Diary of a besieged atheist
By Janet Burstall
Move cities in Australia. At our children's new primary school, we discover that Christian religious education is almost compulsory. Parents have to specifically "exclude" their children. We are living in the midst of Church and State! Everyone we meet seems to be a keen Christian and/or in military service.
My tough atheist daughter feels the pressure but doesn't attend "Religion in Life". My less assertive six year old son attends. I overhear a parent complaining about Religion in Life. She tells me that last year, her child, who does not attend RIL, had to watch on as the rest of the children in the class were given Easter eggs during RIL.
I write to the Principal: "Children who are not participating in Religion in Life sit in the corridor, to work alone, whilst those attending Religion in Life have... the classroom teachers and the Religion in Life teacher. Non-attenders should be entitled to continue their school work, with the support of their classroom teacher."
The Principal is new and seems keen to listen to all opinions, and to avoid a breakout of religious wars amongst the parent body. She promises a review and says that in the meantime she will make sure non-attenders have meaningful activities.
Choir practice coincides with my daughter's class's RIL time. Problem at bay.
I meet two parents, Julie and Elaine, who are keen to try to overturn the RIL program. Principal calls for expressions of interest for the Review Committee.
The review attracts hot interest all round. Julie, Elaine and I nominate.
Review Committee meets. It consists of three ardent Christians - including the local Minister - a parent in search of spiritual but not Christian education, the Principal, and the three of us against Christian religious education. We are persuaded by the Principal to accept her frame of reference for the committee, to gather opinions from parents, not to agitate for our own views. The RIL enthusiasts already have an operating network, in their Christian gatherings, putting us at a disadvantage. We talk informally with our own supporters, but don't organise them.
Committee argues about questions for survey of parent opinion. The key issue in defining religious education is not that it is about religion, but that it can only be presented by a believer, someone who holds the faith. We didn't perceive this essential point in time, or clearly enough, to be able to get it expressed in the questionnaire. We think that many parents are quite happy for their children to learn about religions, but do not want them educated in a faith.
The questionnaire goes out.
Questionnaire results. We have to concede that even if we had framed a better survey, there is a very strong Christian component in our school, and we probably wouldn't have had a majority vote against the religious programme. But I think we could have strengthened the vote against it, and made it an "opt in" rather than an "opt out" program. Recommendations for some changes are made.
The option to withdraw children from RIL is clearly presented this year, along with a flier describing the content of the Christian programme for each class. Parents who might have previously thought that the programme was just a warm fuzzy discussion of moral values and how to be a nice person, were confronted with the Christian doctrine at the core of the programme. The Principal has timetabled RIL classes so that non-attenders can form classes and work on a planned programme with a classroom teacher. RIL non-attendance is up from about two dozen to over 80 children, out of about 420. My children find no difficulties in not attending RIL this year, and the non-attenders' classes keep growing.
Some of the parents who opposed religious education decide to take up issues of racism and Aboriginal rights in the school, beginning with a proposal for the school to hold a Reconciliation Week activity.
Teachers, parents and children create a Sea of Hands, and hand prints on calico banners, for Reconciliation Week. The activity was a great success, and kicked off a Reconciliation Learning Circle in support of Aboriginal rights.
The Reconciliation Group is discussing action, challenging the curriculum, combating racism in the school.