Teachers & Religious Instruction – Between Rocks & Hard Places

religious instruction teacher between a rock and a hard place

Teachers and religious instructionWhen it comes to religious instruction, teachers are between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”. No matter what position they take, they will be upsetting someone they have to have regular contact with as part of their job. It is an exceptional situation. This comment from a Facebook user sums up how people outside the teaching profession might see it…

What I don’t get is why teachers as a profession allow it. Doctors and nurses don’t allow random people interested in health to turn up at hospitals and start ministering to the sick. In fact that is against the law. To be a health professional you have to meet all sorts of legal requirements, conform to codes of ethics etc. Why don’t teachers protect their professional turf?  After all young minds are at stake.

It is an oddity of our education system that a trained, qualified, experienced teacher is required to step aside while a (mostly) unqualified church volunteer takes over their classroom to promote their religious faith on a weekly basis.

My religious education class when I was 7 was literally “Jesus loves you. If you accept Jesus into your heart right now, we’ll give you a bag of chips”. That’s so wrong to me.
(comment on Reddit)

Professionally, you would think that this would raise a huge red flag. How would a teacher feel about moving from watching a class where children are taught that a god made the earth in 7 days to a class where children are encouraged to think logically and critically?

Getting them while they’re young

It’s at the younger end of the education spectrum that religious evangelists like to promote religious faith. Primary school children are particularly vulnerable because they are still developing their ability to rationally critique what they are being told. We’re talking about an age group where many of the kids in the class may still believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. So it’s not at all out of their understanding to tell them about gods doing magical things that affect our lives and for them to believe it without question. This is why evangelicals want access to primary schools.

Because you need to get to them young. Try and convert a person who spent 18 years in education learning modern scientific evidence to Christianity and you’re going to have a hard time. Much easier to pump god into them at primary school and drip feed it into high school from there.
(comment on Reddit)

New Zealand evangelical churches have repeatedly identified young children as being a target of their “ministries”. The Lausanne Movement is an international group that produced a document called “The Evangelisation of Children” (PDF Download) that specifically comments on the access that we allow churches to primary school children in New Zealand. Among the authors is a representative from the Elim Church who is one of the main players in the Churches Education Commission, who claim that school Bible classes are not evangelism. This blatant lie is exposed by one of their own national directors, who in 2011 said;

“Churches by and large have not woken up to the fact that this is a mission field on our doorstep.
The children are right there and we don’t have to supply buildings, seating, lighting or heating,”
“We often hear in church about the 10-40 window for evangelising people in the world. For me it’s a 9 to 3 window,”
David Mulholland, CEC National Director in a Baptist Newsletter – (01/09/2011)

The frying pan or the fire for teachers?

While I would love teachers to take a stand against religious instruction, I do understand why there doesn’t seem to be any impetus in the profession for change. Teachers are unlikely to ever make religious instruction an issue in large numbers, regardless of how wrong it is, for a number of reasons;

  • The religious instruction time is useful as non-contact time.
  • They would need to oppose their employers (the Board of Trustees who approved the classes).
  • They would have to oppose their own principal and senior staff.
  • They would have to oppose Christian parents.
  • They have no support from the Education Council, who said it “isn’t an issue we would get involved in“.
  • They have no support from the Ministry of Education.
  • They have no support from the Human Rights Commission.
  • They  have no support from the Children’s Commissioner, Andrew Becroft, who has been asked to comment on religious instruction but would not. He is an evangelical Christian and also involved in promoting Christian faith to university students.
  • They have no support from the NZSTA (who support religious instruction and haven’t asked teachers their opinion on it anyway)
  • Most of (around 70%) of the secular state primary schools that teachers work in don’t have religious instruction, which immediately reduces the possible complainants from teachers.
  • The issue is poorly understood and so opinions are often coming from an uninformed perspective and lacking facts.
  • Teachers with a Christian religious bias are often more outspoken as they perceive they hold a moral high ground. Parents and teachers critical of RI are often intimidated into silence through social and professional pressure.
  • They have little to gain professionally other than more teaching time.
  • They have bigger fish to fry. Teachers are underpaid and overworked.

Worst of all… the majority of non-Christian parents who oppose religious instruction are not willing to speak up either, so why should the teacher put themselves in the firing line first? It’s not that teachers are all supporting religious instruction, they just don’t have too many reasons not to speak up.

Why do schools not just have it after school? Then the parents who want their kids indoctrinated can send them and everyone else can get on with their lives. In peace. And an extra half hour a week for teachers to teach. When teaching in schools my colleagues used to call in R.I. Ridiculous Interruption.
Comment on Stuff – (source)

Suffer the little children

Religious Instruction is not so much an issue that affects teachers as it does children and families who are non-Christian or from Christian churches that are not so evangelical or literal. Catholic families are not likely to be impressed with the literal telling of the creation story or some of the more evangelical aspect of the classes.

Religious Instruction is a pressing human rights issue for parents and children. The lack of support and genuine engagement from parents and education sector bodies is a huge part of the reason that politicians are content to pretend to be doing something instead of actually doing something. And the issue is not just one of religion. It is one of educational integrity. At a time when access to information has never been greater, it is crucial that we teach our children how to think critically and not simply consider them as “jugs to be filled” with beliefs of our own preference determined by a community vote. Popular opinion is not a path to truth and a vote to infiltrate religious teaching into a non-religious school does not justify the classes.

We need to protect the separation of church/religion and state, as vigorously as we defend the right of individuals to practice their own religion in a way that doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others.
Jacinda Ardern – NZ Herald (29th November 2015)

Religious Instruction Supporters

For those people who support religious instruction or are even involved in promoting it, you might want to consider the arrogance of expecting non-Christian parents to be happy about you promoting your religious views within their children’s non-religious school. You might want to consider how insulting it is to ask teachers to step aside while your religious views are promoted in their classroom in an uncritical way that directly contradicts the academic standards they are trying to instil in all their students.

Teachers are already required to teach values as part of their job. They can’t control a classroom without teaching values on a daily basis. We don’t need religious instruction in order for our children to have good values. Teachers are also perfectly capable of teaching about religion in an unbiased way via social studies or history classes, so the excuse of needing to teach “about religion” doesn’t wash either as there is nothing preventing it now and Religious Studies is also available as a NCEA course.

A section of law pushed into legislation over 50 years ago by religious interests to allow these classes should not take priority over the principles of integrity in education, promoting reason, critical thinking and inclusiveness for all children from all religious backgrounds. Religious agendas should not be an issue for teachers in a secular state primary school classroom.

Are you a teacher? How do you feel about religious instruction classes? Please comment below.


  1. Yup! As a teacher who has taught at both primary and secondary level, the long list of reasons given above for teachers abstaining from involvement in this issue are absolutely valid. Personally I lack the time or the energy for yet another battle.

    • I must admit that I’ve been frustrated by the lack of interest from most teachers but I’ve come to realize that they need parents to take the lead before they will feel able to speak out.

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