The Atheist Foundation of Australia welcomes the government’s invitation to provide feedback on the national school curriculum.

The Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) is the largest atheist group in the southern hemisphere which not only represents it members, but a significant portion of the Australian public. During the 2011 census 22.3% Australians indicated “no religion” specified. This figure is larger than any other religious classification except Catholic (which recorded 25.3%).

Australia is a unique, modern, multicultural, secular, democratic society. While many of its citizens identify with the Christian faith in some manner, we are made of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Jews, Scientologists, and those without faith. Our constitution ensures that each faith is free to practise their religion without interference from the government. Section 116 of the constitution reads:

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

Unfortunately, the secular and free nature of Australia is under attack by two main programs within the public school system: Special Religious Instruction (SRI) and the National Schools Chaplaincy and Secular Youth Worker Program (NSCSWP).

At a glance the Special Religious Education program seems innocuous, however there are some serious issues with the implementation of the program which should bring it under scrutiny.

Firstly, due to the administrative structure of the program, parents are asked to specify which religious beliefs their child adheres to in the broadest sense. The AFA believes extremely broad classifications such as “Christian” give schools no useful information on the particular faith the family claims to hold. There are many denominations of Christianity, each with the own unique set of tenets, rituals, dogmas, and beliefs. These theological differences cover all aspects of life including (but not limited to) the nature of God, the meanings of each Biblical stories, the nature of “sin”, the message Jesus was reported to deliver, and the various beliefs and actions one must either perform or refrain from to enter Heaven. The result is a such massive distribution of “Christian beliefs” that it renders the very classification “Christian” useless. The problem is only exacerbated when “fringe” Christian faiths are included such as Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Nevertheless, the current SRI system allows often aggressive evangelical representatives of Christianity (the kind most likely to relentlessly pursue new souls) to present one narrow definition of “Christianity” to public school students. It is our experience that parents, teachers, and principles are often shocked at the content of these classes when presented with the syllabus.

Further, smaller “minority faiths” (while no less equal under federal law) are passively discriminated against since they cannot gain the numbers to form SRI classes within public schools. Those who wish to opt their children out of these classes often find they are traumatically segregated from their class mates and forbidden to learn (since SRI policy does not allow children to learn while others are being indoctrinated).

If religion is to be included in the National Curriculum, the Atheist Foundation of Australia recommends that it be in the format of a comparative religion class where students will examine details about a wide range of past and current religious beliefs and not simply be indoctrinated into a single dogma.

We would also like to bring to your attention two comprehensive reviews which were performed on the curriculum provided by one of the major distributors for the SRI program, Access Ministries. Whilst these reviews occurred in reference to the Victorian curriculum early last year, the prescribed pedagogy is extremely similar across all Australian states.

The first is by Professor Marion Maddox ARC Future Fellow, Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University. Professor Maddox’s review is extremely damning regarding the curriculum. She concluded,

“The tone of ACCESS materials is unequivocally evangelical, not only in that it relentlessly pushes the participating students towards cultivating an individual faith but, perhaps more importantly, in that a person participating in the ACCESS program would come away with the idea that Christians believe that being (or becoming) a Christian is the only acceptable life choice.”.

“Moreover, proselytising may occur not merely between religions but between different branches of a single religion. Despite occasional warnings in the teachers’ books to have regard to Christian diversity, ‘Religion in Life’ continuously presents a single, evangelical, literalist version of Christianity. My conclusion is that ‘Religion in Life’ would, intentionally or not, have the effect of conveying to non-evangelical Christian students that their version of Christianity was inadequate and that they should abandon it and adopt the ‘Religion in Life’ version.”

The second is by Dr David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer in Curriculum & Pedagogy at Monash University. Dr Zyngier conducted a full review of the Access Ministries curriculum. His evaluation included,

“Students across all the student workbooks are not being challenged to think independently as the vast majority of student tasks are based on what we in the profession call busy work.

