Western Culture

Free Speech and its Discontents: Part One

Introduction

Freedom of speech is to liberal democracies what air is to a person: if either one is cut off, the body begins to asphyxiate. The largely unfettered right to speak freely is a necessary and fundamental feature of modern Western political culture, without which it could not exist. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that the West’s relative prosperity, technological sophistication and civic stability owe much to the long-standing traditions of open enquiry and the liberal exchange of ideas.

Despite the importance of free speech, however, recent times have witnessed various attempts to circumscribe it. Under the guise, say, of creating a more harmonious society, encouraging “responsible” discourse, or redressing past wrongs, a select few seek to outlaw or extirpate dissenting ideas — dissenting, that is, from the dominant cultural narratives they themselves have propagated. Sadly, it’s often the self-styled paragons of tolerance and compassion who support such restrictions most ardently: progressive elites, who see themselves as members of a kind of moral vanguard, moulding the amorphous mass of society in their own image.

Few Western countries have been immune. Sometimes, activists have harnessed the legislative powers of the state to silence that which they deem offensive or scandalous. Others have sought to create cultural environments on university campuses (so-called “safe spaces”) in an effort to shield students from countervailing ideas and opinions. In a sad twist of irony, they often employ hostile, even violent, methods to achieve their goal of censoring or expelling unpalatable views. Vignettes aside, the ebbing of free speech has been reflected statistically: not so long ago, for example, the Pew Research Forum found that 40% of millennials (those born after 1982, and reaching young adulthood some time in the mid-2000s) thought that insulting speech should be liable to legal sanction.

Australia, too, has been an ideological battleground for conflict over the open trafficking of ideas. Case-in-point: the ongoing debate over Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the pernicious effects it has had on a person’s ability to speak freely. Recent cases involving university students and a political cartoonist have exposed the absurd implications of that law. Similarly, 2015 saw the Catholic archbishop of Tasmania hauled before that state’s anti-discrimination tribunal, simply for disseminating literature which upheld the church’s view of marriage to parochial schools in the archdiocese  (a view which happens to conform to current Australian law). These instances are quite telling, but they are only the tip of a great iceberg — one whose ideological mass remains largely invisible, submerged beneath the welter of everyday events. They are, in fact, products of a long intellectual and cultural gestation,  representing the latest outworking of trends that now significantly shape the character of Western societies. Having been nurtured in progressive and left-wing circles, their effects are being felt beyond the confines of the academy. More to the point, they have succeeded (at least to some extent) in eroding the robust commitments liberal democracies have traditionally had to freedom of speech and opinion.

It’s important, then, to try and understand just how we reached this point, and to uncover the sources of the current ideological ambivalence — even hostility — towards freedom of speech. The above examples will serve as reference points, since their respective features so clearly distill the main currents of thought I have in mind. I suggest we ought to consider at least four main intellectual strands, all of which have gradually, yet inexorably, insinuated themselves into key areas of modern society: scepticism regarding the so-called Western project (of which freedom of speech is a key feature); the popularization of post-modernity; multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics; and a philosophical penchant, endemic within progressive politics, for trying to remake society from above.

None of these trends has operated in isolation. More often than not, they have worked in tandem, mutually reinforcing the distinctive contributions each has had to make in the burgeoning restrictions upon free speech in Western polities. It is easy to see, for instance, how a demoralized perspective regarding the West (given a fillip by Marxian-critical and post-colonial accounts of Western culture) might dovetail with the ideological assumptions that have given rise to certain strains of multiculturalism and identity politics.

On the other hand, I think post-modern thought has had an enervating effect upon freedom of speech through popular dissemination of several of its features. To be sure, it may not have independently led to the restriction of the boundaries of free speech (for one thing, post-modernism resists all meta-narratives and claims to truth, regarding them as ill-fated attempts at intellectual authoritarianism). However, the implications of its basic assumptions have succeeded, I think, in undermining the cogency of the principle, providing the ground for other perspectives — far less conducive to the maintenance of free speech — to substantively challenge this singular Western achievement.

