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Australia

May 26, 2014

The school chaplain and the poisoned cake

Terrifying tales of damnation have no place in our secular schools. With the budget boost to the chaplaincy program will schools be teaching kids what to think instead of how to?

Last week I was in Brisbane promoting my latest bookFor God’s Sake: An atheist, Christian, Jew and Muslim debate religion. My co-author (the Christian) and I (the atheist) had been invited to discuss it by a church group. God bless them, the Christians have proved to be our most profitable customers.

The formal proceedings went very well, with lots of intelligent questions and quite a lot of humour. All very civilised. It was only during the drinks afterwards that I began to feel I was in a less friendly place than I had thought. A young woman approached me. She was very polite and looked perfectly sane, but the conversation took an odd turn. “If you knew a cake was poisoned,” she asked, “wouldn’t you feel it was your duty to stop people eating it?”

I knew what she was getting at — or thought I did anyway — so I cut straight to the chase. “But the cake is not poisoned.” I said, “And I can prove it, because I’ve been eating it for years and have come to no harm.”

“The cake is poisoned, you just haven’t noticed it yet.” She wasn’t having any of it, cake or argument. “It is our duty to convert you because otherwise you will burn in hell.”

“You are kidding, right?” I still had hopes that this was an attempt at humour.

“Not at all, sadly.” And she shook her head at me pityingly.

“So, you believe that however exemplary a life I might lead — I could be Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela — if I don’t believe in your god, he will condemn me to burn for all eternity.”

She nodded her head this time. “If you don’t acknowledge him as your saviour, I am afraid so.”

One of the reasons I chose secular schooling for my children was to keep them away from just this kind of ghastly– and, to small children, terrifying — nonsense. Unfortunately, those who think the, ahem, cake is poisoned see it as their duty to get to my kids and your kids and save them from the pit. And you can see why: if you believe that the unbeliever or wrong-believer will burn in hell for all eternity, you might be prepared to bend or even break all sorts of rules to do so.

And that’s the rub for some school chaplains. The rules of the federal government’s chaplaincy program say that they may not proselytise or counsel students. Which, given it is called a chaplaincy program, was stretching credulity even when the funding for the program was expanded to include secular chaplains under the previous government. Now that the Abbott government has once again restricted the program to Christian chaplains only, while also generously increasing the program’s budget, even that tenuous credulity has snapped.

Indeed a Brisbane school chaplain is currently under investigation for declaring that he wanted to “disciple” students and parents at the public school at which he worked — and if that ain’t proselytising, I don’t know what is.

In fact, if chaplains aren’t permitted to either proselytise or counsel, just what are they supposed to do? I am sure there are lots of lovely, sane, kind and helpful chaplains who make themselves useful in underfunded schools, but that’s also part of the problem. That very underfunding also makes some schools very vulnerable. If they take a Christian chaplain they can access some of that quarter of a billion dollars Treasurer Joe Hockey has just made available, but how can they be sure they get a nice one and not a poisoned-cake one?

Worse, cuts in education funding generally, like the loss of the majority of the desperately needed Gonski funding, means that principals are now having to cut professional, peer-reviewed, evidence-based programs for vulnerable students and accept a (hopefully) well-meaning but essentially untrained amateur instead.

Nathalie Brown, an independent child behaviourist who works in Victorian schools, told me that three of the schools where she has been working have contacted her since Hockey’s budget to say they are seeking loopholes in the program so that she can continue to help sometimes severely troubled kids. She said: “The level of behavioural problems in some of the children I work with … will an untrained chaplain be able to help?”

It’s a good question, particularly as, according to the rules, they are not actually allowed to try.

Many of the chaplains themselves already realise this and there have been anecdotal reports that they are seeking the advice of professional counselors on how to help because they are painfully aware of the skills they lack. When the chaplaincy program was first introduced I believed that one of the reasons for doing it was that it was help on the cheap. Chaplains are usually part-time and doing the job for love rather than money. Given the substantial boost in funding to the program in a budget that is all about cuts, that no longer makes much sense.

Now I believe there is something much more sinister afoot. Conservatives in general are fond of control. They like law and order, mandatory sentencing, the army, border protection and cutting welfare to force people into work. They believe in obeying the rules and respecting authority.

The fundamental value at the core of secular schooling is a belief that there are as many ways to live a good life as there are people living lives. Secular schools are about encouraging diversity and helping difference to thrive. Ideally they should never moralise about sexual orientation, try to police the genders, or try to convert people to the one true anything. They are meant to teach children how to think, not what to think.

And therein lies the conflict. The chaplains, even the nice ones, are the foot soldiers of the people who believe the diverse liberal cake is poisoned and it is their god-given mission to stop our children from eating it.

