Rethinking religious education in public schools


Tuesday, 28 February, 2023

Rethinking religious education in public schools

There needs to be an overhaul of religious education programs in public schools, according to a Monash University expert.

Many government schools provide religious classes in the form of church-based ‘Religious Instruction’. These types of classes segregate students into faith-based groups in which they receive instruction in the beliefs and practices of one religion.

However, this form of religious education has become increasingly controversial, resulting in numerous government reviews, laws and policy changes. In particular, there is a concern that religious instruction of this manner can indoctrinate students by encouraging them to uncritically accept beliefs that are not well supported by evidence or beliefs that are controversial. This is particularly problematic in a ‘post-truth world’ that is flooded with disinformation, conspiracy thinking, science denialism and extremist thinking.

Religious instruction should be replaced by religion classes that foster social cohesion and intercultural understanding, according to Dr Jennifer Bleazby, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education Culture and Society at Monash University.

Bleazby also argues that educational efforts to combat ‘post-truth’ thinking can only be achieved with an alternative method to teaching religion.

“Education aims to foster reflective and critical thinking, intellectual virtues, an awareness of cognitive biases and the capacity for collaborative inquiry. It is counterproductive and hypocritical for schools to claim they actively discourage post-truth phenomena if they are simultaneously running religious instruction programs that aim to indoctrinate and risk encouraging the very types of thinking associated with the post-truth world,” she said.

In a recently published research paper, Bleazby calls for education leaders, policymakers and legislators to seriously re-evaluate the place of religious education in government schools.

“Not all approaches to religious education are problematic. Classes aimed at ‘General Religious Education’ or worldviews education can foster religious literacy, intercultural understanding and positive attitudes towards minorities, and also combat extremism. This approach to religious education can help to alleviate social divisions, social alienation and the extremism associated with post-truth problems.

“Since current state laws already permit this sort of religious education to be taught within the regular school curriculum, unlike Religious Instruction, it can readily be taught by qualified teachers employed in schools, not representatives of religious organisations,” Bleazby said.

As there are no federal laws that regulate religious education in government schools, each of Australia’s six states and two major territories have their own laws and policies, all of which distinguish between these two types of religious education. ‘General Religious Education’ has not been controversial in Australia and it can be expanded and incorporated into the official school curriculum.

Many parents also have concerns over the religious education their children are currently receiving in public schools.

A Queensland parent and spokesperson for lobby group Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools, Alison Courtice, is leading the charge in Queensland to have “teachers not preachers” guide religious education in state schools.

“In Queensland we are now in the 113th year of churches having legal right of entry to public school classrooms. It's time to close the school gates and say no to allowing our schools to be mission fields,” Courtice said.

Graham Macpherson, spokesperson for Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS), fully supports these comments and proposals.

“Religious education, particularly in NSW Government schools, is problematic for the reasons Dr Bleazby gives. It also is increasingly becoming an administrative and logistical challenge for schools, with fewer and fewer students participating in Special Religious Education (SRE) or Special Education in Ethics (SEE) classes.

“The demand for SRE classes is merely supplier-led. It’s not due to student demand, nor is it student focused from an educational point of view. In 2023, religious instruction in government schools, such as SRE, is both ethically and philosophically wrong,” Macpherson said.

Bleazby concludes that given the growing problem and seriousness of post-truth phenomena, it is time to seriously re-evaluate the place of religious instruction in schools, which risks fostering the uncritical acceptance of beliefs and misinformation, and instead focus on developing and implementing religious education programs that foster social cohesion and intercultural inquiry.

Image credit: iStock.com/dragana991

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