For the first time in my life, I think I might have experienced what it is like (to some small degree) to be an Aborigine. What I am referring to is an active discrimination by a section in our society which ridicules my faith, claims that it is only mythology and that it has no place in our Australian society. This is what white people have done for nearly two hundred years with Aborigines. I do not want for a moment, detract or minimise the discrimination, racism and hate which Aborigines have received by various governments, their agents and by the general ‘white’ population, but I sense that their experience is increasingly becoming my experience as a Christian. And like the experience of Aborigines, we Christians are now being pushed to the margins of society by a campaign which seeks to disenfranchise us from public life by a small and vocal group of atheists who want an entirely secular school system. Just as Aborigines had their land stolen and were denied justice when they complained that they needed this land as a location in which to practice their religion, now the same is occurring to Christians who offer Christian religious education under the provisions of the Education Act of Victoria which allows Special Religious Instruction. What has been our right to practice our faith by teaching it in schools for approximately a hundred years, is now in all likelihood, to be stolen by a vociferous elite. If we complain or object, we are told to go away and be silent, with the reassuring gesture by these elites, that of course, they are not denying us our right to practice our faith; it must now be done in private.
In an analogous way to what has happened to Aborigines, I find the same regularly occurring in the daily newspapers when self-appointed spokespeople (often led by the Age education reporter, Jewel Topsfield), argue that our religious faith and its tenets have no place being taught in the primary schools as Special Religious Instruction. The most recent article on Friday 2 March in the Age by Stan Van Hooft, professor of philosophy at Deakin University, highlights the campaign for what it is – discrimination by one elite within our society against another with the aim of reducing or removing their legal rights. This is being done by using a variety of methods which when examined, are misleading, false, deeply offensive (to Christians) and designed to cause hurt in the Christian community.
It was no mere coincidence that the particular article in Prof Van Hooft was published the day after the article by Jewel Topsfield which drew attention to the complaint currently before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) by three parents who claim that their children were discriminated against when they, the parents’, opted out of the special religious instruction program offered in their primary school. The frequent reporting of the case throughout the latter part of 2011 and the issues it raises are in the public interest, but it is the concerted and distorted campaign by the Age which merits comment, particularly when an article by Prof Stan Van Hooft appears to give good reasons for Christian education to be removed from our primary schools.
Although Stan Van Hooft is a professor of philosophy, he shows sloppy scholarship and even lapses into a non sequitur on occasion in his attempt to disparage Christians. Furthermore, he uses the old argument of guilt by association to suggest that Christians believe in a set of myths and for this reason, their beliefs should treated with disdain. Let me explain. He claims that ‘Australia is a society that guarantees freedom of religion and separation of church and state.’ This claim is made, without any evidence or citation of his source. At first glance, it seems plausible. But which government? State or federal? The federal government does not and is not able to guarantee the freedom of religion because it is not enabled under the constitution to enact such legislation. What the state government does under the provisions of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 is provide definitions of what constitutes a breach of respecting another person’s religion and what constitutes vilification. And as for their being a ‘separation of church and state’, there are no legal provisions or conventions. Quite the opposite in fact occurs. Both federal and state governments provide funding to religious based groups, tax concessions and permit chaplains in high schools, hospitals, universities and the armed forces to offer pastoral care and a spiritual perspective on life. Each state government varies in its relationship with church bodies and institutions according to the political climate of the day.
I assume that this unjustified claim by Prof Van Hooft is cited in order to suggest that Christians, and in particular, ACCESS Ministries are not acting in accordance with his hypothetical and misleading understanding of the separation of church and state. Then there is the matter of what exactly does he understand ‘freedom of religion’ to mean? Does he mean freedom to practice one’s religion without interference from others, including the government, or freedom from the activity by religious groups promoting their particular faith or beliefs? His offhand citation is so ambiguous in its meaning that I assume given the context that he is writing against ACCESS Ministries that he was thinking of the latter: freedom from religious groups promoting their tenets.
Then Prof Van Hooft makes his non sequitur. He writes: “It is a liberal society in which everyone is entitled to the religious beliefs they hold and to follow their religious practices as long as they cause no harm. This means religion is a private matter.” Even if I accept his statement that this is a liberal society, it is a huge leap to then conclude that the practice of one’s religion is a private matter. The truth of this assertion does not follow from the preceding facts (hence the non sequitur). One may practise our religious faith and do no harm, but it does not follow that they must do so in private. Often, the public expression and practice of one’s religious faith is axiomatic to the very nature of a religion. For many adherents, if their religion is to be practiced, it must affect all of one’s life and for certain faiths in particular, such as Islam and Christianity, their religious faith must be expressed in public life. However, when the ruling elite or political and social hegemony is challenged by Christians, as it is by ACCESS Ministries, then this call is made viz: that it can only be practiced in private. A historical example of this was the demand by the Nazi regime of Germany that Christians were free to practice their religion providing that their beliefs and practices were subsumed under the Nazi claims to define what was acceptable and that they were practiced in private.
