Australian Atheists Sent to Detention Room During Religion Class February 4, 2011

Australian Atheists Sent to Detention Room During Religion Class

It’s not like most American public schools are all that impressive, but Australian schools get it wrong when it comes to their mandatory religious training one hour per week — put on by Christians who get tens of millions of dollars each year. You can read more about that here.

There are many things wrong with the whole arrangement, but one passage in this article captured my attention:

A third parent Glen says children with non-christian faiths at Nowra High School are allowed go to the library during religious classes, but atheists are treated differently.

“At Nowra High School if you are a Muslim or a Hindu or something along those lines you can actually go to the library during scripture classes, but as an atheist he has to go to the same room as kids on detention, kids being punished are in,” he said.

Is that true? If so, how are Australians letting this sort of treatment continue?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Danielle

    What the hell? That needs to stop.

  • anon

    WTF? Reminds me of when I was back in grade school, in the Buybull Belt. Daily school-sponsored prayer was illegal by that point, but they did it anyway, and those of us who didn’t participate were sent outside to stand in whatever weather we might be having – without protection, even if it was storming or freezing cold. Try explaining how that isn’t “punishment”.

  • Trevor

    That’s really odd, considering it’s a country with an openly atheist President.

  • Religious classes aren’t mandatory at all schools in Australia. In fact, I’m pretty sure religion classes aren’t even available in all public schools (at least it wasn’t at my high school 8 years ago). Private schools are overwhelmingly religious (Anglican, Catholic etc) and only teachers who follow those particular faiths are allowed to teach there (they need a letter of recommendation by their religious leader – family friend teaches in Catholic school). I know a lot of non-religious kids attended these private schools, but they always told me they begrudgingly accepted prayers and classes and kept their atheism hidden. I’ve never heard of an atheist being sent to detention.

  • Heidi

    Not cool. Granted, I’d rather have detention than religion class, but still.

    But I’m proud of that kid who walked out after the bs about curing gay people.

  • Granted that the Australian government has a few other things on it mind at the moment, but you would think that with Australia’s Prime Minister being an “out” atheist, there might be some interest in remedying at least the most regressive policies, like this one.

  • Bob

    Okay. Can we send the Creationists to detention during Science class?

  • Wth? Not okay.

  • flawedprefect

    Please don’t get the wrong impression – ie: that this is widespread. It seems to be a case of not enough resources in one school. This story is from ABC Illawarra – a local news page for a region on the NSW south coast, just south of Sydney – probably big news because nobody’s budgie had escaped that morning. I would not have even heard this happened if not subscribed to this blog via RSS.

    Of course, it’s horrible that this happened to one student. That is one too many. Still I’d keep an ear out for other cases across the state before grabbing our torches and pitchforks. It’s definitely a NSW ethics class issue.

  • Jonathan

    @Transplanted Lawyer

    Our current Prime Minister might be an ‘out’ atheist but she panders so much to the religious right that it makes no real difference. She has increased federal funding for religious chaplains in public schools, making a mockery of separation between church and state. This is kind of irrelevant though since most of education is the jurisdiction of the state governments.

    I remember when I was in primary school less than ten years ago, we students whose parents opted us out of RE classes, were forced to sit at the back of the class doing completely pointless activities (colouring in, etc.). We weren’t allowed to do homework and at the end of the class the teacher would give all the students sweets. If there were some left over, he would give them to us but otherwise we were forced to sit and watch while all the other kids ate sweets and played games while we were given activities that were intentionally as boring as possible.

    What? No, I’m not still bitter.

  • dartigen

    Pfft, the atheist kids actually go to those classes? I only started going on threat of suspension. If I had wanted to put up with the teachers shouting at me for not showing up, I don’t think I ever would’ve gone.

    In Year 12, the classes turned into a joke – it was nothing more than free period with a teacher to grumble at us. Maybe I just got the mostly-atheist class every year, but nobody ever paid attention, and the teacher was lucky if half of the class showed up.

    At most schools, students don’t take it seriously and the classes are a joke. We’d be better off if all RE classes were banned and kids were given an extra PE lesson.

  • Is this just one crazy school, or is it widespread? Poor kids 🙁

  • ihedenius

    Non confessional RE classes is a good thing. But that is not whats discussed here I gather.

  • Silent Service

    I’m suddenly glad I grew up in rural America where I would have gotten the shit kicked out if me if people had known I was bi as opposed to living in that part of Oz. Seriously, WTF?

  • I’m more or less from that region (the budgie has been found, flawedprefect!). In most High Schools around here the scripture lessons are held at the end of the day, and anyone not participating (a vast majority) go home early.

    It’s up to the Principal how the week is structured, and these schools were acting against policy. They’ve been told to clean up their act.

