Use the National Curriculum to Secularise the State: Making a Case against Christian Religious Education in Australia’s Public Schools


by Rachel Higham


Executive Summary

  • The new national curriculum should cover all religions rather than only focusing on the major religious factions that exist in Australia.
  • With education comes understanding, so hopefully the minority faiths in Australia will receive the attention, respect, and acceptance they deserve.
  • The national curriculum needs to increase religious awareness, tolerance, and understanding, ensuring that instances like the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ in the United States during the 1920s do not occur again.
  • The Australian government and Christianity always have been closely linked.
  • Christian Religious Education (CRE) teaches students basic values of Christianity but ignores other faiths that are becoming increasingly prevalent in modern Australian society.

Australia was once and still remains a noble nation, full of mateship and equality. As has progressed, our nation has grown; the Australia we reside in is vastly different to that of previous generations. In today’s society, Australian children walk around with small, light, brick-like objects that play music, or as they are known iPods. Eighty years ago, the people of Australia were facing a depression. Although there have been many changes over the years, one thing remains the same. Australia is and will continue to be a multicultural nation that people the world over perceive as a place of freedom: free from oppression and persecution.  We need to honour this perception and reality by ensuring that the Australian people respect and tolerate all religions.

Religious affiliation then and now

Why has not only our culture but also our education system moved and evolved as the number of immigrants and minor religious factions grown?  Fifty years ago the religious structure of the Australian nation consisted of 89.4 percent of people being affiliated with a type of Christianity and around 10 percent belonging to another kind of faith or religion at all. These results can be found in the 1954 Census results. According to the 2001 Census results, a half-century later things had altered considerably: 69 percent identified as Christians of one denomination or other; 5 percent non-Christian religions; and over a quarter of Australians stated they had no religious affiliation (or at least did not provide an adequate response to enable classification).

There may not have been a significant increase in the percentages of minority religious groups in Australia, but the number of Australians who practise these religions is continuing to grow as increasingly more people migrate to Australia and raise families. If religion is becoming more diverse, then why is it compulsory for primary-age children in Victorian public schools to undertake Christian Religious Education (CRE)? Admittedly, parents have the option of excusing their students from these weekly classes; in a world where bullying is an issue, however, why should young students be put in a position where they are marked out as somehow strange or different? In some cases, furthermore, schools can neglect to properly inform parents that their child(ren) will partake in these CRE classes. Indeed, there are plenty of anecdotal stories of non-religious parents only finding out when children come home from school with colouring-in drawings of Jesus or they suddenly wish to say grace before dinner or say a prayer before bed. One can only imagine the impact that having to sit through a CRE class would have on a Muslim or Jewish school pupil etc. There is nothing wrong with wanting to share your beliefs and your love for your god, however, we need to understand the damage that continuing to neglect our minority religions could have on our nation.

What is Christian Religious Education (CRE)?

According to the ACCESS Ministries responsible for administrating CRE in Victoria’s public schools, its program is designed to educate students about the god who loves them and teach them to be tolerant and value all cultural beliefs. When one takes a closer look at the outline of the CRE teaching structure on the ACCESS Ministries’ website, however, it begins with teaching students some of the basic values of Christianity, then understanding Jesus as a real and historical figure, and finally who they are in God’s eyes and if the bible is real and reliable. Not once does it mention in the outline of teaching structures that they acknowledge ‘other’ beliefs and what they mean in comparison to Christianity. The religious education that is provided to all Victorian public schools should not be so prejudiced.

Scopes Monkey Trial

The neglect and, indeed, rejection of minority religions is not simply part of Australian practice but wider western culture. In the United States, perhaps the most (in)famous case stems from the 1920s and is popularly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial. John Thomas Scopes was discovered to be teaching the theory of evolution in a science class at a local school in Dayton, Tennessee. Apparently teaching evolution was illegal, however, because there was a ban in place that forbade the teaching of:

…any theory that denied the story of divine creation as stated in the bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animal.

In the mid 1920s, William Jennings Bryan began a crusade to ban Darwin’s theory of evolution from American classrooms. His crusade is how the teaching of evolution in Tennessee had become illegal. The Scopes trial, then, was part of a conspiracy. Although Scopes was only a fill-in biology teacher and had been teaching from the state-approved text book, because he had assigned a reading on evolution he had broken the law. It was decided that he would stand for a ‘test case’. The prosecution included two of his friends. They were not only attempting to challenge the new Tennessee non-evolution state laws, but also wanted to put Dayton on the map.

Although the Scopes trial clearly was a set up to test the law in court, it was by no means less effective. Clarence Darrow, a member of the defence team, attempted to get the law declared unconstitutional because it violated freedom of religion. They might have lost the case, but in 1967 the Tennessee government repealed the Butler Act (1925) that forbade the teaching of evolution in the state. In 1973, Tennessee became the first state to give equal emphasis of the genesis account in the bible and other theories about the origins of man. Evolution, however, must be taught only as theory and not as fact.

