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Christianity: Bound for the Back of the Class?

2/22/2004 - 4:00 AM PST

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Polemics Over What Values Children Should Be Taught

LONDON, FEB. 21, 2004 (Zenit) - Arguments have resurfaced over whether schoolchildren should be instructed in Christian values. Last weekend British media published details of a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research that recommends drastic changes to religious education in schools.

The report entitled "What is Religious Education For?" is being studied by government ministers who will decide on the first national curriculum guidelines on the matter, last Sunday's Telegraph said. Though not a government body, the institute has close relationship with Britain's ruling Labor Party.

In fact, the institute's Web site boasts that many of its ideas have been adopted by the Labor government. The institute's former director, Matthew Taylor, is head of policy planning at the Prime Minister's policy directorate, the Telegraph noted.

The report proposes renaming religious education to spiritual education -- and allowing a lot less Christian content. Children would be better off, argues the report, learning less about the Ten Commandments and Jesus, and more about agnosticism, humanism, cults and even atheism.

"From the age of five, children should learn that there are people who do not believe in God, the afterlife or the power of prayer or that the Universe was created," the report says. It also recommends that children should be taught from early on that there are alternatives to marriage. Moreover, children with strong religious beliefs should be encouraged to question those beliefs.

The report's recommendations drew immediate criticism. A Telegraph editorial last Monday commented on the anti-Christian and authoritarian mentality behind the report. "It reflects the belief that parents who pass on the Christian faith are guilty of indoctrinating their children, and that it is the role of the state to stop them," stated the editorial.

In an opinion article for London's Times that same day, a self-proclaimed atheist, Mick Hume, stated: "If there is to be RE in state schools, I would prefer my children to be taught full-on Christianity than offered a vapid pick-and-mix of multicultural spirituality."

He added: "At least that would have the virtue of teaching them that there are such things as truth and commitment, and that some beliefs are worth fighting for."

In Tuesday's Guardian, columnist Mary Kenny defended the cultural riches students can learn by studying Christianity. "The Bible is the story of our civilization," she wrote. "Most people, throughout history, have not been atheists: most people have found meaning and purpose in their lives through the exercise of religion. Therefore to omit religion is to exclude something vital about the human condition."

Values-neutral

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has voiced a similar point of view. On Jan. 20 the Age newspaper reported that many parents are moving their children out of government schools because the state system is "too politically correct and too values-neutral." Howard, who was educated in the state school system, noted that in the past this was not the case, and lamented the change.

Howard's remarks, made in an Age interview, come at a time when the federal government is planning to increase funding to private schools, amid protests by the opposition and teachers unions.

The success of religious education in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, earned media attention last year. An in-depth report published June 23 by the Sydney Morning Herald noted that a new religious school opens in New South Wales every six weeks.

The article quoted Phillip Heath, president of Australian Anglican Schools, as saying that parents are keen on a religious-based education as it provides "a moral and ethical educational framework."

Overall, about 30% of students in the state attend religious schools. In the state, 586 schools are Catholic, 90 Christian, 53 Anglican, 23 Seventh-day Adventist, 13 Islamic, and eight Jewish. Other faiths have their own schools.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on Jan. 1, Stephen O'Doherty, head of Christian Schools Australia, defended the financial assistance that the government gives to private schools. He noted that parents who choose non-government schools pay fees on top of the government funding, thereby making an investment in the education of the nation.

He also rejected the criticism that faith-based schools are separatist and that only a common public schooling will guarantee tolerance and egalitarianism. "Denying those families for whom it is a matter of faith or conscience an education that integrates their spiritual development would be an outrageous attack on the freedoms we enjoy in our diverse society," affirmed ...

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