*This article was originally published at Women’s Agenda

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33 comments

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33 thoughts on “The school chaplain and the poisoned cake

  1. Electric Lardyland

    Burning in Hell for eternity: you’d soon get used to it.

  2. klewso

    Never mind the cake, Alice – I reckon I know who’s been drinking from the poisoned chalice, or sharing a hookah with a certain Caterpillar of Enlightenment?

  3. leon knight

    Well said Jane – keep up the good work.
    I think you and Chrys “Gladly” Stephenson are getting some traction in the media for this important issue.
    I have already paid up some hard-earned to help the Williamson case against the funding process, but success there will probably only lead to another dodge that requires further expensive litigation…
    Bad press, and lots of it, is exactly what the doctor ordered here.

  4. leon knight

    PS a close family member had a lovely sticker on her car “Global warming is nothing compared to eternal burning” – how charming is that?
    Delightful people that you would love your children to be influenced by….

  5. aswann

    Christianity either attracts openly irrational people, or those who like the cultural and social aspects of it, which is fine except that buried in all the trappings, when you actually read the book, it’s all still there. The beating heart of the dark ages, completely intact and waiting for modern society to collapse so it can reassert itself and get on with the hanging of witches and eternal damnation for the heathens.

    Isn’t there a question mark hanging over the basic sanity of sending someone into your school who clutches this message to their chest, knowingly or not?

    I don’t mean to be hard on the Christians. It’s not that I dislike spirituality. I think our society is hollow because of a lack of true spirituality, that questioning, the search for deeper meaning. Is there a god? This yearning for some essence of the eternal is strong in some of us, or at certain points in life.

    So send in the philosophers, the poets, the priests – all of them. Christianity does not have a monopoly on truth. By keeping the rest away you are keeping our children in spiritual poverty.

  6. Peter Hannigan

    A little perspective is required on the impact of school chaplains. As someone who went to a ‘religious’ school that had a compulsory weekly divinity period, I believe school chaplains – at least at high school – do as much to promote atheism as successfully promote religious belief.

    My experience from a few decades ago was that most students disengaged. The most engaged were atheists who enjoyed baiting the chaplain over the obvious contradictions in religious dogma. What he found most annoying was that it was always atheist students who won the divinity prize each year, as they were the only ones bothering to do any research.

  7. Don

    firstly the metaphor used is not apt. it should be somewhat reversed.

    we, the believing Christians (lump us all together for simplicity) HAVE a cake, or let’s now more aptly say, a medicine, that if you accept that it will cure your disease and therefore take it and it does cure your disease, or vice versa, and you are still left with the disease/illness you will continue to suffer, which is, yes, lack of salvation and eternal life, and Scripture would fairly emphactically suggest that means, yes, the opposite of eternal life is eternal damnation. however it does also say that Jesus will return to judge (all) the living and the dead, and you could rely on that judgement.

    of course if you are religiously aethiest, this shouldn’t matter a damn (pun intended :-), but if you are, I suggest that you goo and look at the sky at night and wonder how it all came into such a perfect being and vision, and where ‘matter’ itself comes from, and follow this up with looking around this world, and its tens of thousands (and far more) of such literally amazing creatures, and wonder how all of those came into being, and indeed, how organic matter such as every creature, and plant and flower, incl us, was ever formed from the INorganic matter of the supposed (but discredited) ‘big bang. and, finally, it is one thing to say that the giraffes with the longest necks are the ones that survive (and black moths, and not white moths, survive when industrial pollution turned the buildings, etc, black): it is quite another to say whales evolved from wolves, as some do. you really really think that butterflies and flowers, wolves and whales, all derived from the same single source? in which case, who is more delusional, you or me?

  8. Don

    Addendum. That is not to say that i don’t agree with most of Jane’s points re the chaplain program itself (and it is more than weird the additional funding considering the appalling Budget generally).

    having been somewhat involved in the program, it seems totally the wrong approach by the wrong people. i think that is emphatically logical that trained (and empathetic) counsellors should be involved. given the prohibition on proselytising anyway, i am not sure how this approach ever came about in the first. i can only assume that it started as unfunded work by well-meaning (but untrained) Christians who saw the desperate need of families and children in these times. btw, in and of itself, that won’t get them to Heaven either. 🙂

  9. bluepoppy

    Bottom line is these sorts of religious pursuits are private matters for parents and for the home. Schools are not the place for governments to allow open slather for religious conversions or in some cases zealots. Perhaps the Atheists societies should start offering Chaplains if as the various ministries insist they aren’t proselytising. All welcome.

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