In both 1982 and 1987, the US court system ruled that giving equal treatment to evolution and creationism is unconstitutional. In 2005, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) in the United States still was debating how to teach students the origins of life on earth. With Christianity so ingrained in the American government and judicial system, any acceptance of the possibility of the truth of creation lying outside the book of genesis is invalid. Tennessee still is officially anti-evolution. The Scopes Monkey Trial was a first for the acceptance that there are other ideas out there. Tennessee may not have stated that the bible is not correct, but it did indicate that there are other ideas about creation out there. This is something Australia must take heed of, for we do not want our nation to make it illegal to teach anything other than the book of genesis as fact.

Australian politics and Christian education

Australian politics has long been linked to conservative Christianity. The Australian federal government has been supported by religious groups since the beginning of European settlement. The significant Christian involvement in the government can be seen most recently when John Howard became prime minister in 1996. It was at this time that he appointed key Christian advisors, increased funding for Christian schools, and perhaps the most devastating action of transferring major public sector services to Christian services organisations.  The fact that the government and Christianity share such a close relationship gives the understanding of why in the new national curriculum the teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools will not change. It can be argued, however, that because of this connection, and the fact that minority religious groups are growing steadily, the government appears to be biased.  Perhaps if this was not so then CRE would be known simply as Religious Education (RE), which would teach all major world religions thus leaving it to students to make up their mind about what faith they will follow if any at all.

At a young age, children are sponges. They tend to soak up everything they see and hear — especially inside their classrooms. In a hope of eliminating religious intolerance, we must ensure that during their primary schools years students are taught that no matter what religion they choose to follow or are brought up following they will neither be persecuted nor will persecute others. Persecution in this context is referring to bullying by other students and peers in their community. Considering that the Australian government is created as a body made up of representatives from every state, it should be right to assume that all factors being taught currently would be addressed. When one is looking over the transcript for the Australian curriculum as covered by the CEO of ACARA Peter W. Hill, there is not a single specific mention of religion.  Nor does Hill’s ‘The Australian Curriculum: From Vision to Realisation’ mention religion in the outline of the three phases that the new national education structure will undertake.

This lack of any acknowledgement concerning religion leaves Australians to wonder whether state politicians will continue to decide the best way of teaching religion for students in their states. If Victoria continues to teach CRE as it does presently, and Western Australia, for instance, teaches that all religions are equal, if students happened to move across country then they would continue being taught the same thing in English and maths but they would be taught religion in a completely different manner. This could result in students being influenced either way. That is, on the one hand to see Christianity as the only right view or, on the other hand, that everyone has a choice and your religion will not affect your standing in the playground. That is why it is essential that religion be taught nationally in a way that respects all religious groups within our nation, to give the little sponges of the future a chance to make up their own mind.


Incidents like 9/11 and the Bali Bombings have led many people all around the world to fear Muslims. This is not an attempt to say that these were not tragic and horrific incidents in history, but if people were educated to the truth behind religions there would not be presumptions such as the irrational claim that all Muslims are terrorists. In every religion, in every aspect of the world, it is a sin to kill. It is my firm belief that we have to educate both current and future generations about all faiths, so that presumptions are not made about religions that are not fully understood. Through only allowing Christian Religious Education to be taught in Victorian public schools, we are facilitating further discrimination of ‘other’ faiths. With the introduction of a new national curriculum, the outlines concerning religious should be altered so all major world religions — even if they remain only minority faiths in contemporary Australia — are respected. The new national curriculum must take into account the slight change in religious affiliations within Australia. In doing this we are ensuring that such cases like the Scopes Monkey Trial do not occur within this nation. Perhaps in another fifty years, the religious factions within Australia might shift and religious minorities may change. If we do not act now, however, then we almost certainly will encounter similar issues in future. That is not a nation that Australians should want their children and grandchildren growing up in.


Selected further reading:

Scopes Monkey Trial: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/evolut.htm

Timeline of the Scopes Monkey Trial: http://www.npr.org/2005/07/05/4723956/timeline-remembering-the-scopes-monkey-trial

ACCESS Ministries website: http://www.accessministries.org.au/

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) website (incl. Census statistics): http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/censushome.nsf/home/data

Peter W. Hill, ‘The Australian Curriculum: From Vision to Realisation’, http://www.qsa.qld.edu.au/downloads/events/pd_proceed_p-12_peter_hill_trans.pdf

Professor of Sociology Andrew Jakubowicz (University of Sydney, UTS), ‘Religion and Australian Cultural Diversity’, http://andrewjakubowicz.com/publications/religion-and-australian-cultural-diversity/

Brian Greig ‘Rudd, Abbott reach out to right-wing Churches as Australians shun them’, http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/06/21/rudd-abbott-reach-out-to-right-wing-churches-as-australians-shun-them/


© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Rachel Higham, Use the National Curriculum to Secularise the State: Making a Case against Christian Religious Education in Australia’s Public Schools. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/use-the-national

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