FIRIS recently noticed and responded to Barney Zwartz’s interesting essay suggesting that there was cause for optimism that Secular and Religious Progressives can find common cause and should work together.  We can’t agree more.  We also noted a pessimistic response from a Ridley Theologian named Michael Bird.  We asked Michael if he’d like to work with FIRIS, along side our other religious allies, to reform the bad teaching practices and unacceptable discrimination among children caused by SRI.


Bird’s response was to pretty much flip us the bird.  His response is below, and our responses are in line in green.

Bird says that he, “accept(s) the validity of an opt in rather than opt out policy, your campaign on that score is quite reasonable. No objections from me.


This is response should be noted is his “high water mark”, he has not however, anywhere done anything to secure said change, which, it must be said, was beaten out of both the SRI providers and DEECD under threat of litigation.  No one from any official church body took a proactive interest in saying “this was reasonable”, we had to pound on them to get the concession.

The law, which was negotiated by them, was designed exactly backwards as an “opt out” system, which presented “SRI” as, “unless we hear from you we’ll assume your child is participating”

It is also not really fair to think of this program as “opt in”, because SRI providers expect to have their program “time tabled” and parents are expected to say “yes or no” – the program is hardly one, like music tuition where you have to seek out the instructor and pay for each lesson.  Michael’s lack of “objection” to a system that does not require us as parents to specifically excuse our child from as if we are conscientious objectors is duly noted.  I am tempted to address him as Lord Bird, as my Liege, and thank him for his kind dispensation on this point, but seriously, thanks for nothing.

From this generous recognition of what no one should have had to argue for in the first place, Bird moves to what he calls “more contentious matters”:

1. Yes, there is access to religious instruction in other spheres. But that is hardly a reason to end SRI. Its like saying that kids can get music and physical exercise at home, so there’s no need to have music lessons or PE in school.

This reply completely ignores the nature of “Special Religious Instruction” and the fact that things like PE and music are not “religious” in nature.  For someone of Bird’s education to make this analogy, there has to be a desire to present arguments that he knows are fallacious.  The whole point here is that unlike music or PE, religions have special rights and exist within a cultural structure, that in the case of Christianity at least has had part of the week historically reserved for worship, and is the province of special institutions that have particular relations and rights to the government of his country.  For Bird to equate instruction in music to PE is simply a demonstration of bad faith on his part. 

2. The reason why SRI continues is not because the churches successfully lobby/manipulate the government to continue it. The real reason is that parents to continue to want to make use of it. Until the need evaporates the supply will always be there.

Bird here denies the facts.  He’s not got any data to back this up, and denying the fact that Parent Victoria and the Australian Education Union both have said “get this out of our schools”, he’s also joking if he doesn’t think that these groups act covertly by applying pressure on the political apparatus.  The government has moved several times, in the 1970’s and in 2006 to formally get rid of SRI (as structured) and replace it with something better, each time the religious lobby closes ranks and prevents change.  For the most part these 90K people have been lied to by SRI providers, given false information by the DEECD and more or less told “we expect you to do this” by their school … these conditions are where the 90K number if from.  Not that Bird’s going to help, but check back in a year and lets see what parents do with the new, more honest forms that the DEECD has agreed to send out.

3. The SRI program is scrutinized and proselytism is strictly forbidden, end of story. Second guess motives if you wish, but the policies are the policies.

This is a bald faced lie, and merely a talking point used by ACCESS Ministries.  The lie is contradicted by the lessons themselves and by expert reviews.  Bird simply refuses to acknowledge the facts. 

Bird goes on to list his objections to FIRIS, by means of a list of counter-points:

1. FIRIS seems committed to the ghettoising of religion by removing religious instruction from public sphere.

This is a culture war trope, it bears no resemblance to our aims, which provide allowance for religious groups to use schools outside of the time when students are required to be there, calls for teaching “about” religions and calls for a fair, comparative and objective syllabus so that children are not ignorant of “religions”.  The term “public sphere” is aburd, and it only reflects Bird’s incapacity to deal with facts and evidence.  Use of words like ghettoising are deliberately loaded, but do reflect the long history of Judeo-Christian tradition.  

Here is an article that appeared in the SMH just today:

Two years ago, Blue Mountains couple Ross and Kathryn Jarrett were woken in the middle of night by their six-year-son, Lucius, who was sitting bolt upright in bed, weeping inconsolably. “When I went in, he was saying ‘I am a sinner, daddy, I am a sinner’,” says Ross. “He was also clutching to his chest a colouring-in book that he had been given by his scripture teacher.”
The book had a black cover, which Lucius said “is the colour of my heart, because I am a sinner”. The next page was red, which, he said, “is me when I sin.” The following pages were all different colours – green, which was meant to represent Lucius when he talked to God and asked for forgiveness; white (“for when I get closer to God”), and on the back cover, orange, which was intended to somehow signify, as the boy put it, “that I can never be as good as God”.
Ross was horrified. “I tried to explain to Lucius that nothing he did could make his heart black, but he kept objecting, saying ‘But I am a sinner dad! When I was four I lied to you!’ I realised that he was talking about this day when I caught him telling a fib in daycare two years before.”
The next day, Kathryn called the school and demanded to know the name of the scripture teacher, but was told that would not be possible. “They didn’t know who had actually taken the class that day, because they were all volunteers from the local church. And so we were like: who are these people? It was pretty frightening.”

