The Ethics of teaching Scripture

From a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

But the experience taught me a number of things. Firstly, people’s belief systems are changeable but this process is complicated and is usually triggered by introspective interrogation and critical thinking, not by external correction and imposition of views.

Secondly, some people will always place more importance on faith than on facts. And this is their prerogative to do so.

Thirdly, young children may forever be asking questions about the world, but most of them will blindly believe whatever the authority figures in their lives tell them.

And this is precisely why it is unethical to indoctrinate children through religious direction.

That is not to say that children cannot be introduced to the concept of religion (and the fact that there are many many religions in the world — none of which have universal support and all of which have attracted considerable criticism). Nor does it mean that children cannot be introduced to ethical frameworks for decision making.

But surely it is important that we nurture children’s critical thinking and reasoning capacities rather than simply telling them to unquestionably accept what they are told?

From ‘Teach kids how to think, not what to believe’ by Nina Funnell, SMH October 22, 2010

The author asserts that ethics classes, recently trialed in NSW schools, teach children how to think, whereas ‘moralising sermons’ ‘strictly dictate right from wrong’.

My son is attending Anglican scripture classes at his public school. I don’t have much of an idea of what is taught; at his stage it seems to be fairly basic bible stories with the moral framework pointed out, including honouring God, honouring parents and treating other people with kindness. Perhaps the way these things are taught depends on the teacher as much as the curriculum.

I assume that at some point he will ask questions about it all for himself. Since he’ll be at a state school, he’ll be surrounded by other kids who don’t necessarily believe what his family does, and he’ll be bound to be challenged in that environment.

I am interested in the author’s point about teaching kids to think, rather than indoctrinating them. Many of us who comment on this site have experienced church environments where certain types of questioning are discouraged. Or at least, where you may be regarded as rebellious if you aren’t convinced by the answers you are given. You are ‘negative’ or heretical (depending upon the environment) if your conclusions don’t conform and this disturbs you strongly enough to be vocal about it or leave. There is strong social pressure to conform, and a price to pay if you do not. Of course this isn’t isolated to religious groups. Political groups are very similar. Even workplaces.

Is indoctrination then something we should be concerned about when it comes to religious education in schools for our children? Or is the author wrong to assume that this is what happens in religious education classes?


13 thoughts on “The Ethics of teaching Scripture

  1. From the link you gave, Specks:

    7 Social Processes that Grease the Slippery Slope of Evil

    > Mindlessly taking the first small step
    > Dehumanisation of others
    > Dehumanisation of self (anonymity)
    > Diffusion of personal responsibility
    > Blind obedience to authority
    > Uncritical conformity to Group Norms
    > Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

  2. That would be worth a post of its very own, and I may put one up depending on the direction this thread takes.

    It does imply to me that we don’t want our kids ultimately being taught to accept things without thinking about them. Even if they are things we ourselves support.

    I’m not sure that just teaching bible stories in a scripture class is teaching kids not to think though.

    It was interesting that in his talk, Zimbardo said that the antidote to evil was heroism – in the examples he gave, this was one ordinary person who spoke up or exposed the evil occurring. To do this, they had to break social norms. They had to think for themselves and not let the external environment determine what was acceptable. (In two of the three examples he gave, the people who took action put their own lives at risk by doing so.)

  3. Maybe it’s worth its own thread. I was intending to do that originally. But since you put this article up, I thought it would add weight to this discussion.

    I think it’s important for people to hold to absolutes. But in the process for them to think for themselves, it’s really easy to think for self and not for others. With absolutes, people can act outside themselves for the greater good.

    If people don’t learn from external correction then we’re often bombarded with external reinforcement. That itself acts as an absolute whether it’s right or wrong.

    “Is indoctrination then something we should be concerned about when it comes to religious education in schools for our children? Or is the author wrong to assume that this is what happens in religious education classes?”

    Indoctrination is wrong. But I don’t know where the line is between re-inforcing values and indoctrination. I also think the author has assumed wrongly about religious classes. I used to do them. I always stressed that there is a God who loves them.

    Some may say that is indoctrination. I disagree. I simply am worried about the young generations growing up with no absolute, having no hope or faith in themselves or anyone. I do not want them to see life as meaningless and end up taking their own lives.

    I thought it was great I was able to question the love of God. I had answers. Even the teacher joined in. A little Jewish girl said that she believes in JHVH and said that Jesus was just a prophet. I respected her view. I was actually happy that she was able to develop and stand for her views at her age.

  4. slap the above vimeo link to the bottom of your article. it still somewhat covers the topic heading ‘The Ethics of teaching scripture’.

  5. I think that both the scripture issue and the slippery slope of evil issue are worth their own threads, though there is a cross over, in the area of questioning whether religious education classes encourage kids to stop thinking.

