Up Front by Emma Hart

342

Oh, God

I'm not a militant atheist. I've always been grateful that I was raised by a good Christian woman; one who believed in kindness, and giving, and generally not being a judgemental homophobic arsehole. Those people's voices are largely missing from our religious discourse, and it's good to be able to remember they exist. 

I went to church, and to Sunday School, for years. From the age of about eight, though, I was quite conscious that the other people there were getting something out of the experience that I simply wasn't. There was something going on that I palpably stood outside of. The only things I really enjoyed about church were the singing (I have a sneaking suspicion the thing my mother most liked about Protestantism was being allowed to sing) and getting to dress up in my church clothes. Asked about them recently, I realised for the first time that my favourite church clothes involved a miniskirt and knee-high cowboy boots. Perhaps it was always too late for me. 

I'm not a militant atheist – except when it comes to kids. 

I didn't exactly agonise over which primary school to send our kids to. We were poor, they walked, it was the closest school. I was pleased, though, that it wasn't a school that had a Bible class. 

I'm going to call it Bible class, by the way. I'm not going to call it religious instruction or religious education. It's not education, and it's not about religion. In New Zealand, the "religious" instruction that takes place in schools is entirely and exclusively Christian. Its sole purpose is indoctrination. There is a place for teaching comparative religion and looking at the role of religion in society. It's in social studies, in school time, taught by proper teachers. Unlike many Bible classes, it in no way involves telling small children that they're going to Hell. 

Legally, theoretically, Bible class cannot take place in New Zealand state schools. Yet practically, it clearly does. The school must, legally, be closed when Bible class takes place, but children who don't participate cannot leave the school, as they would be able to if it was closed. Over a year, Bible class adds up to about a week of class time that non-participating children aren't getting. About a week in conditions that in most schools are identical to those for children in detention. 

The Ministry of Education's response to cases taken before the Human Rights Commission this year – by parents, backed by the Secular Education Network – has been that having Bible class in school is necessary to give parents choice. If non-Christian parents don't like it, they have the option to send their kids to a different school. 

I just want to take a moment to dwell on the astonishing arrogance and privilege of that view. "Just" take your kids to a different school. Easy. Especially if you live in eastern Christchurch. We have so many schools we had to get rid of a whole bunch. And if you live in the country... Something. Boarding school. Fuck knows. 

Thing is, there is no choice easier to make than to give your kids a Christian education. There are no special Atheist Schools, but maybe if your school doesn't offer Bible class, you could send them to one of the special ones that does? Or, if it's that important that they get educated in Christian "values", you could take them to church. They could go to Sunday School. You could teach them at home. A secular state school is never any parent's only option for a Christian education. It is an atheist parent's only choice for secular education, though. 

Some parties have actually made statements about their position on Bible class in state schools. Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First (!) oppose it. National thinks you should just drive Tristan and Felicity to a different school. 

A survey of schools carried out last year made for terrifying reading: 

Just over 800 state schools are believed to be running religious instruction classes. 578 schools responding to the survey confirmed the existence of lessons run outside of the New Zealand Curriculum, and inside school hours.

Further, 92 schools are not currently teaching any science subjects, despite being obligated to do so by the New Zealand Curriculum, and 159 are not teaching evolution in their classes.

Out of 1833 schools that actually replied to the OIA, 251 are not teaching evolution. What the ever-loving Fuck. 

This is part of the reason I'm opposed to Destiny Church's school becoming state-integrated. Should be a good idea: they'll have to teach the curriculum, and there'll be more oversight and supervision. 92 schools, not teaching science. Oversight's working like a charm there, right? 

Religion in state-integrated schools? I like to consider that idea in the framework of a magical world where we have an entrenched Bill of Rights that's superior to other legislation, and no school's special character can contravene it. No teaching discrimination, no matter how fervently you believe it. 

Unlike SEN, however, I'm not opposed to any Bible class in state schools. What I want is for the existing law to be enforced properly and in a way that makes sense and doesn't actually privilege one religious position above all others. Bible class can be available, but it must be:

 - opt-in, not opt-out. Australian experience shows that this will cause a massive drop in participation.

 - actually outside of normal school hours. Like any other club or activity, it can take place before or after school or at lunchtime, but those who participate will be giving up their free time to do so. 

Nobody's choice will be taken away. In fact, by removing the coercive choice of Bible class being opt-out, and children who are opted out being ostracised, there'll be more choice than there was before. The school can still reflect the nature of its community – all of it, not just the loudest voices. Everybody wins! 

Knock off that fucking 'hymns in assembly' shit, though. 

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