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More Bible in Schools

Entry 1558, on 2013-08-05 at 20:24:40 (Rating 4, Religion)

The topic of teaching religion in schools occasionally rises to the surface of the subjects currently considered sufficiently important to justify multiple stories, editorials, cartoons, etc. In many countries the idea probably wouldn't get a lot of attention but here in New Zealand - which I am proud to say is a relatively non-religious country - any controversy involving the topic is often seen as quite interesting.

So yes, the subject has come up in the media yet again. It has hardly been given the same level of importance as our contaminated milk exports, or the government's spying activities, but it has been mentioned in several places.

In the Herald, for example, there was a cartoon, an editorial, an opinion piece, and a few articles. The general theme seemed to be that religion is silly and decreasingly relevant and probably should be kept out of schools.

Well yes, it's hard not to agree. For example the cartoon showed some medieval scholars being taught some element of doctrine regarding non-believers being tortured by Lucifer. One of them asks "do you think schools will still be teaching this stuff 1000 years from now?" and the reply is "no way - people will be far more advanced, surely". Apparently not.

It's not the funniest cartoon ever I agree, but it does make the point that I have made several times in the past: that religion is primitive and embarrassing and we really should have matured as a civilisation sufficiently by now that we don't need fairy tales any more.

Christianity is the dominant religion in New Zealand and it has the most significance from the past, but there would still be a case to say that if religion is going to be a topic in schools that there should be some time spent on alternative views, including atheism (even though, I hasten to add, it is not a religion).

And if religion is going to be taught in schools the last person doing it should be a minister, priest, pastor, etc. They are too locked in to their own doctrine to offer a reasonable and fair appraisal of the subject. If we were going to teach environmental science at school would be invite GreenPeace or the operator of a coal-fuelled power plant? And if we were going to teach politics would we invite the leader of the Communist Party or the leader of the Nationalist Party?

I think if the teaching of any other subject involved such blatant bias there would be a huge protest against it. So why should religion be taught by a representative of a local church? Clearly this is totally inappropriate.

I have discussed religion with real theologians from the university I work for and they have a far more reasonable approach. I think a discussion of religion from someone like them would be genuinely useful, although I must admit it can be hard to pin them down on certain points: one wouldn't even tell me if they thought there was a god or not!

So yet again religion is demanding special privileges. It always does and unfortunately often gets them. But maybe the most annoying thing is that even with all of those advantages the dominant religion still claims it is persecuted. I know persecution is an essential part of the Christian myth but surely this is a bit ridiculous. They are allowed to teach their fairy tales as if they were fact. Who else is allowed that privilege?

So religion has clearly showed us that it cannot be trusted to act reasonably. In previous blog entries I have argued for allowing religion in schools because I thought kids would be able to disentangle fact from fiction. But I'm beginning to change my mind. Religion is totally oriented towards propagandising the masses, especially the young and impressionable. If they could be trusted to offer a balanced view I would say OK, let them in. But they can't. So I say get them out, or should we let GreenPeace and the Communists in to our schools as well?

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Comment 1 (3607) by RIchard on 2013-08-06 at 19:24:34:

Another interesting blog article Owen - thanks. You might be surprised (though I'd hope not) that I agree with the vast majority of it. Whatever the particular topic, schools should teach it as completely, and factually, and as fairly, as possible, and absolutely by providing the opportunity to be exposed to the alternative views. They should be equipping students not just with 'todays' facts, but the tools to rationally and fairly discuss and analyse all the alternate and/or opposing views and come to a decision. So in your Environmental Science example, perhaps both the Greenpeace and the Power plant operator should have the opportunity to present their views. After all they are both the respective experts in their chosen fields, which is a highly valued quality in every other teaching topic. For this reason, I'm not sure that it's fair to automatically disqualify 'religious experts', as long as all views are given the same opportunity - as is the case (or should be) in every other academic topic. The key is that you KNOW they are presenting their point of view (call it 'biased' if you will, but the same label must apply then for all topics including pure science that have opposing view scientists). The alternative view doesn't have to be provided in the same 30 min session - that's simply not possible anyway. Just as long as it's provided surely is the key?

One qn: I had a quick search thru the Herald and found the editorial, and some other articles, but couldn't find any evidence at all that 'yet again religion was demanding special privileges'? Can you indicate the articles where this is found, and what special privileges are being asked for? And can you also clarify to what you refer when you state that 'religion has clearly shown us that it cannot be trusted to act reasonably'? It appears to be related (by the word 'So'...) to the immediately preceding sentence regarding teaching their 'fairy tales as if they were fact. Who else is allowed that privilege'?

It seems an odd claim, because actually, every other topic taught in schools is allowed that privilege, including Science, which taught me as 'fact' that Pluto was a planet, but is now acknowledged to be nothing more than a 'fairy tale'. Funny example I know, (I use it alot) but the simple point is that it goes without saying that all teachers are going to teach what they personally believe is fact, whether it turns out to be so (now or later) or not. So... :-) it's not really fair to call out just one topic on that score.

BTW - I do totally agree that state school time is NOT the time for any religious 'evangelism' type activities, but that's actually very different to the diminishing number of religious curriculums that still are permitted in schools where it's requested (not demanded). They should be opt-in btw :-) This one article I found in the Herald I think was a nicely balanced one, (good education ;-), and the 'For' side made the above distinction in curriculum clear in (I think) a fairly 'reasonable' way.

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10907466

Cheers,
Rich

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Comment 2 (3608) by OJB on 2013-08-07 at 09:32:45:

There are two ways to look at this: one is to allow everyone to make a contribution but make sure there are alternative views as well so that there is balance; the other is to only present the best information we currently have available.

The problem with the first method is that it often gives fringe views validity they don't deserve. The example I'm thinking of (and I suspect probably you are too) is creationism versus evolution. Although creationism can be seen as an alternative view to evolution it has no credible support so it really shouldn't be presented at all. Of course if creationists find any real evidence supporting their view in the future this could change.

So it seems to me that where there is clear evidence that one view is correct we should present that one without worrying too much about poorly supported alternatives. Of course, as the student advances their studies they will be exposed to these ideas in various ways.

The special privileges were that Christianity is a specialist belief system which wants access to schools to spread its worldview. I don't recall any environmental group, political party, etc, demanding the same. Religion presents it's beliefs as if they were facts and as if other alternative mythologies didn't exist. That is the unreasonable part.

Yes, I have seen that article. The point is that any religious instruction should cover all beliefs and present the information in a factual way. The reality is that we get a Christian perspective which usually just assumes all the myths are true. If we really could present Christian mythology fairly (including a discussion of whether Jesus even existed) then I would say let's do it. But we all know it doesn't work that way.

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Comment 3 (3609) by OJB on 2013-08-07 at 09:33:25:

Oh, and thanks for the usual thorough analysis!

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