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Keeping religion (and atheism) in the public schools

By Don Hutchinson

I quite enjoy reading Chris Selley’s writing because he makes me think. That’s what good writing is supposed to do. Thinking, however, doesn’t necessarily result in agreement.

Mr. Selley’s September 5 commentary Keeping religions (and atheism) out of public schools is precisely the kind of reasoning one would expect from a self-declared atheist, even one who is “emphatically not of the First Evangelical Church of Atheism” as Selley states. His bias is cleverly disguised (perhaps even to himself) as neutrality, when in fact he proposes to score a win in the public schools for atheism. Let me explain.

Suppose four friends decide to go out for dinner together. The first asserts that he would like Chinese food. The second, that she wants Pad Thai. The third wants a burger with fries. And, the fourth notes that having had a large lunch, she’s not hungry and desires nothing for dinner. If dinner plans are cancelled and the four still get together for the evening then it is not a neutral outcome but rather favours the fourth diner who wanted nothing. A neutral decision would be a fifth option. An accommodation of all perspectives might be dinner at the food court.

The food court is the public square. In Canada’s free and democratic society, the public square is the place of interaction between all. Students who are sheltered from the reality that 2/3 of the world (and over 3/4 of Canadians) are religious, while the other 1/3 of the world accepts ideologies such as communism, atheism or fascism are ill prepared for life in the real world, or even life in their classrooms.

For democracy to thrive, the public square has to be open and children need to be exposed to it in the classroom as part of their civics preparation experience. At issue is being age appropriate.

While I disagree with the end result in Quebec, where a government mandated form of instruction devalues religion, I agree with the concept of the controversial Ethics and Religion in Culture curriculum. The goal of equipping children to function in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world is laudable. The idea that children should be isolated from that in the school setting is indicative of accepting the atheist/secularist position that there should be no religious expression in the public square and thus beginning that education in the public school system.

As has been experienced across the nation,  classroom requirements and regulations that begin in the public system  work their way into the publicly funded religious schools – the separate school system in Ontario (remember the separate school funds are collected based on declaration by taxpayers so there is no burden on the tax system) and publicly funded religious schools in other provinces (with taxes again collected based on declaration). Publicly collected funds soon become no barrier as recent education initiatives in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, B.C. and others have demonstrated, so that eventually the privately funded religious schools meet with the same requirements.

Mr. Selley’s argument is brilliant if one wishes to achieve the ends of teaching children that faith based reasoning does not belong in the public school or the public square, symbols of religions should not be seen in public and differences between people that may be based on religious or ideological beliefs should not be tolerated. Not so much if you want children who can function in a world where acceptance of difference is to be fostered without requiring agreement or conformity.

The very fact that the District School Board of Niagara was permitting the distribution of religious texts only with parental permission underscores Mr. Selley’s point that religious instruction is for the home and place of worship, but preparation for the world in which we live is part of what the school system is about. Exclusion of the religious from that context is not a neutral decision. It’s challenging our children to feast on nothing rather than learn to appreciate one another.

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