    I’ll put up a thread on the slippery slope over the next couple of days. It’s soooo gorgeous outside right now though! Don’t want to stay here inside too long.

    My kids will do scripture classes in public schools, where they will be exposed to plenty of people who don’t share our family’s faith. I went through the public school system, and when we reached high school, my friends were of all different persuasions. In our late teens, we’d argue vehemently about all of them. We had a couple of atheists, an ardent Calvinist, Anglicans, Pente’s and agnostics in our group. Exploring our different views was just a normal thing to do at that age. So I’m not sure that scripture classes alone can really indoctrinate kids if they are also part of a wider system that exposes them to peers who challenge their mindsets.

    If the kids are in a more closed environment though, where everyone around them thinks the same way, and is criticised or demeaned for not conforming in their thinking to the same norm, then scripture classes could well be part of an indoctrination process.

    So I think that in the case of our school system, the wider context has to be taken into account as well.

    I would not want my kids in scripture classes though where kids were not allowed to ask questions or were criticised for doing so.

  6. Yes, I think the author has posed a false dichotomy – Ethics classess where the children are taught how to think, vs Scripture classes where they are merely told what to think.

    The Bible should be studied in schools as a cultural text, because it has so much of an influence on our literary, legal and religious culture. I remember seeing an article about a legal judgement where the judge could find no similar or applicable case in the common law, so he used an example in the old testament and made the judgement based on that.

    So much classical music and so much of our historical art is based in or strongly influenced by Biblical stories. If you don’t have any knowledge of the stories and the concepts they introduce, then you miss out on a lot of the meaning of western culture. And there are a lot of young people growing up with very little knowledge of the stories.

    I would prefer to see this taught from a cultural point of view, and leave the decision of faith to the child (and the influence of their parents). I also think it should be taught in an open, questioning way.

    Its interesting that Nina Funnell in the article talks about the problems and the hypocrisy that she encountered from adults when she was a child when faced with the truth about Santa. I think this is quite significant in some children’s lives – it was for me – and some parents do damage to children’s faith by these types of stories.

  7. Yes, I think studying the bible as a cultural text, and having some familiarity with famous stories would worthwhile for the reasons you say, Wazza. It would also be good to have an exposure to important stories from other faiths. It would be fascinating I think to have them included in some way showing the various influences upon our social history, both the good and the bad aspects. Still, it could be very controversial.

    It would be good to see these texts all taught, but not in a judgemental kind of way. More just in an introductory way, to develop an awareness.

    On the other hand, this isn’t really the same as scripture classes.

    If I’d had the chance to take something like that as an elective in school, I would have jumped at the chance.

  8. Re Santa – I have always taught my son that Santa is a story that our culture pretends about at Christmas, but Santa isn’t real. Nonetheless, he still loves to pretend Santa is real, and I go along with it. He has just as much fun with Santa I think as if he didn’t know the truth.

  9. Nicely put, wazza2. I would agree with that thinking. The Bible is rich in many ways, and part of who we are, even if some do not like the idea.

    RP, I understand that Santa Clause, or Saint Nicholas was a real person, renowned for his giving at the celebration of Christ’s birth. I know we don’t hold to canonising of saints in the same way as Catholics, but, if he was a Christian, he was indeed a saint, and if he was well known as a wealthy noble giving to the poor there is great benefit in teaching it that way. It’s not as much a myth as some think. It’s just got out of hand somewhat.

  10. “…if he was well known as a wealthy noble giving to the poor there is great benefit in teaching it that way.” – newsong

    Yes, indeed. I’ll have to look into that a bit more – there are many Santa myths/stories. It would be good to teach it that way.

  11. Teacher: “Ok class. You learnt about about Jesus last term. We will now be teaching all about the god’s Eros and Aphrodites. They also ‘love’ you very much!

    In third term, we’ll be teaching you aaall about Artemis! Baphomet and Allah can wait til next year.”

    I wonder how parents would react to a ‘Pick-a-God-any-God’ school environment? I know many unbelieving families who enroll their kids into Christian schools because of the ‘moral’ high ground, basic ethics and healthy principles towards living.

  12. Why not learn about the Greek myths and legends? Why not learn about Allah? Good general knowledge. Why fear it? Teaching about a religion is not the same thing as teaching the religious beliefs themselves.

    Classes that did this would not be ‘scripture classes’, which are solely focused on a single religious faith of the child’s or their family’s choice.

    It is false for people to believe that public schools have no concept of morality, ethics or healthy principles. It’s become a bit of a prejudice. There may be some local schools that are known for their problems, which would be good to avoid if you have a choice, but there are also many excellent non-religious schools who have all those principles, and who even have healthy groups of Christians within them, amongst many other groups. These Christians have lots of opportunity to test their faith and share their faith, not to mention, live in the real world amongst all kinds of people.

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