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.