By ANNA HALAFOFF and CATHY BYRNE.
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”.