Peter James is the CEO of Scripture Union Queensland and the spokesperson for the National School Chaplaincy Association. An opinion piece from Peter James appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser on 26 June, which was full of poor arguments and downright untruths in support of the National School Chaplaincy Program.
This is my response to some of the statements made by Peter James in his article.
Schools should allow, and be respectful of, all views.
Schools should allow and be respectful of all people.
Schools should not allow or be respectful of the view that (for example) it's acceptable to discriminate against any person on the basis of accent, gender, skin colour or sexual orientation.
When it comes to matters of fact, schools should only teach things that are undeniably true (e.g. evolution) or things that are still the subject of genuine scientific research and debate (e.g. the origins of the universe), and are not obliged to "teach" every ridiculous claim that was ever made throughout history.
We do not need students to have a particular view imposed on them, but neither do we need students told their religious view is “crap’’, ‘‘snake oil’’, ‘’humbuggery’’ or ‘‘bunkum’’.
However, adults like Peter James do need to be told, for example, that intelligent design and creationism are "crap", that the promise of life after death is "snake oil", that intercessory prayer is "humbuggery" and that the claim "Jesus loves you" is bunkum. As Daniel Dennett says, "There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion."
Children, on the other hand, need to be taught critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning skills, rather than being taught to accept ideas from an authority figure on faith alone. By equiping students with such skills, they will come to their own conclusions when presented with the ridiculous ideas that Scripture Union Queensland (and their counterparts in other states) would have kids believe.
Quite aside from questions of anti-discrimination and religious vilification, if a school system is hostile to students’ religious views it fails to achieve our national educational goals.
Religious organisations are NOT being discriminated against or vilified by being denied the opportunity to preach discrimination and vilification to children in publicly funded secular schools. This is a ridiculously naïve argument, which is surprising from a former lawyer like Peter James, since by this argument it follows that any crackpot cult can claim "discrimination" if they aren't given free and unsupervised access to children in all public schools. This claim of victimisation has been formulated in a tweet from philosopher Justin Schieber (@justinsweh) as: "My right to swing my religious fist is being crushed by those demanding I not contact their face.".
And the scrapping of the Chaplaincy Program does NOT mean that the school system is hostile to students' religious views. I have never seen any indication that public schools care one way or the other what supernatural beliefs their students hold, and outside of school hours parents are always free to indoctrinate their children with whatever whacky ideas they choose. In fact public schools go further than they should in facilitating indoctrination during school hours through Scripture and Special Religious Instruction, when these "classes" should be consigned to the historical scrapheap.
And I thought that school chaplaincy wasn't about religion anyway - it's about "pastoral care", isn't it? So where does religious vilification come into it?
School chaplains ... help students ... develop positive self-image, confidence and resilience ... and support students and the school community in times of grief and loss, when some of the big questions of life arise for them.
So do all teachers and parents. But for those students who need specialised, professional support, there is no evidence that minimally qualified religious chaplains are able to give anywhere near the level of support that qualified psychologists and welfare workers can provide. The implication in this statement from Peter James is insulting to the people who genuinely care about child welfare and who dedicate their careers to this work.
It is entirely voluntary, requires appropriate parental consents ...
I never got a note from my school asking for my consent for the chaplain at our school to talk to my children, and I'm not aware of any parent that has. Peter James may be thinking of Scripture or SRI classes, which (at our school) also do not require consent - they require parents to "opt-out" their children - but at least there is that option.
In 2012, a 30-month longitudinal study of school chaplaincy by the Research Centre for Vulnerable Children and Families at the University of Western Australia found that the role of school chaplains is overwhelmingly valued by school principals, teachers, parents, students, psychologists and professional associations.
And in May 2014, an Essential poll found that only 5% of those surveyed supported the Government's policy of funding only religious chaplains.
So while school chaplains are now funded through to the end of 2014 with no regulation, guidelines or government oversight, really worthwhile student programs like NSW Primary Ethics continue to grow quietly - without any financial support from the government - through the hard work of thousands of unpaid volunteers who want a better future for all children.