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Newsline 21 February 2014

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Australia shows the way in removing evangelists from schools

Australia shows the way in removing evangelists from schools

Opinion | Thu, 20 Feb 2014

With widespread apathy about what passes for religious education in schools, our classrooms are increasingly being used by religious groups to carry out their missionary work. Terry Sanderson explains how Australian parents have led the way in removing evangelists from schools.

Last year the National Secular Society published a report about the incursion of dubious and extreme religious groups into schools.

We made the point that some of these groups are not really concerned with giving a rounded education about religion, but are more interested proselytising and seeking converts for their own brand of Christianity.

School heads seem complacent about it, even grateful to these groups for helping them fulfil a legal requirement to provide religious education and worship that their own teachers are unable or unwilling to undertake.

We complained to the Department for Education and sent them the evidence we had gathered. Their response was equally unconcerned, even vaguely approving of the idea of these evangelists using schools as a platform for their message.

It appears that religious enthusiasts of all stripes can have free access to our schools if they are determined enough. All they need do is offer their services, which are often attractive and apparently skilled.

Similar concern about the infiltration of schools has been raised in other parts of the world.

In Ireland recently, a rather extreme Catholic group called Pure in Heart, with a message about abstinence, the undesirability of masturbation and the evils of contraception went into a school and taped up the hands of pupils to demonstrate something or other about the evils of extra-marital sex.

Since the controversy, the Pure in Heart website has been taken down for "a facelift".

The Irish Examiner appealed in an editorial for more oversight in schools to ensure that visiting groups weren't overstepping the mark.

We made a similar appeal to Michael Gove but he will not be moved.

There are signs, though, that in some parts of the world the evangelists are not given quite such a clear run to make coverts in classrooms.

In the state of Victoria in Australia, an evangelical outfit called Access Ministries was appointed by the authorities in 2006 to provide in its schools "Christian Special Religious Instruction (SRI)" which Access prefers to more reassuringly call "Christian Religious Education (CRE)".

From the very start it was clear to some that this was state-sponsored evangelism and proselytising in schools. As parents became aware of what was happening, the unease and resentment grew.

Some parents complained after finding out that, even after they had exercised their 'opt-out' right, their children were still receiving religious education. Consequently, for the past two years, Religious Education has become "opt in".

According to the Current Education Department guidelines, school principals are required to schedule "special religious instruction" classes in the school year when accredited teachers are available. Based on figures released by the Education Department, the number of state schools offering religious education has declined by almost a third in Victoria in the past two years.

Statistics show about 666 state schools offered religious education in 2013 compared to 940 schools in 2011. There were 130,100 students who got religious education in 2011 while only 92,808 students in 2013.

One principal, Joe Kelly, of Cranbourne South Primary School, who has suspended the classes with Access Ministries, said: "It is not education… It has no value whatsoever. It is rubbish – hollow and empty rhetoric … My school teachers are committed to teaching children, not indoctrinating them."

A spokesperson for the Atheist Foundation said: "We encourage all other school principals to put the education of our children above the attempts to indoctrinate them via the promotion of one particular faith based belief system. This thinly veiled pseudo-curriculum has already been systematically reviewed and exposed for what it really is."

Professor Marion Maddox, a leading authority on the intersection of religion and politics in Australia and Director of Macquarie University's Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, concluded:

"The tone of ACCESS materials is unequivocally evangelical, not only in that it relentlessly pushes the participating students towards cultivating an individual faith but, perhaps more importantly, in that a person participating in the ACCESS program would come away with the idea that Christians believe that being (or becoming) a Christian is the only acceptable life choice.

"Moreover, proselytising may occur not merely between religions but between different branches of a single religion. Despite occasional warnings in the teachers' books to have regard to Christian diversity, 'Religion in Life' continuously presents a single, evangelical, literalist version of Christianity. My conclusion is that 'Religion in Life' would, intentionally or not, have the effect of conveying to non-evangelical Christian students that their version of Christianity was inadequate and that they should abandon it and adopt the 'Religion in Life' version."

Dr David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer in Curriculum & Pedagogy at Monash University included in his evaluation:

"Students across all the student workbooks are not being challenged to think independently as the vast majority of student tasks are based on what we in the profession call busy work.

"Moreover there does not seem to be any logical selection and sequencing of the content, nor is the content broken down into manageable instructional units based on students' cognitive capabilities. The related instructional delivery in the Instructor's Manual also does not appear to support clear sequencing, clear descriptions and demonstrations of skills to be acquired, nor are the student activities followed by practice and timely feedback – the essence of good pedagogical practice which should focus initially on high levels of teacher involvement."

And further reassuring news comes from New Zealand where a primary school in Auckland has removed religious education from its curriculum after several parents complained to the Human Rights Commission.

St. Heliers School was accused of discriminating against non-Christian families by teaching religious classes to all students. The school sent a letter to parents telling them it would remove the religious classes within regular school hours. Religious education will still be offered in the school but only after normal class hours.

So, it can be done. But the lesson of these cases is that the initiative has to come from the parents. Only if they make their concerns and anger known will the Government listen, otherwise the evangelists have a free hand.

As things stand at present in Britain, the widespread apathy about what goes on in schools in relation to religious education stands in the way of any barriers being put up.

Even if the law did not compel schools to teach religious education, there seems to be a general feeling among headteachers, as well as the Government, that any religion is better than no religion.

Obviously, that is not an opinion that we share. We have provided the bullet in the form of our Evangelism in Schools report. But it is up to parents to fire it.

