Looks like The Age’s ‘militant secularist’ coverage of the Access Ministries scandal has ruffled Baptist minister Nicholas Tuohy. This man of God believes that The Age and “its buddies at the Humanist Society” are mounting an “unjustified and unfair attack on Christian Religious Education (CRE) in schools and chaplaincy.” Conveniently for me, Tuohy has structured his peevish outburst in a numbered point-by-point format, so I’ll just shoot down his fallacious arguments in exactly the same order he has made them.
Firstly, why shouldn’t children have the right to learn about Jesus and, if they so want, become a follower or, ready for it, a Christian? One example in The Age article refers to a child who ended up taking herself and her parents off to the local church after having CRE classes. Shock horror, call in the troops! A family heading off to church together? The Age thinks this is somehow sinister.
Sorry to burn down your strawman Tuohy, but no one, not The Age, not their ‘buddies at the Humanist Society’, not the Australian Education Union, not even baby-eating ‘militant’ atheists like me are denying anyone, children or adults, the right to learn about Jesus / Mohammad / Krishna / Satan’s friend Buddha / Odin All-Father / Gandalf the White. The issue here is about the state funding of personal religious ideology. Public schools are no place for religious indoctrination. Places dedicated to such ‘instruction’ already exist. I believe the public venue for the Christian variety has the technical designation of ‘church’, while the private one is commonly referred to as ‘home’. Go mess with people’s heads there.
Secondly, we often hear about the need to understand and address the root causes of terrorism (another way of saying it is the West’s fault radical Islamists want to kill us). We also need to understand the root causes of religious fundamentalism. When a militant secular agenda is forced upon a society, like what The Age and its buddies at the Humanist Society are seeking, people of faith can move into a ghetto-like mentality. The way to avoid this is to have open and robust conversation about religion, kept alive, and not pushed to the margins.
Seriously, what’s with the ‘militant’ tag? Apparently all you have to do to be considered a ‘militant’ secularist is to insist on the separation of religion and state, a separation that protects all believers and non-believers. Do Christians like Tuohy ever reflect on the fact that if, say, Islam or Hinduism was the majority faith in Australia and secularism didn’t exist, he and his Jesus-loving buddies would very likely have their religious freedom curtailed? Secularism is the principle that guarantees equal rights for all faiths, regardless of how large their share of the pie is. In fact, it is the privileging of one faith over others that is more likely to cause resentment and ‘ghetto-isation’.
Thirdly, I think Australians are largely fearful of religion. That’s why no one talks about it and media campaigns like The Age are always trying to sideline religion or make it out to be some sinister and suspicious practice we need to protect our children from. Like it or not, our very education system comes out of the Christian heritage of Western nations. Great learning institutions like Oxford were started by very Christian people. It is absurd to say that Christian faith is some threat to kids. Even the most vituperative critics of Christianity, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have recently expressed praise for the role the King James Bible had on literature and Western culture.
This is one long string of non sequiturs. Opposing the National Schools Chaplaincy Program has got nothing to do with denying the contributions of religion, specifically Christianity. The Australian Education Union’s deputy president Meredith Peace has stated that religion has “a place as a subject of study in a comprehensive curriculum that acknowledged its role in the cultural, historical and philosophical development of society.” However, such a subject should be taught by “qualified teachers, not volunteers, and embrace all religions.” Would Tuohy consent to equal time being given to studying the contributions of Islam to mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy? Or to examining the negative role Christianity has played in the retardation of scientific progress, gender equality and disease prevention? When Christians like Tuohy play the ‘religious contributions to culture’ card, they tend to be selective about which religion and which aspects of it are to be lauded.
Fourthly, are there not more pressing needs to protect our children from? A recent conference in Melbourne was held concerning the increasingly disturbing sexual portrayal of children in the media. In relation to the findings of a 2010 survey by the Advertising Standards Bureau, Melinda Tankard Reist said “the proliferation of ads sexualising children showed self-regulation was failing.” What about the increasingly violent video games and movies that children are regularly exposed to, not to mention hard-core pornography that is now only a click away? Then there is the epidemic of childhood obesity. With significant challenges and threats like these, it defies imagination that The Age and the crusading humanists take up arms against “Love your neighbor” and “Blessed are the poor.”
