That Old Time Religion: It is probable that many parents are entirely unaware that every week their local school is formally closed so that God-Knows-Who can spend 60 minutes filling their children’s heads with God-Knows-What.
THAT NEW ZEALAND’S primary schools are permitted by law to close for the purposes of religious instruction is outrageous. With fewer than half of the New Zealand population now identifying themselves as Christian, the whole concept should long ago have been relegated to the educational scrap-heap, along with the strap and the cane. That New Zealand children continue to provide untrained religious enthusiasts with captive audiences for ideas that foster judgemental and intolerant behaviour is a state-of-affairs that should be brought to an end immediately.
It is probable that many parents are entirely unaware of what is being conveyed to their children during the hour that the school is formally closed. They may not even realise that the religious instruction which the school’s Board of Trustees has authorised is not being delivered to their offspring by the qualified teaching professional who usually stands in front of them.
Under the Education Act, teaching staff are forbidden from imparting religious dogma to their pupils. Why? Because New Zealand’s primary education system is legally required to be “free, compulsory and secular” – and has been ever since 1877. Hence the need for the legal workaround of the school being closed while God-Knows-Who spends 60 minutes filling their children’s heads with God-Knows-What.
But, surely, the information being imparted about the moral teachings of Jesus and his disciples is unlikely to do these young ones any harm. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Does that sound so bad? Christianity is supposed to be a religion of love and forgiveness. What’s not to like?
If the moral precepts of Jesus and his disciples – as generally understood – were all New Zealand’s children were being taught by their religious instructors, then there would, indeed, be little to complain about. Unfortunately, the sort of Christians who feel sufficiently motivated to spend an hour every week instructing the children of complete strangers, have slightly more than “love thy neighbour as thyself” on their minds.
Even in 1964, when the present arrangements for religious instruction in schools were originally set in place, the liberal Christianity which took its marching orders from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was in rapid retreat before the fire and brimstone of Christian fundamentalism. Fifty-four years later, liberal Christian congregations are few and far between and most of their members would shy away from instructing other people’s children in the very adult choices of religious faith. Overwhelmingly, the protestant Christian churches of Aotearoa New Zealand (the Catholics have their own, separate, system of religious education) are evangelical in their intent and profoundly conservative in their theology.
The religious instructors sallying forth from these churches are minded to save the tender souls of young New Zealanders from the temptations of a sinful and ultimately doomed world. Children have returned home from these encounters convinced that if they fail to accept Jesus into their heart as Lord and Saviour, then they are bound to burn in Hell for all eternity.
Parents have the right to take their children out of these emotionally fraught situations. There is, however, no guarantee that the child will not then be stigmatised for her subsequent non-attendance. After permitting such potentially dangerous instruction to take place in its classrooms, the school’s Board of Trustees may be reluctant to acknowledge that it is guilty of inflicting psychological harm on youngsters to whom it owes a duty of care. Such an unfortunate outcome is much more likely if a percentage of the board are themselves evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians: men and women who have stood for election to ensure that God’s word reaches the children of “godless” parents at least once a week.
Though they would almost certainly inflict less harm than some Christian instructors, it is easy to imagine the outcry that would follow the revelation that a group of Wiccans had taken over the Board of Trustees of the local school and for one hour every week were allowing witches and warlocks to instruct its pupils in the beliefs and practices of the “Old Religion”.
That New Zealand’s parents have not objected with equal force to the intolerant and dangerously judgemental version of Christianity currently being imparted to their impressionable sons and daughters in our supposedly secular education system is a sin of omission difficult to forgive.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 May 2018.