It would be very easy to argue that ‘fundamentalism’ is the most contentious religious issue facing Australian society. Islamic fundamentalism appears daily in the newspapers and constantly occupies the minds of defence and other policymakers. But what makes someone a fundamentalist in the first place? And what is the long term solution to fundamentalism? Arguably, fundamentalism is at least in part a reaction against modernity and one of the foundations of modernity is science and reason. So, in this post I will consider the intersection of religion and science as it applies to the education of our children. Underlying my argument is an understanding that “the now-indisputable reality of life’s evolutionary origins – especially human life – challenges some foundational doctrines of the Christian faith” [Price & Suominen, p. 3, emphasis added] This applies equally to the other monotheisms.
In 2004, a Bush Administration official labelled a journalist as being “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality….That’s not the way the world really works any more” [Suskind]. In Australia, significant numbers have been opting out of the ‘reality-based community’ as regards their children’s education. According to Census data, in 1996 9% of Muslim students attended independent schools. By 2006, this had increased to 21%. Over the same period, fundamentalist Christian students at independent schools increased from 28% to 40%. [Buckingham, p. 4] The reasons for this increase are unclear, because it is part of a wider trend towards non-government schools and growth in Government funding of them. However, it is a fair guess that a strong motivating factor is a desire by Muslim and fundamentalist Christian parents for their children to be ‘protected’ from secular teaching perceived to be counter to their religion, including the origin of life, diversity in human sexuality, and education on sex and drugs.
The danger of such an orientation may be obvious, but I will make it plain. It runs the risk of raising children who are quarantined from reality, and who are not well equipped to question propositions, because their minds are trained to accept only a particular ‘truth’, derived from religious texts, and to never doubt that truth. The Australian Association of Christian Schools, for example, has a ‘Statement of Affirmation’ which includes,
“the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are God’s infallible and inerrant revelation to man and the supreme standard by which all things are to be judged.” [Maddox, p. 93]
Maddox also cites evidence of particular Australian schools. For instance, Devonport Christian College in Tasmania has a statement of doctrines that includes:
“Creation as well as Scripture have been brought forth by the same God of truth. Therefore any seeming discrepancy between the Bible and science can only be due to human error, either in science or in the interpretation of Scripture. Science is truly scientific when both nature and Scripture are taken seriously.” [Ibid, p. 95]
Such schools establish a commonality of thought by only hiring teachers who agree with their religious stance. A much-utilised application form has a statement of faith which includes doctrines such as “The one God, eternally existent Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who created the universe and man in a condition of original perfection and harmony by direct supernatural acts” and “The fall of man as a real event in history with its subsequent effects on mankind and the universe.” The form invites applicants to comment on their attitude to “the theory of evolution and its relationship to what the Bible teaches.”
One might question at this point what the problem is for Australia if a few misguided parents hobble their children’s lives by imposing a bad education on them? The answer is that “the sort of schools wanting the right to teach creationism…. together teach over 130,000 students. The AACS alone received nearly $400 million from state and federal governments for recurrent (non-capital) costs in 2010” [Maddox 2]. In other words, a large number of Australian children are potentially quarantined from the ‘reality-based community’ when it comes to their science education, and at considerable cost to the taxpayer. Maddox did not investigate Islamic schools, but it would be fair to assume that they cover a similar spectrum to Christian schools, with a fundamentalist element keen to teach only creationism. It is also important to note that in adopting the moniker “Christian”, these groups are actually signalling their difference from the mainstream Christian denominations that have traditionally offered non-Government education and which, by and large, provide a conventional science education.
Further, these ‘Christian’ school blocs wield real power. In 2010 the South Australian Non-Government Schools Registration Board published a policy that it ”does not accept as satisfactory a science curriculum in a non-government school which is based on, espouses or reflects the literal interpretation of a religious text in its treatment of either creationism or intelligent design” [Brown]. After protests from fundamentalist school organisations, the policy was withdrawn.
It is very hard to see what can be done to counter this. Already, these schools are required to teach State curricula and will be required to teach the national science curriculum that is being developed. They “submit to the same testing regime, and hire teachers with the same minimum credentials as government schools” [Buckingham, p. 12]. The schools are being inspected and clearly are able to demonstrate to inspectors that the curriculum is being taught, or they would cease receiving State support. However, their open espousal of creationism in their websites and marketing material reveals how disingenuous this dichotomy is. One could speculate that either they are tricking the inspectors or the Government is being lackadaisical with enforcement. Given that these schools could not operate without Government financial support, this is a very big stick to threaten them with, if breaches could be pursued and proven.
The trend outlined herein runs the risk of producing adults who have poor critical thinking skills, for whom doubt is no virtue, and who are unquestioning of authority. Is it possible that these are the sort of adults who are easily led into extremism? I uncovered no evidence of this in an Australian setting, but the thought pattern – utter belief in the inerrancy of religious scripture over demonstrable, repeatable science – bears comparison with the madrassas of Pakistan or Jemaah Islamiyah, which have produced extremism. Although the link between fundamentalist-influenced education in Australia and extremism is speculative, it warrants a watching brief and further research.
Brown, Malcolm, ‘Christian schools angry over ban on teaching creationism’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 2010.
Buckingham, Jennifer (2007), ‘The Rise of Religious Schools’, Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney
http://record.net.au/items/policy-favouring-evolution-withdrawn. Accessed 23 August 2014.
Maddox, Marion (2014), ‘Taking God to School: The end of Australia’s egalitarian education?’, Allen & Unwin, Sydney
Maddox, Marion, ‘Too much faith in schools: The rise of Christian schooling in Australia’, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/03/20/3968199.htm. Accessed 23/8/2014.
Price, Robert M. & Suominen, Edwin A. (2013), ‘Evolving out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution’, Tellectual Press, Valley WA
Suskind, Ron, ‘Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush’, New York Times, 17 October, 2004