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Religious Education Down-Under

by Helen Bradstock

It was great to hear Marion Maddox interviewed by Tom White on the subject of Religion in Australian Schools. In response, I’d like to affirm Maddox’s position on voluntary religious instruction,  add some additional comments about the situation in New Zealand where I undertook my own research into this subject, and reflect briefly on the relevance of this debate for critical religious studies scholars.

Religion in Australian schools

Marion Maddox’s book, Taking God to School: the end of Australia’s egalitarian education? , does not pull its punches in its criticism of evangelical, biblically literalist,  discriminatory attitudes and practices promoted in many Australian public primary schools through volunteer-led religion programmes, known variously as SRE, SRI, CRI and CRE in different states. Maddox makes a fervent plea for a rethink of neoliberal outsourcing of values education and chaplaincy and a return to the secular education advocated by the founders of the nation. She advocates a broader form of education about religions within the curriculum.

The lobby group Fairness in Religion in Schools highlights the many problems associated with Special Religious Education (SRE) in the state of New South Wales. Its website provides links to religious instruction providers and their materials. Access Ministries provides religious instruction classes in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, and Western Australia and parts of New Zealand. Although the provider asserts its educational rather than evangelical mission, its materials are confessional in approach and its CEO has be known to speak about the programme’s “missional” role of “making disciples.”

Cathy Byrne’s 2014 book Religion in Secular Education  provides a thorough treatment of the Australian situation, including a state-by-state account of provision of religion in schools. However, it is an ever-changing landscape. Lobbying from parent groups led the Victorian State Government to issue a new policy document for Special Religious Instruction  (SRI) in 2016, stating that it should take place at lunch time or before or after school. This appears to have reduced take-up of SRI classes among schools in Victoria.

New Zealand Religious Demographics

Maddox is right to say that New Zealand is further down the route of secularisation – in terms of religious affiliation – than Australia. The figures for the 2018 census have not been released yet, but in 2013 just below 49% professed Christian affiliation, just under 42% stated no religion, and around 6% affiliated to other religions. Māori represent about 14% of the total population and have a similar spread of religious affiliation as the general population. Neither the population nor their religious affiliations are spread evenly across the country. Sixty-five percent of the population lives in one of the thirteen cities in New Zealand, and these areas are more religiously diverse. Just over a third of New Zealand’s children live in the Auckland region, where over one in ten in the population affiliates to a religion other than Christianity. This changing religious demography is not reflected in policy on religion in public schools.

Religion in New Zealand Schools

The word religion does not feature in the New Zealand Curriculum. Children in New Zealand public primary and intermediate schools do not learn about religion from education professionals but from church volunteers. As in Australia, units on religion available to pupils in the last two years of high school have minimal take-up and are largely taken by youngsters in church school settings. For example only 1% of 4490 secondary school students who took National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) level two Religious Studies unit 90823 in 2011—the only unit to have a comparative element—were enrolled in secular schools.

Just as they had in the Australian states, New Zealand’s early parliamentarians debated the issue of religion in public schools as they sought to create a cohesive education system within the colony, open to all denominations, and funded through general taxation. The Education Act of 1877 had established at Clause 84 (2) that teaching in state-funded primary schools would be “entirely of a secular character”. A voluntary system of religious instruction led by church volunteers during the school day was quickly established, known as Bible-in-Schools. A Bible-in-Schools League made repeated, but unsuccessful, attempts to revoke the secular clause. Heated public debates veered between concerns for the moral welfare of children in “Godless schools” and the need to protect the secular curriculum and the rights of teachers, as this cartoon from 1912 shows.[1]

In this 1912 political cartoon, an advocate of using the Bible in schools holds a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other–pointed at a school teacher. The teacher argues that he couldn’t violate his conscience by teaching from the Bible rather than advocating for a “free and secular education.” But the Bible in School activist demands he choose his conscience or his living–that is, teach the Bible or lose his job.

