Is Secular Education Religious Discrimination?

secular education

secular educationThe Secular Education Network received an email recently from someone complaining that secularism is not only a religion in itself but also a form of discrimination against religious people. It’s an argument that I’ve heard before but I don’t think it holds water.

Secularism seeks to separate government and government representatives from religious institutions and religious leaders. In the context of secular education, this means that our state primary schools should hold no position on the validity of any given religion nor promote religion. Children and their families should remain free from religious pressure and be able to choose their own religious views outside the school. This is why a Board of Trustees has to vote to close the state primary school they represent for a period of time to allow them to promote a preferred religion.

It’s hard to see how the absence of a position on religion could be viewed as discrimination against any religion. When I’ve had this debate in the past, the person who complains that the removal of Christian religious instruction is discriminatory rarely agrees that the flip-side of their argument means the inclusion of Christian religious instruction is also discriminating against non-Christians.

It’s also important to note that secularism does not preclude academic teaching on religion, only the promotion of religious views. So teachers can discuss the religions (and atheism) without saying any of them are correct. However, it’s something that teachers are understandably reluctant to do.

The email that SEN received (below) makes a common mistake. It relies on confused definitions of religion, belief and faith in order to make its point. For instance, I might believe that secular education is the best way to teach young children but that does not make it a religious belief or secularism a religion.

Here’s the email SEN received. It starts with a quote from the SEN website…

“We’re campaigning to end religious discrimination in state schools. Christians-only bible lessons are making schools unwelcoming to children”

Secularism is by definition a RELIGION with it’s own teachings and beliefs.

Secularism is RELIGION and is DISCRIMINATING with your campaign in State Schools.

Christians only Bible lessons has never been a feature or promotion of  CRE or CEC – school Principals & Teachers exercise their own discretion and have options as to how to provide Bible lessons in their schools and classrooms.

Because of the ferocious, negative and ill-informed campaign of SEN, some schools may opt to provide Bible lessons that way, simply to protect their students..

Also with many Religions now being able to teach their beliefs in schools and some of them overtly and ignorantly antagonistic to Christianity, it is quite possible that school Principals have opted to protect the students who attend Bible lessons in their schools. Hundreds of thousands of Christians are being persecuted around the world even as I type this email, (in Islamic Countries, Communist Countries etc) for believing in the One True God – the GOD of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob, the God of the Bible.

CHRISTIANITY is not a RELIGION – it is based on FAITH in GOD, His WORD/ The Bible / Jesus, and having a personal relationship with God.

Jesus rebuked the religious of His day.

The Torah of the Jews / The Bible of Christians has the most comprehensive Human Rights & Responsibilities Laws available to all who choose to believe and receive the TRUTH

“Secular moralities are based on a belief that our own ideas about right and wrong are sufficient for an ethical code. Yet, this leaves us without a clear standard for judging moral actions and attitudes. Schaeffer insists that there must be an absolute if there is to be a moral order and real values. “If there is no absolute beyond man’s ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions”

“This is the Achilles’ heel of ethical relativism—it leaves us with no standards, only conflicting opinions and subjective value judgments. The ethical vacuum created by relativism allows leaders to misuse their power. “Those who stand outside all judgments of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse,” writes Lewis”

In my opinion, the above email is a good example of why we don’t want evangelists promoting religious faith in schools. It’s effectively a claim that Christianity has a monopoly on morality and that Christian faith justifies the imposition of “Christian values” over the (far superior) morality that we have created for ourselves. This claim to an absolute understanding of morality from a divine creator is historically how women have been subjugated and why gay people have been persecuted.

While people of many religions are persecuted in other parts of the world, it is laughable (and rather insulting to people who are genuinely persecuted and in fear of their lives) to claim that Christians are persecuted in New Zealand. On the contrary, as the CEC repeatedly state, Christians enjoy “privileged” access to our school children. Their prayers are read in parliament. Their religious holidays are officially recognised. Their God is sung about in our national anthem. You have to wonder what happened to the humility that Jesus supposedly taught?

Here’s my reply…

Note that I speak for myself and not for SEN as a whole.

I’m not sure what definition of “religion” you are using to define secularism as a religion. I’d consider religion in this context to be the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods within a particular system of faith or worship. This certainly fits the view most people would have of Christianity.

Of course, the same word can be used to describe someone who follows something with special interest, such as stamp collecting or rugby but that’s not really the same thing. I can believe that the All Blacks are the best rugby team in the world but that’s not the same thing as belief in the form of religious faith. Secularists believe that their ideas are right but that is not the same as religion or religious faith.

I don’t think that SEN has ever claimed that Bible lessons are “for Christians only”, although Paul Morris, the Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University has said that the CEC syllabus is “…inappropriate and likely objectionable to secular, non-Christian and non-evangelical parents and students” in a review of the CEC syllabus for SEN.

Since religious instruction was legally allowed into state primary schools in the 1960’s, all religions have had access to the classroom. SEN seek to protect students from religious indoctrination of all kinds by removing this access. This is not persecution of Christians. It is a defence against Christian evangelism within a secular education system. They do not seek to replace it with any teaching regarding the existence or otherwise of God.

Secular morality is based on the idea that we are accountable to each other and not to a divine being. Faith, by definition, cannot provide a clear standard. That’s why it’s called faith and not knowledge.

The “conflicting opinions” you refer to are common between people of different faiths. Whose morality should we follow? Yours? Or that of Exclusive Brethren? Jehovah Witnesses? Gloriavale? Or another religion entirely?

This is why we are better off being accountable to each other, rather than someone’s faith. The ethical absolutism of religion allows leaders to abuse their power.

Regarding your quote from C.S. Lewis; this is a good example of why atheists prefer secular morality to religious morality. A Theist is able to absolve themselves of responsibility for their own actions by saying that they were acting on the word of God. Whereas an Atheist has to justify their own actions to others without resorting to divine guidance.

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