    The situation is different in Primary schools, where Scripture occurs during the course of the day. We had to draw our daughter’s Principal’s attention to the policy, because she was placed out on the verandah and told she couldn’t do her homework during that time, even though the policy suggests homework as a suitable activity.

    Anyway, the good news for us here in NSW is that Ethics classes will be offered as an alternative to Scripture. The opposition, who are likely to win government at the next election, had vowed to scrap them (they were trialled last year), but they’ve seen sense:


  • Luther

    the good news for us here in NSW is that Ethics classes will be offered as an alternative to Scripture

    Alternative? – ethics should be offered to all as an Antidote to religion.

    As an alternative it reinforces that myths that religion is the source of ethics and the rest of us need a special dose of ethics.

  • These incidents are not pervasive and there a quite a number of people concerned enough to challenge the school and Department.

    Of more concern is the National Schools Chaplaincy Program, which successive Governments have pumped almost $500 million into. The program effectively excludes trained secular professionals in favour of religious people. This is a clear violation of Section 116 of our Constitution, which is our equivalent of the Establishment Clause.

    For more information see this article, and the High Court challenge.

  • Chris

    Not sure where you got this from but each state here has its own curriculum (for the moment) and in my state, South Australia, there is no mandatory religious education in state schools.

    Thankfully we are extremely secular.

  • Amanda

    When I was in primary school, we just sat in the same classroom with the people who had opted to do the religious class, but we were allowed to play on the computers instead. My best friend and I would giggle to ourselves as we heard them talk about Noah’s Ark and other stories. Most people whose parents wanted them to take the class were quite jealous, and probably would have loved to play games for the lesson instead like we were.

    But now that I look back on it, it’s a little weird. The whole point of opting out of religious classes was pretty much useless with that setup. We were probably a couple of meters from our normal desks, listening to what the instructor was saying (and occasionally recieving icy glares from them.)High school at least we were sent to the library, but again, it was a useless waste of time that we could have spent preparing for exams.

    I noticed though that while there were only two or three non religious in my grade in primary school, the library was pretty much full of us in high school.

    The ethics classes sound good. Well anything that pisses off the ACL sounds good. They’re probably just afraid people will choose them over RE.

  • Ben

    I wouldn’t go too overboard, these specific incidents seem to be relatively isolated cases (there are over 10,000 schools in Australia).

    However I do think we need to completely remove what is now called officially called “Religious Instruction” class, formerly known as religious education class, and most commonly referred to by the various Christian churches as “scripture” class.

    There are some who think that we need too keep them but expand it to spend equal time on other religions, but I think that’s bullshit. Any teaching of religion’s effect on society can be taught in history classes in a purely objective point of view. Anything else, particularly bringing in religious leaders to talk to classes (or “instruct” them) is blatantly unconstitutional.

    We don’t need equal exposure to religion. It’s all fairy tales and dogma.

    Sadly, the practically exclusively Christian RI classes won’t be going anywhere, even though we have an atheist PM. She’s too busy pandering to the Christians, giving them even greater access to our children’s public education (via an expansion of the chaplaincy program — let’s hope that’s knocked over in the high court) than her ultra-conservative predecessor.

  • Justin

    In primary school we had RE or RI, can’t remember what they called it. You didn’t have to do it, although I did to get out of some other class. You could say that was the first time I realised how silly religion was.

    Also, when I was in high school (public) some guy came and all of my year level were put into a room and he was ranting about religion (Christianity) and handing out little Bibles to everyone (it was a little red book, lol). You weren’t forced to take it, some kids of other faiths declined.

  • Dee

    For the record, the fact that the Prime Minister is an atheist has nothing to do with the state based school curriculum; the federal government has no control over education. (It occasionally tries to convince the states to cede the power — or at least agree between themselves on a standard curriculum/testing system — but it’s been doing that since, like, forever with no dice.)

    I grew up in the ACT, and we have no “religious education” in our public schools; I was actually aghast when I went to uni and met people from NSW who’d sat through it.

    Point being, the story of one under-resourced rural school from Nowra shouldn’t be taken as being indicative of Australian public schools as a whole.

    (It’s also worth noting that, unlike the US, we explicitly don’t have separation of church and state in Aus; probably what with that whole having our technical head of state, the Queen, being head of a church and all.)

  • Ben

    As an Australian, this is embarrassing and ridiculous. I think we’re doing pretty well in terms of religion, but then you get shit like this?!
    Atheists being sent to detention may be an isolated thing, but the reality is kids all over the country in secular public schools are being indoctrinated into Christianity be default.
    And unfortunately, the ethics classes in NSW (which are at least a legitimate use of time) will be abolished by the Coalition.