Another little caveat before we move on. It’s sometimes tempting to think that if one has uncovered the origins of an idea, development or phenomenon with which one take issue, the object of criticism has thereby been falsified. Not so. That is what philosophers call a genetic fallacy: the belief that by pointing to the genesis of an opinion, a conclusion regarding its veracity can be drawn. But exposure of origins and exposure of fallacy are not necessarily the same thing. Where the logical and philosophical roots of a particular trend are weak or febrile, I might endeavour to point this out, hoping then that doubt may be cast on the justifications used by current advocates of censorship. I shall, however, reserve more substantive criticisms of those who support such restrictions, or who see little wrong with current laws in this field, for later posts. At any rate, it is crucial that we understand the deeper forces at work within contemporary culture, and how they have helped subvert a key precondition for many of the other freedoms people in the West enjoy.

Doubting the Value of Western Culture: The Voices of Scepticism

In this opening post, I’ve adopted a fairly broad-brush approach towards the issue by surveying the diffuse manifestations of scepticism towards the Western “project” — that is, doubts over the preservation, promotion and consolidation of the fundamental freedoms characteristic of the West. It is an increasingly fashionable mode of engagement with the Western tradition, and for many people, constitutes a basic orientation towards their intellectual heritage. This is true, not only for those dwelling in the rarefied environs of academia, but for ordinary folk, who have bought into a populist version of wariness about one’s own culture. They do not simply express doubts over the spread of the West’s values beyond its traditional geographic boundaries (something that ought to be approached with due caution, of course). Rather, sceptical attitudes regarding the superiority or desirability of key  Western values within the West are on the rise.

Though now a common attitude, the source of such widespread disenchantment lies in certain sections of the Western intellectual and cultural elite. It has long adopted a doubtful, even hostile, attitude towards the values that undergird the Western enterprise — including as they do a commitment to free enquiry, pluralism and the unfettered exchange of ideas. One might call it a kind of internalised cultural antipathy. It’s not a new idea, either. Orwell was alive to this reality, and observed it regularly among the left-wing intelligentsia of his day. His essay, “Notes on Nationalism”, provides a window into his thinking. Reflecting on varieties of pacifism during the Second World War, Orwell argued that the younger breed of intellectual directed his or her opposition in a decidedly partial way, which invariably meant criticism of Western countries for their use of defensive force. According to Orwell (as I read him), the intellectual form of pacifism he identified functioned as a veneer for what was, in reality, anti-Western sentiment.

That sentiment is, even today, linked to a wider — indeed, jaundiced — view of the West as little more than a cesspool of entrenched privilege, structural oppression, economic rapacity, environmental vandalism, and pervasive neo-colonial attitudes. The academic and social theorist, John Carroll, puts it well:

“[The Left’s] carping negativity continues to thrive. [They use] neo-Marxist categories of exploitation and oppression to find ‘victims’ of their own country’s mendacity, as a device to whip it – so Australia becomes racist, cruel to refugees, misogynist, homophobic and increasingly riven by inequality.” 

What so distinguishes these critiques is a suspicion, often pervasive and deep-seated, towards Western values. In some cases, it reaches a point of comprehensive repudiation. Some critiques aren’t as bold as Carroll’s rendition, to be sure. Gentler approaches may simply evince a certain ambivalence, or lack of confidence, in the Western project. But underlying many of them is the tacit assumption that, far from being something worth preserving and advocating for, Western culture is morally questionable (at best) or entirely bankrupt (at worst). Having wended its way through the academy, this view has now trickled down to the masses — such that even those who happily swim in the West’s cultural waters may implicitly view it as responsible for little else besides the creation of misery suffered by the benighted recipients of its “civilizing” mission. It’s not that this view is entirely bereft of truth (goodness knows Western actions, past and present, have been responsible for suffering). The problem lies in the fact that it is mischievously, perniciously, one-dimensional.

