Listen: Professor Suzanne Rutland in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Professor Suzanne Rutland, Emeritus Professor of Religion from the University of Sydney spoke on Open House about research she and a fellow academic have completed on Special Religious Education (SRE). She says SRE is an import mechanism for children to find their identity and that to remove religion is to weaken multiculturalism in Australia.
Special Religious Education (SRE) in government schools has been hotly contested contested ground in most Australian states in recent years. In 2018 there was focus on the issue particularly in Queensland and New South Wales.
SRE and identity
Professor Suzanne Rutland, Emeritus Professor of Religion from the University of Sydney and an Israeli colleague, Professor Zehavit Gross, of Bar-Ilan University have extensively researched the issue. They looked at the teaching of religion in Jewish Day Schools and Jewish SRE in state schools in Australia. They found the classes were of great value in helping Jewish children to discover their identity in the context of their faith and cultural background.
When Professor Rutland spoke about the SRE debate on Open House she said that the research unexpectedly uncovered a disturbing finding. She told Stephen O’Doherty she an Professor Gross were shocked that the children saw the SRE experience as a place they could be safe from Anti-Semitism.
“We simply asked ‘why have you chosen to come to Jewish SRE [Special religious education]’ because, of course, these days it’s voluntary. To be honest, both of us were shocked with the answers. The kids said, this is a safe place. This is where we come to see our friends.” says Dr Rutland.
“If you don’t understand yourself how can you understand others?”
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The undercurrent of anti-semitism
“Unfortunately there is an undercurrent of anti-semitism still in our society. So [there was value] for the Jewish kids once a week to gather together to learn about their own religion with the other Jewish kids without feeling threatened about being Jewish.” she says.
Dr Rutland has since looked at the experience of SRE for children in other faith groups, “What we have found since, from talking to other faith groups … is very interesting.” she says.
‘To take religion entirely out of the public domain would be tragic.”
Negative comments about Christianity
“Ironically some of the children [in other faith groups] are having the same types of experiences in the playground of very negative comments being made about Christianity. You don’t expect that in Australian society.” says Professor Rutland.
“To be clear, we haven’t done detailed research on Christian SRE in the way we have for Jewish SRE. This is based on comment to me by teachers of Christian SRE working in both NSW and Queensland.
“In addition, I became very involved with a group known by the acronym REENA [The Religions, Ethics and Education Network of Australia] who were pushing very, very strongly against SRE in government schools.
Similar to racism
“So the comments I have heard are much more from adults for Christian SRE, but resonated. We see the same thing with indigenous children. who are frightened to come to school because of racism in the playground. she says.
Small religions need SRE
“What I found through REENA is that the smaller religions such as Bahai, Hindus, Buddhists they really want SRE to continue because they don’t have the funding to establish their own private schools.
“I found through REENA, which really was a group pushing (and successfully in Victorian already) to end religion in state schools, there really was an undercurrent who thought and felt as I did from the minority religions.” says Professor Rutland.
NSW SRE report
“What happened in NSW was that in 2015 the government commissioned a major report on SRE. The report did not come out saying that SRE should be discontinued but rather made recommendations of ways to make the system more transparent and to allow for better training and evaluation.” she says.
Demonstrates a free society
Dr Rutland believes religion can act as a force for social cohesion and that if society values religion it should be publicly and freely spoken about. Religion should be celebrated as a demonstration of the diversity and freedom of Australian society.
She agrees with the proposition that there should be a place for the study of and about religion without pursuing a sectarian view that any religion, or non-religion, is preferable to any another.
Tragic to remove religion
Commenting on the findings of her research Professor Rutland said that “to take religion entirely out of the public domain would be tragic. While some secularists have argued that Special Religious Education, teaching conducted by faith groups, should be replaced with a general course about religion and ethics, Professor Rutlands says both are needed.
“In terms of SRE, first children need to be secure in their own religious identity. We are as equally supportive of what is called GRE, General Religious Education. In other words, learning about all the religions in society.”
Sharing a step to understanding
“There is no reason that SRE cannot contribute to GRE because kids from one faith group. For example we have the jewish festival of Hanukkah coming up now, Jewish kids going to SRE could share an experience with their whole class group within the school or something along those lines. says Professor Rutland.
“To remove religion is to weaken multiculturalism in Australia.”
Trying to live without religion
Some of the pressure to remove SRE from schools was based on a Marxist ideology, Professor Rutland said. German philosopher Karl Marx wrote that “religion is the opium of the people“. She pointed out that while the Soviet Union was an atheistic state in which Communism was the de-facto religion, the practice of religion did not cease but were simply driven underground.
Christmas is in the public space
“Christmas is still, although people argue it’s not, Christmas is still in the public space an I believe it should remain there. For Muslims they should also have the possibility once they understand, but if you don’t understand yourself how can you understand others?
Rich cultural heritage
“Religion is part of our rich cultural heritage. People talk all the time about maintaining culture, but religion is a key element of that culture and therefore to remove religion is to weaken multiculturalism in Australia.” says Professor Rutland.
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