​Professor Peter Sherlock, Vice-Chancellor of
the University of Divinity, at an Intelligence
Squared Debate on 26 February on the topic
"Faith-based Religious Education has no
place in Public Schools".

A leading Anglican layman and academic has called for faith-based religious education taught by volunteers to be replaced by a critical, comprehensive, assessable study of religions taught by professional educators.

Professor Peter Sherlock, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity and a Lay Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, said General Religious Education (GRE) could help students understand key religious concepts and myths, such as the Five Pillars of Islam or the Ten Commandments.

He said two religious subjects were offered in VCE in more than 120 schools -- but only one of those schools was in the state system, the others being Catholic and independent schools.

Nineteenth-century Protestant fears that Roman Catholic priests might come into state schools and teach their particular brand of Christianity had been replaced by a fear that militant atheists would come into public schooling and exclude religion altogether.

Professor Sherlock was speaking at an Intelligence Squared Debate at Melbourne Town Hall on 26 February in support of the proposition that "Faith-based Religious Education has no place in Public Schools". The debate, presented by the Wheeler Centre and St James Ethics Centre, drew an audience estimated by organisers to be about 600 people.

A pre-debate poll found that 65% of respondents supported the proposition, 25% were against it and 10% undecided. At the end of the debate, support had risen to 71%, opposition had gone up to 27% and the undecideds had dwindled to only 2%.

Professor Sherlock said faith-based religious instruction could all too easily cheapen religion "by relegating it to the field of the well-intentioned amateur".

"It's time to put an end to childish ways and grow up," he said. "It's time to remove faith-based religious education from our public schools. It's time to replace faith-based religious education with a modern professionally taught program of General Religious Education."

Dr Justine Toh, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, spoke against the proposition, saying it was naive to assume that comparative religious studies were any more neutral than faith-based religious education.

"Faith-based religious education is upfront and honest about where it comes from," Dr Toh said.

She said comparative religion was like a blind man describing an elephant. Depending which part he touched, he had a different understanding of what the elephant might look like but lacked access to the bigger picture.

Dr Toh said it was unclear whether comparative religious studies' advocates took its own biases into account and said it also left unexplored the experience of the committed believer. To say that faith had no place in public schools conveyed the idea that faith had no place in public life, "which mocks true pluralism".

"Education is about preparing kids for life, especially when it comes to making informed decisions for themselves. How are they going to be able to do that if our education system can't set aside even 30 minutes a week for religious education?"

Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University in Sydney said children deserved to learn about their own and other religious beliefs with the same rigour they learn about maths, literature, geography or anything else.

She said the recent controversies about ACCESS Ministries and SRI (Special Religious Instruction) taught by volunteers from the churches were nothing new. In several states, the churches had withdrawn from teaching it and governments had held inquiries into SRI over several decades.

"Since the mainstream churches abandoned Australian SRI in frustration, hellfire preachers and evolution deniers have largely filled the void," Professor Maddox, author of the recent book Taking God to School, said.

The Revd Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia, said that as a Baptist, he took the separation of church and state seriously, citing Virginian Baptists dissuading Thomas Jefferson from establishing the Episcopal Church in the United States when the US Constitution was being drawn up.

Mr Costello said he had taught religious education 25 years ago at St Kilda Primary School and that the separation of church and state, which was designed to protect the proper role of religion in civil society, had been misunderstood.

The 1960s Cultural Revolution in China had so damaged Confucianism and its ethical basis that the Chinese Communists now allowed Bibles to be brought into schools to help provide an ethical framework for students. In the West, the Judeo-Christian story undergirded so much of Western culture that even prominent atheist Richard Dawkins had said people needed to know Bible stories to be culturally literate.

Mr Costello said if children didn't know about the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, what were they to make of John Milton or even Manning Clark's history of Australia -- to say nothing of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Responding to controversies about ACCESS Ministries, Mr Costello said: "If the vehicle is wrong, we can fix that rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water."

Author David Vann said he was not a typical atheist as he was married to a Catholic and had taught at a Jesuit university. He questioned whether a person of faith could teach comparative religion impartially and said religion was important for understanding aspects of human culture "and the field is just too important to leave to those of faith".

"Faith in something for which there is no evidence can never be a goal in education -- never -- and we know that ACCESS Ministries has that goal," Mr Vann said.

A columnist with The Australian and Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, Mr Nick Cater, told audience members that if they were voting for the proposition, they were voting "to limit, not expand, your children's horizons" and against an open-minded education.

Mr Cater outlined what young people were expected to be once they emerged from the education system.

"Fundamentally, what we are asking is that they come out with a knowledge of what is inside them as well as what is outside them and this is where I think religion has such an important place," he said.


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