‘Believe or burn in hell’ taught in Australian state schools

This message is still being taught to young children in Australian public state schools.

Research by Macquarie University has found extreme approaches to religion education by untrained scripture volunteers.

The survey of attitudes and expectations was conducted in 13 NSW schools from the northern rivers to Western Sydney. It included responses from 121 parents, teachers, scripture volunteers and principals. It found that children in one school were told if they ‘didn’t believe in Jesus they would burn in hell’. The Department of Education considers such comments as child abuse.

The survey also found that scripture (Special Religious Education – SRE) teachers tend to discourage questioning, emphasize submission to authority and exclude different beliefs. The survey revealed stark differences between what parents want and what is happening in the classroom.

PhD scholar Cathy Byrne, from Macquarie’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, found:

Most parents and trained teachers want critical thinking about religion, individual responsibility for moral decisions and empathy towards others.’

In contrast, 70 percent of scripture teachers think children should be taught the Bible as historical fact and should not be given a choice whether to believe in God. 80 percent of Christian scripture teachers think children should not be exposed to non-Christian beliefs.

Like most Australian states, NSW public schools are required to offer access to religious groups to teach children (from kindergarten to year 10) for up to an hour each week. There is no requirement for professional training of volunteers, nor any control of content. Ms Byrne claims that ‘the policy does not respect the privilege of teaching and leads to some negative outcomes.’

In one school, teachers were refused entry to the SRE classes and parents were unsure what was being taught. One group of scripture volunteers distributes a ‘Creation For Kids’ kit to dozens of regional public schools. The kit includes colouring books, calendars and DVDs with the message that

Genesis is neither a fairy story, nor poetry, nor a parable … it’s a reliable record of what actually happened.’

The kit derides Darwinian evolution, states that the universe is only 6000 years old and uses Bible references to claim that ‘man and dinosaurs once lived together’. Ms Byrne claims parents would be shocked to find ‘young earth’ creationism in public schools. She argues for more accountability over what volunteers are teaching.

Several parents also expressed concerns that pressure is being put on children to become full church members’,

Ms Byrne said.

‘Parents and trained educators disagree with SRE volunteers over the approach to religion in public schools.’

The research found that 69 percent of parents and trained educators want world beliefs and religions taught rather than segregated, single-faith instruction. Australia has a very different model for religion in public schools than most other western democracies. Ms Byrne said that using volunteers can be inclusive of minority faiths, but problems with the policy should be addressed.

Segregation is an outdated approach in religion education’

she said. While more than half of those surveyed felt that scripture classes offer important lessons in values, 12 percent of parents felt pressure to enroll in a religious option. Despite the policy requirement for a non-scripture class, one school did not offer this to parents.

It appears that SRE practice varies significantly between schools’ said Ms Byrne.

Internationally, governments are highly involved with religion education because of its implications for social tolerance, Australia needs to review its hands-off approach.’

7 thoughts on “‘Believe or burn in hell’ taught in Australian state schools

  1. I am a SRE teacher in WA, I had to undergo training before I could start teaching in a local public school. The training specifically outlines what you can and cannot say in the school and mentioning hell was a definite “cannot discuss” or even mention topic. I was taught to be all inclusive and considerate of other people’s beliefs and not to push Christianity upon the children, that the choice of what religion to follow was up to them and their parents.

    The teachers always remain in my sessions and so are witnesses to what is being taught. The children are encouraged to raise questions and to provide their own answers or reasoning’s. Most lessons are about good values; i.e. be kind, be caring, be helpful, don’t bully, include everyone etc. I am proud of the way I teach as in the beginning of the year about 30% of the children believed that no one loves them (including their parents) and that they are not special, by the end of last term nearly every child could confidently express why they are special and know that they are loved; when one boy said that no one loves him, his classmates turned to him and told him that they loved him and gave him a hug- and this was with no prompting from me, they did it out of genuine love and compassion for their classmate.

    I don’t discuss my church goings with the children and have not once mentioned that they need to go to church (this is up to their parents) I have had non-scripture attendees ask their parents to join my class because they heard about how much fun it was and the kids said they loved how they were listened to and given choices. I even have had non-religious parents compliment the way I allow the children to express their viewpoints and upbringing.

