There’s an assumption by most people that because the majority of us had some sort of Christian upbringing, that there is some sort of in-built right to bring Christianity into our schools. There isn’t. Not in law and not under any kind of morality I subscribe to. Here’s an example of someone who was raised a Muslim and what it was like for them to be a part of Christian religious instruction. Ironically, she was in the classes because her Muslim parents wanted her to have a broader world view. Why should any non-Christian children have to be faced with Christian evangelism in a secular state school?
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With no shop or pub in the farming town I grew up in, the community centred around the school. The school performed annual pantomimes to full houses. Calf Club day was over-run with locals – parent or not. Sports day saw jostling parents out-yelling each other from the side-lines. Everyone knew each other. Most of the surrounding farms had been in families for generations. If you had lived in the area for less than twenty years you were a newcomer, your way in was through engaging in the school.
We had been in the area for barely two years when I started school – true newcomers. We were doing well in the community acceptance stakes and children in the school befriended me until Religious Instruction classes began. I had been raised Muslim. My parents talked about whether I should go to the classes and their view was that learning about all religions was important; understanding each other makes for a peaceful world. So we didn’t sign the opt-out form, I went.
At first it was ok. There were lots of stories I found interesting, and songs which were frankly quite dull. As the lessons progressed the ‘teacher’, a local parent from a farming family, started to engage in discussion. Heaven and hell were mentioned and the teacher said only Christians go to heaven. Non-believers go to hell. “What about tribes-people from Africa who have never heard of God?” one child asked. The teacher said they would be ok, because it wasn’t their fault they hadn’t heard of God. This led me to ask if as a Muslim I would go to heaven. “Of course not,” she said. “You’ve been shown the true way now and you’ve chosen not to accept it. You will be going to hell.”
I was unimpressed with this and asked my parents if I could be opted-out of the ‘mean’ class. As the sole opted-out pupil I spent Religious Instruction class time alone in the library from then on.
The news I had opted out and was Muslim spread into the community. Not long after I had shared my non-Christian beliefs, the school yard bullying began. Every break I was followed around the school by a group of pupils from a variety of years. They walked behind me everywhere I went chanting “Idol worshipper, idol worshipper, idol worshipper,” an unusual chant for kids to come up with on their own. If I tried to escape into the girls’ toilet they would stand outside chanting until the bell rang while I cried inside. My parents tried to console me. “They don’t know anything. Muslims don’t worship idols,” they told me. “Just ignore them, they’re being ignorant.” Through tears I tried my best to ignore them and eventually they tired of their game. The following and chanting stopped, the ostracism didn’t. We were no longer doing well in the community acceptance stakes.
I ended up changing schools, not an easy thing for someone living rurally. At this new school there was no Religious Instruction, no mobs of chanting students and no ostracism. Our ties with the community we lived in withered to just the absolutely necessary interactions with our immediate neighbours.
The author has asked to remain anonymous
It’s not just Muslim children either. There are many religious minorities in NZ. We like to think that we are welcoming to new immigrants but many of them are faced with religious coercion when they enrol their children in primary schools who have religious instruction. How inclusive and welcoming is it for Christian faith teaching to force their children to conform or leave their classroom?
“I think children should be informed about different religions and their beliefs but they should not be presented as fact. This is why I pulled my son out of the RE at his school as he was being told God is real, he has to pray every night and when he is bad he can ask god for forgiveness. We don’t believe in god and my husband is Hindu so it’s not what we wanted our kids being told.” – A.B. – Facebook
When I was at primary school my charming Bible in schools teacher happily told me I was a bad person because my people killed Jesus. Public schools aren’t the place for this. – J.L. (Facebook)