By the 1960s, most primary schools had Bible-in-Schools classes, and the hitherto informal arrangement was incorporated into education legislation in the 1964 Education Act. Schools could technically “close” for religious instruction at any time of day, for up to half an hour per week (later changed to an hour, and no more than 20 hours per year), and children’s parents could request their child be withdrawn from the class. In 2017, the Churches Education Commission (CEC – the main, but not only, provider of Bible-in-Schools) stated that they were operating in around 650 schools (around 40%), with 2500 volunteers and teaching 60,000 children each week.

In 2012 a campaign was launched by the Secular Education Network (SEN) to lobby against religious instruction in public schools and to provide support to parents. A high profile media campaign against Bible-in-Schools has led to considerable changes in the programme materials and teaching now used by the CEC. The more overtly evangelical and confessional elements – very apparent in the Access Ministries material used until 2016, and still in use in Australia – appear to have been excised from the new curriculum.  However it remains a programme designed to endorse Christianity, and a particular brand which promotes belief in Biblical literalism and Creationism. While its guidelines to volunteers make clear that they are not to proselytise, the lessons include prayers and music that may be coercive like “Raise Your Hands” and “Imagine the Impossible”. Some schools still use the Access Ministries’ resources, and schools in Wanganui use the more overtly evangelical Connect programme produced in Sydney. The SEN are currently awaiting a hearing at the High Court at which they will claim that Bible-in-Schools breaches Human Rights legislation protecting freedom of religion and belief. My research identifies numerous ways in which the institutional accommodation (and implied endorsement) of Bible-in-Schools engenders an unwarranted complacency towards monitoring of groups and materials by school boards and parents alike.

The Ministry of Education has been exceedingly reluctant to intervene in debates about religion in school. It has never produced any curriculum guidelines for teachers about religions and beliefs. However, under a new administration, a consultation on draft guidelines for schools running Bible-in-Schools classes has just been launched. This addresses some, but not all, of the SEN’s concerns. An omission, in my view, is the provision of any criteria with which school boards might assess the suitability of Bible programmes. Even if adopted, the guidelines will have no legal status and will not be binding.

Why Should We Care?

As critical religious studies scholars, why should we care about the religious instruction/education debate? It has been argued that liberal religious education, such as takes place in schools in England and Wales, is simply another form of indoctrination: that children are encouraged in these classes to believe in an essentialised, liberalised, de-politicised, tolerant and generic form of religion.[2] It is posited that liberal religious education is a governmental technology of state and altogether as problematic as confessional religious instruction for the critical religious studies scholar, who should not take sides in these matters. Such criticisms are acknowledged by many religious educationalists in the UK.[3]  They advocate not retreat from the debate but engagement with religious studies scholarship to improve teaching content and pedagogy. New approaches are being developed to assist young people to develop critical awareness of the religious and non-religious worldviews – and governmental educational practices – to which they are exposed. A new Report from the Commission on Religious Education proposes a “national statutory entitlement” to “Religion and Worldviews” education. It recognises the role Religious Education has had in promoting, rather than challenging, religious stereotypes in the past. It acknowledges that a more nuanced approach to teaching about religions is required. It states that “being able to explore, at a conceptual level, how worldviews work in practice, is as important as knowing the content of particular worldviews.” The report recommendations, in my view, exemplify the benefit of engagement between religious studies scholarship and religious education professionals in the development of curriculum policy.

As it stands, the New Zealand Curriculum does not equip young people to exercise informed judgement in matters of religion and belief, and the Ministry of Education facilitates approaches to religion in school that are difficult to reconcile with human rights legislation. The subject of religion has been given little attention by educationalists and remains un-theorised as a curriculum area. In neither Australia nor New Zealand have debates on religion in schools advanced in many decades. They proceed without reference to, or the benefit of, critical religious studies scholarship. It seems to me that any critical scholar of religion interested in the future of their academic discipline, or its relevance to the wider world, might consider this to be of some interest.

 

References

[1] Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand. Previously published in Helen Bradstock, “Religious Education, Knowledge and Power: Religion as Discursive Construction in New Zealand Primary Schools”, in Identity, Difference and Belonging, ed. Dina Mansour, Sebastian Ille, and Andrew Milne (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2014), 45. See also: Helen Bradstock, “Religion in New Zealand’s State Primary Schools”, Journal of Intercultural Studies 36, no. 3 (2015): 338-61.

