OGOD finally has its day in court

Hans Pietersen has been working towards getting the matter of religious bias in South African public schools heard by the courts since 2009. This week, it finally happened.

OGOD is the name of the organisation he founded and chairs, and who brought the case to the Johannesburg High Court. But don’t let that bit of blasphemy in the name fool you. Even though there are many atheists in the organisation, their cause is a secular rather than atheist one, and as I’ve argued before, the difference is crucial.

Much of the coverage of the court case has been in Afrikaans, and the little that I’ve seen in English has been fairly poor, first because the journalists themselves don’t seem able to recognise the distinction I make above, and second because nobody (that I’ve noticed) seems to have done anything more than collate soundbites.

Once the judgment is out, I’ll hopefully get around to writing a lengthy piece on the case. But in the meanwhile, with the help of a piece published by the so-called Independent Group, I’d like to summarise a few of the things that some people (in particular, the trade union Solidarity) keep getting wrong about the case. The piece opens with:

Trade union Solidarity argued on Tuesday at the Gauteng South Gauteng High Court the ruling of the application for the banning of religious practices in schools would affect 24 000 schools in South Africa.

The case is not, and has never been, aimed at “banning religious practices” in schools. In a nutshell, it’s been about protecting children from being indoctrinated into religion via schools failing to adhere to the National Policy on Religion and Education.

That policy allows for religious practices in schools, but emphasises that schools should engage in religion education rather than religious instruction. Children should be taught about religions, rather than taught to be religious. Yet, many public schools, such as the 6 named in the court case, explicitly adopt a particular religious character, thus immediately creating a bias in favour of that religion.

In that context – even if you create alternate activities for non-religious kids and kids who regard themselves as belonging to a different religion – you are making them do the work of disassociating themselves from a dominant ethos, and the school is then not neutral towards religion – a norm is in place, that needs to be actively rejected by the child.

If you’re 10 years old – or even older – this might not be an easy thing to do at all, given the peer pressure you likely encounter, and the stigmatisation that might result from rejecting the norm in question. To put it simply: opting-in, rather than opting-out, should be the default structure of this decision.

What the applicants are trying to achieve is to destroy the moral glue that glues South Africans together. The question is whether that which the applicants are seeking is in line with what ordinary South Africans want. Looking at the statistics, this is clearly not the case,” Solidarity Chief Executive Dr Dirk Hermann said.

The first sentence is egregiously flawed. There’s no reason to assume that schools are the place to teach morality, for one (rather than homes, or even churches), and second, even if they are, that religious instruction rather than religious education is necessary to do so. (I’m ignoring, for the sake of keeping this brief, any discussion regarding how religion might not only be unnecessary, but even counterproductive, to teaching morality.)

On the statistics, the piece goes on to say

According to Solidarity, religion and values are the elements that bring South Africans together across traditional divisions, while according to the South African Institute of Race Relations, 86 percent of South Africans identify themselves as Christians, and almost 95 percent identify with this faith.

The point of schooling is not to reinforce what you (or as is often more likely, your parents) already believe to be true – it’s to teach you things you don’t already know, and to equip you to think. If it were the case that schools should simply reinforce existing beliefs, and we discovered that (as is likely) most South Africans support the death penalty, should we teach that?

Should we teach gender inequality, if we happen to be sexists? Or homophobia? Schools are not the place for any of this. Solidarity Chief Executive Dr Dirk Hermann goes on to say that

There is no such thing as neutral education. In practice, the atheists who brought the matter before court want to enforce their belief on school communities. Even a secular approach constitutes a certain worldview that is to be enforced on school communities. Under the guise of inclusion their arguments the will of communities is being excluded,” Hermann said.

Here, Hermann is again misrepresenting the situation. Yes, there is no such thing as a neutral education, in the sense that you need to decide what to include or exclude. But, whether you like it or not, most of those value judgments simply flow from the Constitution (so, you could not choose to teach homophobia, for example).

But, the “atheists” don’t have a belief they want to “enforce” on school communities. They simply want to enforce a separation between religious education and religious instruction, and keep the instruction where it belongs, namely your home or place of worship.

There are other elements I could focus on, such as the unreliable data they use in claiming that 95% of South Africans are religious. Even if this is true, though, it is not a counterargument to OGODs case, in that this would neither license schools to ignore the National Policy, nor make it an independently good idea that public schools are encouraged to influence this private matter.

To conclude:  Section 15(2) of South Africa’s Constitution provides that “religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions provided that these observances (a) follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities; (b) are conducted on an equitable basis; and (c) attendance at them is free and voluntary”.

OGOD isn’t trying to change that clause. They are highlighting, among other things, the point that the clause say “may be conducted at state institutions”, rather than “by state institutions” – in other words that as much as these observances can happen, a school cannot be a “Christian school” or a “Satanic school” or whatever.

And, they are highlighting the point that things are often not equitable in practice, and that while the “free and voluntary” element sounds delightful, the alternatives for kids who choose to opt out are often either ghetto-ised, or not chosen at all. Because why, as a young kid seeking peer-approval, would you choose to rock the boat?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.