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Christianity: Bound for the Back of the Class?

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."


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 O'Doherty.

Mixed-faith in Scotland

In Scotland, Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell defended faith-based education in a Feb. 1 article published in the Sunday Times. "The church," he wrote, "believes the mission of its schools is to develop as a community of faith and learning, providing the highest-quality education and offering formation through the promotion of gospel values, through celebration and worship, and through service to others."

The argument that children who are not schooled together will not be able to live harmoniously later in life "is absurd," argued Bishop Devine. He noted that with a separate system of Catholic schools in place, around half of Scotland's Catholics are married to non-Catholics. This fact gives the lie to arguments that religious schools create divisions in the community, he observed.

A project is under way in Scotland that will see seven mixed-faith schools open their doors. Scotland now has 344 Catholic primary schools and 59 secondary schools. In an interview Feb. 8 in the Scotsman newspaper, Cardinal Keith O'Brien noted that given the falling birthrate and a lack of local funds it could be necessary in the future to have Catholic and nondenominational schools sharing certain facilities on a single campus, "provided certain safeguards were observed so that it is most definitely a Catholic school."

However, the opening of the first mixed-faith campus was not without problems, the Scotsman newspaper reported Feb. 10. Cardinal O'Brien was present at the opening ceremony of the school in Dalkeith, but was not invited by the local authority to make a formal speech. The cardinal said he was "saddened" by Midlothian Council's decision not to include a prayer or blessing in the ceremony.

The article noted that the campus, which unites St. David's Catholic High, Dalkeith High and the Saltersgate school for children with special needs, has faced tensions amid criticisms of unnecessary segregation and trouble between religious groupings.

And just a few days later, on Feb. 13, the Scotsman reported that the head teacher of the Catholic school at the complex was ordered to take down religious artifacts from a wall in a shared corridor in the building. Preparations are under way for a second shared campus in the capital of Edinburgh.

Some may reject the idea of an education that includes religious values in the name of tolerance. But many parents are convinced that without religious instruction any education is seriously incomplete.


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