Academia and teaching Religion

Religion education in SA schools

The topic of religion education in South African public schools has recently been quite a hot issue – mostly in the Afrikaans papers – following Prof. George Claassen’s article about the topic on his blog and follow-up radio interviews and the like. To put it quite plainly, certain schools are clearly in violation of the policy – and we have to date heard nothing from the Department of Basic Education which indicates that they give a hoot. Despite initially suggesting that legal action may be called for against the offending schools, Prof. Claassen has now decided to withdraw from the debate following numerous abusive and threatening calls and emails – but this issue should not be allowed to quietly go away. If you have a child enrolled at a public school in South Africa, and are concerned about them being taught in an explicitly ideological fashion – or being placed under any sort of pressure to conform to a particular world-view – you should familiarise yourself with the National religion policy, salient details of which are presented below.

Introduction to the Policy on Religion and Education
1. In doing so we work from the premise that the public school has an educational responsibility for teaching and learning about religion and religions, and for promoting these, but that it should do so in ways that are different from the religious instruction and religious nurture provided by the home, family, and religious community.
Background to the policy on Religion and Education
8. Public institutions have a responsibility to teach about religion and religions in ways that reflect a profound appreciation of the spiritual, non-material aspects of life, but which are different from the religious education, religious instruction, or religious nurture provided by the home, family, and religious community.
12. … the Constitution explicitly prohibits unfair discrimination on grounds that include religion, belief, and conscience. Protected from any discriminatory practices based on religion, citizens are thereby also free from any religious coercion that might be implied by the state.
14. Openness: Schools, together with the broader society, play a role in cultural formation and transmission, and educational institutions must promote a spirit of openness in which there shall be no overt or covert attempt to indoctrinate pupils into any particular belief or religion.
Religion Education
22. As institutions with a mandate to serve the entire society, public schools must avoid adopting a particular religion, or a limited set of religions, that advances sectarian or particular interests.
Religious Instruction
54. Religious instruction is understood to include instruction in a particular faith or belief, with a view to the inculcation of adherence to that faith or belief.
55. Religious instruction of this sort is primarily the responsibility of the home, the family, and the religious community, and more needs to be done to strengthen this role, in place of the school. Religious Instruction would in most cases be provided by clergy, or other persons accredited by faith communities to do so. Religious Instruction may not be part of the formal school programme, as constituted by the National Curriculum Statement, although schools are encouraged to allow the use of their facilities for such programmes, in a manner that does not interrupt or detract from the core educational purposes of the school. This could include voluntary gatherings and meetings of religious associations during break times.
64. The state must maintain parity of esteem with respect to religion, religious or secular beliefs in all of its public institutions, including its public schools.

A clear separation is made between religious instruction (which may not form part of the formal school programme) and religion education – explictly presented as education about religion in general, without favouring any particular religion. In the context of the policy, schools such as Stellenbosch Primary, whose website says things like: “Die skool sal ‘n Christelike karakter hê en dit sal in alle aktiwiteite uitgeleef word” (the school will have a Christian character, and this will be exemplified in all its activities) are in clear violation of the policy in that they are commiting themselves to creating an atmosphere that violates (at least) point 14 above.

Another example highlighted by Claassen is Louw Geldenhuys Primary, whose website has words like these from their Principal: “Deur middel van die onderwysproses leer die kind homself ken en ontdek hy talente wat hy in diens van sy Skepper en sy medemens kan aanwend” (Through the education process, the child learns to know himself, and discovers the talents that he can deploy in the service of his Creator and his fellow man).

While children are free to excuse themselves from religious ceremonies, prayers and the like, two significant problems are not addressed by this alleged “freedom of association”. First, if your school’s character is explicitly defined as Christian, you have no option to disassociate yourself on a formal level, except by leaving the school. If there are no other schools in your area, or that are suitable for whatever reason, then you are compelled to study at a school that is Christian in character, despite the fact that public schools can not take on or practice the character of any particular religion.

Second, and more disturbingly, children cannot be expected to have the independence of mind which would allow them to disassociate themselves from such activities. If all of their friends happily say their prayers, I doubt that we would find many children willing to risk the potential social repercussions of excusing themselves. They would instead meekly play along, despite the fact that the mystic mumbo-jumbo they are exposed to makes no sense to them at all.

And in the manner of all propaganda and brainwashing, it may well end up being the case that some – or many – of these children end up taking the nonsense they hear seriously, and thereby consign part of their rational brains to eternal sleep. Hopefully the hostility to Claassen will not end the struggle to free education in South Africa from religious brainwashing. I’ll certainly be making direct enquiries to the relevant officials in Education, and joining in any legal action that may result against schools who are in violation of the Policy. And, if you have children in SA schools, please ensure that they aren’t forced to hear about zombie magicians in their schools. After all, schooling is meant to make one smarter, rather than to try to cripple you intellectually and morally.

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.

11 replies on “Religion education in SA schools”

I found your article interesting although at some point offensive. Being a Christian myself I am dissapointed to read about the death threats Dr Claassen received from Christians about his article regarding the practise of religion in public schools. So much for Christian character. Surely we as Christians should resort to a more New Testament approach of addressing issues regarding our faith as a true testimony to the world for what we stand for.

