Schooling: can you have your irreligious cake and eat it?

A curious oddity in contemporary Australian society is the simultaneous flight from religious identification and flocking to religious schools. Earlier today the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, even though we’re one of the least religious nations in the world and becoming even more so, paradoxically “we have this large and increasing attendance of children in religious schools.

The Costs/Benefits of School Choises

Why is it so? It was suggested that many Australian parents based their education decisions on a cost-benefit analysis, finding that their reservations about religious education, while certainly there, were outweighed by their positive perceptions of the reputation, discipline, culture, facilities and academic standards of religious schools. I would have to agree with this assessment given my own experience with parents commenting on available schooling choices.

The Costs/Benefits of Volunteer Teaching

This is all the more fascinating given the way secular ethics classes, despite the demand from parents, have been struggling to find enough volunteers and donations to teach the curriculum in the secular school system. Despite their numbers, the “nones” have struggled to develop a volunteering culture where ethics classes are concerned. Could it be that Australians are struggling to have their irreligious cake and eat it?

The Deeper Costs of Different Convictions

I remember a criticism from Friedrich Nietzsche that many of his fellow Atheists failed to take their convictions to their logical conclusion, that Christian values could not be sustained without Christian foundations. It would seem that in Australian society, religious values are still valued to a certain extent even if their underpinnings are not. Everyone wants their child to have ethics taught to their children by volunteers, but it’s mostly religious folk who do the volunteering. Australians like picking the fruits, even when they don’t like watering the roots.

All this reinforces my perception that Australians are not anti-religious per se, just anti-intense religiousity, prefering laid back spirituality. It will be interesting to see how this plays out longer term.

5 thoughts on “Schooling: can you have your irreligious cake and eat it?

  1. As someone who recently made the difficult decision about where to send my first child to school I think you need to factor in much more than you have.
    Basically there has been a systematic departure from state schools of the middle class who have corralled their wealth in private schools. They have been aided by increased government funding.
    The poor kids are significantly excluded by the private school system which lets face it is a class system in disguise regardless of its nod to religious values.
    We decided as an act of conviction to send our kids to the public school system. This was aided by my awareness that in fact the values of religious schools are behind the norm. Although it costs our kid in terms of resources being stretched thinner that’s not as important as values to us.
    If you don’t think values in religious schools are behind the norm then perhaps you didn’t attend one? I did and we kept the strap long past our public counterparts. Our anti-bllying policies were also much poorer. We found our local religious school, for our kid, was not so bad but still exceeded by an excellent state school.


  2. In South Africa religious schools were often ahead of the norm. They admitted pupils of all races during the apartheid years, when it was not merely “against government policy” but against the law, and some of them challenged the government to close them down.
    But I suspect that many of the “nones” couldn’t give a damn about ethics teaching, except for the kind of lip service displayed in Samuel Butler’s musical banks. They don’t need to teach their values — their kids absorb them as they themselves absorbed them as children, by osmosis, from their parents, from society, from advertising and even from pop culture. As Tom Lehrer put it: “Christmas, with its spirit of giving, gives us all an opportunity to reflect on what we most deeply and sincerely believe in. I refer, of course, to money.”
    No volunteers are needed.


  3. Tony
    To lay my own cards on the table: I was educated in the public school system from years K-4 and the Catholic school system from 5-12. My wife went through the public school system right through. Our kids currently attend a public primary school but we are considering our options for high school and at this point it could go either way. I have friends who teach in private protestant schools, public schools and an uncle who taught in Catholic schools. So I think I can claim a reasonably broad perspective, at least as far as our neck of the woods is concerned.
    In terms of the values of religious schools lagging behind the norm, I think that’s precisely why they’re being valued in some quarters. In an age or ethical relativism, permissiveness and drugs, Christians aren’t the only one who hold out a nostalgia for a past where there were clear boundaries and higher disciplinary expectations. I’m not saying that’s the reality mind you, but it can be perceived that way.
    Our own choice for our kids was prefaced on a number of considerations. (1) My wife came out of the public school system a Christian and I came out of the private school system quite anti-Christian, so we hold no illusions about private being automatically better at religious and ethical formation. (2) We’re wary of the religio-cultural “bubbling” that sometimes goes on in religious schools and want our kids exposed to alternate views while they’re still young enough to listen to us too. (3) We were fortunate to get our kids into a public school with a good reputation even though we’re somewhat out of area.
    You may be right about the middle class factor, but in my experience that is more typical of Protestant schools than Catholic schools, so you’ll need to convince me that it applies across the board. Even so, I know a number of Protestant parents who, far from having wealth to corral, send their kids to private school at a considerable financial stretch.
    I think the issue may be rephrased as: it’s not that private schools have “values” and public schools don’t, it’s that there is a difference in the values expressed and different parents have different opinions on what values take priority. My wife and I tend to be fairly moderate, neither conservative nor liberal enough to have a clear preference for either. That finds expression in our hesitation over public system / private system loyalty.
    It’s a particular quirk of New South Wales that Special Religious Education was mandatory in public schools until recently, even though our society is highly secularized. Parents now have the option of “opting out” of Special Religious Education for Ethics Classes, however both systems, rely on volunteer teaching and funding. The religious teachers (and I’m not just talking Christian here, my son has an option of Catholic, Uniting, Orthodox, Muslim or Hindu classes) seem to be able to drum this up, but reports are growing in NSW that the atheists simply can’t supply the demand on their side. I find myself asking: does the reliance of these systems on self-sacrifice unavoidably privilege traditions that stress looking beyond the self for meaning?


  4. “it’s not that private schools have “values” and public schools don’t, it’s that there is a difference in the values expressed and different parents have different opinions on what values take priority.”
    I ultimately felt that sending my kid to the very local and well resourced Catholic school was all about trading educational privelage for intellectual honesty. At the end of the day we chose a much less local public school – bypassing two others which didn’t employ a play-based early years curriculum (also important to us). It felt right.
    I’d be reluctant to criticize someone who decided in the opposite direction however. We are probably going to be driving our kid to school for the next six years now. How does that square with environmental values?
    School choice is a very sensitive issue for parents who have often compromised some personal values for others. I know of a gay couple who have sent their kids to a Catholic school because they want to be able to send them to a Catholic high school which in our regional centre is pretty much the only alternative to a zoned public high school (and their singular local high school is struggling). Have these people made the ethical decision? Or a hypocritical one? I personally don’t feel in a position to judge them either way.
    I think you’re original blog is well below your usual standard of understanding of the complexity of life – one of the reasons why I enjoy following you. I hope it was just an oops generalisation and you haven’t come to feel that there really is some distinct group of “nones” who cling to the religious for their values. That’s the self-congratulatory thinking of certain apologists and it ignores both a multitude of sins and wonders. But most of all it ignores the money.


  5. Matt, I think the problem for atheists is that there are no atheist values. Ayn Rand was an atheist and so was Karl Marx. In spite of their shared atheism, their systems of values were as far apart as they could possibly be.
    A few months ago I read an Australian novel called “The slap”, and I think that it probably mirrored the values of most sububrban secdular Australians. Can those values be taught? Are they sufficiently inspiring that anyone would want to teach them?
    You could perhaps teach secular humanist values, but I think that only a minority of atheists hold to those — certainly not enough would feel strongly enough about it for people to want to teach them in schools.


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