The Gospel has spoken: Religion in Victorian public schools

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Victorian Liberal Opposition Leader Matthew Guy (Screenshot via YouTube)

It’s back to the future for Victorian conservatives, writes Stephen Williams.

The VICTORIAN LIBERAL-NATIONAL Opposition has declared it will try to bring special religious instruction (SRI) back into normal class times in public schools if it wins the November State Election.

This was a relatively quiet announcement to the faithful rather than to a mass audience. And Opposition Leader Matthew Guy initially wanted to keep it that way. 

In 2016, the Victorian Labor Government took SRI out of normal class time and replaced it with a more general curriculum about respecting other cultures and viewpoints.

The latter is taught by regular teachers, whereas SRI is taught by volunteers from faith-based groups, such as chaplaincy organisation, Access Ministries.

SRI was taught to only about 20% of students before the change. Most students were forced to simply "read" during class time as they were not allowed to have normal lessons while the SRI students got their dose of scripture.

That meant that if the faithful wanted a breather from normal studies, everyone else had to "go slow" as well.

This new policy from the Victorian Opposition raises the obvious question of what problem they are trying to fix.

As it is, parents who want their children to learn about a particular faith can either send them to a faith-based school; teach them the faith at home; take them to places of worship for services and prayers; have them attend "Sunday school" (if such a thing still exists); or have them attend the SRI classes out of school hours.

Or a combination of the above.

So where’s the problem?

Of course if you are a conservative politician who likes religion and wants more "old-time religion" in society – and you know the religions I mean: definitely not Paganism, Druidism, Scientology, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – you might well think that SRI should be a part of normal class time, even if you can’t be sure what the volunteers are actually teaching.

So what if school hours are eaten into by the minority who want to learn about one of the many faiths that basically say all other faiths are wrong? This latter point is often overlooked.

Either all of the thousands of religions are wrong, or one religion is correct and all other religions are wrong.

Regardless, a lot of time is being spent learning myths and legends dressed up as reasonable beliefs, even within the Christian tradition where the various competing sects don’t even agree on which books should be treated as scripture.

No doubt, Victorian conservatives look with envy at their NSW brethren where special religious education (SRE) seems to be firmly entrenched for the time being.

In NSW, not only is SRE taught during normal school hours at public schools (primary and secondary) but it is an opt-out system. Students are enrolled in SRE unless their parents specifically say they don't want it.

You can guess how that might play out: about 70% of primary students get a dose of Bronze or Iron Age nostalgia.

The opt-out mob can often attend a special ethics class instead of SRE (if it is available at the school) as they could not possibly receive the normal teaching syllabus and get ahead of the SRE students.

A review was conducted into the NSW SRE program in 2015 but was not released by the NSW Government until April 2017.

The review had limited terms of reference, meaning that it was not to examine whether SRE was a good idea. Even so, many of its findings were predictably concerning for those of us who worry about what some fervent religious folk are likely to say to impressionable young minds.

One of the more glaring findings of the review was that the ostensible curriculum that the religious volunteer was going to teach was often not available for review by the parent (or anyone else). Of course, we cannot be sure what any individual volunteer might say to a child when their religious blood was up.

These and other points have been highlighted by a group called Fairness in Religions in School. The group is run by parents – initially set up in Victoria – who lobby for downgrading scripture lessons in schools, more in line with the current Victorian position.

Mind you, if expert scholarship regarding the scriptures was taught to students, there could be a net benefit.

But such teaching, and let’s use Professor Bart Ehrman’s take on Christianity as the exemplar, would have to include the fact that:

  • there is no definitive New Testament as we don’t have anything like the original manuscripts of the 27 books that comprise it; 
  • as to the many thousands of later copies that we have in many languages, the copies disagree with each other all over the place;
  • there are more disagreements in the copies – minor and major – than words in the New Testament. Some of the errors are accidental, while others are deliberate;
  • we do not know who wrote the four canonical gospels because they were written anonymously. They were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or anyone who actually knew Jesus. These names were added later;
  • About 95% of people in Jesus’ time were illiterate and Jesus and his disciples would have been no exception. That is why Jesus and the disciples never wrote anything down and they certainly didn’t write Greek (the language of the original manuscripts);
  • The four canonical gospels disagree with each other left, right and centre, with "John" being the most extreme (it was written later than the others);
  • We do not know what Jesus said because the gospels are unreliable and nobody was taking notes;
  • Insofar as scholars can make the best guess about what Jesus probably said, Jesus was wrong about his central message (repent because the "Kingdom of God" is about to come); and
  • Almost half of Paul’s letters were not written by Paul, but his famous name was added by the anonymous writers who wanted their letters to be read.

Indeed, Jesus was a species of Jew who had no intention of starting a new religion. Would he recognise Christianity today? I doubt it.

Stephen Williams writes mainly about politics, economics and the environment.

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