Editorial: Religious instruction no longer a school role

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Religion is taught in state primary and intermediate schools under provisions in the Education Act dating from 1964. Photo / Getty Images

A survey undertaken by a self-described rationalist, David Hines, has found that one in three state primary and intermediate schools teaches religious instruction, but that was not its most pertinent finding. More importantly, 62 schools have abandoned the practice since 2011.

Some of the drop-off may be attributed to a lack of teaching volunteers. Many more classes, however, will have been shut down because of a decline in parent support. That is unsurprising given the increasing diversity and drift from religion in society generally. It is a trend that should finally, and rightly, see the teaching of Christian values and the Bible returned to Sunday schools and the homes of believers.

Religion is taught in state primary and intermediate schools under provisions in the Education Act dating from 1964. The act demands secular teaching but allows schools to offer religious instruction or observance under certain conditions if desired by their boards of trustees. Typically, this involves volunteers from groups such as the Churches Education Commission taking 30-minute sessions.

Several problems have emerged with this, especially over the past few years. One is associated with pupils being able to opt out freely if their parents are not comfortable with the classes. Their choice must be accommodated in a way that does not leave the children feeling isolated or ostracised, as happened at Red Beach School a year ago when the father of a 7-year-old girl found her sitting in a "naughty corner". The school has since created a programme for pupils whose parents do not want them to have religious instruction.

The previous Government was concerned that requiring pupils to opt out could be seen as discriminating against them on the grounds of religious belief or lack of, thereby breaching the Human Rights Act. It did not, however, take the logical step and adopt an opt-in proposal. Some schools, commendably, have taken it upon themselves to do so.

At Campbells Bay School, the outcome was emphatic. When pressed, 79 parents opted in, and 145 elected not to opt in. Religious instruction was dropped. Other schools have followed suit, working their way through a process that Katie Hills, the acting principal of Torbay School, describes as "hurtful".

The schools' resolve is admirable because it acknowledges the most fundamental problem with religious instruction, that of the changing face of society. In the most recent Census for which statistics are available, almost a third of New Zealanders said they had no religion. Many others aligned themselves to religions other than Christianity. That trend will surely be re-emphasised when the data from this year's Census becomes available. In such a context, it is hardly surprising that the teaching of Christianity should rub up against modern concepts of rights.

Religious instruction at a school may remain in tune with the views of its community in some instances. But the experience of many schools that tackle the issue because of the large proportion of pupils opting out is instructive. When parents are required to make a choice, a clear majority do not want their children to have this teaching. Some may have no religion or another religion, some may believe teaching their children about the Bible should be done at home. Others may want this instruction to be done in church Sunday school classes, rather than by untrained volunteers in schools.

Once, that was the normal range of options. That is how it should be again. The increasing number of schools abandoning religious instruction suggests that it will be only a matter of time before it no longer intrudes.

Debate on this article is now closed.

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157 Comments

Ennavic

- New Zealand
11:08 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
What the heck would be taught in "atheism classes". Atheism isn't a set of beliefs that people share. Rather it is the lack of belief in something intangible.

Ennavic

- New Zealand
11:08 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
What the heck would be taught in "atheism classes". Atheism isn't a set of beliefs that people share. Rather it is the lack of belief in something intangible.

timmrichards

-
11:08 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
That's the great thing about science, it corrects itself and attempts to look for errors in previous thinking and openly admits when its wrong. Any changes to the bible recently? Nope, didn't think so, despite it containing glaring inconsistencies, scientific implausibilities and downright falsehoods, they're all still there.

Peter Harrison

- Henderson
11:08 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
This is of course not a new claim, that somehow the complete lack of religion is somehow a religion. Atheism is not a point of view. There is no doctrine, no required beliefs. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with this debate.

What is being argued against is giving parents the right to choose. Currently the law does not require informed consent of parents. What I mean by this is first for schools to honestly disclose information about religious instruction, and to make the curriculum available to parents, and then to ask parents if it is okay for their children to attend.

This would still not be perfect because it is still leading to children and parents being singled out and treated differently by the school and community. However, it would be a good start, and one that could be implemented easily in law.

Rebekah Hiller

-
11:08 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
Or maybe not just teach Christianity, but a comparative study of all major religions. If you're so keen on the 'spirituality' side of things, no reason to limit just to Christianity.

Or we could just drop it entirely and have children grow up and find religion if they want to, rather than having it presented as something as important as other school subjects.

Alpha

- Massey
11:07 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
"on the part of human reason "

And G K Chesterton, a contemporary of Bertrand Russell, said:

"Imagination does not breed insanity. What does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, but creative artists very seldom. I am not, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination."
And:
"The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."

former exile

- North Shore
11:07 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
and as a scientist, Einstein was only propsosing theories in the full knowledge that they would be improved and quite probably superceded by evidence that he had not yet uncovered. that is science. it progresses. the important thing is to remember that all scientific theories are tentative to a greater or lesser degree. it is great though when working on the basis of these theories produces significant real results

former exile

- North Shore
11:07 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
Not a good idea to resort to religion for the sake of convenience. I remember how earnestly a rather funny-looking man tried to indoctrinate us with a lot of things that I as a 10 year old found very dubious. The simple moral principles got lost in the b/s

former exile

- North Shore
11:07 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
Not necessarily. Scientific theories are just theories, which are based on factual evidence. That's very different from the dogma of religion, and subject to correction whenever new evidence is found. Religion tends to reject all new evidence and cling like grim death to the same old dogma.

former exile

- North Shore
11:06 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
if you're suggesting we should go back to origins of principles, then perhaps all Christians should immediately seek conversion to Judaeism, or whatever it was that preceded that (if you can go back far enough)

please stop the silly arguments. Most religions contain some good principles. In fact most of them seem share the same core principles for social cohesion. All that shows is a common human need for simple rules that allow us to coexist and cooperate more effectively

former exile

- North Shore
11:06 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
It's probably best to keep religion out of schools altogether and leave it to parents, churches etc. If you bring it into schools, then the alternative of no religion should also be fairly and positively presented, which I'm sure would not satisfy the fans of godstories

Jane

- Mornington, Dunedin
11:05 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
What we should teach is the proper definition of the term "scientific theory". The total ignorance of that definition - as illustrated above - results only in flawed arguments made by people hopelessly confused about the role of evidence and independently verifiable proof in science.

Patrick Dodd

-
11:05 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
"Religion is becoming an essential basis of brain development of the future."

Starting your argument with a pure fabrication doesnt leave you with any credibility.

Tony Lohrey

-
11:05 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
There is no benefit to 'studying' religion. Religion or the belief in anything supernaturaly is a delusion and a falsehood. It is holding back sensible progression of an otherwise intelligent race of animals capable of selecting a non-violent future. With religion, we will destroy ourselves, without it, we will likely prosper.

Golden Oldie

- New Zealand
11:05 am Tuesday 06 August 2013
Hellelujah, spoken [ I suspect inadvertantly ], like a true Calvinistic, Presbyterian Christian! You're describing education in Protestant Scotland fifty to one hundred years ago!
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