This message is delivered to young children in public schools. Research by Macquarie University has found extreme approaches to religion education by untrained scripture volunteers.
The survey of attitudes and expectations was conducted in 13 NSW schools from the northern rivers to Western Sydney. It included responses from 121 parents, teachers, scripture volunteers and principals. It found that children in one school were told if they ‘didn’t believe in Jesus they would burn in hell’. The Department of Education considers such comments as child abuse.
The survey also found that scripture (Special Religious Education - SRE) teachers tend to discourage questioning, emphasize submission to authority and exclude different beliefs. The survey revealed stark differences between what parents want and what is happening in the classroom.
PhD scholar Cathy Byrne, from Macquarie’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, found: ‘Most parents and trained teachers want critical thinking about religion, individual responsibility for moral decisions and empathy towards others’. In contrast, 70 percent of scripture teachers think children should be taught the Bible as historical fact and should not be given a choice whether to believe in God. 80 percent of Christian scripture teachers think children should not be exposed to non-Christian beliefs.
Like most Australian states, NSW public schools are required to offer access to religious groups to teach children (from kindergarten to year 10) for up to an hour each week. There is no requirement for professional training of volunteers, nor any control of content. Ms Byrne claims that ‘the policy does not respect the privilege of teaching and leads to some negative outcomes’.
In one school, teachers were refused entry to the SRE classes and parents were unsure what was being taught. One group of scripture volunteers distributes a ‘Creation For Kids’ kit to dozens of regional public schools. The kit includes colouring books, calendars and DVDs with the message that ‘Genesis is neither a fairy story, nor poetry, nor a parable … it’s a reliable record of what actually happened’. The kit derides Darwinian evolution, states that the universe is only 6000 years old and uses Bible references to claim that ‘man and dinosaurs once lived together’. Ms Byrne claims parents would be shocked to find ‘young earth’ creationism in public schools. She argues for more accountability over what volunteers are teaching.
‘Several parents also expressed concerns that pressure is being put on children to become full church members’, Ms Byrne said. ‘Parents and trained educators disagree with SRE volunteers over the approach to religion in public schools’ she said.
The research found that 69 percent of parents and trained educators want world beliefs and religions taught rather than segregated, single-faith instruction. Australia has a very different model for religion in public schools than most other western democracies. Ms Byrne said that using volunteers can be inclusive of minority faiths, but problems with the policy should be addressed.
‘Segregation is an outdated approach in religion education’ she said. While more than half of those surveyed felt that scripture classes offer important lessons in values, 12 percent of parents felt pressure to enroll in a religious option. Despite the policy requirement for a non-scripture class, one school did not offer this to parents. ‘It appears that SRE practice varies significantly between schools’ said Ms Byrne.
‘Internationally, governments are highly involved with religion education because of its implications for social tolerance’, said Ms Byrne. ‘Australia needs to review its hands-off approach’, she said. Ms Byrne will present her results at the Australian Association for Studies of Religion conference in Brisbane, next week (July 2nd - 4th).
CONTACT: CATHY BYRNE: firstname.lastname@example.org www.religioneducation.org.au Australian Association of Studies of Religion - Annual Conference -http://www.aasr.org.au/ 2nd - 4th July 2010Griffith University Multi-Faith Centre QLD Nathan campus, Griffith University 170 Kessels Road, Nathan, QLD, 4111 Contact: email@example.com.