Update on the conversation about religion in schools

muslim girls in niqab

muslim girls in niqabThe 2019 terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques raised questions about hate speech and tolerance of religious diversity. A view that gained some support as a response to this atrocity, was the idea of the academic study of religions in schools as opposed to the promotion of religious faith in the form of “Bible in Schools” classes.

The Religious Diversity Centre offered to provide a report on options for Religious Education to Chris Hipkins. He took them up on the offer. Despite being supplied to the government in 2020 and Chris Hipkins reviewing them in 2021, they have only just been made publicly available. Click here to download a PDF of the report and MOE response.

The Religious Diversity Centre (RDC) isn’t particularly diverse.

Both the NZ Association of Rationalists & Humanists and the Humanist Society of New Zealand requested membership in the group and were rejected. Both groups also offered to collaborate in the report on religious studies and were rejected for this as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the RDC report gives little to no consideration to teaching non-religious views and (somewhat hyocritically), recommends further discussion on the “inclusion of secular ideologies and values”.

At the time of writing, I wasn’t able to find a list of the members of the RDC. However, you won’t find anyone too far out of mainstream religion on there. Given they don’t allow membership to non-theists, and there are no “fringe” religions represented, it would be safe to say that the RDC is representative of the religious views of no more than half of NZers.

What did the RDC recommend?

The Ministry of Education summarized the recommendations of the RDC as follows;

  1. Religious studies be made compulsory as part of social sciences for learners in years 1 – 4 and as a stand-alone subject for students in years 5 – 6;
  2. The introduction of religious studies is facilitated by Professional Learning and Development and Teaching Resources that are supported by religious communities and enhanced and broadened over time;
  3. Work is led by a Religious Studies Advisory Group, consisting of both religious community representatives and professional subject experts;
  4. Religious diversity is fully and explicitly acknowledged alongside other diversities in The New Zealand Curriculum; and
  5. Religious instruction can continue on the school site with board agreement and clear communication about the differences between religious instruction and religious studies and their respective relationships with The New Zealand Curriculum.

It’s hard for me to see the RDC recommendations as much more than an attempt to reaffirm and retain religious bias and privilege.

The recommendation that compulsory Religious Education is directed at the youngest learners seems disingenuous and verges on indoctrination in an inherent value or truth to religion. They purposely seem to have given zero consideration to any critique of religious views in the classroom. Fortunately, the MOE seem to have rejected the idea of religious studies as a stand-alone subject at primary school.

…the intent of the report’s recommendations on religious studies is being sufficiently considered through the curriculum refresh, and that a stand-alone religious studies subject is not required. (MOE)

I also think that there is a significant degree of reluctance by the government to unnecessarily rock the boat prior to the next general election. The MOE view (page 8) is that as there are now fewer complaints about Religious Instruction classes, so the change to opt-in must be working. There doesn’t seem to be much consideration given to the fact that the number of schools promoting religious instruction has declined considerably. This also completely ignores the principles in question (promotion of religious faith in a non-religious state school) that caused people to complain in the first place.

Since the change to education legislation to confirm an opt in approach to religious instruction, we note that the Ministry is not receiving the numbers of religious instruction complaints that we were receiving under the previous legislation. Anecdotally, we understand the number of schools offering Religious Instruction has also declined since the changes to the Education and Training Act, and that parents are finding the new optin procedures are helpful. This seems indicative that the intent of the changes is being achieved. Given this, we consider that further legislative change relating to religious instruction is not a priority at this time. (MOE)

Changing the legislation allowing religious instruction would be simple. This is just an excuse.

The MOE also suggest (on page 9) that funding could be used to develop support for whole-school inclusiveness as it relates to cultural and religious diversity. This seems to be without regard to the value or validity of the underlying religious beliefs. If there were a large number of Flying Spaghetti Monster adherents represented in a school, would government still feel compelled to provide funding to ensure they felt included? I can’t wait to see how much funding atheists will get!

Subject to the bid’s success, this funding could be used to develop supports for whole-school inclusiveness as it relates to cultural and religious diversity. (MOE)

On page 4 of the RDC report (p13 of the PDF) the RDC attempted to link the protection of religious views with the Treaty of Waitangi, based on a response by Governor Hobson to a question from Bishop Pompallier. I think this should be seen as being historically relevant in the context of those times but that it no longer holds up to scrutiny and is at odds with widely-held values today.

At the signing in 1840, Governor Hobson affirmed, in response to a question from Catholic Bishop Pompallier, that ‘the several faiths of England, of the Wesleyans, of Rome, and also Maori custom shall alike be protected.’ Some argue that this acknowledged the religious and cultural diversity of New Zealand.  Others see it more narrowly, as a protection of both Maori custom and Christian diversity. (RDC)

My view is that the role of religion in the curriculum is really a non-issue.  I do support some education about religious (and non-religious) beliefs in primary schools but only as a small part of history or social studies. I don’t see the need for a stand-alone subject for younger kids. It can wait until high school when a more detailed and critical study of religious beliefs can be made accessible to the children. The Government seems to be broadly holding the same view, as they’ve not accepted the RDC’s recommendations in full and have rejected the idea of religious studies as a stand-alone subject. Their concerns about social cohesion will severely restrict the ambitions of the RDC.

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