  • > If so, how are Australians letting this sort of treatment continue?

    Quick. Everyone panic.

    Actually sections 10 and 11 of the guidelines already work pretty well. It’s just that in this case the schools (they are reporting on two small towns on the South Coast of NSW) are under-resourced so they weren’t able to comply with the guidelines. As the article says that is being addressed already.

  • Alison

    Both my parents have taught at Nowra High for the past 30 years and that story sounded extremely fishy to me. I’ve been out of school for a couple of years, so I just asked my mum about it.
    While Christian scripture classes are a part of the timetable for all students (it’s an opt-out system rather than opt-in, as in all of the public schools I’ve experienced), all students are free to opt out at any time, including atheists. Those students are sent to the library for individual study, or if there are enough of them, to a separate classroom with separate supervision.
    When I opted out, I was allowed to study unsupervised in the library, as was everyone else.
    Having said that, the scripture teacher in question is undoubtedly a nutter (she was my teacher throughout primary school and some of high school, and does things like attempt to baptise children in class, or wash their feet, etc), and a student may have clashed with her and gained a detention that way.

  • tomonomonous

    1. Australia DOES NOT have religious classes in public schools.
    2. The Prime Minister IS NOT openly atheist, it is however possible that she is agnostic.
    3. Australia is one of the most secular nations in the world. If religious classes were being held I can guarantee there would be an uproar.

  • Nicola

    I’m an Australian atheist and have never heard this story before, despite reading a LOT of stories online from Aussie atheists and how we handled school religion. I would say it’s most likely a one-off. Each school gets to choose how they treat children whose parents opt out of the RE classes. Having said that, it is unacceptable.

    Personally, I went to a public school in rural Victoria. My parents opted me out, and while the rest of the class had RE classes, the other kids and I got to play with all of the toys, go on the play equipment, play with the (very rudimentary) computers etc. RE class was my FAVOURITE time of the week because I got to play while the religious kids had to sing stupid hymns and do work! We thought we were so lucky not to be forced into classes. We used to snicker at them when they sung songs about how jesus loved them. We were never punished or treated badly, the teachers were really good about it.

    The problem with the fact that it is not nationally regulated is that you can have these contrasts. Aussies are significantly more laid back about religion than other countries, so religion in schools is unlikely to become a national issue enough to push for regulation. It ends up being the parents’ role to fight it on a school by school level.

  • Oh. This isn’t all we do to atheists in Australia. Especially the gay ones. We also get them to dress in funny costumes and march through the streets of Sydney. We call it Mardi Gras. And we make them bow down to statues of a man we call The Don. Or in Queensland a man we call the King. If people don’t know who “The Don” is we don’t even let them become citizens. We’re such a backwards country and we all ride Kangaroos, compare knife sizes and when we’re not barbequing shrimp we’re known to hunt crocodiles with our bare hands.

    Pot meet kettle… I’m a Christian and even I think it’s pretty ludicrous when an American comments on church/state issues in Australia as though we’re some sort of regressive nation.

  • Dave

    @flawedprefect and others.

    There seems to be a misconception among atheists in British Commonwealth countries (among whom I count myself) that there is some sort of Establishment Clause in our constitutions. In fact, (somewhat ironically) the ‘separation of church and state’ is pretty much an American constitutional concept.

    For Australia, and New Zealand( where I live) our head of state (the Queen) is constitutionally bound to religion – in Australia her offical style starts “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia’ and in NZ it starts in a similar way – in fact constitutionally church and state are united at the highest level!

    Luckily, the de facto situation is that we seem to be more secular, and have much less interference in secular matters by the religulous than in the the USA with its constitutional ban on such matters. However, there is no contitutional separation of church and state in Australia, or in NZ.

    Roll on the Republics of Oz and NZ with a written constitution sorting out this issue is all I can say!!

  • Steve

    Luckily, the de facto situation is that we seem to be more secular, and have much less interference in secular matters by the religulous than in the the USA with its constitutional ban on such matters.

    Ironically, that’s the case in a lot of European countries. In some like Spain, it’s because people actually remember what it’s like when a church works hand in hand with a dictatorship.

    But generally, I think it’s because the First Amendment cuts both ways. While it prohibits the most egregious interferences by religious institutions, it also protects a lot of things around the margins, that taken together severely undermine the separation.

    Still, a lot of it is cultural. France has a very clear constitutional separation. But bringing up religion in the course of politics is a HUGE faux pas and almost unheard of.

  • I saw a documentary about rampant drug-related crime on the streets of the United States. People were being shot daily!

    Is that true? If so, how are Americans letting this sort of treatment continue?

