Mumbo-Jumbo, Father Christmas and The Tooth Fairy

29 March 2009

Read a nice story in the paper recently. A Queensland father, Ron Williams, has gone to the Anti-Discrimination Commission to complain about the inclusion of bible stories in his children’s education.  His 4 year old came home very upset that “God had killed all the animals in a flood, except those in the Ark”.  He’d already moved his children from a school that had appointed one of “Howard’s chaplains” as he’s determined that they aren’t “exposed to supernatural stories”. 

Apparently one of the teachers asked if he had any objections to Father Christmas coming to the school.  His answer: “You can bring Santa AND the Tooth Fairy here.  Just don’t tell my children they’re real”.

I know I bang on about this subject a bit (OK, a lot) but I really do think that atheists have traditionally had a “live and let live” attitude.  I’d like to see a few more “fundamental atheists” who stamp on this insidious pseudo-education of our children before it gets a hold.  I really worry about children being taught the so called “Intelligent Design” theory in schools (thankfully not here yet, but I think there’s a campaign going on in some parts of the country).  Those schools aren’t going to produce one decent scientist between them.

Having said that, I think there should be more and better Comparative Religion classes in schools.  Any night in front of the TV news will show how religion is adversely affecting millions of people around the globe (last night – Pakistan/India, Israel/Palestine).  And the level of ignorance I come across about the beliefs of these religions and the causes of these conflicts, some of which have continued for generations, is quite frightening.

It reminds me of the dreadful story I heard the day after the World Trade Centre massacre.  A Sikh man, wearing a turban and going about his business in an American town, was dragged off his bike and beaten to death.  (Sikh = dark skinned and not Christian = Muslim = terrorist)      

Anyway, I’m trying to do my bit to spread the word. 

And tonight on Australia’s ABC television station, in Compass (a documentary programme covering various aspects of religion), they’re discussing atheism.  It’s a start.


  1. It has always annoyed me that Australian schools don’t have a religious studies subject where children are given an introduction to the major religions of the world, as understanding and appreciating alternative beliefs is so important in reducing potential conflicts, which have a tendency to arise out of fear of the different, the unknown, and the misunderstood.

    Instead of this, Australian schools allow unqualified people to enter the school grounds and ‘instruct’ children in the beliefs of a religion (out of a very short list, which is usually just Church of England, Roman Catholic, and perhaps one or two others) which the parents of the individual child opted for when the child was first enrolled at the school. Often, the volunteers in charge of the classes have little or no training in education, and very little appreciation of the potential damage they can cause — as an example, at the primary school my daughters attended, one mother found herself dealing with a very young child who had been so convinced of the perfection of the afterlife in Heaven that they had decided they wanted to be there now, and no longer wanted to continue to live.

    When I first enrolled my eldest daughter, I was given the option of having her attend either Church of England or Roman Catholic scripture classes. I asked if it would be possible to have her not attend either, and received a look that made me feel like I had just grown an extra head as far as that administrator was concerned. I did say that I would be more than happy for her to attend classes where the beliefs of the major world religions were introduced by a qualified teacher, but this suggestion only resulted in me receiving a somewhat puzzled look in return. While the school did agree to my request, they always made my daughter feel like she was odd for not going along to one of the scripture classes, and they made very little effort to ensure she wasn’t herded into one of the scripture classes by mistake. After one of the times she had attended one of the scripture classes, I received a strong reminder of just why I didn’t want her in those classes when my daughter came home with a colouring sheet emblazoned with the word ‘REPENT’ — and I’m still at a loss to know what a six year old could possibly have needed to repent for.

    I have always thought that the schools should have a responsibility to provide our children with the information and tools they need to at least start to understand the beliefs and cultures of others, particularly in the view of the environment of conflict and mistrust we currently find ourselves in. This really is the kind of thing I feel can’t just be left to individual parents if we are to have any chance of reducing current prejudices and misconceptions.

  2. Sally, I think you’ve been spammed by someone who’s trying to hook single Christians up with one another. Or is that just my paranoia showing?

  3. Hi Sally,

    I’m not against evolution, or non-scripture classes or atheists but aren’t you just arguing that your beliefs (atheism/agnosticism/apathism/christian/buddhist or whatever)* should be taught in schools instead of mine or the muslim lady down the street?

