The current fierce debate about the controversial presence of religion in state schools in Victoria echoes previous and continuing debates in other states and territories about this issue but suffers from a near universal failure to distinguish between religious instruction, or RI, and religious education or RE. The former phrase is the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development term for what is a de facto propagation of Christian dogma within a secular school system.

I can make that assertion because the majority of RI is provided by Access Ministries, the trading name of the organisation Christian Education in Schools.  The latter term RE generally refers to the study of multiple religions — from the inside or from the outside. In other words, RI is only about inculcation but RE can be about the comparative study of religions as phenomena, as a set of ideologies. RI therefore is a form of indoctrination, literally, and is not about what most teachers would regard as good learning.  RE can be about inquiry, investigation and the drawing of conclusions, all good educative activities.

Further, many of the faithful take an opinionated and exceptionalist line in privileging religion. They argue that religion is not merely an ideology, as did Barney Zwartz (“Why Christianity should be taught, properly, in our schools”, The Age,  April 11) when he offered the following argument. “Many secularists,” he contended, criticise religions as ‘ideologies’, as though religion were merely a set of (false) truth claims.” No Barney, many secularists, most agnostics and all atheists argue that religions are simply ideologies based on transcendental dogma, as opposed to being based on secular or materialist foundations.

In a secular state school system, it therefore follows that, if the DEECD intends to be true to its laudable policy of “building on the values of respect and inclusion” by “ensuring equitable access to services and programs and recognising cultural diversity as an asset to the state” it would be obliged to provide and support religious instruction in all schools for the 120 or so religions that exist in Australia, as well as instructional classes in humanism, Marxism, atheism and so on — on the basis that if Christian instructors are in a more favoured position because of their organisational and staffing resources, it is the DEECD’s responsibility to ensure that equitable access reigns. This is an unlikely scenario but one based on the logic behind any appraisal of religion as a spiritually based ideology.

Something else strikes me about the department’s position on religious instruction in a secular system.  In a published correspondence that lies somewhere between George Orwell (doublethink), Lewis Carroll (Humpty Dumpty on words and meanings) and Charles Dickens (the law is an ass), the DEECD portentously and outrageously informed Hawthorn West Primary School parent Tim Heasley that, when it came to religious instruction, their legal opinion was that the word “may” actually means “must” (“Backlash as God forced into schools”, The Age, March 27).

In chasing up an independent legal opinion I was, however, referred to Section 45 of the Victorian Interpretation of Legislation Act. This section states that: “where the word ‘may’ is used in conferring a power, that word shall be construed as meaning that the power so conferred may be exercised, or not, at discretion’.” Seems simple enough to me. A school may offer religious instruction, or may not. Or maybe I am missing something? Could it be that a state education department is privileging Christianity?

These arguments of mine are not merely about opinion: we have real evidence about the impact of RI. Monash researcher Velleda Bradford has studied the delivery of religious instruction in primary schools. There is a wide range of practice when it comes to religious instruction, some good, some bad and some totally off the wall, but the common approach seems to be that Christian religious instruction is about values education through Biblical or other religious examples.

As many teachers in the study pointed out, values education is already part of an over-crowded school curriculum and the majority of teachers surveyed were very, very uneasy about giving space and time to this doubling-up approach because of practical issues and issues of principle. One commented, “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have RI, and I reckon teachers would be much happier if it was not something we had to provide.” Another teacher, remarking on the difference between education and instruction, pointed out that “my role as a teacher is to ensure inquiry-based learning is free from dogma and conducive to objective, independent thought”. On the basis of that representative comment, RI clearly belongs outside school time.

We have been having these debates in Australia since the 1836 when Governor Bourke unsuccessfully tried to bring in a system where denominational religious instruction was taught to the two major religious cohorts as an out-of-school activity. Could it be time to go back to 1836 and try again, but this time with more than a hundred religions, not to mention a dozen or so secularist groups? Or is it time to cut the Gordian knot, be courageous, take RI out of state schools and bring a 21st-century solution to bear on a 19-century problem?

*Tony Taylor teaches and researches at Monash University