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Chalk and slate

In an article first published by The Age newspaper in Melbourne, BARNEY ZWARTZ explains why Christianity should be taught in schools…

Christian education in government schools is suddenly controversial, as secularists make it the latest battleground in their efforts to wind back what they see as the malign influence of religion.

A case alleging discrimination has been brought to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission; interfaith groups and a new multi-faith education network of academics want to end the present system; and the Education Department is under pressure over what seems an odd interpretation of the Education Act, arguing that the phrase “may” provide special religious instruction actually means “must” provide it.

Chalk and slate

PICTURE: Oliver Gruener (


“It is in everyone’s interest to have a religiously and ethically literate society. What is needed is a formal course taught by trained teachers, introducing students to the various religions and non-religious ethical theories but advocating none, probably as part of the proposed national curriculum.”

This battle is one the advocates of what is called special religious instruction are doomed to lose, because the high ground belongs to their opponents.

There is also an important battle taking place within secularism as to whether atheism should be an unofficial state ideology; more on that question later.

Despite the Education Department’s “must”, only about half the state’s primary school students receive special religious instruction. That’s because the main provider, Access Ministries, relies on trained volunteers. Further, parents who object to special religious instruction must explicitly opt out, which makes some children uncomfortable – the basis of the discrimination complaint, alleging religious segregation.

It is a testament to the generosity of the Christian volunteers that they reach half the state’s primary students, but the volunteer system is no longer adequate. Some Christians are unhappy with it, and want a more pluralistic version that could include non-religious ethics.

It is in everyone’s interest to have a religiously and ethically literate society. What is needed is a formal course taught by trained teachers, introducing students to the various religions and non-religious ethical theories but advocating none, probably as part of the proposed national curriculum.

The problem with the current system is not only that it is haphazard in whom it reaches, but that it teaches only one religion and is open to abuse. Victorian volunteers are explicitly instructed that they must not proselytise, but it seems some do – although this problem, again anecdotally, is far worse in NSW and Queensland.

Government education in Australia by law is supposed to be free, secular and compulsory. Free and compulsory are clear, but what “secular” means needs careful unpacking because it is disputed.

The Australian constitution forbids the establishment of any particular religion, and many religious people understand that a secular state is the best guarantee of freedoms for all, religious and non-religious alike. In other words, a secular state is not one without religion but one where no religion is privileged.

Many secularists criticise religions as “ideologies”, as though religion were merely a set of (false) truth claims.

Such critics fail to understand that neither is secularism ideologically neutral – it too is built on certain values and presuppositions. “Ideology” is all around.

What worries me is the rise of a radical secularism arguing that religion must be expunged from public life. The extreme form is exemplified by Richard Dawkins’s claim in The God Delusion that teaching children religion amounts to child abuse.

This is an obnoxious claim, explicitly designed to be offensive (which it is, both to the religious and to victims of actual abuse), but it has many Australian advocates. If people really believe teaching children that Jesus is the son of God is as evil as raping, beating, starving or neglecting them, then they should agitate for the jailing of such parents, or the removal of the children. So far, I haven’t heard that.

This radical secularism teaches that believers are wicked or deluded (Dawkins again), and in either case that they damage society. The clear-sighted anti-theist must ride to the rescue, generally insisting that religion must play no part in public discussion – which is itself hardly a religiously neutral position.

This radical version is slowly and steadily moving into the mainstream of political discourse. As Anglican Bishop Tom Frame said in the 2007 Acton lecture, it “represents a veiled form of political tyranny and ideological oppression. It is yet another closed belief system with little capacity for self-criticism, sustained by an absolute conviction regarding the necessity of its own ascendancy.”

Therefore the secularists cannot be let loose to devise a compulsory religion/ethics program for schools. If no religion should be advocated, neither should atheism.

I do not suggest that all or most opponents of special religious instruction are radical secularists of this sort, or that their opposition forms part of a wider agenda for social engineering. But some are, and they should be resisted because they are as divisive as any religious fundamentalist.

Australia is not a Christian country – the constitution says so. But Christianity has had a long and profound influence on Australia’s politics and values, and Christians are entitled to require that this influence be fairly taught in government schools. 

Barney Zwartz is the religion editor at The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia. This article was first published on the Religious Write blog.


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