    About the Darwinian theory I take an example from my own daughter’s school; where those that are Christian are entitled to their beliefs and teachings and where non-believers are entitled to theirs and are thus accordingly taught (and with surprisingly no conflict between the two groups) I believe that if SRE teachers truly follow the biblical principal of “love thy neighbour” and not to be pushy or insensitive there would not be issues as those you raised above.

    1. It’s heartening to hear of the care and respect with which you treat your work. Given that SRE is mandatory (and please correct me if I’m wrong), at least the school you serve is fortunate enough to have you. Others are not so fortunate, as demonstrated by the Chris’ comment and countless other examples.
      I have to take issue with referring to ‘ Darwinian theory’ as a belief of non-believers. Evolution by means of natural selection is science, and science is not dependent on religious belief or affiliation. Science is for everyone, regardless of their personal belief system. Many, if not most Christians accept science and many people of various faiths work in scientific fields, including biology (of which evolution is the cornerstone of our understanding) without conflict.

      1. Hi again, SRE is not mandatory in WA as far as I am aware, currently it’s only being taught in two schools in my district. I believe it’s up to the principal to include it or not.

        It is really disheartening to hear of such issues and I believe that before anyone teaches any subject they need to learn how to respond to children’s questions in an open and non-judgemental way; sometimes I think teachers forget their influence on children. If handled incorrectly a response can negatively impact a child for life (such as in Chris’ experience)

        I did ethics at University and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I would like to see more of that in schools too! I still believe that SRE can have a positive impact on children – unfortunately it all comes down to the deliverer of the message.

  2. Pretty shocking stuff… and this is coming from someone who is about to join the seminary and become a Catholic priest!

    The real issue is that these scripture people come with no theological training and so things like questions are a problem because they aren’t equipped to answer them. The fact that so many of the protestant scripture people seem to be coming from evangelical churches where a literal understanding of Genesis is mandatory, well its not hard to see why its being pushed as truth.

    I question the value of scripture as a part of education at a state school. From the perspective of the churches it definitely makes sense as it gives them a chance to evangelise to children that they would often miss out on. Though, as someone who sat through Catholic scripture from year 3-year 12, I would make the argument that the Catholic church is losing people through Catholic scripture, given how boring it is!!!

    I just don’t see how its really helping educate children on the whole. Religious instruction should come from home and, as you get older, from peers. Surely in terms of developing a more enriched society we would be better off making these ethics classes a compulsory part of state education and have them replace scripture entirely.

    1. I’m with you 100% regarding the ethics classes. From what I have read about the experiences in NSW, they have been very successful.

      I’ve also read compelling research regarding the benefits of comparative religious education as opposed to Religious Instruction, but I think it would definitely be more appropriate for High School students, while Ethics classes seem great for much younger classes.

  3. I know this isn’t a recent occurrence, but when I was in Primary School (State School, 94-95ish) we had the Religous class and we were learning about Noah’s Ark. Given I already was brought up a Christian and had Sunday School etc I knew the stories but one thing always bothered me (I was 10 or 11 at the time).

    I never felt I could ask at Sunday School because nobody ever asked questions so I thought this would be a good chance to ask. The question was, if there was only two of every animal and such a small group of people, who did the world get repopulated, won’t everyone be related?

    The answer I got from the scripture volunteer/church worker was,

    “Are you saying you don’t believe what is written in the Bible? Hands up who else doesn’t believe…”

    Of course nobody put their hand up and I was made to move my chair to the other side of the class room away from everyone else and for the rest of the class, when ever she would ask a question of the class she would start or end it with, “unless you are Chris over there, do you…”.

    Needless to say this kind of singling out continued by my class”mates” for a few weeks after this and as a 10 year old this stuck with me and looking back I think it planted the seed that has lead to my distrust of the Church and those who run it.

    I still have my faith (although with everything the Church does, those lobby groups who claim to represent my view as a Christian, everything done “in Gods name” and now as a critical thinker it’s hard to maintain) but I won’t go to a man made “Gods House” any more.

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