British author and biologist, Richard Dawkins has written an open letter to David Cameron that seems to include most of the ideas that underpin the FIRIS campaign and though it is written in a uniquely British context, it generally applies to Australia, and could be addressed to any policy maker involved in our schools.
Its well worth the read:
Australia and England have much in common by way of heritage, but one big difference is that the Church of England was never installed in Australia as the “state religion”.
There is no Belfast in Australia – and one can argue that the creation of the worlds first “Secular, Compulsory and Free” system of public education was, in no small part, a factor in creating the kind of society where Churches are not bombed and where people who were at war in one place could live together peacefully in another.
As Michael Kirby has said, the secular principle is one of the greatest contributors to the progress of human rights.
It is gratifying for Dawkins to realize, that politically, this is where his energies should be applied and that this is worth pressing with leaders like Cameron. His freedom to write about religion, really depends on his willingness to uphold, in a political context, the rights of others to pursue religion, just as he pursues the right of others to live free from religion’s mandates. When the government enters into funding arrangements and rule making in respect of religion, it can not help but create conditions that leave us all worse off.
Today, in our schools in Victoria, the Government funds a Parachurch ministry, and the leaders of that ministry insist that people who do not wish to attend its classes must remove our children from the classroom. It does this to coerce us to submit to their instruction. Unlike a religious group like Salvos, ACCESS has no mission other than the promotion of religious beliefs – and states openly that it wishes to “transform our children’s lives”. This is marketing speak for “make into Christians” and this should offend everyone, Christian and Non Christian. ACCESS exists solely, as Bishop Hale says, to “commend” the Christian faith, and they demand legislation, executive power and state money do do it.
This is why it is wrong. ACCESS should be free to preach – just not in our schools in a way that demands of us that we excuse ourselves from their sermons, and not using our money to do it.
In his letter, Dawkins echoes the ideas put forth in the FIRIS aims (italics his):
We should teach about religion, if only because religion is such a salient force in world politics and such a potent driver of lethal conflict. We need more and better instruction in comparative religion (and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that any education in English literature is sadly impoverished if the child can’t take allusions from the King James Bible). But faith schools don’t so much teach about religion as indoctrinate in the particular religion that runs the school. Unconscionably, they give children the message that they belong specifically to one particular faith, usually that of their parents, paving the way, at least in places such as Belfast and Glasgow, for a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice
In the arena of public policy, as an intellectual and educator, Dawkins can do a great deal of good extolling the idea of why secular government is an engine of religious toleration.
Professor Dawkins, welcome to FIRIS.