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Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 in In the news, Religion | 2 comments

Pushback against NZ scripture classes

Like Australia’s various states, New Zealand makes provision for religious classes in public schools – though in this case it is via a clause that enables the supposedly secular schools to “close” for bible classes in school hours. It’s reported today that the New Zealand system is copping some pushback.

As always, I wonder why a modern secular state with no theological views of its own would provide for religious teaching (as opposed to teaching about the world’s various religious) through its public school system. It is, of course, difficult to reverse a decision that has been made in the past and has much electoral support. Given that this is what has been inherited from previous generations, one secular reason for leaving it alone is the somewhat cynical one of “don’t rock the boat”.

Very well, but it’s also not surprising that these arrangements are meeting with pushback – in some cases it’s a request for modification to provide better for the needs of children who are not religious (i.e. to give them a secular alternative). In other cases it’s outright opposition to arrangements that are clearly anachronistic and can be justified only on cynical grounds. To complicate the situation, scripture classes these days seem more aggressive than when I was in high school in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were considered something of a joke by most students. I’m not sure whether this is true of New Zealand, but in Australia there has been a tendency toward centralising curricula and program delivery in the hands of organisations that seek strongly to evangelise students – it’s no longer so much a matter of local ministers (often relatively liberal Anglican priests) turning up to chat to their nominal parishioners once a week.

Times are changing, and I doubt that these sorts of classes can survive in their traditional form in secular countries like Australia and New Zealand. Nor should they – at bottom, it is not the role of the state to help out religious organisations wanting to proselytise, or to minister to their faithful. Those parents who want to send their children to state schools while also wanting to socialise them into religious teachings are free to do the latter outside of school hours.

  • Thanks for publicising this, Russell. I think this line from the story is quite telling: ‘He said it had been difficult to get political parties onside because neither side wanted to make religion an issue.’ I think this seems very true of New Zealand; religion is seen as a very private matter, and debating, even discussing, it is seen as impolite. That might be fine, but it allows certain practices to go unchallenged, even unexplored. Some of them may be quite benign (though I don’t think all of them are), but no-one even seems willing to enquire.

    There’s also a sense that we don’t enquire about the religious views even of our political leaders. We currently have a Deputy Prime Minister who is a devout and fairly conservative Roman Catholic. He also happens to be opposed to abortion, assisted dying, and civil unions. While there may also be secular reasons to oppose all of these practices, it doesn’t seem unduly intrusive to enquire as to whether his religious faith has a bearing on his stance – and his voting record – on these matters. Yet in New Zealand – as in Scotland – it’s still seen as something of a taboo to ask about that, and as flat-out bigotry to vote on that basis. In fairness to Bill English himself, he doesn’t seem remotely evasive about his religious views, or reluctant to discuss them, but he does acknowledge that ‘in American politics, you have to talk about God; in Australian politics you can and get away with it; in New Zealand you never would.’

    I have no desire at all to import the bizarre US fusion of religion and politics to NZ, but if people like Bill English are going to be heavily influenced by their religious beliefs, I think we should at least get to hear about them.

  • My sister lives in NZ and is married to a kiwi. She has since become more evangelical as a Christian (she was fairly nominal before, now she is quite hardcore, though he is not). She is a nurse, and yet denied evolution to me. I called her out on it, and she could not tell me why she denied it – I don’t think she could even explicitly lay out the cornerstones of evolution.

    I love NZ, and think any move to secularise NZ, and any country, should be championed by our movement.