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Religious Education in Public Schools

child's hand in prayer in school

I was raised as a Christian and at different stages of my life I attended church or Sunday school with my family. Up until moving out of home, I said grace every evening before we ate dinner. I did Christian Education in primary school, and for my childhood and most of my teen years I had a very fond relationship with the idea of a Christian God.

However as an adult I flit between Agnostic and Atheist. (Somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I don’t believe”.)

What I do know is that I don’t believe that religious education should take place in public schools.

Which makes me a hypocrite because my son is “opted in” to Christian RE class at primary school.

I just sincerely wish it wasn’t offered at all in the first place.

My partner identifies as Christian and has been taking the children to church with him off and on for most of their lives and more consistently for the last year. It’s sometimes a huge pain to make plans for the weekend that need to factor in church on Sunday – but it also it’s kind of spectacular that he takes the kids away for a couple of hours once a week and I get a little bit of time to myself!

As parents, we are taking care of our own children’s religious education. It’s something we work out together in our partnership; we make these decisions, and we take responsibility for these choices and do so at our own expense.

Although I allow my son to attend RE classes… I don’t actually think that religious education should take time away from schooling or money away from where it could be much better spent.

Yes, I’m a humungous hypocrite.

My son is still opted in because he has that same personal relationship with the idea of God that he believes in that I had as a child and if he was opted out and told he wasn’t allowed to be included in those things at school it would be upsetting for him. While it is offered at his school it’s something I will allow him to choose to be involved in – he’s also more than welcome to choose NOT to do it. (That would be my preference!)

The other reason I don’t feel comfortable with these religious classes being taught during class time is the very clear separation of the children whose families are religious and those who aren’t and this is exactly the kind of thing my son notices.

While the reason he’s opted in is because he would feel excluded from something he believes in – he’s also aware of who is opted out. And in a sweet and innocent 5-year-old kind of way, last year he did talk to me about how some of the children in his class aren’t Christian, and he laughed about the fact his teacher “Doesn’t even know about God.

While this is an opportunity to talk about respecting other people’s beliefs, it does makes it incredibly difficult when he doesn’t understand what a belief is.

To him things are either true or a lie.

There is no room in his mind for one person to believe in one thing and someone else to believe in another, completely different, thing. Let alone the idea that I could think they’re both wrong, and regardless we should all be respectful of what each other believes or thinks.

It already scares the crap out of me, even without him learning about it in school, when he says things like “Mummy, God is the king of the world isn’t he?” and part of me wants to say “Nope. Not even a little bit.” or “We just don’t know” (whether I’m in an Atheist or Agnostic phase that day). Instead I smile and say “If that’s what you believe.” This response makes absolutely NO sense to him, but at least confusing him kind of gets me off the hook! The next trick up my sleeve it “I don’t know, go ask your Daddy!”

We would be facing these dilemmas with or without Christianity being taught in school, as this is a choice that we’ve made as a family, and a choice that we’re sticking with even if I have some serious reservations, but it’s still not at all the schools responsibility.

I do think that teaching about religion, in the context of religion’s role in history and society, rather than religion as history, does have its place – but maybe that place is not in early primary school when it is difficult for many, if not most, children to differentiate between being taught about a belief and being taught to believe.

I also don’t think the messages that children learn with religion are such a bad thing – I do agree that Jesus sounds like he would have been a top bloke.

However, such ethics and empathy can absolutely be taught without religion.

Do I think religion should be celebrated in schools? Yes… no… maybe… I don’t know!

I think different cultures and their celebrations should be embraced in school. So celebrating Christmas and singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is, to my mind, totally fine. Talking about the birth of Jesus as though it was an event in history and singing “Away in a Manger”? Not so much. (This happened in my son’s school last year and one of the parents was rightfully pissed off that her child had been taught “Away in a Manger” in music class when they had been opted out of religious education.)

I think what it comes down to is if parents want their children to learn about their religion then that should be totally up to them. It’s their job to take their kids to their place of worship, to have those conversations at home, to read them their stories and history and whatever else. School time should be left for learning how to read and write, for maths and science, health and physical education, recordable history and so on.

About Rachel Stewart

Rachel is the founder of Parenting Central Australia. She is raising two children, boy and girl, with her partner.

She has a background in early childhood education, but right now is content to be a stay at home mum.

She is passionate about birthing rights, breastfeeding and mental health. She enjoys crafting, drinking coffee (sometimes wine) and spending a little too much time on Facebook.

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3 comments

  1. Have you shared your views with your state members of parliament?

  2. RI has no place in state schools. Moreover, I think it’s wrong for parents to allow their children to be brainwashed from an early age when they can have no say in the matter or ability to analyse what they are being taught.

  3. RI has no place in state schools. Moreover, I think it’s wrong for parents to allow their children to be brainwashed from an early age when they can have no say in the matter or ability to analyse what they are being taught.