Religion should be taught secularly in our schools

It’s important for kids to know about religion in historical, cultural and secular contexts, but not to be proselytised to. Shutterstock

Religion in schools is being debated once more in anticipation of findings from the controversial Review of the National Curriculum. This is a challenging topic locally and internationally. Can, and should, religion be taught in a secular context?

Conversation author Gary Bouma recently described the difficulties some groups are experiencing - adapting to the reality that Australia is increasingly both a religiously diverse and non-religious secular society.

What does ‘secular’ mean?

The commonly understood meaning of “secular”, as the separation of church and state, has different interpretations and implications. These interpretations influence people’s views on the place of religion in society and in our schools.

Hard secularism calls for complete separation and for the removal of religion from all public life, including state schools. A softer secular approach prohibits privileging one religion over others and argues instead for respect for religious diversity, including religious and non-religious worldviews. According to hard secularists, religious instruction, and even education about diverse religions, should not be allowed in government schools.

Australia’s debate appears to have moved on from that hardline position. The many actors involved in the current discussion include some prominent secularists, rationalists and humanists who oppose segregated religious instruction, but who are in favour of education about diverse religious and non-religious cultures and worldviews, taught by qualified teachers. Perhaps Australia is now ready to enable an inclusive and critical study of religions and ethics in the national curriculum.

Teaching religion secularly

This is not a new idea. Sweden, Denmark and England have been providing this type of broad-based study of religions for decades. Norway and Canada have more recently acknowledged the benefits of this approach and, despite legal challenges, now endorse a compulsory academic study of diverse religions and beliefs, for all ages.

The recent REDCo Project: Religion in Education. A Contribution to Dialogue or a Factor of Conflict in Transforming Societies of European Countries found that students from many different societies want to learn about religious diversity, and that this learning can play a role in peaceful coexistence.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights also published the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools. This document provides guidance for developing curricula, including procedures for assuring that implementation is fair. Further recommendations by the Council of Europe regarding religious and non-religious education, aim to promote tolerance and a culture of “living together”.

Critical education about religions can be taught in secular schools as long as no one view is presented as being correct, or better than another. In this critical approach, the students explore diverse worldviews, practices and beliefs, and the role that religious and non-religious ideas play in people’s lives and in society. The aim is to develop understanding, not to instil belief.

A critical education about religion examines religions’ role in conflict and also in dialogue and peace-building. This approach has been shown to develop positive attitudes to social inclusion and intercultural awareness – skills sorely needed to enhance young Australians’ ability to live and work in a globalised world.

“The need to nurture an appreciation of and respect for social, cultural and religious diversity” has been given a prominent place within the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, the document shaping the Australian Curriculum.

The Melbourne Declaration highlights the need for schools to promote “the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians” and for students “to understand the spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life”.

The current Australian Curriculum, under review, provides some opportunities to examine diverse religions, ethics and spirituality. However, there are few resources available, higher-priority competing demands for assessment, and limited teacher training opportunities in these areas.

Australia can learn from the above-mentioned, long-standing international examples and from emerging research. The review presents an opportunity for Australia to catch up with international best practices and policies, and to develop unique curricula, resources and teacher education opportunities for a dedicated subject in the Australian context.

The significant contribution of Christianity to Australian life need not be ignored, but it must be taught alongside the significance of Indigenous culture and spirituality, the diverse religions and spiritual traditions that have entered Australia more recently, newer religious movements and non-religious perspectives.

International crises and events impact local contexts. Religion and critiques of religion are prevalent globally. Consequently, religious and inter-religious literacy skills are vital for our children. These can only be obtained through high-quality, critical, secular education.