Saturday, 11 January 2014

Reigniting the Culture Wars

John Howard (right) with Dr Kevin Donnelly in Canberra in 2007. (AAP)
It seems Christopher Pyne has begun the first round of shadow-boxing against that all-evil indeterminate opponent called "the left" by launching a review into the National Curriculum. Apparently the best people to weed out the "partisan bias" in the curriculum that are two conservative also-rans.

That decision has taken only one day to bear fruit, with Kevin Donnelly sounding like a less-enthusiastic Santamaria rabbiting on about the need for "Judeo-Christian" education to be given "more effectively". All that was missing was the rallying against communists, homosexuals and communist homosexuals.

He then proceeds to include all the other "great" religions that should be taught "more effectively". Now, he doesn't actually say why this should occur other than to say parliaments around Australia begin sittings with the Lord's Prayer, the preamble of our constitution "talks about god" and at Federation in 1901, 90% of the population identified as "Christian" (the actual number in the 1901 census is closer to 96%).

To say Australia was founded on "Judeo-Christian" values is an untruth that seems to persist to this day. On the point of the Constitution's preamble, Australia became one nation under the Crown, not under god, only mentioning the Almighty in passing:
WHEREAS the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Consititution hereby established:
The only other mention of god in our great foundation document is to prevent religion's interference in secular society. Section 116 prohibits the Commonwealth from establishing any religion, imposing any religious observance or from requiring religiousity to be a test for any public employment.

Alfred Deakin
Various god-bothering groups, such as the Methodists and Salvation Army presented petitions to the Australasian Federal Conventions calling for formal recognition of god and national days of prayer, but none of our federal founding fathers was particularly moved. Instead they placed explicit prohibitions against such observances in the foundation laws of the federation. Also, they had exceptional facial hair.

But 90/96% of Australians can't be wrong. Popular opinion is never wrong. Just ask Galileo. Or the Aboriginal people - oh wait. Nobody bothered to ask them what they thought in 1901 because they weren't actually counted as people. The idea that somehow 90% of the population of Australia in 1901 is a worthy reason to call Australia a "Judeo-Christian" society, and thus call for more religious education is utter rubbish. Oh, and most of the new federation's parliaments didn't begin with the Lord's Prayer in 1901 - that's a relatively recent phenomenon.

It's almost trite to quote census data and the declining belief of Australians, except to say if the even a tiny fraction of those who claim "Christianity" as their religion in the 2011 census actually attended church on a semi-regular basis, there would not be parishes closing in the numbers they are today.

What I guess is that a vast majority of the 61.1% of Australians who did claim "Christianity" as their religion in the census did so out of a bit of census "self-improvement" and indifference inheritance. Of course there are committed church-goers out of there, but to most Australians religion is something kept private and rarely thought about or discussed, if ever. People feel good about the "values" religion apparently imbues, even if they know not what they are or if they are even religious-based.  But these values in fact pre-date Judeo-Christianity and their teaching need not be contingent on a poorly-written, inconsistent 1,500 year-old collection of texts.

That said, there is much religion can teach us about the world and its history, as religion has been an element of culture and life for thousands of years. But if we're going to "more effectively" teach religion, how about we also teach how its adherents have used it to justify horrible evils over the past centuries and to this day. Or perhaps just open with a lesson in Critical Thinking 101 and be done with it. There is simply no real reason to expand the teaching of religion in public schools. There is already provision for religious instruction that divides classrooms along ethnic and sectarian lines, why does the classroom need more of it?

There is a disturbing notion implied by Donnelly that there is a need to teach the "great" religions because they offer some sort of moral superiority to the secular education that has been a part of our state (Victoria) for over 140 years. Anyone who claims the three "great" monotheisms offer any kind of moral superiority over common sense and rational thinking must not have read the books they intend to "more effectively" teach to the kids.

Unlike popular conception, Australia was not founded on "Judeo-Christian" values, but rather was annexed by the British and claimed in the name of the Crown. This was not a religious conquest, but a territorial one. Since then, Australia has developed into an open and pluralistic society and any attempt to force religion in our schools by way of "more effectively" teaching the furphy of "Judeo-Christian" values must be resisted at every step. 

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