    *A religion is just a world view or group of beliefs. Everyone has a group of beliefs. Some are just more organised than others. No one is really areligious. They can be a-theistic but they still have beliefs and a world view. Its like people saying they don’t have an accent.

    Anna Ruth (from M&S SnB)

  4. Afterthought – I guess what I mean is, how do you think schools can teach belief free? And if you think teaching an atheistic world view is better, why?

  5. I’m rapidly beginning to think that religion has no place at all in education. It’s a personal belief and relevant to one’s life outside the formal school system. It isn’t unique in this – I learned how to read music and play the euphonium out of school, for example. Education time is too precious to be wasted on subjects which can be picked up elsewhere.

  6. I loved that story!

    Personally, I have no problem with religion being taught in schools – as comparative religion. I think knowledge of religion is a wonderful thing, and if we all understood each other a little better, we might just be kinder to each other.

    I am curious as to what this will be like for Inigo if he goes to school around here – I think there would be a as least as many Muslim children as Christian ones, so they won’t be able to teach one dominant religion (I hope!).

    I met a lovely woman at woolies yesterday, she was talking to her kids in Arabic as well as English, so we were chatting about bilingual kids, schools, etc. She told me that her daughter attends two different schools, English speaking for 3 days a week,and Arabic speaking for the other two. Both schools are state run.

    Judging by her headgear, I would guess that she is Muslim, and plans to teach her religion to her kids. From my five minute conversation with her, and my interaction with her kids, I think they are going to be lovely kids, and good citizens, and religion has nothing to do with it.

    My kid won’t learn much about religion from Mark and I, but her will learn that difference is to be respected, and rejoiced in, and that the only thing to be intolerant of is intolerance.

    These are values that are best taught at home, and leaving religion to the religious seems sensible to me.

  7. Anna, I think that what Sally is saying is that children should be taught about all belief systems, not about atheism. (Feel free to correct me here, Sally, if I’ve misunderstood you.) I agree. At the moment they are taught about religion by a few dedicated volunteers who are trying to tell the children what they believe. Comparative religion, in which the principal beliefs and practices of all the world religions are examined, would be more useful – not to mention more respectful of people who aren’t Christian as well as those who are.

  8. Hi M-H and Sally,

    Apparently in NSW, they are meant to teach GRE (General Religious Education), although if my memory of school is anything to go by, you are spot on, its not really taught at all (but I agree it should be). As for SRE (Special Religious Education “Scripture”), I still think its important to have it in schools (and by those “dedicated volunteers”) but that it is the parents’ choice which group the child attends (or if nothing the parent feels appropriate is available, then ‘non-scripture’).

    I guess what I was trying to say (but failing, which is my fault) is that people get all up in arms when kids are taught about God or whatever in schools because they don’t want the education to have a “Catholic slant” (or protestant, muslim, hindu or whatever), but don’t acknowledge that there has to be some view point (no way of teaching is “areligious”) and why is a fairly atheistic humanist viewpoint (which I guess is what the people who get upset generally believe) better than the (to use the example above) Christian one? (Particularly when more people claim to be theistic than not.)

    (I hope I made sense. I have been having a lot of trouble lately converting my thoughts into words. Please let me know if I’ve just made everything more confusing.)

  9. Hello!

    Have you been reading this week’s Heckler column in the SMH? It’s very interesting stuff. Today’s was writen by an aethist.


  10. Hi M-H and Sally (again – sorry to hijack this blog post),

    I just had a moment of clarity of expressing what I wanted to say. Sally said that she wants to see “this insidious pseudo-education” stamped out. I take this to mean (please correct me if I’m wrong) that any class from a “Christian”, “Buddhist”, “Muslim” etc point of view is unacceptable. I guess I’m asking why Sally perceives an atheistic humanist point of view education is any less “pseudo-education”?

