Teaching Religious Diversity in Schools – Minister of Education

The Humanist Society of New Zealand represents the interests of non-theistic people in New Zealand. We seek to build a more humane society based on human and other natural values. New Zealand census figures show that approximately a third of the population has no religious belief.

The Humanist Society of New Zealand is concerned about recent proposals to teach religious diversity in schools. We would want to make certain that with the teaching of religious diversity that indoctrination or proselytising does not take place. To prevent discrimination, efforts to teach religion should include the beliefs held by many non-religious people. Learning about religion must not stop all criticism of religion. Teaching religion only while preventing objective criticism and preventing the teaching of non-religious beliefs and traditions will discriminate against non-religious people. Academic balance and neutrality require that both religious and non-religious beliefs be taught.

It would not be appropriate for the New Zealand education system to teach hatred and discrimination and it is well known that some religions, or groups within religions, advocate discrimination or persecution against members of other religions, women, gay people, and others. To present a religion, that advocates discrimination or persecution, in a positive light, even without directly advocating the discrimination or persecution, may well encourage the belief that such discrimination or persecution is justified.

Our concerns about the teaching of religion are demonstrated with the National Statement on Religious Diversity. This document was developed by religious people to advance general religious interests. The religious education clause is discriminatory as it promotes the teaching of different religious and spiritual traditions without mentioning non-religious traditions. The statement also calls upon freedom of expression to be used responsibly which could be interpreted to mean that peoplehumanist.org.nz should not criticise religion. However, to make social progress it has often been necessary to criticise traditional religions.

It needs to be recognised that human rights legislation supports people having a right to believe in a religion or not believe in a religion. Individuals, some religious, and some not, developed human rights documents. Human rights advance the interests of all people. The New Zealand government is required to act in accordance with human rights legislation.

The Humanist Society also has some reservations about the current development of Religious Studies Achievement Standards for NCEA. We support the standards being framed in a neutral way. However, for the standards to be impartial a number of different beliefs, including both religious and non-religious, must be taught simultaneously. If only one religion is taught as religious studies the state will be promoting a particular religion, and this must be avoided.

We take this opportunity to restate our opposition to the teaching of intelligent design as part of the science curriculum. Intelligent design is not a scientifically supported idea and should be thought of as being religious in nature. It is wrong to teach a religious belief as a science.

In summary, it is possible to teach about religion and beliefs, but the teaching needs to be balanced and inclusive, without the indoctrination of school children in religion or beliefs.