More irrelevant points from Tuohy. The fact that there are many other serious issues to deal with when it comes to children’s welfare does not invalidate the main secularist argument – religion should not be subsidised by the state. Tuohy displays a fetish for strawmen; he is under the delusion that secularists and humanists are ‘crusading’ against warm, fuzzy platitudes. He also argues for a false dichotomy – either we deal with “more pressing needs” relating to child welfare, or we continue with our crusade against state-funded religious indoctrination. It hasn’t occurred to Tuohy that we can both tackle the undisputedly serious issues he mentions above and also fight to defend secular values.
Fifthly, what about proselytising? Everyone does it. Football teams, soft drink companies, fast food joints, and newspapers. That is, if we believe we have a ‘product’ that is worthwhile we will want to share it and promote it. The gaming and alcohol industries spend hundreds of millions a year to get people to buy their products, and everyone is fine with this? Get a few well-meaning and good Christian people telling kids that God loves them, to do unto others as you would have them do to you, telling the story of the Good Samaritan and The Age sees fit to launch a witch-hunt against Christians? I know first-hand that CRE and chaplaincy goes to great lengths to offer no-strings services and does not attempt to ‘convert’ children.
Now Tuohy resorts to false equivalence. Marketing a product for consumption is not the same thing as indoctrinating young impressionable minds with lies and superstition. Selling a soft drink is not on the same moral plane as selling the idea that unrepentant sinners will be eternally tormented in a horrible fiery Hell. Promoting gambling and alcohol, while ethically dubious, is arguably less psychologically damaging than convincing kids that their sexuality is something to be ashamed of. Tuohy and his fellow Christian apologists are being disingenuous when they harp on about the sugar-and-cream parts of their faith but omit the less savoury ingredients. As for his anecdotal claim that chaplains do not attempt to convert children, perhaps he didn’t get the memo from Access Ministries’ CEO Evonne Paddison. In any case, I find it highly unlikely that Christian chaplains will remain indifferent when religious matters are broached to them by (especially vulnerable) children.
Finally, here’s the corker for me. My nephew had on his prescribed school reading list great titles like ‘The Day my Bum went Psycho’, ‘Bumageddon’, and ‘The Final Pongflict’. I have not read the books but he tells me they are about a group of unruly anuses (or is that ani?) and a global conflict. These books were even on the Premiers Reading List. Sure, they are just harmless and fun titles. But where is the ennobling and inspirational literature our children are learning? The Bible is the most influential and inspiring book in the history of humanity, as well as the most read and most sold. Let kids learn about obnoxious bottoms, but don’t deprive them of the beauty, wisdom, poetry, and challenging literature we call the Bible. As well-known literary critic and cultural commentator, Peter Craven wrote recently, “however much we might decry the crimes committed in the name of religion – the bloody deaths and persecutions and maiming of minds – of course we should keep alive the stories of the Bible and the beauty of the language in which they speak. Does anyone really want their children to be without knowledge of that heritage?”
Tuohy just keeps those non sequiturs coming. It’s like he’s got a factory churning out the stuff. Again, no one is demanding for Bibles or their study to be banned from schools. But there is a marked difference between studying the Bible as a cultural artifact while comparing it to other similar artifacts (the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching), and feeding it to students as the divinely inspired, unerring Word of God. Can Tuohy and his Christian buddies honestly say that they intend for the Bible to be studied in the former way, not the latter? Perhaps they would argue that Christianity is the ‘heritage’ of Australian children. Well, considering that Australia is a multiethnic nation, that argument is presumptuous. If Tuohy and his co-religionists were upfront about their intentions, they would confess to desiring the preference of Christianity over other faiths (and non-faith) in the public sphere. And this state-sanctioned privileging of one particular religion is exactly what secularists rightfully oppose.
Nicholas Tuohy’s attacks on secular principles betray his and his co-religionists’ desire to harvest young minds for their brand of sky fairy-ism. There’s a whiff of desperation in their attempts to bring down the wall separating religion from government. They know all too well that their numbers are dwindling as more and more young people refuse to allow ancient myths to dictate their ethics and values. Religionists like Tuohy try to offload their own anxieties onto the rest of us with their alarmist rhetoric, but we’re not buying it. Lovers of reason are confident that the decline of religion in society is a manifestly good thing. Far from resulting in the downfall of civilisation, religion’s absence will only raise it to more humane, peaceful and progressive heights.