Michael Bird, you want to know why people are mad?  Well, you just keep right on denying the validity of this family’s reasons for objecting to your church doing this to their kids, and I think you will find very little sympathy among the general public for your lack of compassion.   

2. FIRIS uses quotes from celebrity figures and academics on its website that are ad hominem and caricature people of faith as dogmatic, discriminary, and prejudicial. Who would talk that way about any other minority group and their faith. You can’t claim to be tolerant and inclusive and have that kind of rhetoric on your website.

We’re not sure what he means here, but it seems as though he’s saying that Marion Maddox and Father Bob, Kathy Walker and Cathy Byrne and David Zyngier are in Bird’s mind out to get “people of faith”.  Go figure.  I will leave it to these people to defend their own views, but it is important to point out that FIRIS has a substantial list of allies, inside the church, who are making the same arguments.  Bird ignores this.  He would have us believe that the Dean of Divinity, who argues against SRI, along with Maddox, in ways that are completely consistent with us, are “intolerant”.   I’d be happy to correct any examples of “intolerant rhetoric”, but Bird doesn’t give any.   
3. FIRIS seems to operate with a historically anachrontic view of Australia’s/Victoria’s secular origins. It was NEVER the absence of religion or the compartmentalisation of religion. It was that no single religion was allowed to dominate (though in practice Anglicans did and were privileged esp. over Catholics). For case in point, the Melbourne College of Divinity was created by an act of the Victoria parliament in 1913 I think. Trying to read post-60s secularism into pre-WWI Australia is like saying that the Wright brothers invented the jet plane.

Here Bird is making historical claims that are false.  FIRIS has also done extensive research on this, and rather than go into these arguments about history, I must point to the scholarship by Byrne, Maddox and the recentHastie Affair” which deal with Bird’s re-writing of history.  

4. Keep in mind that I’m a historian and I’ve seen all of this sort of thing before. When you have someone saying that these religious groups don’t share our values and therefore shouldn’t be be allowed to do their thing in public and when you feel emboldened to accuse them of all sorts of heinous things like dogmatism and discrimination, then you doing what sociologists call “deviant labelling” as a means to promoting prejudice against a group and to justify hostilities against them. Read the history of the Jews in Alexandria, Christians in Iraq from the 1930s until now, Sikhs in India in the 1980s, the plight of the Shiites in Pakistan, and the like. In which case, you’ve got an up hill battle to show that you’re not doing what majority cultures often do to minorities, demonize them as a way of justifying punitive action against them. I’m not accusing you of wanting or promoting violence, don’t misunderstand me, but the posturing and rhetoric that you are using does not suggest polite conversation, but a militant campaign to confront something you regard as an enemy of the state.

Bird may claim to be a “historian” and therefore has authority, but he’s definitely not given any examples, nor has he addressed a single point, or expert who contradicts he pre-scripted tropes (public sphere, militant secularism, etc … ) 

I’d like to admit however, that his claim of “deviant labelling” has merit.  Much of this is not FIRIS’s choice and nothing FIRIS has ever done or said has gone beyond the evidence, or has been deliberately presented as fact when its not.

Bird was asked in what way this speech, which was delivered by a graduate of his school, within the walls of his own building, is remotely acceptable?  I think, like everyone else, he’s pretending that this was not said so boldly, and recorded for the world to see, as there is no defense possible.  ACCESS simply asserted that the speech was taken out of context.  This is a lie.  The context is unmistakable, and the proposals and strategic intent of “ministry in schools” isn’t something that they can deny.  Parents have every right to be upset by this, and arguing that us pointing this out is a form of “deviant labelling” denies that what ACCESS says it intends to do is in fact “deviant”.  

FIRIS did not however set out to demonize ACCESS Ministry, it merely ran into a wall when it tried to get honest, reasonable answers to honest reasonable concerns.  Failing this, it seems perfectly reasonable to invite a camera crew from A Current Affair to attempt to get answers.  They didn’t do much better of course because there really are no answers that aren’t distortions or  outright lies.  

Our YouTube page, and our comments are full of live testimony from real parents and what these people have to say is sincere.  Bird ignores these people.  Furthermore, ACCESS itself, as well as Bird, pay this game.  Here is how it looks when ACCESS explains what is going on it is the fault of the media, the people in the churches who object are called traitors.


Bird concludes his one finger salute by accusing FIRIS, with no evidence whatsoever of hatred.  It doesn’t matter if our arguments are presented by prominent Anglicans like Ron Noone, a Catholic, by a Sikh, like Richi Madan, a Hindu, a Jew, or by a mother with a theology degree from a prominent school in Ireland (most of these people are displayed on our webpage), Bird writes them all off as “people with intense loathing”.  On the other hand, when we ask him to explain how we are supposed to respond to a group that lies, openly claim to want to “disciple” our children, he ignores all this, and accuses us of harboring “hatred”.  

Michael Bird, your assessment, your conduct and your views are not surprising, you could be part of the solution, but instead you are more interested in pretending to be assaulted.  You not only show no empathy for the things parents are saying on our website, you accuse them of having hatred toward “faith”.  You insult our intelligence and our sincerity and you wonder why people have nothing but contempt for you.   

So that’s my prima facis take on FIRIS. Some valid concerns, but let down by bad definitions, poor history, and (unconsciously) harboring either hatred or at least intense loathing peole of faith (hence the rhetoric on the webpage!).

But in the words of the great American philosopher – Forrest Gump – that’s all I have to say about that!

Forest Gump also said is that “stupid is as stupid does”, and in this case we can hear what you are saying because we are watching what you are doing.