The foregoing narrative comes in many forms. Critical theory, in both its Marxist and post-colonial guises, has provided much of the intellectual scaffolding for those ready to rehearse their monochromatic story. Post-modernism, about which I will say more, also informs critics’ views. Often,  these intellectual strands can be found co-mingling, making their presence felt across a diverse array of issues. Opposition to the activities of Western conglomerates is one such manifestation. Multinationals are often condemned for the apparent economic ruin they wreak on non-Western peoples (with sweatshops serving as the primary bête noire). Closer to home, Australian government policy towards Indigenous affairs is cast in a similar light, with certain strains of criticism seeking to draw a genetic link between them and historical instances of avowedly racist, colonial practice. Or what of the progressive’s ongoing love affair with dictatorial leaders, especially where they are seen to be heroically defying the alleged predations of the West? This was made clear recently upon the death of long-time Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The tributes that flowed from some sections of the ideological Left (British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comes to mind) revealed a curious incongruity: admiration for an authoritarian ruler who ruthlessly suppressed free expression, juxtaposed with wariness — even deep and unrelenting criticism — of their own intellectual and cultural milieux.

So, what does all this have to do with free speech? At first blush, any relationship might seem rather distant. However, when a basic scepticism or suspicion becomes the overriding context for one’s thinking about the West and everything that distinguishes it, it is easy to understand why freedom of speech — one of the key markers of the Western tradition — may be treated with a certain degree of reserve.  Why expend energy upholding something (other than in a heavily qualified manner) that is intimately bound up with what is perceived to be a tainted — even morally spent — cultural system? More than that, if free and open enquiry is viewed as part of a system of moral and political hypocrisy, the progressive critic may well feel justified in trying to actively limit it in some way. Censorship, then, becomes a mark of ideological virtue. Even when the posture of doubt is characterized merely by an oscillating uncertainty towards the propriety of Western culture, that could well be enough to stifle a full-throated shout of support for free speech. And if ideas or issues happen to overlap with the experiences of minority groups (be they ethnic, sexual, or whatever), then misplaced guilt over the West’s chequered history or a fear of cultural chauvinism can easily weaken one’s commitment to it.

In contemporary Australia, themes of racial and neo-colonial dominance seem to inform suspicion of the Western tradition, and drive some of the stronger critics of unfettered speech. Nowhere is this more apparent than in current debates over the balance between liberality in the exchange of ideas, and racial or cultural harmony. It is in the midst of those debates that fundamental ideological and philosophical fault-lines have been exposed. Where conflicts over freedom of speech have touched on matters of ethnic identity, defenders have often been crudely drawn in essentialist terms, portrayed as standard-bearers for the reactive forces of cultural and racial (i.e., White) privilege.

As noted, the debate over S.18c of the RDA provides one particular window into this phenomenon. Take the academic and columnist, Waleed Aly, for example. He recently asserted that those who want to see S.18c repealed (or, at the very least, significantly amended) aren’t really concerned about the legislation. Nor are they defending a principle they believe to be right and good. According to Aly, for those (White) individuals:

“It’s [about] the message that amending it [S.18c] will send to the minorities who take heart from the thought they’re protected. And it’s the message it will send to those of the majority keen to reassert the cultural dominance they feel they have lost.”

For those wary about principles that are part of the Western tradition — connected, perhaps, to a belief in the West’s intrinsic hypocrisy, or to the shameful misdeeds of the past — a purist’s conception of freedom of speech is likely to be construed as a coded attempt to re-assert Western and/or White hegemony. A malaise about the intellectual fundaments of the Western outlook has seen critics like Aly tacitly employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in responding to advocates of repeal or amendment of S.18c. They cast such advocacy as a disingenuous attempt to aggressively silence minority rights, in a réprise of colonial suppression. In other words, a particular defence of free speech is interpreted, not as a principled stand, but as little more than a proxy for an atavistic agenda with quite different goals in mind. Aly is just one instance of this attitude (and a fairly genteel and erudite one at that). He is certainly not alone.

