‘Modern politics is civil war carried on by other means …’ Noted philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is here challenging the possibility of liberal democracy. Democratic unity, he holds, depends on a shared conception of justice: substantial agreement on how the benefits and burdens of membership are to be shared. Since liberal democracy implies a plurality of views on this matter, MacIntyre argues that agreement is impossible, and public policy debate is but the waging of war in words.
Democrats should note the strong support lent to MacIntyre’s thesis by the current Victorian controversy over the place of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in government schools. Today’s conflict perpetuates a bitter debate that has divided our society since the nineteenth century. The original antagonists, the churches and the secularists, have been succeeded in somewhat reduced form by carriers of their respective batons. Access Ministries is the joint body formed by the Anglican and several Protestant churches to provide SRI, while Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) and The Humanist Society of Victoria lead the opposition to SRI. Access Ministries continue to insist on the priority of their churches’ mission to evangelise over the state’s duty to preserve the secular autonomy of the classroom. The modern day secularists persist in their efforts to interpret the secularising education acts of the colonial parliaments as ideological banishments of religion from the school curriculum, or to reduce its content to teaching about religion. These secularising acts were supposed to be the liberal solution to this conflict: the liberal state was bound to be neutral in relation to religious belief or non-belief but to uphold citizens’ right to freedom in relation to either.
However, the liberal attempt to preserve state neutrality by defining religious freedom in terms of individual ‘rights’ has entrenched rather than resolved the conflict. A right is non-negotiable: you either have it or you don’t—if you have it, it trumps all counter claims. But the right to religious freedom can be invoked to support both positions here: Access Ministries’ mission to evangelise and the secularists’ right to protect their children from such evangelisation. In MacIntyre’s terms, the abstract ‘rights’ status of their claims protects the antagonists from any obligation to negotiate their substance for the sake of the common good of democratic harmony. Construal of their rights as competing ‘goods’, however, exposes the substance of their claims to scrutiny and makes those goods negotiable.
Scrutiny reveals both positions to be anachronistic. Access Ministries, like their nineteenth-century predecessors, recognise no distinction between the function of church and school when they define their vision as ‘to reach every student in Victoria with the Gospel’. The churches’ blindness was perhaps defensible in the nineteenth century, when this distinction was inchoate. Now that this is well established, Access Ministries’ persistence in equating an act of a secular parliament permitting SRI with ‘a God-given open door to children and young people’ (as quoted in The Age) simply perpetuates the nineteenth-century view of church and school. Moreover, the change in the faith or non-faith status of students since the nineteenth century, which should discourage such a facile equation, has had no apparent effect on Access Ministries’ conception of the role of the church in schools.
It is also anachronistic to see the permission of SRI as violating an ideological principle enthroned by the Victorian Education Act 1872. When the churches of the day failed to agree on a religious instruction syllabus, the government resolved to fund education in a minimum number of subjects deemed ‘secular’ within a very limited—four hour—time frame. The Act left open the teaching of a range of other subjects including not only religious instruction but also sewing and French, for example, in the school outside these hours, provided only that religious instruction was not taught by teachers at the relevant school. The ideology driving FIRIS’ secularist position is evident in their demand for the abolition of SRI and its replacement by ‘an objective, fair and balanced comparative syllabus for education about religions and beliefs’ (emphasis in original). Religion is admissible to the school curriculum, not on its own terms as a valid form of human experience offering answers to life’s ultimate questions, but only on secular humanist terms as an empirical phenomenon.
Scrutiny of the substance of these contending positions also reveals their reliance upon contested claims about the authoritative sources of truth. For Access Ministries that source is the Bible, but for secularists such as the Humanist Society of Victoria, to which the FIRIS website provides a link, it is ‘the exercise of reason’, with a view ‘to explaining events on the basis of cause and effect’, ‘a view [that] has long been accepted in the physical sciences’. The authority of reason, according to Ian Edwards, writing on the Humanist Society’s website, is such that ‘There is no longer any need for revelation as a source of knowledge’. But both sides represent the authority of their sources tendentiously.