    (Once again, sorry to keep circling round the same question. Its really just my brain…)

  11. Anna, I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to conceive of classes in which world religions and the basis of religious belief is taught without saying which religion is ‘the right one’. This was how I was taught comparative religion at University: histories of the different world religions and how they are similar and how they differ, and how they grew out of a particular cultural foundation. Teaching religion from an atheistic point of view is impossible as atheists don’t believe in any god, so an atheistic point of view would simply say that all religion is wrong-headed. That’s not what I read Sally’s blog post to be suggesting is a good thing.

  12. I think it is probably quite hard to have a “general religion” class. Even if tehre were a syllabus for it, there will be parents (and non-oparents) complaining about the classes being coloured by the teacher’s own religious views. If parents want Atheism, Buddhism, Islam or any other religion to be taught in the school, why don’t they arrange for volunteer teachers from their religious organisation (or volunteer themselves) to start a class in the school that is at the same time as the scripture classes. Surely teh schools can’t say no as long as the volunteer’s references (and police check and whatever else they check) check out.

  13. This is an issue I feel quite strongly about (but am unfortunately too busy with work to expound upon fully). I don’t view my self as simply an atheist (though I believe in the non-existence of gods), but as an anti-theist. I believe that religious faith is harmful to the individual and the world at large.

    Firstly, I disagree with Anna’s definition of religion as to include atheism. At the core of all religions, there is a matter of faith regarding the nature of the universe. This viewpoint must be taken on … well… faith. It cannot be questioned or changed. On the other hand, if one believes strongly that there is no god, God, invisible pink unicorns, or flying spaghetti monster, but is prepared to accept proof otherwise, that is a fundamentally different world-view.

    Beyond what one believes (privately within the contents of your own mind), there is the question of how that impacts your interactions with the world. Theoretically, I have no problem with whatever one might choose to believe, but I can’t see how beliefs such as “you are going to burn in Hell”, let alone “by killing these people I will go to Heaven”, can fail to influence the way we react to other people. Even the best intentioned believer must think a bit less of those who do not share their faith. Even if it manifests as a sense of pity, it is not beneficial.

    Finally (for now – I sense a post on my own, sadly neglected, blog approaching), religions teach one to believe in magical thinking. I’m with Dawkins in thinking this is a form of child abuse – crippling rational thought and the scientific method.

  14. Perhaps my opinion of volunteer religious teaching is coloured by my experience of volunteer Catholic teachers (in a predominantly Anglican (state) school), but I think it’s important to reiterate that we are not talking about teaching religion in the form that it is taught now (ie, promoting it).

    Comparative religion is a serious academic study, that brings together the study of different beliefs, and the history of those beliefs. A study of comparative religion shows that the three major mono-theist religions of the world (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) actually have more commonalities than differences.

    A study of comparative religion, taught by a qualified teacher (and not an enthusiastic volunteer), has the potential to do a great deal of good, promote tolerance and understanding of different belief systems, and should not interfere with an individual students privately held beliefs. Unless, of course, that student chooses!

    Comparative religion can’t really be seriously taught to very young children, but they can be taught about difference, and critical thinking! I have heard recently about philosophy classes for primary school children, and I think that is a brilliant idea!

    Teaching children to think about thinking. Marvelous!

    P.S. I haven’t yet read the Dawkins book, and can’t agree with my adorable spouse that religion = child abuse. I have seen religion lead to child abuse, but that is a horrible extreme (like terrorism), and a whole ‘nother conversation. Unlike Mark, I actually like religion, I have seen it provide comfort to many, and there is little enough comfort in the world. I don’t actually believe in the existence of a supreme being though. Tried, failed.

  15. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for commenting on my comment.

    While I disagree about whether God exists, I’m not going to argue that here. However, to say that all theists have “blind faith”, I think is an unfair sterotype. Many scientists etc believe in one or more deities/higher powers etc and have rational reasons for doing so and would be prepared to change their minds if other evidence appeared. (CS Lewis seems a good example. He says he didn’t want to believe but rational arguments forced him to accept it.)(You may have other rational reasons why you shouldn’t but to say they all have blind faith is a bit unfair.)

    I guess I want to ask (to you as much as to anyone else, because I don’t really understand atheists at all), why do you think that teaching kids in public schools from your view point (all religions are bad for people) is a more valid lense through which to teach, than say a hindu viewpoint?

