FIRIS

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? 

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