Only the most extreme form of evangelical fundamentalism would claim absolute certainty for doctrines derived from the Bible, and then the certainty would be ascribed to the Bible’s status as the word of God, not to the demonstrability of the doctrines by human reason. Analogously, it would take faith in ‘scientism’ rather than science to maintain the doctrine that science can provide an exclusive and exhaustive account of truth, and thus be the sole guarantor of human progress in any circumstances, let alone in the face of such foreboding consequences of scientific endeavour as climate change. While their adherents may have good grounds for clinging to them, only absolute certainty of the doctrines of religion or science could exempt them from doubt. Since such certainty cannot be demonstrated for either, presentation of them in any forum as if it could is unwarranted. This is all the more so in a secular classroom, part of whose function in a democracy is to enable students to critically appraise all content presented to them.
Even this limited scrutiny of the substance of these contending positions is sufficient to expose the goods they point to and, goods being assessable against other goods, the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the dispute. The good exposed in the religious position, stripped of the particular doctrinal clothing of SRI, is a religious education which offers for student appraisal a view of the universe and of the place of humans within it, a view that is quite distinct from any non-religious view. Of course, it is more accurate to say that there is a plurality of religious views rather than a single general one. In the twenty-first century no credible religious education curriculum could ignore the question of how to discriminate between or integrate the multiplicity of religious views. In my opinion, many Christians could support the replacement of SRI with such a form of religious education without compromising their own doctrinal commitments. Believers do not diminish the truth of their own doctrines by conceding that instruction in the doctrines of their own faith alone—by restricting student freedom to consider alternatives to these doctrines—violates the values inherent in the very notion of education, the values of freedom and truth. Believers would be compromising the good embodied in such a religious education curriculum, however, if they allowed that curriculum to be reduced to ‘education about religion’ rather than one which addressed religion on its own terms: students must be enabled to ask themselves such questions as what it would be like to address the issue of climate change, for example, if one believed that humans were divinely appointed stewards of the creation.
When the secularist position upholds science as a way of explaining ‘events on the basis of cause and effect’, it points to an uncontroversial good. That good would not be compromised by separating it from Edwards’ very controversial claim that ‘There is no longer any need for revelation as a source of knowledge’. This is not itself a scientific claim but rather a doctrine of secular humanist faith. Like the doctrines presented in SRI, therefore, in the form of religious education I am proposing, this doctrine would be one of the plurality of religious and non-religious views presented for student appraisal. Holders of this doctrine would no more be diminishing it by conceding that, in an educational setting, it is subject to critical appraisal than would religious believers by making the same concession in regard to their doctrines.
Since only certainty about the substance of the religious or secularist position could eliminate the pluralism MacIntyre sees as threatening modern democracy, his doubt about its possibility cannot be definitively resolved. His own prescription for viewing politico/ethical questions in terms of competing goods rather than conflicting rights, however, provides some help in making substantive debate and negotiated settlement of such disputes possible. Many religious believers of twenty-first-century Australia will respect religious pluralism and renounce any claim to a knockdown argument refuting atheism. They will therefore have no trouble in accepting a religious education curriculum that reflects these positions and respects the autonomy of the secular classroom provided only that this curriculum does not reduce religion to something less than it claims to be. Similarly, many secularists will concede the limitations of science and their lack of a knockdown argument to refute religious belief. They too will have little difficulty in accepting such a form of religious education. If I am correct in this assessment, modern democracy may, at least on this issue which has so long and bitterly divided Australia, become something more than ‘civil war carried on by other means’.
Michael Leahy is a former priest who graduated in theology from the Pontifical Urban University, Rome. He completed a PhD on the philosophy of religious and science education in 1988, and another in political philosophy in 2005, on the possibility of social justice. He now teaches public policy at Deakin University.
Access Ministries, <www.accessministries.org.au>.
I. Edwards, ‘A Humanist View’, The Humanist Society of Victoria, 2011.
Fairness in Religions in Schools, <www.religionsinschool.com>.
The Humanist Society of Victoria, <www.victorianhumanist.com>.
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C. R. Long and J. Smyth, A History of State Education in Victoria, The Education Department of Victoria, Melbourne, 1922.
A. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1981.
I. A. Snook, Concepts of Indoctrination: Philosophical Essays, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1972.
J. Topsfield, ‘School Religion Classes Probed’, The Age, 13 May 2011.