On the point of offensive, I don’t appreciate it my faith being called “religious brainwashing” and “taking the nonsense they hear seriously, and thereby consign part of their rational brains to eternal sleep”. That my friend, is your opinion, which you are entitled to, but according to the last sencus done in our country wasn’t 80% of the population members of the Christian Faith? Shouldn’t the majority faith be more accomodated in the structures of our society? In this instance – the schools our children go to?

Juanita: the majority can be wrong. And when their errors keep us in the Bronze age, I think we have a problem. You’ll of course regard this as mere opinion, and there is unfortunately little I can do about that.

The christian faith is based on on hearsay and fairy tales and the promoters of this faith should be sued in court for selling their believes as the truth.
Christians should stop defending their believes and they should rather focus on historical education so they can better understand how it is that they have been misled into believing ancient mythology to be literal people and events.
My 8 year old daughter is going to an afrikaans school where she is taught Jesus lives above the clouds and other fables that does not even appear in the actual bible. Most importantly she is being brainwashed into believing the worlds biggest untruth, that a man called Jesus actually existed and that he came to safe us!

The danger in christianity is in the promoting of their faith as the ONLY way to be saved creating in the human mind prejudice, discrimination, a judgmental and a general sense that some of us are better than others because we believe we are saved and the rest are just common sinners.
Yes I also don’t agree on the weak policy government have adopted as far as religious education at school is concerned.
Religion should be kept out of school altogether. The current system will always be open for abuse.

Thank you for setting out the parameters of religious instructions in schools. I am horrified to discover that one of the top 10 schools in the Western Cape, blatently disregards these.

I have experienced a number of religious cultures in my forty plus years and I have come to the conclusion that religion is nothing more than a vehicle for mass manipulation. I am therefore strongly opposed to my children being unthinkingly indoctrinated into adherence of any particular religion.

My son attends school in Rondebosch and the school proudly pronounces that it fosters a Christian environment. In reality, religous instruction is given by a member of Church in Claremont if you are Christian, and by a Moslem cleric of you are Moslem. But the rest of the pupils can read in the library for that period.

I am aghast – this arrangement not only discriminates against those who do not blindly follow either the Christian or Moslem religions, but it also stigmatises the children who do not follow these religions.

I have discovered moreover, from your excellent site that the school disregards departmental guidelines by having the religious instruction undertaken by clerics. Thus, there is a complete lack of religious instruction and religious indoctrination occurs.

I am proud of my son, when asked by his teacher which class he would be attending, he expressed a wish to read in the library. In the face of his enlightenment, how can I not petition the school or the department about this issue?

But on the other hand, how can I do so without bringing to an end my son’s days at one of the top ten schools in the Western Cape?

It’s very sad, and shameful on the part of the Education Department, that you face a dilemma like this one. Perhaps a middle ground is possible, whereby you take no risks in terms of your son’s experiences there while he is at the school, but petition the school after he graduates? That way, you can still help the other children and parents, while protecting your own interests. Of course, the martyr route is possible, but your self-interest (including your interest in your son’s welfare) seem to argue against that course of action.

All in all, it doesn’t matter what man says, but what God, the Creator of man, says. If you think God tells tales you are in for a h3ll of a surprise after death…

A highly Christian religous country [according to the census] but alas proving false by and large to the basic principles of Christ-mindedness and conduct as other stats : eg Rape, Murder, Abortion etc etc seem to indicate.

“By Laerskool Lynnwood streef ons daarna om Christelike normes en waardes te handhaaf. Jesus is nie Laerskool Lynnwood se belangrikste eregas nie, want HY WOON HIER. Godsdienstige oortuigings is ‘n belangrike bron van die identiteit, waardes en lewens- en wêreldbeskouing van ouers, onderwysers en leerders van ons skool.”

Clearly in violation of the Policy. At the school my children were taught that evolution is rubbish, and that good Christian children believe the Creation story in Genesis. Many class activities are Christian in nature, class prayers are frequent.
It is a pity, because it is a good school, with some excellent teachers.

As an atheist as well as having been a Head of Schools, both within the Government sector and the Private it was a given that I was a “believer”, or no job’.So I played the game and took assembly, getting other staff members to read from the bible. Children could place a written prayer in a box. One was drawn by a random choice of a pupil in the hall. These were the days of christian national education, remember them? We could abuse other racial groups and laugh at their beliefs as long as we believed that we were good god fearing folk. I got away with the charade for many a year.
What a relief when I joined the International School movement. No questions at the interview re religious belief, but plenty about the things that a Head of School should know about: Leadership theory, choice of reading schemes, etc. What a relief! I was a free man at last!
Why do those who choose to believe always want others to join them in their belief. Is it strengthening their belief structure if others join in the charade that is religion? . When religion disappears from the world we will all live in paradise.
The Beatles got it right, imagine there is no heaven. I am happy to know that I will be dead as I have had a great life, without fear of retribution.
A vengeful deity, that was mentioned in a previous post, that we will all have to do penance to why we did not believe and then go to hell for being a non believer. Man made nonsense, a devil or a satan figure is right up there with the tooth fairy.

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