If the key values of the West are viewed as the instruments of oppression, and if the overarching project of which they are a part is seen as lacking legitimacy, is it any wonder that those cultural markers would be met with a basic scepticism? That distrust, whatever its source, translates well into support for restrictions on free speech. Even a demoralised attitude towards Western values — one that does not bear the hallmarks of explicit hostility, but is nonetheless equivocal — can successfully erode one’s ability to defend the principle. Whatever their differences, however, they lie along a spectrum of views. Ultimately, those views gain credence from an ideological perspective that is, at best, ambivalent to a crucial token of the West’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

Postcards from the Marriage Wars – Part Two

It wouldn’t be long before same-sex marriage made its way to Australian shores. Slowly, inexorably, it has lumbered towards a point of mass acceptance. Of course, the issue, as something discussed and fought over, has been alight for a number of years now (providing much fodder for media outlets). What I am talking about, however, is changes to the institution of marriage itself. For a few fleeting moments, SSM was a reality in this country – gaining a foothold in that strange little enclave, the Australian Capital Territory, late last year. That it proved to be a temporary victory for proponents of SSM is, I believe, immaterial. A new threshold has been crossed, and I think the debate – at least for social conservatives, orthodox Christians, and others of their ilk – has already been lost. And although a new phase has been reached, it seems to represent the culmination of forces that have been gathering pace for some time. That, however, is an essay for another time.

News outlets carried pieces on what took place in the ACT, as well as on the issue more generally. I have read a number of reports related to these developments, but in this article, I want to concentrate on a piece written by a journalist for The Age. It is not unique, of course; others have been offering these arguments for many years. But it is representative in its approach, and so I shall use it as a touchstone, so to speak, with which to engage current attitudes and mores.

I turn, then, to a series of articles written by Sam De Brito, whose writings appear in The Age and other Fairfax newspapers. A little while ago, he wrote an open letter to Fred Nile, the staunch Christian conservative and NSW state parliamentarian. In it, he chided Rev. Nile for “picking and choosing” when it came to interpreting and applying the various commands of Scripture – in particular, that part of the Bible Christians call the Old Testament. The implication was that the leader of the Christian Democrats was not taking his own holy book seriously – happy to deny certain “rights” to homosexual couples (which De Brito seemed to imply was the result of Rev. Nile’s own prejudices), whilst conveniently setting aside Scripture when it came to thornier questions that might cause some discomfort. In a follow-up article (“The Alternative Ten Commandments,” The Age, December 6th, 2013), De Brito wrote that his main “beef” was with Christians who, according to him, inconsistently apply the Bible’s injunctions. He went on to criticise – maybe “mock” is more appropriate – that most-vaunted of religious legal codes, the Ten Commandments.

One wonders how De Brito would have reacted had he encountered a Christian who accepted the Bible’s command to care for the poor and destitute (e.g. Exodus 22:21-22; 23:2-3; Proverbs 21:13, 15), whilst rejecting its prohibitions against homosexual practices. I for one suspect he would be less concerned about theological and interpretative inconsistency. In any case, there are a number of problems with De Brito’s views – as rendered in his second article – which all evince a desperate lack of biblical understanding, and a commitment to caricature over serious analysis. I will turn to those particular calumnies in a later article.

In recounting email exchanges with angry Christians, De Brito says that he was confronted with a number of emails that:

“…predictably descended into…arguments that without God’s word to follow on issues like who we can shag in the privacy of our own homes…”.

The characterisation of sex as a private activity is, as we shall see, relevant. Elsewhere in his writings on marriage, De Brito seems to recognize the public nature of that particular bond. Indeed, it is precisely the public dimension of the institution of marriage – and the consequent recognition couples are accorded by virtue of their participation in it – that so animates supporters of SSM like Sam De Brito. Now, it is perhaps the case that De Brito’s reference to “shagging” and the like was, in fact, a crude rendition of some of the arguments made by his interlocutors. His stated views regarding marriage would, as I said, suggest some kind of acknowledgment regarding its public dimensions. But what, then, of his views on sex? According to De Brito, sexual union is reduced to the act of “shagging” in one’s home. That he emphasises its private nature is evidence that he thinks of it as nobody else’s business. Moreover, in view of the fact that he includes the exhortation to be a “good shag” in his alternative Decalogue, as well as a pointed self-reference as a never-married father, it would seem that De Brito thinks of marriage and sex as being two, distinct realities. Indeed, he appears to think that sex and marriage can be decoupled and grounded in quite separate ways, with no essential connection between them. What ought one to make of this?

