Religion’s Place in a Secular Curriculum

jehovah's digitThe secular state arose for the first time in history, abandoning and excluding as mythological any divine guarantee or legitimation of the political element, and declaring God is a private question that does not belong to the public sphere or to the democratic formation of the public will.
—Joseph Ratzinger, “The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, in Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam


Published in 2006, the book from which the above quotation is taken explores the increasing secularisation of the Western world and the loss of a sacred, transcendent view of life embodied by Christianity. In his essay Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) describes a modern Europe where the Christian religion is banished from the public square and where there is a widespread inability or unwillingness, in part, because of postmodern theory, to make judgments of relative worth.

Anthony O’Hear (“Religion and Public Life”, Quadrant, March 2015) also explores the intersection between religion and the state, with a particular focus on Christianity. While accepting that the state has a role to play as it provides a “framework in which people can lead peaceful and orderly lives”, O’Hear, like Ratzinger, warns against what he describes as the rise of “aggressively strident official secularism”. He provides the state’s increasing influence on education, illustrated by the British national curriculum and national testing, as an example of this imbalance. Additional examples, representing what O’Hear describes as “the illiberal abuse of state power”, involve the Conservative government forcing schools to teach gay rights and admonishing Jewish and Christian schools for failing to teach the officially endorsed line concerning homosexuality and multiculturalism.

Such is the strident nature of the British government’s campaign to enforce state-sanctioned thinking that Durham Free School, a Christian faith-based school, is being forced to close because of an adverse report by school inspectors. According to the inspectors, and based on a small number of children being unfamiliar with Islam, the school, supposedly, is guilty of “failing to prepare students for life in modern Britain. Some students hold discriminatory views of other people who have different faiths, values or beliefs from themselves.”

In opposition to what is described as “an over-mighty and illiberal state power”, O’Hear advocates “a pluralist view of society in which religion has a role to play distinct from that of the secular power or sovereign”. Much of his critique also applies to Australia, where school education has become an instrument employed by secular critics to undermine the contribution of Christianity to the nation’s history and the ability of faith-based schools to remain financially viable and true to their mission.

Enforcing a cultural-Left secular agenda

Cardinal George Pell (“Religious Freedom in an Age of Militant Secularism”, Quadrant, October 2013) warns against government authorities and secular organisations imposing “a particular worldview” on religious institutions and individuals. In relation to faith-based schools, of which the overwhelming majority in Australia are Catholic schools, organisations like the Australian Education Union have a long history of attempting to undermine such schools by restricting funding and imposing a cultural-Left agenda.

Australia has a tripartite system of education, involving government, independent and faith-based schools, where 20 per cent of students are enrolled in Catholic schools. Religious schools, as well as non-government schools in general, receive funding from state and Commonwealth governments and there is a consensus among the major political parties and the Australian community that such schools should be supported. Not so the Australian Education Union (AEU), which argues:

Although substantial government funding to private schools has become entrenched in Australia in recent decades, we believe there is no pre-existing, pre-determined entitlement to public funding; i.e. there is no a priori justification for public funding to private schools.

Article 5.1 (b) of the UN Convention Against Discrimination in Education states that parents should be free to choose a school that best embodies their religious beliefs and that the religious and moral education their children receive should be “in conformity with their own convictions”. Implied in such a declaration is the belief that parents should not be financially penalised for choosing religious schools.

As argued by O’Hear, the freedom to choose is especially relevant in the context of a liberal, democratic society on the basis that “no one has such a comprehensive monopoly of wisdom as to have the right to impose that view on everyone else”.

In addition to seeking to jeopardise the financial viability of non-government schools, the AEU, like the Australian Greens, argues that religious schools should no longer be able to discriminate in relation to who they employ. Such critics also argue that faith-based schools should have non-discriminatory enrolment policies.

In its submission to the Commonwealth’s review of anti-discrimination laws the AEU argues: “An exception for religious organisations which would enable them to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should not be included in the consolidated Act.” The Greens in Victoria argue in a similar fashion in their policy on “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” that its aim is to “Amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to remove exemptions for religious organisations to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity”.

The policy taken to the last Victorian state election by the now Labor government mirrors the AEU and the Greens policies: “A Labor Government will amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 and limit the ‘bona fide occupational requirement’ which makes it easier for employers to discriminate against people based on their sexuality.”

