Religious education must not be outlawed

Some teenagers once told me their science teacher was asked in class “If we humans come from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” 

The science teacher replied with passion: “Do you know what the only difference is between monkeys and us?” He paused for effect, then revealed: “We came down from the trees!”

I’m not saying he’s out of his tree, but surely over our six-million-year journey from slurping on a banana to typing on an Apple, we did more than just come down from our tree.

Why did we come down from the trees? I have my own theory: we finally realised after millions of years we were not wearing any underpants. Imagine a bunch of your fellow monkeys are underneath your tree looking up at you just hanging there, when it dawns on you: “I’m hanging up here not wearing any underpants!” Of course, it’s very hard to put a pair of underpants on in a tree … not that I’ve tried for months … so we had to climb down from the trees onto safe ground to put on our undies.

As this was millions of years ago, elastic obviously hadn’t been invented yet, so the only way to keep your underpants up was to walk around with your legs as far apart as you possibly could. And this is why monkeys still walk around with their legs so far apart.

Clearly, evolution didn’t end there. Our ancestors climbed back up into the trees in their new undies, but they could only swing with one hand now, as the other hand was now holding up their underpants. And that is why monkeys still hang onto branches with only one arm.

However, a mean trick of the homo-ya-dacked-us species was to tickle each other under the arm holding the branch, and that is why apes are still always scratching their underarms. A couple of million more years pass of us swinging through the trees in our undies – probably grandpa undies by now – until one day, you’re just hanging up there with one arm and it dawns on you: “I’m hanging in a tree in my underpants!”

News of NSW high school principals calling for religious education to be scrapped via a Secondary Principals' Council submission to the NSW curriculum review leaves me with musings of déjà vu. The Sydney Morning Herald revealed last week the review is looking to declutter the curriculum, and the council has said special religious education (SRE) should be one of the first things cut from the timetable.

Is NSW to follow Victoria down the path of outlawing the teaching of optional religious beliefs, making way for the compulsory education of a Safe Schools-equivalent’s beliefs?

I could be wrong, but what else could be the missing link between an almost entirely neglected educational opportunity by the religions of Australia (the teaching of their beliefs and values in state high schools) and the ominous absence of the Safe Schools program in NSW?

The submission claims that SRE is taking up valuable time that should be spent on learning. But consider some facts. SRE is only 40 minutes per week, so we’re talking about an incredibly small half of 1 per cent of a student’s week.

The submission claims that SRE is taking up valuable time that should be spent on learning. But consider some facts. SRE is only 40 minutes per week, so we’re talking about an incredibly small half of 1 per cent of a student’s week.

And unlike the compulsory attendance required of the Safe Schools program, SRE classes are optional. Students are also permitted to openly disagree and challenge the subject material without being shamed or accused of hate speech. Those who freely choose not to attend are permitted to work on their other studies.

SRE spokesman Murray Norman revealed that an independent report into SRE in NSW schools released in the last fortnight found that SRE brings important psychological benefits to students’ mental health and well-being and reduces the risk of mental illness.

Monkey see, monkey do. If children see no religious beliefs or values taught in their school, they will see religious beliefs and values as unimportant.

But schools will always teach beliefs and values, whether they want to or not. 

So, outlawing SRE sounds dangerously like a scorched-earth policy. History has taught that whatever follows this policy is never good.

Twitter: @fatherbrendanelee