• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

The place of religion in school

Events such as the Christchurch massacre have sparked a fresh conversation over religious studies in our school system.

We ignore religion at our peril. In 2015, expatriate Kiwi bar owner Philip Blackwood was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment in Myanmar for “insulting religion” after posting on Facebook an image of a psychedelic Buddha wearing headphones to promote his drink specials (he was released a year later).

On the more violent end, says Douglas Pratt, an honorary professor of theology at the University of Auckland, religious naivety can suck people – young people in particular – into more fundamentalist forms of religion, “which become highly prejudicial and feed forms of extremism”.

“So, you have increasing and competing polarisations of extreme views, either saying this religion is the only right religion and others saying all religion is wrong, and any sense of a middle ground, seeing values within the religious sensibility and structures, is missing.”

Farid Ahmed. Photo/Getty Images

Schools of thought

Since the Christchurch shootings, mosques around the country have reported an increase in interest in Islam, in the Quran, even in conversions. Just three months after the atrocity, it was standing room only in the lecture theatre at Christ’s College as students, parents and outsiders filed in to listen to survivor Farid Ahmed explain how Islam helped him forgive the man who killed his wife in the shootings. Speaking from his wheelchair, he said he felt peace in his heart by following the prophet Abraham. “What is the meaning of Islam? Attaining peace through surrendering to the will of God. Teaching not violence, but peace through family and life.”

Yes, Christ’s College is a religious school, a bastion of Anglican privilege, but all students, says the school’s head of religious education, Bosco Peters, learn about the six main religions of the world. “How else can we understand the world we live in?” he says. “This confusion [over religious study, religious instruction and religious indoctrination] does irk me.”

Read more: The author rescuing the world's sacred texts from fundamentalists | Karen Armstrong: How scripture is abused by both believers and non-believers

On the other side of town, the decile 3 Waltham Primary School this year marked Ramadan for the first time, talking to the classes, providing alternative activities for its 12 Muslim pupils while others were eating, and celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast that marks the end of Ramadan.

“I can’t believe we haven’t done it before,” says principal Gordon Caddie. Yes, religion is taught in the context of celebrations in different parts of the world, “but the curriculum is not focused on religion specifically. It’s a very grey area – teaching about religion rather than teaching religion.”

This grey area is the hangover from a 19th-century argument over which Christian denomination, if any, should influence state education. The resulting legislation set in place a primary-school system that was free, compulsory and secular (secondary schools have more discretion about what they choose to teach by way of religious education, so long as it complies with the Bill of Rights). But a loophole allowed for religious instruction, the teaching or endorsing of a particular faith, outside school hours. This was made law in 1964, when state primary schools were given the right to close down for up to an hour a week, for no more than 20 hours a year, for volunteers to come in and provide religious, usually Christian, instruction.

Bosco Peters. Photo/Supplied

The main provider of religious instruction, the Churches Education Commission, now called Launchpad, operates in about 600 schools around the country. Apart from a requirement for police vetting of all presenters, the Ministry of Education takes no role in overseeing course content.

“Fundamentally, these are Bible stories used as a basis to teach values that are part of the fabric of our society already,” says Launchpad chief executive Geoff Burton. “Our presenters are storytellers; we use stories that connect with children to teach values. There are a lot of parents who agree to their children doing our programmes who don’t describe themselves as Christian or religious, but they see the value of their children learning good values like trust and empathy and kindness.”

Others are unconvinced. David Hines, spokesperson for the Secular Education Network (SEN), says religious instruction in schools tends to be a “very evangelical” sort of Christianity.

“I’m a Christian atheist, but even liberal Christians would not accept the world was made in six days.”

SEN is now seeking the repeal of the provision in the law that allows these extracurricular religious classes, claiming that in privileging Christianity, it constitutes a form of religious favouritism that is contrary to the Bill of Rights. The case was taken to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, but has since been passed on to the High Court. In other instances, parents have complained of children feeling stigmatised or missing out on valuable learning or socialising time when taken out of the optional programme.

Some changes have been made. New Ministry of Education guidelines released this year recommend boards of trustees in state primary schools, intermediate schools and kura kaupapa Māori get signed consent from a parent or caregiver before allowing a student to participate in religious instruction. This is a significant break from the previous opt-out process, in which it was taken for granted children would attend the religious instruction on offer unless parents stated otherwise.

But the guidelines are optional. In an online consultation process on the changes last year, 61 of the 100 submitters did not think the guidelines went far enough and just over half wanted the statutory authority that allows schools to close for religious instruction to be repealed.

