OPINION: Unlike many other parts of the world questions of religion do not loom large in the life of most New Zealanders.
In parts of Iraq, say, or northern Nigeria the belief a person professes or, worse, non-belief can be a matter of life or death.
In New Zealand, on the other hand, there is no established state church and according to the census people identify with a wide range of religions - Christianity, of course, Islam, Maori religion, Hinduism, even for a few the belief of the Jedi from Star Wars. Almost 40 per cent claim no religious affiliation at all.
The decline in religious affiliation is a far cry from just a few decades ago. New Zealand may not have an established church, but a large majority of the population attended religious services regularly, the large majority of them being Christian.
Christianity was also regularly taught in state schools. Since the Anglican Church predominated, Protestantism was taught. Catholic parents who did not want their children to be included tended to opt out.
Despite the fading of formal adherence to religion by much of the population, the provision for religion to be taught continues. Under the Education Act 1964, primary schools can provide religious instruction under certain conditions. Up to 20 hours a year may be taught, which over the 40-week school year amounts to an average of half an hour a week.
In order to maintain the semblance of secularity to the state education system, schools are technically closed at the time religious instruction is given. Parents who do not want their children to participate may ask to opt out. To stay on the right side of the Bill of Rights Act, any school that decides to give the instruction must be careful not to discriminate against children who opt out.
The fact that there is no great agitation to change the system would seem to indicate that most parents find it unobjectionable. New Zealand may be a more or less godless society, and the church is no longer the central pillar of everyday life it once was, but something that may vaguely be labelled the Judaeo-Christian ethic still underpins, however remotely, much of the country's culture and moral thinking. Many parents no doubt think some awareness of that ethic will do no harm and may do some good.
Any parents who might have concerns about indoctrination of their children no doubt calculate that the 20 hours a year of it they would get at school would easily be outweighed by the hundreds of hours they have with them when they are not at school.
For Tanya Jacob, a member of the Secular Education Network, which wants religious instruction in schools forbidden, those arguments were insufficient and she has removed her son from the school it was given. She complained that her son was discriminated against for opting out, something the school denies.
Obviously, discrimination cannot be tolerated. But she also complained that her son could hear religious instruction from the classroom next door, where he had been placed for the duration of the class. That seems plain silly.
The fact that her son was the only one to opt out seems to show most parents are perfectly happy with the way things are.
- The Press