    Also, Mark, you say (please correct me if I’ve misread it) that what you believe (e.g. if you don’t believe x you’ll go to hell or whatever) affects how you interact with other people and you will think less of them etc. Do you not as an atheist do the same thing? In your post, haven’t you been passing judgement on those who do believe in a god as being harmful or magical thinking? (I don’t really know whether you have a right to think judgementally or not, but I’m more concerned about your inconsistency.)

    I guess my summary question (and I really do wonder this from atheists, pluralists etc), what is your basis for claiming that your view is more valid than anyone elses?


    • I’ll revert to this topic in a post in the next day or so as what I said in my original post appears to have been totally misunderstood. I really can’t remember claiming that my view is more valid than anyone elses. Or that children should be taught about religion from MY view point.

  16. I am certainly not claiming that my view is more valid than anyone else’s. This is the whole point. Children should be taught that no opinion on religion is intrinsically more valid than anyone else’s, that all religions are the product of their time and place and culture. If you choose to believe in one or the other of them, other people should respect that, and you should respect their choice too. If a religious group is allowed to teach in a school and children are expected to attend that class no matter what their or their parents’ views are, that isn’t respectful. It’s coercive.

  17. I guess my summary question (and I really do wonder this from atheists, pluralists etc), what is your basis for claiming that your view is more valid than anyone elses?

    Hi Anna,

    I don’t think any of us have said that our viewpoint is any more valid than any other. My reading of the comments is that we think that everyone’s viewpoint should be taught, with no bias. Perhaps it is hard to imagine teaching religion without bias, but it isn’t hard for the godless amongst us šŸ™‚

    I won’t be promoting any religion to Inigo, but I will encourage him to investigate, and read, and ask probing questions. Just as I would if he was learning about any subject. Will I be disappointed if he takes up with religion? No. Not unless he becomes a bigot!

    I became a “born again” christian at about 13 years of age. I still have a great respect for much Christian doctrine (I love “do unto others…”), but ultimately decided that the sort of god I could respect would never condemn good people to eternal damnation, just for choosing the wrong faith. It’s just not something I can support, or believe. So I try to be a nice person, help old ladies get the can of dog food off the high supermarket shelf, contribute to charity, agitate for the disadvantaged, recycle….

    And I try to enjoy life. I don’t think being a non believer makes me unable to be objective about religion, in fact I think it helps!

  18. I’d be the culprit for the “my viewpoint is more valid than others” position. I’m aware of the irony – it’s one of the things I dislike in religions.

  19. And a very interesting edition of Compass it was too!

  20. Many scientists etc believe in one or more deities/higher powers etc… CS Lewis seems a good example.

    C S Lewis was not a scientist.

    It’s important not to misconstrue aetheism. If you do, then you are setting up a straw man argument, and your own counter arguments become meaningless. Aetheism is not one belief among many. It is the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of any gods.

    I would be happy with comparative religions classes, but I object deeply to anyone forcing their religious beliefs on my children.

  21. […] wrote about Mumbo-jumbo, Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy a few days ago, and she has followed it up today with a post explaining her position on teaching […]

  22. I came here via Deborah at a Strange Land. First, I have to applaud your post! (as another atheist who was brought up religious). And my sons opt out of scripture at their NSW state school. In NSW, at least, the rules about religious education in the state system are very clear.

    Forgive my promoting my own blog, but I quoted them extensively in this post a year ago:http://penguinunearthed.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/moral-majority/

    At least an hour a week must be set aside for religious education. Religious education can only be given by a member of the clergy or other authorised person of a recognised religion. Which means that people like me can’t go into the classroom and education our own children about comparative religion at the same time, as we don’t belong to a “recognised religion” (and also, in part, as comparative religion might be educational).

    And I can’t find the reference quickly, but my understanding is that the alternative (“children being appropriately cared for”) must not include anything of educational value, as it would be unfair to the children going to the religious classes. So at my sons’ school, they had to move the “non-scripture” children out of the computer lab a few years ago as the local minister complained.

    It infuriates me, that in the crowded NSW curriculum, 1 hour out of 30 is wasted this way, and it infuriates me more that a vocal minority has managed to hijack the public system for so long.

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