The Fairness of Advertising Against Religion

A number of months ago, I wrote about the controversy over special (Christian) religious instruction in schools on this blog. Of course, that was not the end of the matter; my voice is just one amongst many, and the conflict over the place of religious education in state schools continues apace. The latest salvo fired is from the FIRIS group (Fairness In Religions In Schools), which recently erected a large billboard advertisement arguing against religious instruction in schools. News of the sign was reported in the local community newspaper, complete with photo and comments from the chairman of FIRIS, Tim Heasley (Anna Prytz, “Move to Block Access,” Manningham Leader, February 15th, 2012). Although I have written extensively on this issue, I want to examine the article, and Mr. Heasley’s words – if only to try and demonstrate how woefully erroneous they really are.

Mr. Heasley was quoted as saying that he was troubled by the “missionary” approach some workers apparently took when speaking with students under the auspices of the main provider of special religious instruction and chaplaincy, Access Ministries. He went on to say that he knew of many so-called “zealots” who were attempting to convert students, and decried the apparent occurrence of students having been “brainwashed by the white Christian right” (an epithet to which I shall return). Hackneyed clichés are often wheeled out in a debate such as this, with the assumption that employing them means winning the argument by default. I have already attempted to deal with the misguided use of such words [1],  but I shall return to that point later. In any case, rhetoric and emotive language are no substitute for carefully reasoned arguments and evidence.

Unfortunately, Mr. Heasley is lacking much of the latter, if his comments in the article are anything to go by. He seems fairly willing to accuse Access Ministries workers, armed with nasty words such as “missionary” and “evangelical”. But therein lies the problem: although Mr. Heasley is happy to make accusations of so-called zealotry and evangelistic endeavour, but less willing to offer any concrete evidence to support such a claim. Granted the fact that he was briefly quoted in a short article, it still seems odd that the chairman of FIRIS gave nothing more than a general reference to such activities. Now, he may have what he deems to be irrefutable examples of such missionary activity, but one has to interrogate the very meaning of the terms he uses to decry the presence of (Christian) religion in state schools. For instance, is it an act of evangelism to say to a student whose father has just walked out that Jesus loves them? Is the work of a zealot to speak honestly and openly about one’s faith when asked a direct question by an enquiring student? Is a religious instructor attempting to convert people simply by presenting Christian truth in a structured classroom environment? For one person, this may well be the case; for another, however, they may simply represent legitimate forms of conversation and discourse with a religious dimension.

The fact is, one’s interpretation of such scenarios boils down to one’s pre-understanding and already-present biases; to suggest that instances of Christian expression in state schools is a manifestation of zealotry and proselytization assumes already what one is arguing. The claims are, in other words, question begging. To someone like the chairman of FIRIS, whose avowed aim is to eject Christian religious instruction from state schools (though he would probably frame his goals differently), any mention of specifically Christian beliefs would smack of missionary zeal; it would be automatically illegitimate, regardless of context or the individuals involved. In any case, I don’t know what, if any, concrete examples Mr. Heasley has of so-called evangelism in state schools. But I am fairly sure that such “concerns” are but a pretext for a more complete and permanent erasure of Christian religious instruction from our primary and secondary education systems. Even if we grant the occurrence of actual cases of proselytization – where workers are coercing or aggressively persuading students to accept Christianity – that would point to a problem with individuals, not the program as a whole. Yes, Christianity is a missionary religion – everyone knows it – but that does not mean that Christian educators and chaplains are incapable of abiding by government strictures. If that is the case, then the only reason for a campaign such as the one we witness now is the eradication of Christianity from state schools. I think this a severely misguided approach, as I pointed out in my last posts on this issue

There is a deeper issue at work here, however, which lies beyond discussions over any specific instances of so-called “evangelism”. That issue concerns the very nature of education, whether religious or secular in nature. To wit, I have already dealt with the flawed use of the word “indoctrination” (to which can be added “brainwashing”) to describe the practices of Access Ministries workers in schools (see my previous posts on this controversy). The assumption is that religious instruction is a form of indoctrination or brainwashing, whilst secular education is simply the presentation of facts and unbiased information. Though this kind of language may play well with some, less reflective souls, the keen observer would point out that tarring (Christian) religious instruction as “indoctrination” or “brainwashing” is, like claims of missionary activity, question begging. Just what counts as brainwashing? What, specifically, makes special religious instruction in schools a form of indoctrination? It seems that Mr. Heasley, like so many others, has put the cart before the horse.

