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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?

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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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