Shut school gate on bible-bashers

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 Shut school gate on bible-bashers
 Chris Fotinopoulos

                             I  f a chaplaincy program is John Howard’s
                                idea of values education, then he has
                             completely misunderstood the fundamental
                                                                                of the Enlightenment. In the humanities,
                                                                                students are encouraged to apply scientific
                                                                                method and rational thought in the investiga-
                             principle of secular schools. Any government       tion of social, political moral issues. My role as
                             initiative that abandons the principle of the      their teacher is to ensure that inquiry-based
                             separation of church and state does not only       learning is free from dogma and conducive to
                             go against the spirit of the Australian consti-    objective and independent thought.
                             tution, but also the spirit in which Jesus said,        Religious promotion in public schools —
                             ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,    as opposed to comparative religious study
                             and to God the things that are God’s.’             and the study of ethics — does nothing more
                                  Secular education protects children from      than thwart the good work that secular
                             religious dogma and indoctrination just as         educators do in this area. As one of my
                             national vaccination programs administered         Philosophy students suggested, the federal
                             in schools immunise students against poten-        money on offer for a priest could be better
                             tially dangerous viruses. Although faith-          used on a host of education initiatives that
                             based government initiatives such as a             facilitate reasoned and rational thought.
                             chaplaincy program may seem innocuous to                Another student made the salient point
                             many, they do have the potential to infect         that a government-funded chaplaincy
                             children with socially-transmitted credulity.      program discriminates against members of
                                  One of the primary objectives of secular      the school community who do not share the
                             education is to protect young minds from           religious values and beliefs of the school
 Thanks to Wendy Katauskas   superstition peddled by charlatans. Educators      appointed spiritual leader. Is it fair for a girl
 and New Matilda.            do this by acquainting students with the values    brought up in a progressive Christian house-
                                                                                hold to be offered counselling from, say, a
                                                                                school-appointed imam? By the same token,
                                                                                how can a child experiencing sexual confu-
                                                                                sion feel comfortable sharing his or her feel-
                                                                                ings with a spiritual leader whose religious
                                                                                doctrine deems homosexuality a sin?
                                                                                     A Code of Conduct prohibiting chaplains
                                                                                from preaching religion in government
                                                                                schools should allay such concerns. As
                                                                                Howard pointed out after announcing the
                                                                                first round of successful applicants, chaplains
                                                                                will ‘provide counselling, support and, where
                                                                                appropriate, spiritual guidance’. If I were to
                                                                                use an example in my English class that
                                                                                demonstrated Orwellian ‘doublethink’, this
                                                                                would be the one. In stating that priests will
                                                                                be prohibited from preaching unless required
                                                                                to do so, Howard has shown the power to
                                                                                hold two contradictory beliefs in his mind
                                                                                simultaneously, and accept both.
                                                                                     Qualified professions employed specifi-
                                                                                cally to provide counselling, pastoral care or
                                                                                welfare support to students are known as
                                                                                counsellors, social workers, psychologists,

  38                                                                                                    Australian Rationalist #77
welfare workers or pastoral carers. Members       ing any religion, or for imposing any reli-
of a religious organisation employed to           gious observance’, the answer is no.
provide values education are known as chap-            This does not mean that there is no place
lains, imams, gurus, religious instructors,       for religious institutions in Australian soci-
preachers, reverends, pastors or any title that   ety, far from it. As Section 116 also states, ‘the
religious leaders go by. The key point is         Commonwealth shall not make any law for
whether they’re qualified to provide welfare      prohibiting the free exercise of any religion.’
assistance. If they are not, then they have no    On this basis, there are plenty of faith-based
place offering spiritual guidance under the       government-subsidised educational institu-
guise of counselling in a secular institution.    tions that parents can access. Scotch College,
     This is not to say that a qualified coun-    Geelong Grammar, St Kevin’s and, as I know
sellor with a religious background cannot         from personal experience, Mentone Boys
provide counselling or pastoral care to           Grammar, offer blue chip religious education
students. Provided a spiritual leader is          at a premium rate.
prepared to subvert his or her personal                If high-end private school fees are prohib-
values, views, spiritual oath and religious       itive, then there are plenty of affordable
title for the professional and ethical stan-      Catholic schools on offer. Greek, Jewish and
dards that all employees of secular institu-      Russian communities provide orthodox reli-
tions are required to observe, they can do so.    gious education at reasonable rates. There is a
                                                  healthy sprinkling of affordable Unitarian and
                                                  ecumenical schools throughout the suburbs of
                                                  cities such as Melbourne, and schools of the
                                                  Christian revivalist variety seem to be keen to
                                                  pick up new recruits at a competitive fee. And         If we value free
                                                  there are of course places called churches,
                                                  synagogues, mosques and temples where the            and independent
                                                  entire family can attend and pray without
                                                  harassment or interference from outsiders.           thought, then the
                                                       Parents who object to a pay for pray            church and state
                                                  arrangement, or who are uncomfortable with
                                                  churches and spiritual institutions, can              distinction must
                                                  always encourage their children to pursue a
                                                  personal relationship with God. I have                    be preserved.
                                                  always thought that communication with
                                                  God without priests, incense or stained glass
                                                  is better suited to a society that values inde-
                                                  pendence and privacy.
                                                       The point of all this is that pluralistic
                                                  liberal secular democracies allow individuals
                                                  to think, assess, review and plan their lives in
                                                  accordance with their own values, beliefs and
     To restrict any professional from practis-   principles without clerical meddling. No
ing in a secular institution on the basis of      Australian likes anyone getting into their ear,
their religious beliefs is a clear violation of   especially government-appointed, bungling
the Australian Constitution, which says in        do-gooders.
Section 116 that ‘no religious test shall be           If we value free and independent thought,
required as a qualification for any office or     then the church and state distinction must be
public trust under the Commonwealth.’             preserved. Unfortunately Howard’s state
     We need to understand that the chap-         sponsored piety is casting a dark shadow
laincy debate is not so much a question of        over a secular school system that adheres to
whether a spiritual leader is capable of          the liberal values of the Enlightenment. The
providing assistance and guidance to youth.       worrying thing about all this is that Kevin
It is rather a question of whether the public     Rudd, an openly devout Christian who isn’t
purse should fund religious welfare programs      afraid to mix his religious beliefs with
in public schools. Given that Section 116 of      government policy, will probably do nothing
the Constitution states that ‘the Common-         to curtail this government’s theocratic foray
wealth shall not make any law for establish-      into our secular institutions.

 Chris Fotinopoulos, a Melbourne writer, teaches in a government school.

 October 2007                                                                                                         39

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