Moreover, the reality of school education, as I highlighted in my previous posts, is far more ambiguous than a simplistic bifurcation between the religious and the secular might suggest. In truth, all people – whether religious workers or secular educators – approach reality from a certain perspective. More to the point, all education approaches reality from a certain perspective, and seeks to shape the minds and the opinions of those who receive it. Schools are no different, where students are socialised into the dominant cultural and social norms of a particular community (whether local, political or national in scope). I have pointed all this out, since it is hardly revelatory; and yet, people such as Mr. Heasley still insist on making a crude distinction between religious and secular instruction, and allowing that distinction to inform their militant stance. I am not arguing in favour of an aggressive campaign of Christian evangelism in our schools, or that Christian instruction is, after all, a form of indoctrination. It should go without saying that I oppose indoctrination of any kind (and anyway, even if Christian instructors were attempting to prey upon the malleable minds of young children, 30 minutes a week – out of approximately 25 hours of secular education – is hardly the way to do it). Nor am I suggesting that secular education is necessarily a form of indoctrination (however, see below – [2]). But to make an argument against the presence of Christianity in our state education system, based upon the erroneous assumptions I have detailed, is completely illegitimate.

Other comments made by the chairman of FIRIS demand a response. The present essay is not the place for a full defence of the continued presence of Christian teaching in state schools; those perusing my earlier posts will see that I have attempted to make that argument. But my previous argument about the positive influence the Judeo-Christian tradition has had upon Australian society is one good reason (amongst others) for maintaining its presence in our educational establishments. To take an example: the metaphysical underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian view of humanity constitute one of the main strands of modern Western thinking on the dignity and rights of the individual. Indeed, the imago dei (“image of God”), as conceived in both Judaism and Christianity, imbues all individuals – regardless of religion, race or creed – with an infinite worth that can never be robbed. We cannot underestimate the effect this one belief has had on subsequent political, philosophical and social discourse in the West. It has been woven into the fabric of our cultural and social life, such that, in theory at least, all people are accorded dignity and respect, based upon their intrinsic – and metaphysically grounded – worth.

But despite this profound influence, we have Mr. Heasley implying that special (Christian) religious instruction fosters intolerance. His comments in the article suggest that whilst students in state schools need to be taught tolerance regarding other religions (something, which if taught correctly, we can all agree on) they apparently receive an opposing form of instruction from the “white Christian right”. First, this claim jars with what I have just said about Christianity’s (and Judaism’s) influence on the principle of human dignity in the West. Second, I’m not quite sure where Mr. Heasley thinks he’s living: Melbourne or the United States. That term may be appropriate when used in reference to our powerful neighbour across the Pacific (and even then, only in certain places), but, when used in an Australian context, it represents yet another attempt to make a case with ultimately vacuous rhetoric. It would be funny if it weren’t being used as a serious argument. Mr. Heasley seems to be positing a vast conspiracy of exclusively white Christians who are…what? Engaged in a form of religious neo-colonialism? I must confess, I’m not sure. What’s more, Mr. Heasley seems to have sidelined the many non-white Australian evangelical Christians who would doubtless support the teaching of Christian religion, as well as the presence of chaplains, in schools. Are they guilty of brainwashing and fostering intolerance, or is it only white Christians who are susceptible to this grievous sin? This particular comment is not only inaccurate; it’s also patronisingly racist towards many non-white Australian Christians who support Christian religious instruction in schools.

I’ve titled this article, “The Fairness of Advertising Against Religion”. I have done so, not because I believe that any and all advertising against religion is automatically unfair, but because the way in which it is peddled may be. This current effort is a case-in-point. The comments made by the chairman of FIRIS are deeply unfair, mostly because they are a gross caricature of the work of Christian workers in state schools. So, too, is the billboard itself, which suggests that Christian workers, whether religious instructors or chaplains, consider state schools to be their “playgrounds”, to do with as they will. This trivializes and crudely depicts the work of such individuals. Mr. Heasley’s words, short on substance but long on invective, only contribute to this overall impression.

[1] “Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is There Such a Thing as Neutrality in Education”, Part Two (June 6th, 2011).