The AEU also argues that the school curriculum should be secular in nature and that it is wrong to assume that students, during the course of their compulsory curriculum, should be familiar with the Bible. The AEU’s submission to the Commonwealth review of the national curriculum carried out in 2014 argues that the Bible has no place in the curriculum: “One need only glance overseas to discover what unfolds when the overly zealous seek to impose the teaching of a holy book as a mandated element of a school curriculum.”

Not only is the assertion that knowledge of the Bible will lead to sectarian discord unproven, the AEU also ignores existing state government legislation that allows both non-government and government schools to include teaching about religion, and by implication the Bible, in their curriculum.

It is true that the West Australian legislation states that the “curriculum and teaching in government schools is not to promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect”. At the same time that legislation states that such a clause should not “be read as preventing—(a) the inclusion of general religious education in the curriculum of a school; or (b) prayers, songs and other material based on religious, spiritual or moral values being used in a school activity as part of general religious education”. The Victorian legislation also allows schools to include teaching about religion, when it states that it is permissible to teach students “about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world”.

Given that Christianity is Australia’s dominant religion, both in terms of its historical and cultural significance and according to the census figures, it would seem only logical that it, along with the Bible, be included in the curriculum. Two Australian prime ministers from both major political parties, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, have publicly argued for the Bible’s inclusion in the school curriculum. As well as having such a profound religious significance, the Bible also has an enduring and significant impact on literature, and parables like the Good Samaritan, David and Goliath, and the Lost Sheep convey in a succinct and powerful way important moral and spiritual lessons. Contemporary expressions such as “turn the other cheek”, “an eye for an eye” and “to cast pearls before swine” are biblical in origin and are an essential element of what the US academic E.D. Hirsch describes as cultural literacy.

Religion in the national curriculum

All Australian states and territories are in the process of implementing a national curriculum across foundation to Year 10 in eight learning areas, including history, English, and civics and citizenship. An analysis of how religion, especially Christianity, is dealt with in the national curriculum provides further evidence of increasing secularism.

An early draft of the civics and citizenship curriculum (dated October 2012) describes Australia as a “multicultural, secular society with a multi-faith population”. In fact Australia is predominantly a Christian nation. The nation’s political and legal institutions and much of its history and culture can only be fully understood in the context of Christianity. It is not by accident that parliaments around Australia begin with the Lord’s Prayer and the preamble to the Constitution includes the words “humbly relying on the blessings of almighty God”. Significant events like Christmas and Easter, notwithstanding an increasingly overtly secular and commercial focus, are undeniably Christian in origin and can only be fully understood and valued in terms of their biblical origins.

In defining what it means to be an Australian citizen, the curriculum document goes on to say:

Individuals may identify with multiple “citizenships” at any one point in time and over a period of time. Citizenship means different things to people at different times and depending on personal perspectives, their social situation and where they live. This is reflected in multiple definitions of citizenship that reflect personal, social, spatial and temporal dimensions of citizenship.

Under such a subjective, relativistic definition it appears impossible to state with any certainty what it means to be an Australian. It also runs counter to the pledge taken during the nation’s citizenship ceremony: “From this time forward, under God, I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey” (version two of the pledge removes reference to God).

A commitment to democratic beliefs and rights and liberties such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression, a Westminster form of government, being innocent until proven guilty, habeas corpus, the separation of powers, property rights and a commitment to the common good (to name a few) suggest a particular definition of citizenship—one not open to multiple definitions based on personal perspectives and different “spatial and temporal dimensions”.

It also needs to be realised that no matter how much those Australians fighting for Islamic State in Iraq or on our own soil might believe in the concept of multiple definitions of citizenship, by engaging in terrorism they have forfeited, morally if not legally, their right to being Australian.

The October 2012 version of the civics curriculum does refer to religion when it states that students should have some knowledge of the contribution made by major religions and belief systems “to civic life and to the development of Australian civic identity”. Unfortunately, the May 2013 version of the curriculum removes any reference to religion’s contribution to civic life and civic identity and, once again, there is no reference to Christianity on the basis that Australia is a secular nation “with a dynamic, multicultural and multi-faith society”.

Based on the Consultation Report, dated November 2012, it appears that the reason for the above change was that those consulted about the October 2012 version felt that religion was over-emphasised and, as a result, there had to be “more reference to non-religious views” on the basis that “Australia is a secular society”.

The May 2013 civics curriculum mandates that all Australian students learn about “cultural or religious groups to which Australians of Asian heritage belong” and “the unique identities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. According to the writers of the national curriculum, while it is permissible to make students learn about Asian and indigenous culture and religious customs and beliefs the same cannot be said for Christianity and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage and spirituality.

