Bible in schools: externalising an internal debate for & against

Bible in schools looks like a class out of time, the remnants of a time that's passed. But 650+ schools still choose to teach it. What are the pros and cons? I wrestle me way through them

On Tuesday, Jeff McClintock and the group of people around him will begin their appeal against a decision to throw out their challenge to the Bible in Schools programme. The legal battle is technical; the underlying debate must more pressing. And it's an issue I see from both sides.

The prima facie case seems pretty clear cut. New Zealand has a proud tradition of separating church and state that, in education, dates back to our commitment to a secular education system in 1877. The religious debate, as much as it was, took place between Catholics and Protestants, and so at a time when it was accepted that New Zealand was a Christian society and it was widely assumed that the bible would be part of any decent education, the creation of a non-denominational bible study programme was a progressive and sensible step.

Fast forward to today, and New Zealand is clearly a different very society. We can no longer realistically call ourselves a Christian society and most wouldn't want to. We are home to many beliefs and cultures, the Christian faithful are fewer and many would agree it's more important to know maths and Mandarin than about Moses. 

Bible in schools through this lens looks as anachronistic as some 1950s housewife basting the pot roast waiting for hubby to return from work and as last century as a tape-deck. 

And the arguments are pretty compelling. Surely we send our kids to school for the three Rs, so why add a fourth (religion)? In a crowded curriculum where science and art are struggling to hold their place, why make time to teach one faith in a world of many? Who are these people to force others to learn about their beliefs? Surely there's plenty of time for that outside a secular education system? Surely it's for the parents? And how does a Muslim child feel sitting in this class, or being led away when the bible teacher arrives?

Yes, it's important kids understand the drive of religion in a world where faith drives so much politics and division, as well as healing. And yes it's hard to appreciate the roots of our democracy, law, even science if you don't understand some of the tenets of biblical theology and history. But all of that can be taught in other ways.

And if you want to teach morals, well, why do it through a programme supplied by evangelists of one faith? 

The Churches Education Commission, which provides around 80% of the bible in schools in New Zealand, is making a significant effort to ensure its programme isn't too preachy. It has read the tea leaves at least that much and knows that where it over-steps the mark (and sometimes its volunteers do over-reach - and over-preach), it imperils its long-term survival.

Yet it's hard to accept hand on heart that the programme isn't an attempt to draw children towards the faith when its units include teaching that God created night and day and animals; that God is a shepherd and light. Those are distinctly (if not uniquely) Christian principles. Of course not all Christians would subscribe to the views found in the CEC's material, but equally this is material that could only come from one faith.

I'm a Christian, as you'll know if you've read much here, but my head says the for this time has passed. It's no longer fitting to squeeze one set of beliefs into a system that has to make room for all.

Freedom of conscience is at the heart of Christianity... and there are arguments that forcing children to absorb some of the stories could confuse children or even rebound, driving people away. No-one likes to feel compelled, even kids.

There are arguments in favour, of course. CEC says research suggests religious teachings in amongst normal school work tends to produce higher results. (I haven't seen the research and would obviously wonder about variables, such as richer, more successful people liking religious schools).

But perhaps the best argument is one of choice. No school is forced to have bible in schools and fewer than half do. But what's interesting is the CEC still works in 650-odd schools because the schools want it there. 

Since David Lange's Tomorrow's School revolution, boards of trustees have decided what goes into their curriculum and many still want some bible teaching. It's what their communities want.

Look at the recent debate about whether or not to compel schools to teach the New Zealand Wars. It's the flipside of the same coin, and the government came down firmly on the side that schools and their communities should choose. Hekia Parata said "that's the New Zealand way".

Critics say some of those communities don't know the content of the material bing taught and would be surprised. But my read is that many Kiwi parents reckon a bit of bible does their kids no harm in a world where the narratives swirling through a child's mind are either often full of violence and fear or sickly-sweet, banal niceness. In a fast-changing world, parents want some things handed down, without having to do all the handing down themselves. They like the idea that, while their own beliefs may be only loosely formed, their children are exposed to the formative stories of Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, et al.

And if you can get a bit of 'love thy neighbour' in there, all the better (though many may struggle with 'love thy enemy'.)

And this is where I start to question my head, where I wonder if the practice is really that bad, even if the principle is. The logic against is unimpeachable. But...

I guess, given my faith, I don't think it's a bad thing that a child never exposed to Christianity might have the chance to learn something about God. But of course my head immediately reminds me that's not a school's job.

 But where I really get to is that if it's not compulsory and schools are choosing it as a representation of what their community wants, is it such a bad thing to have a tiny bit of this amongst the crush of modern knowledge children have to absorb today.

Maybe it is. But I'm agnostic enough on this that I think I'm willing to roll with the status quo for now. In principle I support those advocating for removal, and I wouldn't oppose it being removed. But in practice I think a little bit of bible doesn't hurt.

I think.