Do atheists really want freedom in schools?
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.