[2] One example of secular indoctrination – and I use the word “indoctrination” quite deliberately – is particularly striking. A pre-school in Sweden, called Egalia, has taken gender equality to new and disturbing heights. Children at the school are taught not to use the words, “him” or “her”; anything that might reinforce so-called gender stereotypes are avoided; and androgynous pedagogic dolls, which are missing the requisite anatomy that would otherwise identify them as male or female, are used as teaching aids (see, for example, “Gender Free Preschool Sparks Controversy,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 28th, 2011). Thus, the young children that attend this school are immersed in an ideological environment that has attempted to negate what I would argue is a fundamental biological fact about human nature. Is it still the case that a big ugly ditch separates supposedly value-free secular education and the apparent dogmatism of Christian religionists? 

Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such Thing As Neutrality in Education? (Part Three)

In this third and final post, I shall discuss briefly the idea that Christian religious instruction should retain a place of primacy in schools, even as we acknowledge the importance of education regarding other religions.  

Everything I have said in the previous two posts may well be valid. But discussion regarding the true nature of secularism begs the question: should Christianity be given a privileged place in primary schools? If we accept that certain claims to truth, even though they may bear a religious hue, are still valid in a secular classroom, should there be room for more than one particular religious or spiritual worldview, especially since secularism was meant to be non-privileging in regards to religion? Some people are indeed arguing for a wider approach, and given our country’s increasing diversity, there’s something to be said for the teaching of other religions. And of course, some individuals who are challenging the exclusivity of Christian educators in schools are pressing for a more “inclusive approach,” rather than the complete erasure of religion from our educational institutions. Moreover, if a group of parents at a local school want the inclusion of another religion in the syllabus, they could be accommodated. Whilst I may not agree with the tenets of another religion, it is important in a religiously diverse world to possess at least a basic understanding of the much-cherished beliefs of people who may be your neighbours or your local doctor. It’s certainly not perfect, with a number of questions emerging (Which religions should be included? Which ignored? Is the value of a religion measured by its adherents? Should we include, say, witchcraft on the curriculum? Does this encourage a consumerist approach to religion?), but it may be an alternative.

In any case, there’s also something to be said for retaining an important place for the teaching of Christian truths in schools. Of course, I am a Christian, so some may accuse me of having a vested interest. But even on a purely socio-cultural level, the justification for maintaining this approach is present. To begin with, raw demographic data suggests that Christianity remains the major religion in Australia, by quite a wide margin. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives website, as of 2010, approximately 74% of the population identified as Christian. The next-largest religion, on a proportional basis, was Buddhism, which claimed 2.1% of the population.  The figures the Australian Bureau of Statistics cites are lower – 68% of the population described themselves as Christian in the last census, in 2001 (ABS Year Book, 2006). Of course, we have to take into account the fact that things are a little murky, since it is quite possible that less people in Australia now describe themselves as Christian. Further, the figures cited do not measure the level or depth of belief. How many, of the 68% of Australians who claimed to be Christian in 2001, were no more than nominal in their faith, or labelled themselves as such because they had been christened at birth? We’ll never know, but despite the problems inherent in these figures, they do point to the enduring openness to Christianity within Australian society. Indeed, they suggest that a large proportion of the country is amenable to the teachings of Christianity. Granted the permissibility of teaching religion in schools, it could be argued that the primacy of CRE reflects the demographic primacy of Christianity in society-at-large.

More salient than raw numbers, however, is the pervasive influence of Judeo-Christian thought and ethics on Australia’s social norms, legal tradition and political culture. As a Western country, Australia is the beneficiary of historical developments in Western culture that owe much to Judeo-Christian principles. Take the notion of human dignity – something that is taken for granted in contemporary society. Catholic philosopher Edward Feser argues that this notion is explicitly grounded in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humans as created in the image of God (“Godless Morality? Why Judeo-Christianity is Necessary for Human Rights,” Crisis, July/August, 2006). This idea, woven into the cultural, political and social fabric of the West, transformed all human individuals into beings with surpassing worth and inherent dignity. The metaphysical foundations of this view, originating in Judaism and developed by Christianity, “elevated human dignity to the greatest conceivable limit” (Feser, 2006). Judeo-Christian thought also bequeathed to Western culture the understanding that there is an objective moral order by which individuals – and entire societies – must live. Far from being an authoritarian imposition, this idea, when combined with insistence that all people are bearers of divinely-authored dignity, safeguarded the rights of the poor, the weak and the voiceless. Now, people may not assent to the metaphysical or theological foundations of these ideas, but it is hard to deny the practical outcomes. These include the development of human rights, governments constrained by law, political institutions oriented towards human flourishing and not personal gain – in short, many of the features of the Western world (Australia included) that people take for granted. If this is the case, there is little reason why Christian religious instruction, as a form of ethical tuition, should not have a place of primacy in schools. Like it or not, Judeo-Christian values are deeply woven into our culture, and to forcibly remove its primacy and its presence from educational establishments is to deprive children of the very ideas and values we cherish most.

