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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 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.

  10. Scott

    Yet the 2009 research by the University of New England into the Chaplain program, as well as the 2011 review by the (Labor) Federal Government were broadly supportive and resulted in the program being expanded.

    It’s an effective program that works. A lot of principals, and not just from religious schools, believe that the Chaplains have become an asset to their school and its members. I think employing counsellors and social workers for this role is overkill. The kids aren’t messed up; most of the time they just need a non-judgemental ear to listen. This sort of model works a treat, hence it’s success.

    To be honest, I wonder just how many of the commentators here have actually had any dealings with the chaplains in schools, including Jane Caro, who seems to have written this article based on someone she met at a book launch.

  11. fractious

    Thanks Jane, what you’ve typed is a more thoughtful and expanded version of the reaction of many of us to the announcement that the chaplaincy programme would be handed a generous bonus.

    I do not doubt many chaplains are well-meaning and honest about their belief, and I have no beef with that. But if they’re not proselytising, what *are* they doing in schools (especially secular ones)? They’re neither trained nor accredited in psychology (let alone child psychology), nor as qualified teachers. Beyond that, whither ‘multicultural Australia’ when Christianity is the only faith allowed to prosely… sorry, ‘teach’ in our public schools? And lastly (and without tarring everyone with the same brush), there’s the whole conversation around trust and accusations of abuse – teachers, canteen staff and even bus drivers can face significant penalties if it is shown beyond reasonable doubt that they have acted in breach of trust. Will these chaplains be accountable to the same standards?

  12. Don

    @scott. hmmm, I think you miss the point. just WHY is this whole program being funded and run by Scripture Union?? why can’t the schools just go out and recruit a suitable counselling type person with good listening and empathetic skills? the whole concept of running this through SU begs the question. why? there are many other very worthwhile local community and child organisations, why not them? and then the whole issue of ‘proselytising’ goes away, and frankly I see just as many, or actually far more, non-Christians who care deeply about these and other issues, and are heavily involved, as I do Christians. so again why this artificially limited approach to who has access to this program and funding when it should be in practice irrelevant?

  13. Philip Hunt

    I like Jane Caro. And I like her book “For God’s Sake”. But I’m disappointed that she stoops to suggest that “chaplains, even nice ones, are the foot soldiers” for the most conservative, dogmatically certain and offensive Christians she meets. They are also the foot soldiers for the really nice ones – the “intelligent” “humourous” and even “civilised” (although that smacks of a point of view, I admit) Christians that she meets. This latter group are more typical of most Christians, seeing their chaplains expressing the love of God in faithful good works that spring from a faith to which they want to bear witness.

  14. Don

    clarification. I should have more correctly said that SU “were BEING funded” (to run) …

  15. Zeke


    “The kids aren’t messed up; most of the time they just need a non-judgemental ear to listen. This sort of model works a treat, hence it’s success.”

    If chaplains believe that homosexuals will burn in eternal damnation then how can they offer a “non-judgemental” ear to homosexual students? I think this is the point that Jane was making…. homosexuals are eating the poisoned cake, aren’t they? So, how do these chaplains counsel a homosexual student? Would they accept a student’s choice of “eternal damnation”? Would they be tempted to proselytize, to tell the homosexual student that what they are doing and feeling is wrong?

  16. Catherine Scott

    I have no problem with people of faith, which is a great comfort to many. I can vouch for the disturbing effects of the Hell and damnation strand of Christianity on very small children. My mother took me to the very low Anglican Church near us for the first time when I was about four. The minister ‘s talk of Hell so terrified me that I bust into noisy sobbing. My mother took me home and it was some time before we returned.

  17. Catherine Scott

    Oh. And one more thing. People can’t render psychological services unless they are psychologists. It’s very tightly regulated and maybe worth looking into whether there are breaches if the legislation happening out there.

  18. Suziekue

    Yes Catherine Scott, my experience is similar. My sons attended a local Catholic school, my husband being the Catholic. One day my eldest son came home in great distress because he had been told that I, as a non-believer, would not be joining the rest of the family in heaven, but would be spending eternity burning in hell.

    But that was many moons ago. I am happy to report that the four of us now live out our lives in the embrace of blissful atheistic wonder.

  19. Liamj

    The chaplains are a godawful waste of scarce schools funding, but as others have pointed out there are upsides: kids can benefit from witnessing the gullibility, hypocrisy and elaborately cloaked malignity that inhabits many seemingly wellmeaning adults.

    One rarely mentioned downside is the likely wave of sexual assaults that will follow from empowering these untrained & barely vetted zealots. Since stats show women are less frequent SA perpetrators, would it be worth trying for a rule that chaplains must be women?

  20. Dominic Flynn

    Very timely article. We must untie the hands of God’s ministers and let them save the children and the nation. Ref first comment in this article at ACL today.http://www.acl.org.au/2014/05/school-chaplaincy-program-gets-funding-boost/

  21. Ken Lambert

    The problem for the Caros of this world is that the scientific rationalists, Dawkensian athiests, assorted followers of reason and shunners of the supernatural havn’t got themselves bloody organized.

    Where is the real estate of the Society of Athiests? Which hospitals are hospices are run by the League of Rationalists?

    What laundries for fallen girls are run by the Feministas United?

    Probably the only other organized non-religious outfit of any size looming large in Australian life is the RSL. Look at what a great secular welfare organization the RSL is? Lots of real estate, and a simple MO. Part pensioners from their pensions with pokies, and keep them addicted and alive with cheap roast dinners and spiritually nourished with a last post every day.

    Do you wonder why the great unwashed turn up at churches and mosques and synagogues for weddings and funerals and other life changing experiences?

