Stan van Hooft lectures in Philosophy in the School of International and Political Studies.
It beggars belief that amateur and enthusiastic religious volunteers on the one hand, and theologically trained chaplains on the other would not engage in activities designed to move young people towards religious faith. What else could motivate their activities? The revelation of Dr Evonne Paddison’s agenda simply makes explicit what anyone who thinks critically about such issues can only assume. Not that such motivations are necessarily bad.
Anyone who feels a strong moral or religious commitment, or values highly their membership in an identity-defining group such as a church, a political party, or even a football club, will want to bring others into the fold. This is human nature and is not confined to religious adherents.
Whenever we value our commitments or attitudes and the groups that shape our being, we will want to share those values and joys with others. However, the desire to bring people into one’s fold can lead to the desire to punish or eliminate those who decline to join.
Like all innocent human motivations, the desire to share one’s commitments with others must be tempered by ethical standards. Examples where they are not so tempered range from the burning of heretics, missionary conversion at the point of a gun, the moral and doctrinal policing of the Iranian revolutionary guard and the Taliban, genocide in all its forms, and murderous political purges. These are only the most egregious cases. Is the desire to convert young people to one’s religion on a par with these?
In order to answer this question we must first consider the context in which it arises. Australia is a secular society which guarantees both the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
Ours is a liberal society in which everyone is entitled to the religious beliefs that they hold and to follow their religious practices provided they cause no harm to others. This means that religion is a private matter rather than a public issue.
Public issues are those which the government is charged to regulate and control because they touch upon benefits or harms that flow to everyone. Private matters are those that touch upon the consciences or lifestyles of individuals which those individuals are entitled to pursue because they have no public impact. But the boundaries between the private and public spheres are porous.
Religious adherents, for example, seek to influence public policy on such matters as abortion and euthanasia. Providing funding for religious instruction and faith-based counselling in schools is another point at which this boundary is pierced. As such it needs justification. Why would influencing children towards religious faith be illegitimate from a liberal perspective and unethical from a moral perspective?
The first reason is that it could be seen as a harm perpetrated on people who are especially vulnerable. The young are impressionable. While scepticism does grow with maturity, children begin by believing in Santa Claus, the supernatural powers of Superman and imaginary friends. It is into these impressionable minds that Dr Evonne Paddison and her ilk intend to plant stories of virgin births, resurrections, angels carrying prophets to Jerusalem and the coming of a Messiah.
While many young people grow out of such fantasy-beliefs as Santa Claus, they are less inclined to suspend belief in religious doctrines. And this is precisely because they are taught in highly valued school time by persons whose generous motivations give them credibility. Children do not have the capacity to critically assess the ideas that are presented to them.
Many believe that religious instruction is a necessary vehicle for moral education. The belief is widely held that young people do not acquire ethical values and moral standards unless they are taught religion. This view is an insult to parents. It is parents who impart moral values, and most do so quite successfully through their example without invoking any religious foundations.
A liberal secular society should protect children in public schools from indoctrination by well-meaning religious adherents while also protecting the private right of religious groups to set up their own schools. Schools funded from the public purse and pursuing public goods should not be intruded upon by the private convictions of any groups within society.
And here is a suggestion. If the state and federal governments do want to succumb to the pressures of religious groups to have religious instruction given in public schools, let them program such instruction outside of school hours. This will ensure that only those children who want (or whose parents want them to have) such instruction will get it.
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