    Oversimplification is bad. But I think Hemant suspected things weren’t so simple when he asked for more information in the last sentence. The excellent comments here will have helped. 🙂

  • Ella

    @ tomonomonous
    There are religious classes in some public schools in Australia, particularly primary schools. In my state 1/2 hour a week could be used for ‘religious education’. These classes were taught by volunteers from whichever nearby church/buddhist group/religious institution felt like being involved at the time (So if no institution around the school could be bothered there were no classes).

    In my grade, students were so disruptive during these classes that few volunteers turned up more than a handful of times. Though our disruptiveness wasn’t helped by our regular teachers, who sat in on these classes, ‘punishing’ our picking on the RE volunteer by sending us outside to the playground. In my most memorable RE class, the class went from 33 students to 4 as we were one by one sent to the playground 😉

    After chatting to my siblings, I’ve found they had similar experiences. None of us have had a volunteer who has lasted more than 5 or so weeks.

    That said, I find it ridiculous that religion is getting any sort of endorsement from public schools and I think the whole idea of giving religions class time to teach should be scrapped.

  • Tazerin

    I don’t know what other student’s experiences were with primary school RE lessons, but for me, they were pretty lacadaisical. In public schools (what I spent the length of my primary and secondary education in), RE is dependent on available (Christian) volunteers that hold a blue card (permit to work with children) that could handle being mocked and ridiculed by classfuls of 10-year-olds. For this reason, in my schools at least, there was lots of chopping and changing of RE teachers, and all we really did was listen to religious stories and learn sign sign language that went with Christian music. Students who opted out of these once-every-couple-of-weeks sessions went behind a screen and continued with their maths lesson (for some reason, math always preceded RE…I can’t think why >.>). When I hit high school, RE completely dropped off the radar except for the mandatory ‘some people believe different things’ talks in health ed and biology classes. (On a side note, can you believe we had a fundie in our biol class!? Who mocked me incessantly for saying that dinosaurs existed!?)
    Most private schools in Australia, on the other hand, are religious (and claim to promote tolerance and diversity in their cohorts.) These schools have mandatory religion lessons complete with homework and assessment pieces. Although the lessons do spend a bit of time discussing different world views, they come from a Christian perspective and spend the majority of its time bible-bashing. Additionally, not completing these assignment pieces carries with it the same weight as any other subject – failing, decreased Overall Position (a good OP is vital in my state for university offers), detentions and eventually suspension or expulsion.
    Another issue is that private schools, which do not receive any government funding, do not need to conform so closely to the national standard for curriculum (x amount of hours of math per week, y English, z physical education etc), which results in depleted time allocated for core subjects because RE is such a significant subject.
    Now that I’ve got all that out, I’m going to post! And probably realize that I’ve missed out sixteen things I wanted to say :P.

  • Nadiah

    This sounds more like a logistics issue than anything else. When I was in primary school in Australia (mid-late 80s), I remained in my own classroom to read or do my own quiet activity while all the other kids went to religion class. It was organised so that each classroom hosted a different religion or denomination, including my own one, so I could plainly overhear whatever was being taught in that religion class.

    I’ll never forget the day I heard a pentecostal(?) preacher use the Bible to call foreigners “aliens” and preach that God wants them crushed and forced out of Australia. By-the-by, I am half-Asian and both of my parents were immigrants. (So, anyone who’s concerned about kids accidentally getting religion from this needn’t worry too much. It might even be a good inoculation.)

    I was the only one in my classes, over 4 years, who ever sat out. I imagine that the cause of this was simply a demand one; if there were only a handful of us, there was no reason to set aside a space for us. Perhaps as the numbers of opt-outers grows, atheists’ and the non-religious’ kids will get their own space.

  • doG

    As already mentioned The National School Chaplaincy Program is to be challenged in Australia’s high court as unconstitutional.

    The program is NOT mandatory. It’s voluntary. Nonetheless it’s influence is prevalent within the school system.

    My sister who lives a few hours from Sydney started an alternative class with other parents in their local Primary School. They call it Myths and Legends. Parents and Citizens take turns each week to teach all kinds of interesting non-curricular knowledge. Within two years 80% of the kids now attend the class instead of scripture.

  • Gib

    It seems that some states don’t have these religious classes. Is there a list somewhere?

    Particularly I’m thinking now about my new baby and whether we’ll put her in a public or private school. I’d love to go private, but they’re all religious.

    I’m in Western Australia – do public schools have these religious lessons here?

  • doG

    For those concerned, the School Chaplaincy Program us now under review by the Department of Education. From today they are taking survey submissions (I assume from Australina residents only) to help determine the future of the program.
    The following link is a document download that includes the Survey and in-depth background information.

    Submissions will close 18th of March. Put the word out there!

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