This debate is not likely to subside any time soon. But I hope that I have offered a coherent view that upholds the legitimacy of (Christian) religious instruction in our schools.

Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such Thing As Neutrality in Education? (Part Two)

In Part Two, I will be looking at the assumptions that lie beneath arguments against religious instruction. I believe that these assumptions are not impregnable, and can be critiqued.

Many of those who suggest (kindly or unkindly) that CRE has no place in our secular schools implicitly base that view on the assumption that one can make a clear distinction between the purely fact-based nature of secular education, and the evangelistic musings of religious folk who possess nothing more than faith to support their assertions about reality, human nature and their conception of the “good life”. The Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien exemplified this assumption when she labelled CRE “indoctrination” (“Expel God from Classrooms,” 15th February, 2011). Or take this comment, left on a discussion page on the FIRIS (Fairness In Religion In Schools) website in response to an individual defending CRE:

“…CRE volunteers are unqualified, more likely to indoctrinate rather than educate, and confirms my strong belief that children should not be exposed to such biased influences.” (“Parents’ Stories” discussion page, May 20th, 2011, emphasis mine).

The use of the word “indoctrinate” and its cognates to describe religious education suggests that both individuals believe that religious instruction, by definition, is an attempt to brain wash young, malleable minds with a dogmatic and ideological belief system – in contrast to the simple teaching of reality and truth that sits at the heart of our education system.

But this is wrong, for couple of reasons. First, as I noted above, this view incorrectly assumes that secular education is a value-free enterprise, whilst religious instruction is nothing more than an effort to manipulate impressionable children with fanciful nonsense. This view needs to be challenged. The Enlightenment ideal of value-free knowledge has so far failed to materialize – largely because it does not exist; the ugly great ditch that once separated “cold hard facts” with unsubstantiated values has been found to be not so great after all. We have moved on from the naïve belief that an objective reality can be readily grasped, and that the facts are simply “there” to be uncovered. Don’t get me wrong; I believe in an objective reality, and I believe in the reality of “facts”. Moreover, I am not suggesting that because a claim to truth is often influenced by the pre-existing perspective of the claimant, we cannot rest on the well-founded belief that “truth” exists. But if post-modernism has shown us anything (and, despite its flaws and excesses, it can alert us to certain truths), pure, pristine knowledge is actually hard to come by. All truth claims – save for pure mathematics, perhaps – are shot through with bias and value judgments, and no one approaches reality from a neutral standpoint. Facts exist, but at some point, they need to be strung together into some kind of narrative.  And because all of us use interpretive grids – “narratives,” so to speak – to make sense of the discrete facts we receive, the question of value-free knowledge becomes significant.

The implications for education are plain. It is not the value-free project it is sometimes assumed to be, since current curriculums and syllabuses stem from a certain set of presuppositions about truth and the way that truth should be conveyed. Indeed, modern education is pregnant with certain assumptions regarding what is good for the individual and what knowledge is deemed to be valuable, which are every bit as value-laden as religious claims on these, and other, matters. Even something as simple and apparently straightforward as the teaching of reading can become the site for an ideological battle. Indeed, in the past few years, there has been a philosophical conflict between two methods of developing literacy in young children, which the columnist, Miranda Devine, has written about at length (for example, “Fox Versus Phonics,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 11th, 2005). The debate is largely one about method (the goal is not in dispute), but even here, we find at work certain assumptions about the mind, the process by which learning takes place, and even the apparent naturalness of language acquisition.

Thus, the way knowledge is grasped and understood has to reckon with issues of perspective, context and the sometimes-unnoticed effects of one’s own presuppositions. This is certainly true for the education system, and to suggest that it adheres to a strictly value-free process of teaching children, whilst religious educators are engaging in sheer indoctrination, motivated only by rigid dogma, misses this crucial truth. One might even argue that the very exclusion of religion from the classroom rests upon certain assumptions about what is good for a person: that spiritual values are irrelevant to one’s development and maturation; that a purely materialistic education (practically, at least) is all that is needed for the production of well-rounded human beings. These are no more demonstrable than the claim, made by Christianity, that the spiritual dimension of life is a crucial aspect of an individual’s makeup. Of course, the hard work has to be done to present Christian theology as an academically robust, intellectually stimulating field of endeavour [1]. But there is no reason that Christianity should be ruled out a priori by those who argue that it is, by definition, hopelessly compromised as a claim to truth. Nor is there any reason to make such a rigid distinction between the supposedly value-free nature of secular education and the inherently biased nature of Christian religious instruction.