David Hines. Photo/Supplied

Teach, don’t preach

At the same time, there are growing calls for more education about religion – as distinct from religious instruction – to be included in the school curriculum. In his submission to the review of Tomorrow’s Schools, Peter Donovan, a former associate professor of religious studies at Massey University, said New Zealand’s religious diversity should be recognised within different curriculum areas. Rather than any “heavy loadings of beliefs and doctrine”,  classrooms should be places where students can learn about different beliefs, gods, texts, rituals and customs, “so schools can share in the life of their wider communities and increase awareness of religious diversity”.

“The mosque shootings [highlighted] the need for accepting that we have a lot of religions and opinions about religions in New Zealand,” Donovan says. “The assumptions of the past, of a secularity or mainstream Christianity with a few fringe forms of religious activity, are long gone.”

John Shaver, head of religious studies at the University of Otago, agrees. “It’s ridiculous to think one shouldn’t teach religion, given its importance in human society. Every society has a religion of some sort, so to not talk about what that is would be a huge disservice to the education of children – it would be equivalent to hiding politics from education.”

And religion is important in a range of professions. “If you are dealing with humans, you need some knowledge of religion. It doesn’t need to be a religion teacher in every school; it could be as little as having more content about world religions in social science or history classes.”

Mustafa Farouk. Photo/Supplied

Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, believes young people who are not exposed to other beliefs become vulnerable to dogmas from people who “are doing things completely opposite to what these religious systems teach”.

“There are a lot of very reckless politicians and other people who promote these differences,” he says. “They frighten vulnerable people who have incomplete information on the impact of immigrants, for example – that they are taking jobs from them or that Muslims are out there to force their view on people. When people do not have a lot of information and they are not interacting with other groups, that leads to those horrendous actions we saw in March.”

Farouk suggests optional “well-being electives” for students to learn about a particular religion or culture, as well as a compulsory well-being course to teach about different belief systems, societies and immigration. “So, we can have electives for people to learn more about Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, but also one core course that exposes young people to elements of all of these – some of this core teaching about tolerance and togetherness. Hopefully, if they learn from a young age, they will know that a lot of the stuff taught in Judaism and Christianity and other belief systems is similar, so maybe we should capitalise on what is common between us and leave the few differences to those who practise them.”

Both SEN and Launchpad endorse more education about different religions within the curriculum.

“As New Zealand changes, we are a much more eclectic society,” says Burton. “The expectation that schools would give freedom for all religions to be taught, I don’t think that is a bad thing.”

Douglas Pratt. Photo/Supplied

Warped views

But can religious education stem what appears to be a growing and staunchly racist, anti-immigrant mindset in the West? Pratt, who, ironically, was made redundant last year when the University of Waikato joined several universities in closing or integrating their religious studies departments, argues white supremacy is embedded in, or at least reflects, a particular anti-Islam, pro-Christian mindset that regards Muslims as “invaders”, even if individual proponents are not fully aware of the pedigree of the ideology that drives them.

In the US, for example, Aryan Nations, the white-supremacist arm of the Christian Identity organisation Church of Jesus Christ Christian, regards racial distinction as part of a divinely created order. “The most extreme form of this takes a warped biblical view that whites were created from Adam and Eve and the so-called mud races – basically, everybody else – were created by the serpent who seduced Eve. A more subtle view of the notion of divinely determined distinctions ranks people on various scales of race, intellect, mental capacity and so on – that is what lay behind South African apartheid, the whole eugenics movement and Nazism.”

Some, like the alleged Christchurch shooter, act from a white-supremacist perspective, “but they are part of a movement that has strong links with a very particular religious perspective, even though its values are espoused with no knowledge of where they originated”.

Evidence of this movement in New Zealand is not hard to find. In April, barely six weeks after the Christchurch killings, a man left leaflets on cars in Palmerston North accusing Catholic and Anglican parishioners of being traitors because of their support for Muslims in the wake of the shootings.

“In the Christian community, there is a substantial minority with a very deep anti-Islamic sentiment,” says Pratt. “A lot of that has been challenged by what happened in Christchurch, but there are people whose world view is one of spiritual warfare, who believe, quite literally, that the nature of reality is such that this is the battleground between good and evil, God and the Devil. This is what secular society just does not get.”

Pratt agrees there is a need for religious studies in our school system and says that the focus on Māori culture is paving the way for such expressions of religion.

“Young adults need an awareness of our social context, past and present, which means understanding religious diversity. Religion may have gone underground, in effect, but people’s values are informed by religious values. We just don’t name it any more.”

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.