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Do atheists really want freedom in schools?

August 4, 2014

I live in Melbourne, Victoria in Australia and at the moment there is a great deal of public discussion of the place of religion in schools. Recently the Victorian Education minister Martin Dixon announced changes to the Victorian School Policy & Advisory Guide which appeared to forbid student-led prayer groups or student-led Bible studies.

This led some Christian commentators to write about this, including Murray Campbell. This was picked up by the Rationalist Society of Australia (a group I respect), Australia’s oldest “free thinking” organsiation, The Rationalist Society shared this article on Facebook with the caption: 

Please sir can’t we let our kids lead prayer and have Bible study back again?

To be honest I was a little surprised. Whilst there are many important issues to debate and discuss about religion in schools, surely the removal of ‘student led prayer and Bible study’ was an infringement of student freedoms? I was surprised that the Rationalists would be supportive of this. Hence I commented on their Facebook page with that very sentiment.

And why not? I’m surprised that the RSA is advocating the removal of student freedoms.

The Rationalist Society were good to respond to my comment, and their response concerned me:

What we advocate is the freedom of religions to use their existing facilities – churches, mosques, temples – but not to assume the right to use government facilities (schools) as extensions of these facilities. Students are free to practise religion in their religious facilities and at home, but not in government schools.

I was quite stunned. Were they really advocating the removal of student freedoms? It seemed they were and hence I responded with the natural conclusion from this dialogue: 

So that means you are advocating for the removal of student freedoms in schools! Even for students to meet and pray with each other!!!! Wow.

The Rationalist Society was advocating the complete removal of religious observance in schools, student or volunteer led. This meant that students were not free to practise their religion at their school. I find this policy within a liberal democracy quite stunning.

It also did made me wonder, if this policy were introduced, how would a school enforce such a ban? Would students caught praying at lunch or doing a Bible study be expelled? Suspended? How could such a policy be deemed ‘free’ and ‘inclusive’?

The policy of allowing in volunteers to conduct religious instruction is an important question, but a completely different issue to banning students from running their own prayer groups. This seems to be fundamentally ‘un-free’. If this is illustrative, then it is concerning that secular groups are not simply advocating a secular perspective, but instead are intent on opposing religious freedoms. The position advocated by Rationalist Society is not one allowing ‘free’ thinking at all.

It also made me wonder why the Rationalist Society was intent on expunging every vestige of religion from schools? There are a variety of reasons, but at one level it isn’t completely surprising for Jesus told his disciples that the world will hate his followers – even if they are students trying to read about him in their lunchtime in a ‘free’ country!

So, is the view of the Rationalist Society the view of other atheists? Should student led prayer and Bible discussion be banned? Keen to hear some thoughts and reactions.


From → Comment

  1. Rob, this is not an issue (at least, not that I am aware of) in NSW, so I admit I’m not across the details. However, I’d be asking what the policy is really concerned with or aimed at. To claim that it is really aimed at denying all religious freedom is a really big call, and I would personally doubt that this is the intention.
    However, if the goal is really to keep a secular institution, in particular a school, free of unsolicited influences like those of religions or other special interest groups, then frankly, this is fair enough. I imagine the intention is to ensure that students are not provided with religious propaganda from their peers on school grounds or during school time.
    The same rule would apply to any other religion. Or, say, a Justin Bieber fanclub, or a political party. To illustrate, I wouldn’t want my children to come home from school with socialist party propaganda, describing the values of Marxist or Leninist principles that they learnt in the school yard – importantly, as opposed to the classroom, where we might expect that if those things were on the curriculum that they’d be taught objectively and with balance.
    I have no objection to any of those things being practiced by people on their own time. But a public school is not a free-for-all. It is a secular, public institution and as such the activities in school time on school grounds should reflect the values of the broader, secular community.

    • Paul, I don’t think the issue is nearly as major in NSW at the moment. But I think that what the RSA are doing is denying religious freedom. There are two issues in a ‘secular’ school, one of personal involvement and one of proselytism. The RSA position denies even the first of these – two Christian students would not be allowed to meet to pray or read the Bible.

      In terms of the second, my questions is, what are you going to do with your children who come home with socialist propaganda from the school yard? Tell them not to be friends with the child who gave it to them? What if your child asked for it and the other socialist child handed it to them? I can’t see how denying the socialist child even holding the literature in the first place isn’t a constraint of freedom – i.e. the complete removal of any religious/ideological expression on school grounds!

      I think we need to deal with religion in the school yard as we deal with anything else in the school yard (e.g. relationships, friendships, bullying, drugs, violence) i.e. talk about them with our children and help them make their own decisions, rather than an outright ban on anything that might change their minds!

      A secular institution is different from a secularised institution. I would think in a secular school Christian students should have freedom to meet and to discuss something that is important to them. Don’t you think? Surely you’re not going to say that because a person holds a minority view ought to be excluded because they ‘don’t reflect the values of the broader ‘secular’ community’?

      Always great to hear from you and I’ll chime in to your other discussion soon too (a bit weighted down with Lennox prep at the moment).


      • There are plenty of rules that schools have to implement in order to protect the children under their care, as well as to respect the rights of their peers.
        In the school my children go to, they are not allowed to bring peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Nor are they allowed to run over concrete surfaces during playtime. And there is a section of the school yard where all ball sports are forbidden.
        Now, a transgression of any of these rules is not likely to result anything but a reminder of the rules. At worst, repeat offenders might be prevented from recess playtime for a day (or reminder note sent home to parents on the peanut thing).
        So we’re hardly talking about some draconian state of martial law here. Given that all of these special school rules apply only on school time and only on school grounds, the claim of “denial of religious freedom” is just a bit OTT.