First, I should point out the obvious: sex, as a discrete act, is itself a private thing. That hardly needs saying, and I am not implicitly advocating voyeurism. But its representative and symbolic overtones possess a public-social dimension, and have public-social ramifications. Take heterosexual sex, for instance. A man and a woman may come together, either for a night or for a lifetime. What they do in the bedroom is, to the extent that it involves the two of them, private. However, what if that union results in the conception and birth of a child? And what if the temporary coupling took place between people who were otherwise unknown to each other – a “one night stand”, in other words? The sex act, in itself, was indeed private, cloistered. But its consequences, if they included the birth of a child (for example), would be anything but. This, of course, is a little different to the discussion at hand, but goes some way to showing that sexual union cannot be seen as private in an absolutist sense. Not only in its possible consequences, but also in its meaning – which is often shaped by broader social and cultural forces – is sexual intercourse a more-than-private reality. It is inevitably caught up in a whole raft of relationships, networks, social constructions, etc., whilst also having the potential to create new relationships, networks and social links through its inherent generative potential (not to mention the possible physiological and psychological consequences that may flow from the sex act). Marriage, in this respect, is not aberrant. It doesn’t artificially map an institutionalised framework upon an otherwise private relationship; rather, it seeks to recognize what is already an embedded, essential reality about (hetero)sexual unions.

It is this connection between marriage and sex that forms one of the major planks in traditionalists’ efforts to uphold the idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Such an understanding recognizes the complimentary nature of the heterosexual union, which is both comprehensive in itself and inherently geared towards reproduction. Of course, I realize that not all male-female couples choose to use their unions for the purposes of having children. Others, through no fault of their own, are unable to have children. However, aside from the intrinsically comprehensive nature of the heterosexual union (at a basic biological and systemic level, the bodies of males and females seem, for want of a better word, “designed” for each other), it alone amongst the various unions available to people is capable of generating children. It is an inescapably social bond, embracing the children that issue from it, as well as the social world that will one day be influenced by those children. Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, writes:

“Moreover, marriage (again unlike ordinary friendships) is a matter of public concern and not merely of the private interests of spouses. That is because marriage brings together a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union.”

The institution of marriage simply codifies a unique biological reality, thereby providing a safe environment within which children may be reared and raised. Conservatives have every reason to preserve this institution, given its importance as a framework within which healthy, well-adjusted individuals may be socialised.

Now, back to Sam De Brito. His argument seems to involve a contradiction: on the one hand, he upholds the idea of marriage as, in some sense, a public institution – one that (presumably) should be available to all, regardless of the sexual permutations and combinations that compose individual unions; but, on the other hand, he seems to suggest that sex – which, historically, has been seen as an inescapable component of marriage as traditionally defined – is little more than a private transaction: “shagging” in one’s bedroom, as it were (of course, De Brito would likely say that it can be more than that, by arguing that it is often an expression of the love that exists between two [or more?] people. True; but if can be other than this, to which many a drunken one-night stand testifies, then it cannot be defined by it. Thus, the only relevant commonalities between the various incarnations of legitimate sex acts he envisages are physical union, consent and privacy). It seems that, based upon these incongruous conceptions of marriage and sexual union, he has castigated Christians for worrying endlessly about what gays and lesbians do in private. Maybe some have. But the nub of the issue is the essence of marriage, as a public institution and as an entity with certain properties. In other words: what is marriage in itself (if anything), and what are the (public, social) consequences of attempts to change it? De Brito, in trying to offer a critique of Christians’ views on the matter, seems to have parsed private sex acts and a legalised form of union that is anything but.