Moreover there does not seem to be any logical selection and sequencing of the content, nor is the content broken down into manageable instructional units based on students’ cognitive capabilities. The related instructional delivery in the Instructor’s Manual also does not appear to support clear sequencing, clear descriptions and demonstrations of skills to be acquired, nor are the student activities followed by practice and timely feedback – the essence of good pedagogical practice which should focus initially on high levels of teacher involvement.”

This infiltration of our secular public school system is further exacerbated by the National Schools Chaplaincy and Secular Workers Program (NSCSWP) (formally known merely as the National School Chaplaincy Program) which allows the majority religious faith within a school community to dictate to everyone the faith their chaplain will profess. Bizarrely, once appointed Chaplains are forbidden to proselytise their religious views and are relegated to the role of “counsellor” for which many are vastly under qualified to perform. Driven by evangelical zeal Chaplains often attempt to coax students to fun sounding camps where they can operate free from the gaze of the school system.

A study by the Rationalists Society of Australia report that in the previous two weeks of their survey chaplains self confessed to dealing with:

• 95% of chaplains reported dealing with behaviour management issues, such as anger
• 92% with bullying and harassment
• 92% with peer relationships and loneliness
• 91% with student – family relationship issues
• 85% with sense of purpose and self-esteem
• 81% with grief and loss
• 77% with community involvement and social inclusion
• 76% with spirituality and ‘big picture’ issues of life
• 72% with mental health and depression
• 50% with alcohol and drug use, and
• 44% with self harm and suicide

By their own admission is it clear that some chaplains are providing deeply needed counselling services, which they are neither permitted nor qualified to perform. It is difficult to calculate the ramifications or damage caused by such flagrant abuse of the rules.

The organisations which the vast majority of chaplains are employed through, make it clear what their intentions are in statements made in their newsletters, conferences, and to the media. For example:

“To have a full-time Christian presence in government schools in this ever-increasing secular world is an unbelievable privilege. Here is the church’s opportunity to make a connection with the one place through which every young person must attend: our schools.” – Tim Mander, Chief Executive of Scripture Union.

“1) to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and families
2) to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer.” – Aims and Beliefs – SU Tasmania | Scripture Union Tasmania

“We believe that our mandate is to bring children and young people into the life of established churches by programs that serve them in environments in which they feel comfortable. We believe that, in the case of families that are not Christian, the evangelism of the whole family rather than of children in isolation is still our objective. However, if this cannot immediately be realised, we believe that God still calls us to evangelise children themselves.” – Scripture Union International, 2005

“The good news is that God is doing some incredible work through the ministries of Scripture Union Queensland. School chaplaincy, camps and missions are exposing thousands of young people and children to the good news of Jesus every year.” – SU News, June 2006

“We intentionally make opportunities to present life-giving messages that invite children to respond positively to Jesus. Our approach is urgent because children will, by their nature and because of the world in which they live, turn away from God unless they are evangelised and nurtured.” – Scripture Union International, 2005

Even worse, one organisation actively discriminates against perfectly (and legally) qualified counsellors on religious grounds:

“I am a Social Worker and have completed a masters paper in spirituality in state schools. I have worked as a school counsellor for more than five years, yet under John Howard’s scheme I am ineligible to apply for the recently announced positions of chaplain as I do not have a Christian affiliation which is deemed suitable by Scripture Union (the employing body).” – Tarnya, a social worker.

The AFA and its members look forward to a new national school curriculum which is fundamentally designed to eliminate such examples of religious favouritism, preferencing and discrimination and return to a truly secular, equal, fair, and just system which acknowledges the choice of religious faith is a deeply personal matter in which the government should not interfere.

Yours Sincerely,

Andrew Skegg/Danny Jarman
Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc
PO Box 1062
Lane Cove NSW 1595

Phone: (08) 8835 2269
Email: [email protected]

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