The Problem Of Proselytising

There is currently a furore in my country about what instruction – if any – a religious institution should provide to school children in government schools.

When I was in primary school, we used to have what was called “Scripture classes”. We got to find out who the Catholic kids were because they all left for their own lesson elsewhere, plus some years one or two went to the library instead (took me years to figure out why). The rest of us got to hear from someone other than our normal teacher for an hour or so. And it was decidedly Christian in nature.

I’m still a little vague as to quite what Scripture classes were for. I already went to Sunday School and church, and I was an avid reader, so I knew all of the normal bible stories and a lot of less well-known ones, too. And my favourite Scripture classes were of the less well-known stories. I know there were classmates who did not go to church. But I was too young to figure out that Scripture classes was the only place they could hear the Gospel.

This type of instruction is usually called “special religious instruction”. In the part of Australia where I live, it tends to be provided by volunteers from local churches and is part of an arrangement created more than a century ago between the government and the churches. Originally, in the new colony of New South Wales, schooling of children was provided by the churches. Over time, the government took over that job and churches retained access to do their own teaching.

The specific history isn’t important. But what is important is that the religious makeup of this country has changed. A century ago the vast majority of people identified as “Christian” and most probably went to church, too. This is no longer the case and hasn’t been for some decades.

In fact, I’ve changed, too.

I was listening to Background Briefing this morning. This is an investigative journalism radio program that has opened up controversial topics, highlighted problematic behaviors, got wrong-doers in trouble when the authorities could not, and even won awards. But today’s topic was about SRI in government schools in Victoria, specifically the SRI provided by a group called Access Ministries.

Access Ministries was originally created as a centralised group for co-ordinating SRI. This is a good thing. It creates a coherent curriculum across all schools and helps keep a lid on individual scripture teachers who might want to go a bit further than they’re allowed to. After all, one of the big rules is that SRI is not intended for proselytising.

However, in a bit of a “who guards the guards” moment, Access Ministry’s constituent churches has changed recently in favour of more Pentecostal denominations. And this means more fundamentalism. So SRI has become a place for pushing the rules about proselytising.

Once upon a time I would’ve agreed with them. Not now. I can’t imagine the furore if a Muslim organistion insisted on providing Islamic SRI in government schools. I can’t imagine a Pagan organisation even attempting the same.

And yet they almost should try.

None would, of course. Muslims look after their own religious teaching. If they want it in school, they open their own schools. Pagans don’t proselytise at all – and in fact almost always take a “wait until I’m asked” approach. 

But Christians are more evangelical. They’re commanded to. And unfortunately that means that a noticeable number of them will take most any opportunity to try to gain converts. Even special religious instruction in government schools.

Perhaps it’s time for SRI to be abandoned. Comparative morality can (and has been) done with qualified instructors. Comparative religion can be done with qualified instructors. Religous evangelism… leave it outside the government schools.


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