Religion in schools to go God-free
December 14, 2008
VICTORIAN state primary school students will soon have an alternative — religious education lessons taught by people who do not believe in God and say there is "no evidence of any supernatural power".
The Humanist Society of Victoria has developed a curriculum, which the State Government accreditation body says it intends to approve, to deliver 30-minute lessons each week of "humanist applied ethics" to primary pupils.
Accredited volunteers will be able to teach their philosophy in the class time designated for religious instruction. As with lessons delivered by faith groups, parents will be able to request that their children do not participate.
Victorian Humanist Society president Stephen Stuart said: "Atheistical parents will be pleased to hear that humanistic courses of ethics will soon be available in some state schools."
But the body that accredits Victoria's 3500 Christian religious instruction volunteers, Access Ministries, says humanism is not a religion and so should not be taught in religious education time.
Access Ministries now teaches in about two-thirds of state primary schools. Other accredited instructors teach Judaism, Buddhism and Baha'i.
The Humanist Society does not consider itself to be a religious organisation and believes ethics have "no necessary connection with religion". Humanists believe people are responsible for their own destiny and reject the notion of a supernatural force or God.
Fundamentalist Christian group the Salt Shakers panned the idea of humanists being given religious education class time.
Research director Jenny Stokes said: "If you go there, where do you stop? What about witchcraft or Satanism?
"If you accredit humanism, then those things would have an equal claim to be taught in schools."
But RMIT professor Desmond Cahill, head of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the body appointed by the Government to accredit all non-Christian volunteer religious teachers in state primary schools, has praised the humanist curriculum.
He said he could foresee no problem with approving it. "Our view would be that humanist studies are a legitimate world view just as Catholicism, Anglicanism or Islam is, and that none are any more provable than the rest, just as theism or atheism are no more provable than the other."
Professor Cahill also intends to approve a proposal by Muslim leaders to allow volunteers to teach religion in state primary schools.
"I think there's a greater realisation that Australia's emerging as a multi-faith society, which means the acceptance of non-Christian religions … there's an increasing realisation that the notion of religion has expanded to include all kinds of spiritualities and associated world views, including atheist and humanist world views."
Humanist Society education director Harry Gardner said he had designed a course to be taught from prep to year 6 called "Applied Ethical Education — Humanism for Schools". It covers subjects such as the art of living, the environment, philosophy, science and world citizenship. The curriculum is likely to be submitted for approval next year.
Dr Gardner, a former CSIRO research scientist, said his course adopted the "honesty ethic of science (that is, not fudging results)" with the intention that children would be inspired to think for themselves.
"If accredited for use in schools, the Humanist Society of Victoria envisages that the volunteer teachers would develop a comradely relationship to the regular religious instructors in adjacent rooms," he said.
But Access Ministries chief executive Evonne Paddison said while it was not her decision as to who should or should not have access to state schools, she did not think humanism fell under "the relevant legislation to be classified as a faith-based religion in religious instruction in the way that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism" did.
Ms Stokes said humanists could not expect to have it both ways. "It doesn't make sense because they proclaim themselves not to be a religion," she said.
Religious instruction in state schools should be Christian because "basically we are a Christian nation", she said.