        “…what are you going to do with your children who come home with socialist propaganda from the school yard?…”
        I imagine I’d do the same thing as you would probably do, and try to talk with them rationally about the issues, etc. But what if I’m not even made aware of it and have no formal mechanism to be made aware of it? I’ve then potentially lost the opportunity to give my child/ren a direct response to a specific viewpoint that (a) I don’t agree with, and (b) could make an important and misleading impression on them. The problem is the possibility of this happening, on school grounds in school time, without any guidance or control from the school. They need to reduce their risk in this regard.

        There are lots of school rules that seem unnecessarily harsh. But it’s worth keeping them in perspective. For a fairly brief period each weekday, school children are just not permitted to do whatever they like. In fact, it should be a valuable lesson in itself – that in a fantastic liberal democracy like Australia, there are some restrictions we just have to respect for the good of the whole community. This isn’t a denial of religious or any other kind of freedom. It’s just a reminder that those freedoms – for the benefit of everyone – cannot be exercised anytime and anywhere we want.

      • Denying something on health grounds (e.g. peanut butter sandwiches) is very different to denying something on ideological grounds (e.g. student led Bible study) wouldn’t you say?

        Are you saying that denying two Christian students the right to read the Bible together over lunch is not unreasonable?

      • “Are you saying that denying two Christian students the right to read the Bible together over lunch is not unreasonable?”

        Are you sure this is what is being instituted?
        I’ve tried looking for the policy myself on the Department’s website without success. I therefore have to defer to Barry Duke’s article (referred to by the RSA):

        This says that the guide says:
        “…students engaging in prayer in observation of their religion at lunchtimes is not SRI as there is no element of ‘instruction’. Such prayer cannot be led, conducted by or at the instruction of staff or parents/visitors/volunteers.”
        And also:
        “…Principals must not permit material, whether associated with SRI or not, to be distributed or displayed at a Government school if that material has the effect of promoting any particular religious practice, denomination or sect. This includes the distribution of religious texts (eg Bibles) by any person or organisation whether accredited SRI providers or not.”

        So if this is the actual limit of the proposed changes, I can see nothing here that causes the scenario you describe. In other words, your hypothetical bible-reading students can indeed continue to do this at lunchtime if they want to.
        What is not allowed is for someone to come into the school and lead a prayer group outside of the established SRI framework, or to for anyone to distribute religious material on school grounds outside an established SRI class.
        And that is wholly and absolutely appropriate. I can’t see why anyone would argue against this, Christians included. It looks like you’re tilting at strawmans.

      • The policy has been clarified by rhe department and I agree that it doesn’t exclude students reading the Bible together. But that wasn’t the point of my post. My post was the Rationalist Society position which evidently does exclude two students reading the Bible together (and seemed to be endorsed by yourself, unless I’m mistaken). That was the purpose of the blog post and hence my concerns that some atheists were intent on removing religious freedom. Just clarifying that you now do disagree with the RSA policy?

  2. “My post was the Rationalist Society position which evidently does exclude two students reading the Bible together (and seemed to be endorsed by yourself, unless I’m mistaken)…”

    No – I never said I endorsed a position about that very specific scenario (ie., preventing two students, etc.).
    But then, I never inferred this specific scenario from the original material, and now that I read the whole thing back I still don’t see how this extrapolation was reached. I also think that the RSA response you mention is just glib, and if they really bothered to expand on their position, perhaps they wouldn’t sound as extreme as you are inferring from their trite response. But I don’t know. I have no affiliation with that group. In fact, I’d never even heard of them until your post here.

    I am still against the unsolicited promotion of religion, or the agenda of any other special interest group, in a public school during public school hours, and I’ve made that position clear and consistently in my replies here. Private prayer doesn’t bother me, provided it doesn’t leach into preaching or proselytism.

    • Paul,

      Sorry for the delay. I can’t see how you can interpret “Students are free to practise religion in their religious facilities and at home, but not in government schools.” in any other way, particularly in the context responding to the particular scenario I pointed out to them. I think their position is very clear and it is concerning (hence why I wrote the post). They seem to be making very clear that their view is that students are not free to practice their religion in government schools. The RSA seem to be endorsing the complete removal of religious expression in schools.

      How can you interpret this differently?

      Hope you’re going well. Rob

  3. “…The RSA seem to be endorsing the complete removal of religious expression in schools…”
    Perhaps they are. I don’t speak for them and they don’t speak for me.
    But it is worth looking at the comment in context. Unlike here where we’ve both taken the time to pick apart the discussion and try to understand what the Victorian dept was proposing exactly, the RSA’s response to your comment was glib. For example, they haven’t responded specifically to your hypothetical scenario of two Christians talking bible at lunchtime among themselves. So it is a generalisation.
    Not unlike the title of your post here: “Do atheists really want freedom in schools?”. Obviously you were just being provocative with that title, because presumably you wouldn’t leap to a personal conclusion that no atheist wants freedom in schools on the basis of a single, brief, unqualified comment from an organisation most people have probably never heard of, right? 😉

    • Possibly. But you wouldn’t begrudge me a slightly sensational headline would you? 😉

      I suppose the only thing I’d say is that the RSA comments were in direct response to my comments. Hence they could have clarified explicitly, but they didn’t and hence my concerns (and the potential conclusion from my post)

  4. Philip Wraight permalink

    When one says religious freedom, does one include radical views?.
    I have no children, however if I had, as an Atheist I would not forbid my children to study the religious texts or discuss religion with their peers or family!, indeed I might even encourage it!, as this (hopefully) would show them the futility of all religions!.
    However it is possible that children (who are naive in the main) could be radicalised, so in conclusion, my opinion is:- keep religions out of schools or at least until the aforementioned children are mature enough to come to an informed conclusion!!. Once again just my opinion!!.

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