De Brito, I submit, appears to be viewing sex and marriage as separate entities, in that either can be practiced without reference to the other (at least consistently; of course, people are free to have sex without marrying one another, whilst couples who have been joined together by a minister or celebrant are free not to consummate that union). However, the question is whether marriage, in particular, can be defined apart from sex. De Brito may want to say that sex need not be a part of the definition of marriage. If the latter is simply the legalised expression of love and commitment between people, and can rest on nothing more than those bonds of affection (however expressed), what else is needed? Similarly, De Brito seems to think that a person’s sexual proclivities can be enjoyed apart from the encumbrances of marriage. Indeed, most people these days would probably agree. As a simple statement of reality, this is uncontroversial. But, to then imply that sexual activity is not an essential component of marriage (which one would likely have to do in such circumstances), forces one into philosophically ambiguous territory. Once again, we are dragged back to what seems to be the centre of this debate, even if it is unacknowledged by many of its participants: what the institution of marriage actually, essentially is.

Indeed, one might legitimately ask: what is the institution of marriage for, if it does not include, as part of any such conception, the importance of sexual activity? What distinguishes marriage from other types of relationship, if not the significance of sex? And if it is connected to sex, then questions regarding the nature of those sex acts, and whether any and every form of sexual expression can provide a basis for marriage, become exceedingly relevant. I have suggested that marriage is inescapably heterosexual, precisely because of the uniqueness of the sexual bond that consummates it. It would seem that marriage, at least from De Brito’s recent writings, is a kind of public commitment, where participants enjoy the privilege of being able to seal their pledges of love and devotion in a legal, recognized fashion. Sex, apparently, is irrelevant – at least in terms of how marriage is defined. Ironically, however, it’s partly because of the sexual nature of homosexual relationships that calls for their recognition have arisen in the first place. I doubt very much whether they would be seen as anything more than particularly intense kinds of friendship if they weren’t expressed, at least in part, through sexual intercourse. Absent this factor, the grounds for recognizing such relationships as in any way different from friendship, generally conceived, would be very weak indeed. De Brito wants to keep sex away from prying eyes and moralistic busy-bodies, but seems not to notice the inescapable connection – wherever one sits – between sexual intercourse and the calls for public validation. To be sure, I do not think that marriage can be founded upon any and all kinds of sexual unions. As I have suggested, heterosexual union alone provides the basis for marriage, precisely because no other type of coupling is inherently capable of producing the next members of a community or social group. I merely point out the layers of incongruous thinking that seem to characterise De Brito’s position: yearning for homosexual couples to be given the right to marry, and yet implying that the very element which has helped generate such claims in the first place – i.e. sexual activity (generally conceived) – has only an accidental relationship to the institution.

Of course, the issues go beyond relatively recent calls for “marriage equality” (a term to which I object, for reasons I shall not go into). More specifically, they go beyond whatever Sam De Brito has written on the subject. His views simply seem to be the outgrowth of a particular cultural narrative, which, in the course of securing freedom of sexual expression, decoupled sexual activity from marriage. The current conception of marriage – which appears to screen out any reference to the creation of a suitable environment for the raising and socialisation of children – owes a great deal to the thoroughgoing romanticisation of love, as well as the deep individualism that prevails in our society. Love is seen as a profusion of emotions and romantic feelings for [an]other person[s]. Thus, on the one hand, sex (of whatever kind) is regarded as a private activity between consenting adults, completely severed from the overarching structures of the marital institution. On the other hand, marriage itself is defined as a kind of contract into which private individuals enter – now seen as a particularly intense form of (codified) companionship, one might say. It could still be argued – superficially – that marriage is public, in the sense that wedding ceremonies are performed before others, reflective of the socio-legal recognition bestowed upon such a relationship. But having severed the substantive elements from the institution, new conceptions of marriage are forced to rest upon the private intentions of those parties entering into such a relationship.