    For some reason, the traditional spiritual repositories of religion still survive. Most probably because all the non-religious alternatives like the Rotarians, Lions Clubs and RSL, Society of Athiests, Caro Feministas United, League of Rationalists just don’t quite have the story.

    Remember what Mel Brooks famously said (to a fellow Jew), “Hey we invented this stuff, believe me and you will live forever, what a sales pitch?” (or words to that effect).

  22. mikeb

    If it’s any consolation I’m pretty sure the anecdote in this thoughtful article is as much an anomoly as Muslims with belt bombs. Having had many years in Catholic education including 3 children through the same, my experience is that the “burn in hell” brigade are well & truly relegated to the underground. Unfortunately QLD seems to be the local equivalent of the US deep south where the lunatic fringe congregate.

  23. MJPC

    Jane, does that include muffins and donuts?
    Another excellent article. I just wonder how Monsignor Pyne is going to address state schools in Western Sydney featuring students from every religion in the world, but the only chaplain they can attend for “counselling” is a Christian?
    Can someone tell Pyne we are now a multicultural country with a secular state school system.
    As a non-evangalising christian I sent my 2 children to a state school for an education, not spiritual guidance, which they received that at church. Their education was inspiring, and much better than that I had received in a christian brothers school for all of the extra cost to my parents. Keep all religions out of the state classrooms.

  24. CML

    Agree MJPC.
    The bottom line is the state school system is SECULAR! If parents of students at such schools want their little darlings brainwashed with fairy stories, they should do it in their own time/place, and not infect all the other students at such schools.
    Better still – pay the price and send the offspring to a private religious school.

  25. Don

    @mjpc. @cml. et al.
    you don’t have to be a “non-evangelising Christian’ or non-Christian, to believe that this program is misguided and inappropriate in its implementation.

    as an evangelizing Pentecostal Christian, and having had some peripheral involvement with this program, I firmly believe that the way it is implemented is quite inappropriate and illogical.

    the need for a such a program is definitely there, and certainly helps children with behavioural & social problems which of course mainly stem from family problems

    unlike what some believe (@scott), there is much much bigger problem/need tan just someone to listen to them, although thatis part of solution.

    but one inherent issue is how you (they) deal practically and helpfully with issues of child abuse/violence, sexual abuse, inadequate care etc that they are confronted with on a daily basis?

    but WHY this entire program should be run through SU and use only practising Christians of some sort is beyond me. (btw I believe, contrary to what has been posted, that some modicum training is required, and a Blue Card of course).

    it seems to be that, by definition, using practising Christians is actually detrimental to the program’s outcomes. one, they come with have an inherent agenda and a belief in ‘good works’, but they are – quite rightly -prohibited from doing any actual evangelism, yet because of the Christian requirement, some or many of the people concerned will be quite unlearned and unwise in their understanding of Scripture and indeed evangelism, and indeed of children, families, and society.

    why this this program would not be open to ANY folks who have a gift and a caring for this need (any of whom could be Christian, but not as a requirement) is beyond me. and why individual schools couldn’t just advertise locally and employ the best person as they saw fit. (this would also enable easier job sharing too.)

  26. Don

    “seems to ME…”

  27. Brian Melbourne

    I am a Buddhist with a physics degree. I don’t see the need for a god to have created the universe and us. I am perfectly fine with the theories I learned studying Physics. Also I think it has been shown that with the right conditions, chemicals and enough time, you will have life of some kind. Of course it takes a perfect planet to produce us, which is why we should look after this one. This is the philosophy we should be teaching.

  28. Peterpan

    Jane, There is no afterlife. I know cause Kerry Packer told me so. All those that believe in God are idiots – only those who do not believe are rooly clever. They can easily explain away Jesus and all that stuff in that big book. There is no climate concern – Ian Pilmer and Tony Abbott told me so. Eternity is just a word,it does not exist – cause I cant prove it’s existence. I can’t explain how a car works or a lift operates or how email works or any of a million things every day – but I use them. Don’t know much. Don’t need to. I do know listening to your views won’t get me any further down the road in this life or next. And I would like to think that children are exposed to the possibility that there is eternity and God as well as Apple phones and their apps and different views on life/death.

  29. paul holland

    Given Tony’s background and having been in a program to become a Jesuit priest it is no real surprise to see him on this crusade for Christ. The trouble is that crusades are based on power rather than on the truth.
    It also says a lot for his treatment of women. Jesuit male priests who have been associated with female priests have automatically excommunicated. Despite their high ideals women don’t get in the picture much- they are supposed to be quiet behind the scenes. I wonder about Abbot’s wife and her role in their female. I wonder how much body contact she has to take.

  30. Itsarort

    When I was about 11 I asked my Reverend Grandfather, of the Methodist persuasion, a question about certain statements made by Jesus that appeared to contradict particular scenarios in the Old Testament. He subsequently yelled at me for “…doubting the word of god”. This is not the sort of malarkey we want in public education, nor any sort of institution that is supposed to actually teach children.

  31. klewso

    There’s nothing wrong with religion – it’s the interpretation and manipulation.

  32. Sir Leigh Curmudgeon

    Perhaps if having chaplains is such a bally good thing why restrict is to just the kiddies. Everywhere that people gather there will be poor lost souls needing some succour.

    Every workplace, community centre, sports club, hotel, motel, shopping centre, tourist destination, airplane, bus, smokers spots etc etc warrant the attendance of a well intentioned doer of good deeds and purveyor of lost souls on the government teat.

    ‘Twould solve unemployment in a trice and we’d all be happy and saved, forever and ever Amen.

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