Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Practicing atheism

Let me begin by declaring I am a practicing atheist (whatever practicing that means?) and a strong advocate of the secularity of public schools—and Universities, Governments, and Defence Services.

The School Chaplaincy Program (the original weblink no longer works—it appears that have no idea of preserving historical information—so this is a link via WayBackMachine) was a Howard government initiative, which commenced in 2007. The Rudd government expanded the program to include secular counsellors, but only if a suitable religious chaplain could not be found by the schools.

The extension and expansion to the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program begins in 2012. The program provides funding to schools to access the services of a school chaplain or secular student welfare worker. Some relevant quotes from Peter Garrett's press release of 7 September 2011, entitled Schools given greater choice under expanded chaplains program:
But we also want to give schools greater choice. This means schools won’t miss out on applying for the program if the school community would prefer to have a secular welfare worker instead of a chaplain.
We had strong feedback for the program to be extended to qualified secular welfare workers, which will empower principals and school communities to choose the right person for the needs and circumstances of their school. This will also provide even more help and support to kids across the country. 
The scheme will be re-named the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program to reflect its broader scope.
Chaplains are not meant to preach or to push their religious point of view (yeah, right!) but act as alternative advocates for children in need of help. However, the National School Chaplaincy Association (NSCA), a network of Christian chaplaincy organisations in Australia is, I suspect, one of the driving forces behind this initiative.

Some parents argue that this program is not about Christianity or religion, but to provide an avenue for children who are being bullied or abused to talk to someone. This was then (and still is) a nonsense—school psychologists are perfectly qualified to deal with such issues.

It is unlikely that a person of any specific religion would be all-encompassing of other points of view or remain secular as would be required. If this were true, it leads to an inescapable conclusion; that schools should support appointing a mufti or rabbi to fulfil this role. Try proposing this at your neighbourhood school and check out the reaction! The response will make it clear what the real agenda is, that indoctrination would inevitably be a consequence, and that most people aren't about to risk Islam or Judaism being presented in this way.

Personally if a choice has to be made, I would recommend Bahai, which is very encompassing and has no dogma. However, the religious "climate" at (some) schools can make children feel like "outsiders" if they do not take part in the "majority" (read Christian) Special Religious Education (SRE) classes. And don't tell me that young children don't keenly feel such peer pressure.

As for programs in ethics, most primary school children learn about ethics in the home, and experientially in school and life environments. In the cases of comparative religions and philosophy, young children get caught up in the "stories" and dogma much more than understand the philosophical differences and issues.

The Stop the National Schools Chaplaincy Program! website, which started up in 2007, clearly argues the case for terminating this program. To conclude, here is a nice quote from Voltaire in Philosophical Dictionary, 1746:
Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense
Acknowledgement: The origin of this post was an essay by Nick Spadaccini, a good friend and colleague, which I edited and extended.


  1. Totally agree. But I think you mean "practicing atheist" (unless you mean to say you're still in training, studying up on your Dawkins and Hitchens :-)

  2. Thanks for the comment. I've amended the post accordingly. I agree that I did mean "practicing", but as I continue to read more Dawkins and Hitchens, practising also makes sense ...