Once more, we witness the attempted fusion of incongruous ideas – the triumph of fashionable thinking over a coherent point of view. In this case, it’s the transformation of marriage into a special form of companionship that most rankles, as proponents of SSM like De Brito seek to dilute the institution. In trying to widen the scope of marriage in order to provide recognition to homosexual couples, views such as De Brito’s end up relying upon a privatised notion of contractual union. Marriage isn’t conceived of as the formation of a unique type of relationship, within which future generations of people may be created and socialised. At best, the sexual and generative features of marriage are subordinate to the (private) feelings of romantic love that exist, and only exist, between the individuals concerned. In other words, marriage has no reality external to the bonds of affection that happen to be exist between individuals; it is reduced to the presence, or actuality, of those feelings. In the absence of the objective reality of sexual complementarity and its inherently generative properties, such unions must be content to rest upon the current emotional states of their participants.

This isn’t merely a question of abstract definitions. If it were, then no more would need to be said. But ideas, as we know, have consequences – and the social consequences of views like De Brito’s, if enshrined in law, may well be disastrous. Nor is it about SSM per se. Rather, the burning issue relates to the deeper ideological and philosophical currents giving rise to calls for “marriage equality” in the first place. What I am referring to are the implications of contemporary views on marriage, particularly as they concern its privatization and underlying emotionality. SSM may be a product of such currents, but its ascendancy would, I think, codify them as the legal basis upon which marriage is founded. Gone would be the understanding of marriage as a bond that is uniquely and inherently capable of issuing in children (who will influence their communities, for good or for ill). In its place would sit a version of the institution that rests, almost entirely, on the normalisation of emotional and physical companionship. Its ongoing legitimacy would only be guaranteed by the bonds of emotion, whilst the objective dimension of marriage would be lost – devolved to the personal feelings of the individuals involved. But how robust a foundation does this provide? Emotions are, as we have all observed, notoriously unstable; they ebb and flow, emerge and recede. One minute, a person might be overwhelmed by feelings of love for another; the next, he might regard that person with relative indifference. How stable are marriages likely to be if they are based upon little more than the feelings of the coupling individuals? Once all external (philosophical) bases for marriage are removed – which seems inescapable if the conjugal conception of marriage is rejected – what else is left but the internal emotional processes that people possess? It hardly needs to be said how destructive divorce can be for all involved – especially children. Trying to root marriages in the transience of one’s private emotions, however, is surely asking for trouble in years to come. Those early feelings of infatuation can subside (sometimes quickly), to be replaced by something more dour, and less romantic. Marriage is, of course, difficult work, and defining it according to one’s emotional state is to turn it into something that is essentially, inherently unstable. If marriage is little more than the outgrowth of affection between two (or more) people – which seems to be all that’s left once traditional conceptions are rejected – what should we say about the reality of that union if such affection disappears? What should we say if and when such unions collapse, causing heartache and anguish for all involved? And what should we say if the children of such failed unions find themselves burdened in life by the fraying of those native bonds of affection?

To take just one example: the increased incidence of drug and alcohol abuse amongst young people from broken families. The conservative “Heritage Foundation” has documented the rates of alcohol, cigarette and illicit drug abuse amongst such youths. In a series of articles that draw from a wide variety of research, the think-tank found that children and adolescents from intact families all had significantly lower rates of alcohol, cigarette, marijuana and cocaine use than did their peers from families that had been fragmented through divorce (see, for example, Patrick F. Fagan and Robert Rector, “The Effects of Divorce on America,” June 5, 2000). Research, therefore, strongly suggests that children from homes sundered by divorce are more likely to engage in them. And yet, trying to corral marriage in the aforementioned way, so that it is forced to rest upon the (transient) emotional states of the participating individuals, is simply welcoming that destruction at some time in the future – perhaps not for every individual, or even for every marital union, but certainly for some. If marriage is grounded in nothing more than such states, and is normalised accordingly, it does not bode well for the survival of many such relationships. What is more, one cannot ignore the baleful ripple effects that ensue if such marriages break-down. However, the confused, contradictory view of marriage that De Brito (and others like him) propounds undermines a bond that is, in many ways, essential to human flourishing. Unfortunately, however, it appears little is able to prevent this view from now being enshrined.

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.