Push to teach world religions gathers pace

NEWS | Anne Lim

Thursday 28 May 2015

A push for general religious education (GRE) in Victoria would not oust volunteer-run Special Religious Instruction, according to key stakeholders, despite a campaign by secular lobby groups to abolish it.

Options for a multi-faith GRE unit at senior secondary school level are being examined by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. However, no proposal has yet gone to the Education Minister, James Merlino.

The Department sought feedback on the structure and workability of a proposed GRE unit from Access Ministries and other faith teachers at a private meeting earlier this year.

“This is not an approaclassroomch to take out SRI as it is currently executed,” said Sandy Kouroupidis, executive officer of Faith Communities Council of Victoria. “The idea is to provide a more balanced view of all world religions from within the educational system.” He said there were concerns in some quarters that SRI took a “preaching approach” and that there was a need for a more balanced educational approach. However, the new unit would not supersede SRI.

“Our point of view is we want SRI to stay and alongside it for GRE to be taught. We think both systems are complementary and they can coexist.”

Access Ministries, the authorised provider of Christian SRI in Victoria, says SRI is limited to primary schools and the only way it would be affected is if GRE were offered from Prep to Year 12. However, the core proposal is for a GRE subject at senior secondary level.

“We have no problem with GRE,” said Access Ministries’ communications manager Rob Ward. “In fact, already in secondary school there is a religion and ethics subject in VCE – which is the final two years of school here – and I think that’s an appropriate place for general religious education to take place. The complexities of multi-faith concepts and understanding are best handled by somebody with a bit more time under their belt and let’s leave primary where it is, get the ABCs in position before we start pitching some of the heavier stuff.

“If there is a need to broaden children’s understanding of different faiths – and I think that’s a good idea – then it sits much better in the secondary school area. So we’re still talking to the Curriculum Authority and other stakeholders. We’ve been involved in Christian religious education since 1945, so there’s a bit of experience in our organisation and I’m sure we’ll be able to contribute to the debate.”

Access is resisting a push by some groups for GRE to be offered from Prep right through to Year 12. “I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a valid proposal,” Mr Ward said. “I think that we have a common language as a society, a common Christian-Judeo language, and building on that understanding and framework enables you to understand other faith concepts later in life.

“So I think there’s a key place for SRI in primary schools and, if so desired, some broader GRE-type programme in the latter half of secondary school. And, given that the religion and ethics VCE course already exists, it may need to be reviewed and updated and broadened but that’s the framework that ought to be used to develop an alternative there – but they are complementary not competitive.”

The Rationalist Society said teaching General Religious Education would be “a useful thing” provided secular humanism was taught along with the five major religions.

“The major religions of the world and secular humanism are strands of inquiry and philosophical reflection that have shaped human beliefs and behaviour or over the last 2500 years, so it’s important, we think, for the next generation of Australians to understand these traditions in an age-appropriate way,” said the society’s president, Dr Meredith Doig. “More than anything else, GRE would assist to recognise and strengthen Australia’s very effective multiculturalism, and promote respect for difference.”

Dr Doig said the Rationalist Society believed SRI should be removed from government schools because it offends the principle of separation between church and state.

“We don’t think it’s proper that there should be indoctrination – that is, instruction in the doctrine – of any particular religion in government schools, and that’s what SRI is for. So, as a matter of policy, we don’t think that’s appropriate … We’re not against religion per se, nor even the teaching of doctrine, but we draw the line at using government facilities.”

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