Should we teach religion in schools?

DAVE ARMSTRONG
Last updated 05:00 23/07/2012

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Dave Armstrong

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OPINION: Years ago, I was employed in secondary schools as an itinerant teacher to teach music to individual students.

Included in my round was a Catholic school with a friendly and progressive staff who did much to dispel the prejudices I held about Catholic schools.

The half-hour lessons were in school time, and each week the student would have to make a time for the next lesson. I assumed most would want to rotate their lesson times so they missed each class subject equally. But many students asked if they could come during religious education.

''I can easily miss RE. We don't really do much,'' some boys would assure me. ''Don't worry, it's just Christian doctrine,'' said others, including those with papal-sounding names like Benedict.

I remembered these kids as a recent debate raged about religious education in state primary schools. A loophole in our Education Act allows schools to close during class time so religious volunteers can teach Bible classes in what the Churches Education Commission, which does much of the teaching, calls ''value-based'' learning.

However, a secular education group, believing the classes to be outdated as our population diversifies, has called for them to be abolished. The last Labour Government intended to make the classes opt-in rather than opt-out, so as not to stigmatise non-Christian students, but got cold feet after a public outcry.

Labour lacking courage? What a surprise.

Is it a little old-fashioned to assume that most kids are Christians and their parents want a non-objective believer to come in and teach religion?

Three Auckland primary schools, faced with a more than 10 per cent opt-out rate, have recently stopped the classes.

An inner-city Anglican vicar even weighed in on the side of the secularists, saying Christian education in public schools was ''un-Christian'' and ''should be swept into the ash can of history''.

You've got to love modern Anglicans. When I was young, most Anglicans were sherry-drinking, Right-wing snobs in the mould of the bigoted Samuel Marsden, who so hated Irish Catholic convicts he was known as the ''flogging parson''. But today, we have dreadlocked bishops, gay marriage advocates, and clerics who talk more about Maori sovereignty than the Bible.

Do Anglicans still actually believe in God? It's been a long time since I have met one who has mentioned religion.

So why is our society becoming increasingly secular? I suspect one reason is that it's getting more difficult to teach doctrine.

To survive today, kids have to question everything and many can spot unthinking dogma a mile off.

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The teachers of Marxism in the Soviet Union had a similar problem, trying to excite classes about democratic centralism when all the kids wanted to do was listen to The Beatles and buy some blue jeans.

So if Bible classes in schools teach only one religious point of view, no wonder kids are rushing off to learn the trombone. And that's a pity because studying the religions of the world can be fascinating. With so much paranoia about Islam, surely a few objective lessons about what Muslims actually believe wouldn't go amiss.

The brilliant Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are great stories well worth reading if you like a good adventure. And listening to the works of composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote everything to the glory of God, even makes a non-believer like me become quite interested in Christianity - for a few moments.

Some secularists, who seem to have an almost religious fervour about them, are now calling for atheism to be taught in schools.

I reckon that's overkill. If a school has a good science department, then atheism tends to take care of itself.

So let's study religion in state schools, but look at many, with objectivity. Religious parents need not worry about their children being abducted. Any religion that practises tolerance will face few problems from others. But let's leave indoctrination and dogma to the schools of North Korea and the charter schools of South Auckland.

- The Dominion Post

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