Like most NZ-born people of my generation (the 1970’s), I had some significant religious influence. My Mother’s family were all Church of England and my Dad’s family seemed to be a mix of Protestants and Irish Catholics who thought it was a good idea to inter-marry.
Dad was a sheep farmer in a small rural area called Tangiteroria, about 20 minutes drive west of Whangarei. As a very young child, my Dad took me to the Tangiteroria Church every Sunday until I was about 4 years old. I had grown up following Dad around the farm, learning how to shout at sheep, dogs and the weather. Apparently, repeating those “man of the land” words in church isn’t acceptable and after some particularly colourful language when I dropped the bible, we never went back.
My religious education continued at Parua Bay Primary School where some old ladies (they must have been at least 40) from the local church would pop in from time to time and tell us stories from the Bible. I remember lots of stories about Jesus healing people, rising from the dead, kicking out money lenders and hanging out with lepers. After the story, we would always get to draw a picture of what we had just heard. I didn’t know what lepers were and thought that they must have meant leopards. So I drew some spotted cats instead. The lessons were quite dull but I enjoyed drawing pictures, so they weren’t too bad.
Dad was determined to see me get a decent religious education (you have to admire his tenacity) and enrolled me at Pompallier Catholic College. Fearing that I didn’t have enough of a religious grounding and would not fit in with all the other more dedicated Catholics, he put me into evening classes where I studied the Bible. This was not fun. All the lessons seemed to be focussed on religious doctrine and were even duller than the primary school RE lessons.
Fortunately, these private lessons didn’t go on forever and I started Pompallier College with some idea of what they were talking about in our high school RE lessons. When I started at Pompallier, there were several Priests and a couple of Nuns. While some of them were quite strict, they all seemed to be trying to do their best for us and were dedicated to their teaching and ministry. I can’t say that I have any complaints about harsh treatment that seem to appear in the media so often these days.
Since I had to endure years of religious education, I thought I might as well enjoy the opportunity for a good debate during the RE lessons. I was always a questioning child and forever hearing the phrase “because I said so”. Of course, at school, this wasn’t a good enough answer and my RE teachers often found themselves and the beliefs they were teaching held up to scrutiny.
By the time I got to the end of the sixth form, I’d been arguing with my religious education teachers for the last four years and I think they had finally given up on me! Here’s my end of year report from Father Michael Foley in 1986.
You might ask yourself why I am not religious myself given that I had the encouragement of my Dad and so many years of Catholic teaching? The reason is quite simple… None of it ever made any sense to me. The whole idea of an all-powerful, loving God, free will, sin and hell just doesn’t make any sense. How can you have free will when you have the “gun” of hell held to your head?
However, even years after I left school, I would still put “Christian” on a form if there was a box to fill in about religion, even though I had no interest in being a practising Christian or following Christian doctrine. It took over 20 years to gradually progress from labelling myself a Christian to Agnostic, to call myself an Atheist. The religious indoctrination from a childhood of even relatively mild religious influence took me a long time to shed. I can understand how others who had much stronger religious influences struggle to pull away from it.
When my firstborn daughter started school, I was quite surprised to learn that “RE Classes” were still a fixture in hundreds of schools throughout New Zealand. The 2013 Census shows that less than half of all NZer’s now call themselves Christian (now down to 37% after the 2018 census) and yet, this old chestnut was still embedded in the state school system. I opted her out of the classes but decided not to let her be shunted off away from her classmates into the library with all the other rebellious parents’ kids. Why should she feel different because of my beliefs? So she goes to swimming classes or starts school late instead.
The problem is that I don’t like being bullied by religion or religious people. I never have. So while the situation is something that we can manage, I don’t see why we (or any other parents) should have to deal with other people’s religious beliefs. Why should any parents have to let their kids be indoctrinated in someone else’s religion in a state school that is supposed to be free of religion? Why should any of us be given special privileges to promote our religious views in a non-religious school? It would be wrong for atheists to do it and it’s wrong for religious people to do it too. It needs to stop.
If you’re a parent who doesn’t believe that religious instruction should be in your children’s school day, complain! Not just verbally. Do it in writing or by email. Get in touch with your school and the Board of Trustees. And if that fails, contact the Ministry of Education directly as I did. If we allow other people to influence our child’s beliefs, then we can’t complain about how it affects them.
For more information about removing religious influence from schools, go to the Secular Education Network website (teachnotpreach.org.nz) or visit their facebook page. If you have a story to tell, get in touch with me or comment on my pages.