The way history is dealt with in the national curriculum also undervalues the central importance of religion, especially Christianity, in the nation’s history and the development of Western civilisation. One example relates to an early draft where those responsible replaced BC and AD with neutral terms like BP (Before Present) and CE (Common Era).

More egregious examples of how the Australian curriculum undervalues Christianity is the 2010 history syllabus where Christian is mentioned only once—but only in the context of studying other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Judaism and Islam. The 2011 history draft also illustrates an unwillingness to acknowledge the significance of Christianity to Australian culture when, under the heading of celebrations, Christmas is merely listed alongside Chinese New Year, Diwali, Hanukkah, the Moon Festival and Ramadan.

The final edition of the history curriculum, dated February 2014, continues to undermine the impact of Christianity on Western civilisation. On referring to the trans-Atlantic slave trade no mention is made of the fact that many of those responsible for abolishing slavery under British law were committed Christians. When detailing the impact of British and European settlement on Australia’s indigenous population, while reference is made to lack of citizenship, the Stolen Generations and the struggle for land rights, no mention is made of the positive impact of early Christian missions in areas like education and health.

Ratzinger and Pera, in Without Roots, bemoan the impact of cultural relativism and the unwillingness of many in the academy to defend Western civilisation and the significance of Christianity. Marcello Pera writes:

Various names have been given to this school today: post-enlightenment thinking; post-modernism, “weak thought”, deconstruction. The labels have changed, but the target is always the same: to proclaim that there are no grounds for our values and no solid proof or argument establishing that any one thing is better or more valid than another.

In relation to the national curriculum, based on the continual references in the curriculum to celebrating “choice and diversity” (the new code for multiculturalism) and the emphasis on teaching intercultural understanding, where the implication is that all cultures are of equal worth, the underlying philosophy is one of cultural relativism.

Ironically, the only exceptions to this unwillingness to discriminate and to teach students that some beliefs and practices are right or wrong relate to the three cross-curricula priorities: studying the environment, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and Asia. These priorities are always dealt with in a constructive and positive light and students are rarely, if ever, asked to be critical.

At the start of 2014 the Commonwealth government commissioned a review of the Australian national curriculum, and a number of submissions by various faith-based organisations provide further evidence that the curriculum fails to deal adequately with religion, Christianity in particular. The Australian Association of Christian Schools, for example, argues that the history curriculum privileges a “Secular Humanism” worldview to the exclusion of the significant role played by Judeo-Christianity in “shaping many Australian political, legal and social institutions”.

Such has been the public debate surrounding the place of religion, including but not restricted to Christianity, in the national curriculum that the body responsible, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, appears to be reconsidering the issue. In a draft paper to the review of the National Curriculum titled “Learning about Religions, Spiritualities and Ethical Beliefs in the Australian Curriculum”, ACARA reaffirms what it says is its support for including religion in the curriculum. The draft paper states:

The Australian Curriculum provides a platform for teaching about religions, spiritualities and ethical beliefs in a balanced, informed and impartial manner where both commonalities and differences are recognised and mutual respect is cultivated.

The most recent edition of the civics and citizenship curriculum, dated February 18, 2014, unlike previous versions, refers to Judeo-Christianity a number of times.

Christianity and Islam in the textbooks

While official curriculum documents influence what happens in the classroom, textbooks also have a significant impact. Textbooks used in Australian schools like the Jacaranda SOSE Alive 2 (2004) and Oxford University Press big ideas australian curriculum history 8 (2012) display a jaundiced and superficial view of religion, especially Christianity.

The Jacaranda book, after describing those who attacked the World Trade Center as terrorists, asks students, “Might it also be fair to say that the Crusaders who attacked the Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem were also terrorists?” Equating 9/11 Islamic terrorists with the early Crusaders displays a misguided and simplistic understanding of the historical circumstances surrounding the Church’s desire to reclaim Jerusalem and the Holy Lands.

When describing the role of the Church in medieval times, instead of acknowledging its beneficial impact, the textbook presents a bleak and negative picture. The Catholic Church, supposedly, enforced its teachings by making people “terrified of going to hell”, a situation where “Old people who lived alone, especially women, and people who disagreed with the Church were at great risk”. One of the role-plays students are asked to perform involves imagining “that as a simple, God-fearing peasant, you have been told you were excommunicated” and, in relation to how the Church treated women, students are told “mostly they did what the Church told them to do—to be obedient wives, good mothers, and caretakers of the home”. Not only is such an interpretation of the Church’s impact on women, again, simplistic, it also judges social relations of the far distant past according to contemporary ideas and beliefs.