Read our report on the activities of evangelical organisations in state schools:
Evangelism in schools ­– The role of external visitors in publicly funded education

Secular or bust

Secular or bust

Opinion | Tue, 18 Feb 2014

Reflecting on the extremist wings of Pakistani politics and ideology, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid describes the dire need for Pakistan to place the secular narrative at the centre of its political agenda and mainstream media.

Before Pierre Gassendi gave Epicureanism a new life in the 17th century, the teachings of Epicurus had been relentlessly misinterpreted – and hence shunned – for nearly two millennia. Epicureanism had been misapprehended as atheism and propagated as such.

Dante's Divine Comedy threw Epicureans in the sixth circle of hell, while those who shared the beliefs of Epicurus had no place in Mishnah's afterlife either. This was because Epicureans were perceived as 'heretics' and 'non-believers', even though they were – like Epicurus himself – merely deists who propagated the concept of "neutral gods" that do not influence the laws of nature and hence, do not interfere with human lives. Peddling any form of theism that differs from orthodox religion's idea, as atheism, historically kept the church's stranglehold over the state.

In Pakistan secularists have been suffering the fate of Epicureans since the country's inception. People like Maulana Maudoodi, the founding father of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), and a staunch opponent of Pakistan's creation, dubbed secularism as "atheism" or "irreligion". Even though all secularism asks for is state neutrality on matters of belief, where everyone is free to practice their religious rituals as long as they do not breach another person's individual liberty and basic human rights. Secularism merely propagates – as reiterated by Epicurus around 307 BC – the separation of religion and state, and not the dissolution of religion per se.

Since Epicurus's God was neutral and didn't interfere in human lives, Epicureans condemning the interference of religion in personal life was its logical corollary. And of course, it's not quite as simple as it sounds.

Secularism has been touted by some quarters as the solution to Pakistan's multi-pronged problem for as long as the country has existed. However, it has never been more pivotal, with sectarianism and religious extremism redefining the quintessence of Pakistan by reaching their respective nadirs on a daily basis as manifested by the TTP orchestrated blasts in Bannu and Rawalpindi. With the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their blood brothers Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) using their religious zeal to wreak havoc in the country, shelving religion as a political tool has become the need of the hour.

On the face of it, the TTP's demand of implementing the Shariah in Pakistan falls perfectly in line with the 1973 Constitution's Preamble, according to which Islam is the state religion and Allah has the sovereignty. And so it's ironic that a group so often accused of breaching the constitution is actually the most fervent proponent of its founding principle. The fact that when TTP's passion spills over the blood of Pakistanis also spills over, is in synchrony with the ideology that they propagate, contrary to popular belief.

From attacking Malala Yousafzai to orchestrating suicide bombings, the Taliban defend every single one of their heinous crimes through religious scriptures and historical precedents, as current TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid and his predecessor Ehsanullah Ehsan have regularly reiterated. Dubbing it as misinterpretation on the Taliban's part is as convenient as it is dangerous considering that it's a direct case of "my interpretation versus yours", with the only difference being that the TTP's interpretation endeavours to recreate 7th century Arabia as accurately as possible. Which 'version' of religion is correct, becomes a redundant question when one particular 'version' has taken up arms against every other 'version'. The question of safeguarding the lives of "the others" from the menace of this particular 'version' thence becomes the most pertinent question, with the answer simply being: secularisation.

There is a need to understand that no religion envisions an ideal pluralistic society. For the biggest selling point of every religion is the superiority of its followers which in turn is taken care of by incorporating their authority through laws emanating from religious scriptures. Fighting over which 'version' is accurate can only be a relevant exercise, where all 'versions' are guaranteed basic human rights. Which again, is only workable in a secular society.

When you disseminate terms like 'Islamic republic', 'Islamic democracy', 'Islamic socialism', 'Moderate Islam' or any such oxymoron as a part of your political ideology, you're creating room for all 'versions' of the religion to become stakeholders, with the most dangerous becoming usurpers through sheer clout. By separating religion from the state you put human rights at the forefront of everything with any violation, regardless or its religious or cultural motivations, becoming a punishable offence. Whenever religion and basic human rights end up being at odds – as they quite often do – it's the latter that is given precedence in a secular state.

There's a need to comprehend the fact that the question of Pakistan's future is now a binary one. It's either the Taliban ideology that shall rule the roost or it's going to be a secular one. For any attempt to find "middle ground" would inadvertently leads towards the former. It's simply either Talibanisation or secularisation.

The only reason that some quarters in Pakistan are actually mulling over making barefaced terrorists like the TTP as stakeholders in government is owing to the fact that carrying religion on your sleeve or even shoving it down others' throat garners popularity. And so in a country where religion can be used — rightly or wrongly — to subjugate human beings owing to their identity; to defend chopping off heads; and to decide who can and can't read any particular scriptures, accurate depiction of secularism obviously becomes crucial.

Just like Epicureanism, secularism doesn't deny the existence of a deity or endeavour to create a state sans religion. All it vies to formulate is a society where all citizens are equal regardless of who they worship or don't; regardless of which historical figures they respect or don't and regardless of what they believe in and what they don't.

There is a dire need to put this rather simple narrative in the mainstream media.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a writer and social commentator based in Pakistan. His blog piece originally appeared on the The Friday Times website and is reproduced here with kind permission. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

NSS Speaks Out

We were quoted about the Church of England's ban on its gay clergy being married when the new law comes into effect next month in The Times (subscription) and Huffington Post

NSS Campaigns Manager Stephen Evans had a letter published in the Times Educational Supplement calling for education about religion to be objective and balanced, and never biased towards a specific faith. He also spoke on BBC3Counties radio, arguing for an end to the exemption that permits religious slaughter in the UK.

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