filling the heads of children with Doctrine not to be questioned in the first place, for it to be assumed as their privilege and their right.

An anecdote

When I was in high school, I got dragged off to an RE class. Exactly once. I was in science class when a list of kids due our dose of indoctrination was read out. It was mentioned that it was not compulsory. I decided that I would prefer to stay in science class, then, TYVM. After a couple of minutes someone was sent to collect me. It turns out that it wasn't compulsory, but you still had to go. And when I got there I immediately registered my displeasure with being forced to sit in on this crap. And by the Gods I proceeded to hold my own against the instructor. I don't think he had been trained with a genius Aspie in mind, already prepared with arguments from Relative Theology and loaded up with contradictions in Christian Scripture, Dogma, Theology and Practice.

But still, I was forced to go, and I was forced, unwillingly, to defend my lack of faith in front of others. (None of whom got a word in edgewise, if I remember correctly.) As it happens, I was perfectly able to do so, and was able to solidify some concepts which had previously been unexamined and nebulous. But that effect was opposite to the point of the exercise: the point was to make me Christian, and if I hadn't been such a contrarian pain in the arse even then, it might have worked. For a while, anyway.

Don't forget that: the point of Scripture is to make one not think about the questions, the point is to provide you with answers, and do everything to prevent you thinking about how they don't make sense, how they don't stand examination. And sure, there's Ethics in there as well, but they are in the form of Answers, not questions; Dogma, not process; and they're mixed in with the Woo to the point that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins: a tangled ball of ontology.

You want to teach your children religion? I have no problem with that. The question being: why aren't you doing it yourself? And why do you think that your beliefs should be taught to my children?

One thing I should point out is that this debate, and the issue it surrounds, is limited to New South Wales, and it doesn't affect me directly because I live in Victoria, where RE really is optional, because it's opt-in, and in my experience is limited to Jewish RE, which is as much Cultural as Religious. (Although I was somewhat startled when Miss A came home one day to tell me that “We have one God and He's everywhere!”, but still, we chose for her to do Jewish RE. It wasn't assumed that she would be doing Scripture, and she wouldn't be singled out for refusing it.)

But even though it doesn't directly affect me, it sure as hell offends me as a Humanist.

And an apology to the Christians who I know don't subscribe to any of the above, who are decent people living to their beliefs as best they can. I just want to let you know that I'm not talking about you. I'm talking about the Christian Chauvinists, the Religious Bigots, who believe that if you're not Christian, you're not worth any consideration other than proselytisation. The ones who piss you off as much as they do me -- more even, because they're giving you a bad name, doing things in your name which you would never countenance.

To you I say: I'm sorry you got caught up in this, and I'm sorry you have to put up with those people as well.

Original by David Cameron Staples.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on January 17, 2011.


You might want to change "enfuriate" to "infuriate" in the first paragraph. ;)

Even that image from is brilliant.

Cheers from Melbourne,
@blamer (on twitter)