Bill Risby

About Bill Risby

Musician, cyclist, father and writer, Bill has released 9 CDs under his own name and toured the world playing his music. He has studied jazz and theology, so has been able to improvise a meaningful existence for himself.

Religious education: A matter of faith, not State

Last year my children came home from primary school and informed me that they had to sit outside the school office because they had opted not to participate in religious education (RE). We confronted the headmaster and asked her why our children were treated as though they were being disciplined rather than being allowed to read in the library.

Her answer wasn’t good enough.

Don’t get me wrong – she is a good teacher, but the system she works within is broken, and she couldn’t allow the kids to do anything in that time because of “government regulations.” The system is geared towards children receiving “religious” instruction from (usually) untrained voluntary church members, most of whom I wouldn’t have near my child even in my presence, not to mention the fact that I don’t want any individual’s personal beliefs taught to my kids.

My past may offer some needed insight here. I was a music minister in churches for ten years and a Christian for fifteen years. I studied theology and used to preach from the pulpit. I was once asked if I would like to teach scripture in the local high school. The first thought that came to me was, “I don’t have a clue about any of this stuff.” I sat in on a few classes with the existing scripture teacher. I remember distinctly being told by him, “You’ve got to get them before they’re about 14 or 15 because by then, they’ve made up their mind what they want to believe.”

Something about the brainwashing intent of this insidious and odious person never left my consciousness. I won’t say that all scripture teachers are like that, but that has been the experience of three of my four children (my five-year-old has yet to be thrown to the lions). It was one thing to stand behind a pulpit in front of a willing congregation, but quite another to proselytise to the most vulnerable in our society.

If you still don’t think religious education is a real danger, this may make you quake. I had an RE teacher in high school who was a very evangelical Christian. She picked us up from our houses in a bus and took us to church (she also had her job threatened by the headmaster after many complaints from parents). I can almost attribute the 15 lost years of my life to this one person. I fell into a world of blind faith, sheepish conformity, a failed, deeply-religious and dysfunctional marriage, and it all started in RE in high school. I desperately needed the rational secular mind of my absent father to keep me on the thinking path, but, you know, when you’re most vulnerable and unable to defend yourself, the religious pounce, and pounce they did. The vacuum was temporarily filled in my life and some faux balance was restored.

The system failed to protect me in 1982 and it is failing my kids now.

It’s beyond funny how our need for secularism is made clear by the religious. We are in a situation in Australia where we have a relatively large measure of religious freedom: both freedom to believe in anything and freedom to believe in nothing – freedom in religion and freedom from religion. This is the crux of our liberty, and it is this liberty that puts us at most risk from those who seek to gain leverage from their particular position of authority within our school system.

RE teachers have a generally unquestioned acceptance, and it seems the reasons are twofold:

1. They appear to have always been there;

2. They come across as providing harmless education or instruction.

Hopefully, my experience will lead you to believe otherwise.

Secularism makes religious practice possible in Australia. It must be given its respectful place in our society. If we lived in a religious state, such as Saudi Arabia, all religions apart from Islam would be banned. A similar situation applies with North Korea. Only the worship of the great leader is tolerated, and all religious folk are punished or imprisoned.

Secular ethics and philosophy should be taught in schools across the country. I say this because all ethics are secular, including proclaimed “religious” ethics. Ethics preceded religion. I don’t need to point out that many religious scriptures quote stories that existed before the scriptures were written. The bible quotes the story of “the good Samaritan” for example.

Religion should be taught for its historical value, and have its truths honestly laid bare. Unfortunately, religious studies usually don’t include a summary of Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Norse, Greek (and other) teachings, or their political conquests, massacres, witch trials, genocides and immoral practices. They don’t teach these religions’ exclusivity (making it impossible for them to co-exist when properly adhered to) or the pointlessness of following them if they are not adhered to.

If such were included in RE, it would be interesting to see how many people would then turn to religion.

While an air of intolerance for religion has been expressed in these words, I am actually happy for anyone to believe anything they wish, but having one or more of these beliefs taught by the state AS TRUTH is to me an abomination.

It is a faith, i.e., a belief despite evidence, and this should have no part in our education system; in allowing such, we open ourselves up for anyone to teach their faith, no matter how ridiculous and contrary it is to our point of view, and how contrary to the truth it might be.


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