In any case, even without the influence of religion in classrooms, children are still shaped by a certain set of values embedded within education – developed by experts, sanctioned by governments, and mediated through the work of teachers. This leads me to my second point, which concerns the very act of education, whether religious or secular. Education, of whatever stripe, is much more than simply relaying information, shorn of all context, to young minds. It is about shaping and socialising those minds so that they will be able to “fit” into prevailing cultural frameworks and adhere to those social norms deemed to be acceptable. Some might like to think that education is an exercise in the free exchange of information and knowledge, but the opposite is the case. Take these words from John Stuart Mill, a political philosopher from the 19th century, quoted in a recent report by the Centre for Independent Studies, a think-tank (“The Rise of Independent Schools”):

“General state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in government…in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind.”

We may quibble with some of the language (“despotism” may seem a trifle overblown), but the point is made. What is taught, what is not taught, and how the act of teaching takes place, all occur within a certain framework about how students should be shaped and moulded. Education is not a neutral activity; it aims to socialise children into the structures of a given society; and it seeks to develop personalities based on what those who have devised it believe is right and proper for human flourishing. Indeed, secular education aims to influence as much as any kind of religious instruction. Without the belief that this particular curriculum, or that particular educational narrative, is beneficial to the child, it’s hard to see why a teacher would enter the profession in the first place.

To be sure, it might be easy to find a base set of universal values to which everyone holds, and this is important for social harmony. But the range of truths to which all agree is, I suspect, rather narrow. Further, the reasons for holding to similar ethical views may be very different, which means that worldviews and presuppositions cannot be completely ignored. Thus, it becomes necessary to “flesh out” an educational curriculum, which inevitably stems from the values and opinions “espoused by the educational establishment, the school and its teachers” (Salomone, quoted in “The Rise in Independent Schools,” CIS). Now, it needs to be said that in suggesting all education is about influencing and intellectual moulding, I am not thereby encouraging Christian religious educators to go around trying to actively convert students, to which they have access through religious instruction classes. My point is to challenge the assumption that secular education (in apparent contrast with any mention of religiously-inspired beliefs) has nothing at all to do with trying to influence, persuade and shape. Rigid distinctions between religious instruction and secular education on this particular basis are therefore unwarranted.

Third, this kind of argument misreads the notion of secularism. Some who speak about the place of Christian religious instruction do so with the assumption that secularism means the complete banishment of religion from the public sphere. But, philosophically, historically and practically, this is incorrect. Secularism does not mean the erasure of religion from public life; that would in fact be inimical to the heart of true secularity. As I noted at the commencement of this essay, anyone advocating this position exposes an anti-religious authoritarianism. Our free and democratic society safeguards the public presence of religion, and allows for the public expression of religiosity. Now, I am not proposing that people who are concerned about religion’s presence in schools simply silence themselves. However, to base one’s concerns on threats to secularism is to misinterpret the nature of the concept. Secularism never meant religion’s invisibility. Rather, it meant that no one religion should be privileged by the state. Some may argue that this is precisely what is happening. I shall attempt to deal with that objection below. But, suffice it to say, the historical definition of secularism never embraced the notion that religiously inspired positions should be excluded from the marketplace of ideas. In any event, such attempt is fraught with practical difficulties, given that we all bring with us our own views of the world into public life. How is a person – a teacher, say – meant to ignore what is likely to be a deeply-felt set of beliefs when they go to work, all in an effort to ensure that religion has no effect on anything beyond that person’s inner life? And yet, this is the logical consequence for people who wish to lock religion away in the prayer closet. Those who have challenged CRE in schools based on this erroneous notion would do well to think through the far-reaching implications.

In the next (and final) post, I will offer some preliminary arguments regarding the continued primacy of Christian religious instruction.

[1] Those who argue against the presence – in any form – of Christianity in schools would do well to look at those figures, both past and present, who have provided intellectually robust accounts of Christian belief that can take their places in the public square. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, or New Testament scholars such as N.T. Wright, James Dunn and Richard Bauckham provide compelling arguments for the existence of God and the reliability of the New Testament, respectively. Moreover, some of the West’s intellectual giants were believers in God: Augustine, whose works influenced not just Christian theology, but also various aspects of Western political discourse; St. Thomas Aquinas, philosopher and theologian, and possibly the greatest Aristotelian after Aristotle himself; and Isaac Newton, one of the most influential figures in the history of Western science. To equate religion with unfounded, unreflective dogma is to ignore embodied evidence to the contrary.

Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such a Thing as Neutrality in Schools (Part One)

In Part One, I shall look briefly at some of the arguments that are employed when some raise concerns about the place of religious instruction (particularly Christian religious instruction) in schools. In Parts Two and Three, I shall interrogate some the deeper assumptions and issues that often remain hidden in this kind of debate.

The past few months have seen a rising furore over the place of religion (especially Christianity, given its primacy) in schools, both in Victoria and elsewhere across Australia. First, it was school chaplaincy; now, religious education has become a target. I am not that old, so I don’t know if this kind of controversy has erupted in the past. That’s immaterial, since we are faced with a campaign that is, in some quarters at least, systematic and orchestrated. I am usually loath to suggest such a thing, but it’s difficult to conclude otherwise when reading particular newspapers (especially a certain Melbourne broadsheet that has moved ever-leftward over the past few years). How is a Christian meant to respond?

Troubled is perhaps one way to describe it. Not so much because of the debate itself, but because of what seems to lie behind it. There appears to be a concerted campaign in some quarters to remove any trace of Christianity – and in some cases, religion generally – from Australian schools, which is part of a wider effort to completely privatise religion. Some are more measured in their conclusions, arguing that if religion is to be taught, then each one should have equal “air-time”. Thus, challengers to Christian Religious Education (CRE) do not form a monolithic group. Nevertheless, an aggressive kind of secularism is at work, which is as narrow and as authoritarian as the most fundamentalist of religions (note that I said a “kind” of secularism. Secularism per se is not the culprit).

What I want to do here is concentrate on special religious education in schools, and in particular Christian education, whilst leaving the issue of school chaplains to one side for a moment. I may return to that particular bone of contention in a future article, and some of the points raised here may well be relevant there. But for now, I shall focus on CRE and the flack its main provider, Access Ministries, has been copping of late. Much has been said about the apparent indoctrination of children at the hands of theocratic predators (alright, so no one I know of has used the term “theocratic predators”, but you get my drift). Some worry that children are being fed a steady diet of fairy tales, shot through with a particular religious bias that is inimical to the standards of a good, secular education. Others are concerned that the teaching of religion in schools is inherently divisive, since those children who may not share the majority faith are often removed from class – thereby highlighting the differences already present.

As to the former concern, I should note that there are strict guidelines as to what is taught by Christian educators working through Access Ministries. In fact, I was speaking to one particular religious instructor recently, and he informed me that there are clear, government-enforced guidelines surrounding the exact nature and scope of the religious curriculum. Moreover, when instructors teach for their allotted thirty minutes (hardly a sign that our cherished goal of secular education is in mortal danger), the classroom teacher is present at all times. Thus, we have frameworks of accountability present at more than one level, which ensures that religious instructors do not cross the boundary between informing and proselytizing.

As to the latter worry, it’s difficult to judge just how valid it really is. I am sure there are some parents who are worried that their children are the targets of bullying or teasing because their absence from CRE classes has exposed them as different. There may well be such cases; I don’t know. I can only speak from experience – that of my own, and that of others. The danger of division, as far as I can remember from my primary school days, was somewhat remote. In fact, my closest friend was a Jehovah’s Witness, and each week, he would leave class whenever the local Anglican or Uniting minister would come down to teach us about Jesus. This was never a cause for division between he and I – one a member of the Watchtower Society, the other a member of the local Baptist church. Speaking to other people involved in CRE has confirmed to me that this concern – valid, perhaps, in a number of individual cases – has been overstated. Another person who has taught Christian religion at school said to me that many of the children would come up to her after the lesson and thank her for her time. Indeed, she developed quite a rapport with some of them. And even if some kind of division does occur, it often does so in such a way that favours the removed children – seen as fortunate to be missing class by their peers.

These are important aspects of an important debate. But they also lie at the surface of an issue that really focuses squarely on much deeper questions and implicit assumptions: the philosophical underpinnings of our education system; the nature of knowledge; the meaning of secularism; and the role of Christianity in the public square. Without wanting to denigrate the importance of the things I have already discussed, I prefer to get to the heart of the matter. So stay tuned.