What’s so offensive about Australia’s public school chaplaincy curriculum? An open letter to Jane Caro
You say your recent article against the school chaplaincy program is likely to come across as “offensive” – but not as offensive as you personally find the program itself. I think very few of us who broadly support chaplains in public schools find your article offensive. But I wonder how your argument amounts to more than an expression of your personal distaste for religion.
I wrote this. This may offend some people, but not as much as the public school chaplaincy program offends me. https://t.co/gtXwF81Hzy
—Jane Caro (@JaneCaro)
June 10, 2022
First, you say that the chaplaincy program is “anathema” and “insulting”, and that it expresses the pure “arrogance” of a Christianity which considers alternative values as “inferior”. But isn’t there a certain irony here? Doesn’t your article challenge the “inferiority” of religion to your particular version of secularism? It is true that I consider your more doctrinaire version of secularism to be inferior to Christianity in almost every way – ethically, historically, aesthetically, practically, etc. I’m sure you would return the compliment. But we don’t need to rush to call ourselves arrogant for this. We have different points of view. Let’s just argue them, with arguments.
There is a second problem. It seems to me that you are faking the word “secular”. The history of this word in political discourse makes it clear that “secular” does not refer to the “exclusion of religion” from public life, be it politics, education, media or otherwise. . It refers to spheres of life that are not controlled by religion. When a healthy secular democracy moves from “freedom of religion” — where everyone can choose to believe or not to believe — in the “freedom of religion” – which your article explicitly promotes – is no longer sane or secular. At this point, the word deserves the label of an “-ism”. This is secularisman ideology that seeks to keep religion out of important aspects of the life of our community.
Third, I know you’re no stranger to Genuine Christians or the ideas of Genuine Christianity, but some of what you say in the article makes you sound innocent of the most fundamental doctrines of the world’s most popular religion. Almost unbelievably, you notice that Christianity “mocks the central virtue of public education“, which you describe as “welcoming every child as being of equal importance”.
Historians (not to mention Christians) would be shocked by your assertion. The most informed skeptics of our day have freely recognized that it was, in fact, Jesus Christ and his universalization of the Jewish doctrine that all are made in the image of God who gave the West its precious doctrine of human equality. I am thinking here of Samuel Moyn or Tom Holland, or even the famous atheist Luc Ferry, professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and former French Minister for Youth and National Education. Ferry wrote in his book A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Lifethat “Christianity was to introduce the idea that humanity was fundamentally identical, that human beings were equal in dignity, an idea unheard of at the time, and to which our world owes all its democratic heritage”.
It is painfully true that Christians (and others) have failed to live up to their high ideals. I recently wrote an entire book about the evil underbelly of Christian history. But anyone can tell a hundred paces that a hateful and prejudiced Christian does not follow his faith but defies it. The idea that Christianity “scorns equality” doesn’t seem like much of an argument to me.
Fourth, you offer a kind of meme when you say: “Education is meant to teach children how to think, not what to think”. You try to contrast secular How? ‘Or’ What– think about education with the religious What-to-think “indoctrination”, a boo-word if there ever was one. But no pedagogue really believes in this aphorism. They all know that education involves teaching both “what” and “how”. While education is more than just the transmission of content, it is impossible without it — think algebra, Indigenous history, languages, physics, etc. There is a lot of What-to think in these areas, before being able to do the How? ‘Or’ What-think. It is the same with religion. Religion has particular content that will be taught where appropriate, but anyone who has ever walked into a sermon, bible study or religious classroom will know that religions tend to impart content and then urge people to understand how heck the content relates to our world. The statement that “education teaches How? ‘Or’ What think, no [as with religion] What thinking” is – forgive me, Jane – disconnected from both education and religion.
Fifth, you ask why we should allow Catholic or Anglican schools, but not Labor or Liberal schools. I would have thought the answer is simple. Unlike politics, religion illuminates all intellectual disciplines, from science to arts to literature. Remember, that’s how we got universities. People were looking for a unifying program of all knowledge. It is no coincidence that the University of Oxford still keeps the motto Dominus illumination mea, “The Lord is my light”. Moreover, apart from a few crackpots, Christians not want their clergy to run the government. This, of course, could not be said of your hypothetical Labor or Liberal run schools. The very existence of such schools would destabilize our democracy.
Sixth, you also wonder why chaplains would come from religious institutions if they are not really there to “proselytize” with our children. There are three simple answers. First, religions do a disproportionate share of all charity in this country, as noted by people like Dr. Andrew Leigh in his wonderful book Unplugged. Second, religious people tend to be more open to accepting such low-paying jobs for altruistic purposes. Maybe the chaplaincy program started precisely because the federal government knew that religious chaplains would do this work for so little pay. And, third, a religious framework explicitly calls for self-sacrifice. It’s at the heart of it. Do not mistake yourself. I know that atheists and Christians can be as hateful as they are loving, but it’s also true that only one of these views requires its adherents to place the ethics of love at the center. And that’s the other point: have you asked school principals what they or they think of the chaplains in this program? The researchers have. And there’s apparently 90% approval. Religious chaplains do the care work, for little pay and minimal hassle.
Jane, you may have revealed your hand in the last lines of your article, when you write: “Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are among our fundamental principles. [secular] values”. Freedom “from” religion? No, a healthy secular democracy does not exclude religion – from schools or politics or elsewhere. It simply ensures that religious programs are never imposed, always voluntary, so does the public school chaplaincy program.Everything else seems to be driven by a personal distaste for religion.
Reverend Dr. John Dickson is an author, historian and priest of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. His most recent book is Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History. He is the host of the Undeceptions podcast.