Van Hooft goes onto say: “Private matters are those that touch on the consciences or lifestyles of individuals which those individuals are entitled to pursue because they have no public impact.” Here the blatant hegemony is exposed by this educational elite. He wishes to circumscribe issues of conscience or lifestyle to the purely private sphere – but the question must be raised: on what basis? Who says? Why? This is a deft piece of sophistry by the professor which must be exposed for what it is: the denial of the individual in a society to hold to an ethic or religious conviction which may affect the wider society. It is the denial of the individual to assert, what to their conscience is in the public interest. This is apparent when he goes on shortly to say: “Schools set up by a liberal state and pursuing public good should not be intruded upon by the private convictions of any groups within society.” Let’s for example, compare this statement with what happens in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and to some degree, the United Kingdom, countries I am sure the professor would agree, have ‘liberal’ societies and governments. These countries see no problem or incompatibility between pursuing the public good in a liberal society by allowing the intrusion of the private convictions of a group into the schooling system, government and political life in the form of the Lutheran Church and Church of England. The reality is that there will always be the intrusion by the convictions of groups within our society into our schools and individuals motivated by their private conscience. He himself is his own example of an individual exercising his private conscience to determine or influence the public schooling system, but then he has the audacity to claim the higher ground and deny this right to others who differ from him. The professor’s problem is that he doesn’t like people of faith particularly Christians and he does not seem aware that it is an impossibility to have the schooling system left free from or devoid of any influence by a group of people.
Then the professor argues for general religious education to be taught in place of Special Religious Instruction. However, it is left unsaid who will teach this curriculum. One assumes it is to be delivered by the classroom teacher, even if they are neither competent to teach it nor willing to teach it due to their own individual conscience, which is informed by their religious beliefs and philosophical standpoint. In other words, he assumes that classroom teachers will be committed to this policy and committed to the teaching of religious pluralism, even if it contravenes their personal beliefs. But leaving the apparent conflict which emerges between the reality of the teacher being asked to teach something they do not believe in and his earlier statement that private conscience is to have no place in public life, he then moves on to an argument that Christianity is based on a mere myth by the old method of guilt by association.
Here he writes: “Indeed, children may come to see that such beliefs [“that Jesus rose from the dead, but that others believe that the Prophet was carried bodily by angels from Mecca to Jerusalem . . .”] are about as credible as their belief in Santa Claus, in Superman and in their imaginary friends.” This is a cheap way to disparage another person’s cherished beliefs. He assumes both children and adults are unable to discern the difference between fantasy and religious assertions and beliefs. What would be said if he was to say the same about an Aborigine’s religious beliefs when in our society we recognise the importance and place of the Aboriginal religious beliefs and their central role to their culture and life? There would be complaints. When Van Hooft writes: “Children do not have the capacity to critically assess the ideas that are presented to them.”, he highlights why general religious education should not be taught. Children are being exposed to religious pluralism without their parent’s permission or awareness. General religious education appears to be fair to all, but the philosophical belief in pluralism remains camouflaged. At least with a provider delivering explicit religious education, children and parents are aware of what is being taught. Under general religious education it is by no means explicit or certain what is being taught. Furthermore, if a general religious education is to be taught, it might be modelled on the UK program, which explicitly acknowledges the place of religious faith in society and the validity of religious faith to be part of the national curriculum. This stance in the UK is quite different from the negative of Prof Van Hooft.
If Prof Adrian Van Hooft wishes to see the maintenance of a truly liberal society where a diversity of views are promoted and learnt, then the position which is provided under the Education Act of Victoria to allow special religious instruction should be promoted by him to encourage other religious groups to participate. Other religious groups currently provide special religious instruction; the problem is one of money, volunteers and organisation that limit their ability to teach their religious beliefs. ACCESS ministries is able to do all three because it represents and is funded by Christians who represent the majority religious group in our society. As unpalatable this fact might be, this is the situation. For parents like myself who are Christians and value government funded public schools and who pay our taxes, we see no reason why our faith should be marginalised, ridiculed and left at the gate of the school and our children denied the opportunity to learn about our religious tradition which occupies an important role in our wider society.
This article in the Age on Friday highlighted to me, the over-reaching claims now being made by the atheists in order to move Christians out of the schools and to the margins of public life. Through their arguments, they are attempting to marginalise Christians and in particular, their influence and contribution in public life, even though the Christian faith has both renewed and reformed our society in the past. In many respects, the very same arguments have been in past made to disparage the religious beliefs and practices of Aborigines and like the Aborigines, Christians will not be silent.