Special religious education (SRE) in state schools is a recurring issue in our public debate. While specific questions about parental consent forms for SRE have been the subject of heated discussion recently, the deepest fault line in the debate is generally given only cursory attention. In my view, the real point of contention comes down to the issue of proselytisation. There remains a lack of clarity about precisely what proselytisation entails both in a general sense, and in the classroom specifically.
Let’s start with the obligatory OED definition of the word: “Proselytise:- convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another… Advocate or promote (a belief or course of action)”. While it may seem clear, the term seems to raise more questions than answers. What does ‘attempt to convert’ actually mean in terms of behaviour? Does ‘advocate’ really mean the same thing? Can someone ‘advocate’ for a belief without proselytising to them?
In the current debate about SRE, it’s difficult to be taken seriously if you support proselytisation in state schools. The Australian public and their representatives generally have a strong commitment to religious pluralism and the secular state, and the idea of children being exhorted to believe a religion in the classroom doesn’t sit well for most of us. Many proponents of SRE would likely agree with this sentiment, but don’t consider SRE – when run appropriately – to involve proselytisation.
With this in mind, let’s explore the core teaching of Christianity, which is central to the SRE program: that we (humankind) are inherently sinful and are in need of salvation through acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour.
SRE supporters might argue that teaching this to students doesn’t constitute an example of a proselytisation mission because there is no explicit element of persuasion. One could argue, as defenders of SRE do, that the mission is merely to help students understand this apparent truth, not to persuade them of it. To them, proselytisation means active, overt persuasion as to why students should accept Christianity, reject non-belief or alternative faiths. Anything less forceful or persuasive than this would appear to be a legitimate activity for SRE classes. Hence, there are many people who support SRE whilst ostensibly also being against proselytisation.
But it’s easy to see where this distinction – between persuading and merely informing – breaks down. Telling primary school kids that they are sinful and in need of salvation through Jesus has obvious persuasive implications. The teaching, whilst not explicitly exhorting or persuading someone to believe, is clearly persuasive in its intent. This is particularly so for younger students, whose faculties of critical thinking are in their absolute infancy.
Exhorting someone to adopt a religious faith is only one type of proselytisation, and a generally ineffective one at that. More often, evangelising religious groups deploy more subtle forms of engagement, that involve establishing affect and positive associations with potential recruits. This is not to say that they they are trying to deceive anyone, or that it’s necessarily nefarious. We simply need to recognise that proselytisation is built into faiths with an evangelising orientation. This is why the Moonies were so successful proselytising for recruits to the Unification Church in the 1970’s; they were happy people, with a positive message to tell anyone and everyone who would listen.
Proselytisation works in much the same way that contemporary advertising does. Rarely do you see commercials that overtly try to persuade you to buy their product by actively telling you to do so. Marketers now understand that it’s much more effective to tell people about the product, and to frame it positively. There’s far less overt ‘persuasion’ in advertising, but it’s unambiguous that advertisers are ‘proselytising’ for their products. They intend for their message, simply through increased awareness and a positive framing, to recruit people to their cause.
So called ‘non-proselytising SRE’ is functionally the same as this. SRE instructors might not be coercing or overtly persuading students to become Christians, but this is because Christianity (among other religions) has intuitively come to understand that this is an ineffective way to spread the gospel. In other words, proselytisation is central to the SRE project – just not in the simplified, and largely outdated, notion of what many people understand proselytisation to be.
In light of this, the question that emerges is as follows: ‘Does this ‘soft’ religious proselytisation belong in our state schools?
My view is that it does not. Consider that in all other core subjects in their primary school learning, students are taught a common curriculum. In maths class, children aren’t taught equations that only some people think are right. In English, parts of the class aren’t taught that words have different meanings to what other students are taught. Yet in SRE class, students are taken aside and taught the same broad subject – religion – in different ways, with different content, and with different implications for their worldview.
Indeed, they’re taught not just different but competing accounts of the world by the different religions. We may like to play down these differences for the sake of maintaining interfaith dialogue – that these are just ‘different perspectives of the same subject’ – but they are actually irreconcilable with each other. Consider this same central claim of Christianity that would be taught in any SRE class: that Jesus was the resurrected son of God. Such a belief is mutually exclusive, even heretical, to both Islam and Judaism, for a start. With our society becoming increasingly multi-cultural and multi-faith, SRE sows the seeds of religious division where none need be.
It also needs to be understood that adult SRE instructors, like teachers, are overwhelmingly perceived as authoritative figures to a classroom of primary school students. This means there is a significant power asymmetry in favour of the SRE instructor, in terms of being an authority of what is being taught. They might not be able to articulate it, but primary school children (rightly) assume that adults are there to teach them what’s true, not just what some people think is true.
This line of argument should not be taken as ‘anti-religious’. It’s appropriate that children do receive some education in religion at school, since the influence of religious thought on our history and culture is undeniable. However, education policy should focus on facilitating students to come to their spiritual worldviews on their own terms, once their faculties of critical thought are more thoroughly developed. Such an outcome is best achieved by General Religious Education (GRE), where students are educated about all the world’s major religions and their specific beliefs. This provides the foundation for any, or none, of these religious views to take shape.
In contrast, SRE intervenes and undercuts this process by making inherently provincial claims on these worldviews through the teaching of a specific religious dogma from an early age. Religious groups may no longer threaten children with fire and brimstone, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in schools to proselytise.