Values in dispute: secularism and tolerance in Australian education

Australia - Religious education in schools remains a vexed question for our society that no longer knows what to believe - or perhaps knows too well what it believes (or at least, certain sections of the population do), particularly as some turn towards more activist forms of agnosticism and atheism. For example, in Victoria, certain groups, including The Age, continue to protest against religious education in its present form (e.g., The God Complexity, The Age, 24/7).

These "secular" or atheist groups are arrayed against religious education for various reasons. Some of these reasons coalesce around certain arguments, particularly to do with tolerance and secularism. Since these groups and The Age rarely define tolerance and secularism in any depth, it might be worth reflecting on the use of these terms for the current debate. I will give a succinct rendition of these arguments, and analyse the problems with these arguments.

Firstly, tolerance: it is argued that Australia is a multi-religious, multicultural society that should not impose certain religious beliefs on people, but should be tolerant of different beliefs, with the implication that different religions should be studied alongside each other. The first point that one should note about this argument is that it is a belief: tolerance is a belief and value that structures how we see and behave toward each other. No-one can scientifically prove tolerance to be a valid or fool-proof way of running a society. Certain facts can be argued in its favour, but in the end, it can only be believed as a good and fruitful way of relating and acting (as it is in the West, though not necessarily in other places). I personally believe that tolerance can be a positive force in some circumstances, though it is not enough to have a successful society. Tolerance often sounds more like forbearance to me, rather than real acceptance of and engagement with the other.

The second point that one can notice about modern tolerance is that it is a belief that subjects other beliefs to it. In other words, it equalises different beliefs or social forces by subjecting them to its form of belief. In the case of "religion", it subjects the more prevalent forms (such as Christianity) to itself in order to control them, and then, equalise them with smaller forms. It may just to give smaller belief systems a chance to profess what they believe. This is not what modern tolerance is only about, however. It involves a power-play by the dominant elite to subject those social movements and beliefs to itself.

This second point, then, leads to my third point: tolerance is usually not real tolerance in our society, and because of this, we apply tolerance selectively for particular gain. For example, in the realm of sport, we allow many different sporting expressions in Australian society, however we do not reduce the more dominant forms, such as AFL, to the level of the less popular forms, such as bowling or synchronised swimming, by giving them the same media exposure or forcing children to learn and play them, out of tolerance. If we did, we would probably have widespread civil unrest. Real tolerance is not subjecting everything to the same playing field, but allowing different religious and cultural forms to exist in their own way. Do we really do this in Australian society? Do we really allow different religio-cultural forms, such as New Zealanders, or Hinduis, or Arabic cultures, to exist in their own form? No, because there's an existing culture, language, belief system, and way of life in Australia to which other cultural forms adapt themselves.

Therefore, for the religious education debate, the argument about tolerance can be seen as a ruse to subject a certain dominant belief system (Christianity) to another, atheist secularism. Modern secularism has no great respect for different religious forms, but wishes to equalise and subject all of them to its agenda. This does not mean that "religion" can't be studied in some form in schools. I think it should, but we should be clear what religion is: it is not just Christianity or Islam, but involves studying all belief systems that structure how we think about ourselves and how we act toward each other, which could include forms of modern secularism, nationalism and sport.

Now to the second term that is used widely in the "religious education" debate: secularism. We are repeatedly told that we live in a secular society and that our education system is secular. Yet, the term "secular" is rarely defined. Often it is used to mean "anti-religion" (which really means certain forms of religion such as Christian) or "anti-sectarianism". Professor Peter Sherlock has given a short and insightful history of the debate over Christian education and secularism in Victoria schools (on the ABC religion & ethics page) that might help some to have a better appreciation of the complex history of this debate.

The way that secular is used in modern Australia usually means the exclusion of religion, specifically Christianity. Yet, the problem with this argument is that there is no way to properly define religion to the exclusion of other belief systems, such as nationalism, capitalism or sport. Furthermore, secular has not always meant "anti-religion". In some sense, it has meant the carving out of a space in which politics and religion are separate. However, we should note that in modern times the state took on particular powers in doing this, and over time, this has meant other incipient belief systems have taken over education and culture, such as forms of nationalism.

The final point to make in regards to this "secular" push is that it sees itself as defending a certain secular legacy against religious aggressiveness, which should not be allowed in the public realm. For example, the Christian educators in schools are made out by certain media agencies to be radical proselytisers imposing their beliefs on children. While this can happen, this kind of argument is unjust to the ordinary people trying to positively contribute to Australian society by affirming that children are loved, not just by imperfect humans but by their maker, God. Furthermore, it is a straw argument constructed to make out religious people as aggressors and secular people as righteous defenders. This kind of conflictual dualism is unhelpful to the debate and should be abandoned.

The defensiveness of certain groups in the religious education debate seems ultimately to do with the beliefs and values underlying Australian society. Each side to this debate has beliefs and values they wish to put forward, and we should be honest about this. Though this is not always the case, one of the problems with the state education system, as John Howard intimated, can be the lack of coherent and consistent beliefs and values that provide a foundation for children and society. This problem is an element in this debate that people often ignore (and contributes to the defensiveness of some). Christian churches (and others) have defined values that they offer, to which many parents are increasingly attracted as is shown by the growth in Christian schools and support for religious education (which, by the way, makes The Age's argument about moderate Christians turning against religious education dubious). Nevertheless, some of the fear of Christian beliefs should also be better dispelled by Christians because, while Christianity does provide an over-arching framework for understanding our lives, it is not (and should not be) a closed system. God is often taken as the final answer, but God is just the beginning of a journey into the mystery of existence; one that Christians profess has to do with an open and affirming love which can orient us, but not control or overwhelm our freedom.

Therefore, we need to examine our beliefs in this debate much more deeply and not use smokescreens to cover our real intentions and agendas. In this way, we might be able to find common ground.