The Oxford textbook (2012) represents an improvement on the Jacaranda textbook in that it acknowledges the beneficial impact of the Church on European civilisation. It says that in medieval Europe the “church was a positive influence on societies across Europe—providing education, caring for the sick and supporting the community”.

The welcome observation that “Christian beliefs and values had many positive effects on daily life, architecture, the arts and the justice system” is undermined by the qualification that Christian values and beliefs “also provided motivations for wars, and justifications for some people’s prejudices and fears”. The textbook also asserts that the medieval Church worked against “new inventions, exploration and scientific discoveries”. Those familiar with James Hannam’s book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution will appreciate how misleading the Oxford textbook is.

The same kind of criticism and close scrutiny are often not applied to other religions such as Islam. The description of Islam is impartial and ignores the often violent and destructive nature of jihad. The authors write: “caliphs, who succeeded Muhammad, continued to spread the Prophet’s teachings throughout a growing Islamic empire”. The statement that “The Ottoman Empire and Islamic faith spread from Asia into Africa and Europe, challenging the Christian belief system of medieval Europe” ignores practices such as dhimma where non-believers were denied the right to own property, were unfairly taxed and often lived in fear of violence and expulsion from their communities and homes.

A third textbook published in 2010 and circulated to Australian schools titled Learning from One Another: Bringing Muslim Perspectives into Australian Schools continues to offer a misleading and one-sided view of Islam. The textbook, on asking students to explain what they associate with the word jihad and after noting “there are no wrong answers”, explains that it can refer to “spiritual struggle” as well as “armed fighting, often in self-defence”.

An extract taken from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, vol 2 is cited that claims the Crusades and the “modern war on terror” are motivated by “greed and scorn for Islam”. The book also repeats the argument that the reason many Muslim nations are “socio-economically and educationally disadvantaged” is because of “former colonial powers”. Ignored is the counter-argument that the fundamentalist aspects of the Muslim religion, especially sharia law, run counter to economic and scientific advancement, and the theocratic nature of Islam also restricts innovation and change.

The third textbook also presents the growth of Islam in a neutral way that ignores the violence, destruction and loss of freedom experienced by those living in the conquered lands. The impact of expansion is described as follows: “Many of the peoples of the newly conquered regions converted to Islam. Those who did not were allowed to live peacefully and practise their faith as long as they abided by the law of the land and paid the jizya, a tax imposed on non-Muslims.” Once again, there is no reference to the suffering, financial hardship and often execution faced by those who wished to remain true to their religion.

Unlike secular critics who often attack non-denominational Christian schools for teaching creationism and conservative views about reproduction and sexuality, the authors of Learning from One Another counsel tolerance and respect for Islamic beliefs about such matters.

In school textbooks, any analysis of religion should be fair and impartial. In arguing for a more inclusive and comprehensive treatment of religion, especially Christianity, it is also important to distinguish between proselytising and educating students about religion and belief systems in a broader sense.


As Anthony O’Hear argued in Quadrant, it is important that institutions like education retain a degree of independence and freedom from state control on the basis that “Many areas of public life should be seen as independent of politics, even producing a counter-balance to the political through the autonomous institutions spawned in and by those areas”.

Unfortunately, the recent history of school education in Britain and Australia, especially in relation to the curriculum, is one of increasing government intervention and control. As a result, instead of subjects like history, civics, geography and literature being balanced and impartial they have become politicised and are increasingly treated as instruments for implementing government policy in areas like multiculturalism and sustainability.

At the same time, given the secularisation of Western society and the impact of postmodern theory on the academy, the significance and importance of Christianity, both historically and in terms of its continuing value and importance, are being undermined and trivialised.

One solution is to defend the financial viability and curriculum autonomy of religious schools that enrol so many students across the nation and, unlike government schools, that have a uniquely faith-based mission. A second solution is to ensure that any state-mandated curriculum deals in a comprehensive, balanced and objective way with what the Melbourne Declaration (the guiding document used by education ministers when deciding policy) describes as “the spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life”.

Dr Kevin Donnelly, a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and Director of Education Standards Institute, co-authored last year’s review of the Australian National Curriculum. He can be contacted at


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