[2] Russell T. McCutcheon, “Our ‘Special Promise’ as Teachers: Scholars of Religion and the Politics of Tolerance”, in Critics Not Caretakers, ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (New York: State University of New York Press, 2001). Timothy Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 29.

[3] David Lundie and James Conroy, “’Respect Study’: The Treatment of Religious Difference and Otherness: An Ethnographic Investigation in U.K. Schools”, Journal of Intercultural Studies 36, no. 3 (2015). Andrew Wright, “Critical Realism as a Tool for the Interpretation of Cultural Diversity in Liberal Religious Education”, in International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education, ed. Marian De Souza, et al. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009).

 

Religion, Education, and Politics in Australia and NZ

Following on from the delivery of her conference paper at the EASR 2018 in Bern, in this podcast, Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University speaks to Thomas White regarding the historical, national and regional differences in the presence of religion in Australian and New Zealand schools. The podcast begins with a brief biography of Professor Maddox’s rise to academic tenure, and the various post-doctoral positions that paved her transition away from theology, and towards the subject of religion and politics.

Covering projects including the training of Catholic school teachers and deputy-principals in secular religious education, her research into the Hindmarsh Island affair – which investigated Aboriginal women’s claims to ‘secret women’s business’ – and her work under the Australian Parliamentary Research Fellowship, the discussion turns to national differences between public religion in New Zealand and Australia. Contrasting Australian multi-culturalism with New Zealand bi-culturalism, Professor Maddox explains how, despite New Zealand being further along a path of secularisation (by religious affiliation), religion often obtains a greater presence in the public sphere as it is carried on a policy of cultural recognition for Maori tradition, as mandated in the country’s Treaty of Waitangi. This was particularly evident with the daily expression of Maori karakia (prayers) in her daughter’s school, which later transpired to be the Lord’s Prayer!

Focusing on the Australian experience of public policy on religion and education, Maddox explains how 19th Century Australian concerns regarding both sectarianism and protecting religion from political manipulation led to a surprising consensus across colony parliaments that religion should be kept out of the public school system. In the late 20th Century, however, ‘currents of change are pulling in different directions’.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Men at Work’s “Business as Usual” album, Vegemite, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ

Podcast with Marion Maddox (26 November 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Maddox_-_Religion,_Education_and_Politics_in_Australia_and_NZ_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Well it is a beautiful morning here on the penultimate day of the EASR in Bern, and I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University in Sydney. Marion is a Professor of Politics at Macquarie and she has PhDs in Theology from Flinders, and another PhD in Philosophy from the University of New South Wales. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Professor Maddox is the leading authority on questions of religion and politics in Australia, and it is an absolute pleasure to have you with us in the recording studio this morning. Professor Maddox, welcome!

Marion Maddox (MM): Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

TW: So, your paper was delivered on Monday. Today’s Wednesday, so we’re a couple of days down the line. But I thought perhaps before going into the paper, as a first question to ease us into the interview, could you please tell us a little about how you became a Professor of Religion and Politics in Australia?

MM: Yes, well, sort-of by mistake! I did a PhD in Theology, and by the time I’d finished I was very sure that I didn’t want to work for the Church – which is pretty much the only thing you can do with a PhD in theology in the normal kind-of career progression in Australia. So I applied for jobs all around the place. And the one I happened to get . . . which was not what I imagined myself doing, but you know how it is when you finish your PhD and you apply all around the place, and you get what you happen to get. The one that I happened to get was in a fabulous department that no longer exists in the University of South Australia. And what we did was provide teacher training to teachers of Religious Studies. Because, in those days, South Australia had thought that it was going to have a non-confessional RE programme for teachers in public schools, and they had set up this whole department to train the teachers for it. But what had actually happened was that that programme was never implemented, and instead we provided teacher training for Catholic schools mainly. Our main clientele was Catholic schools’ deputy principals, who had to get a degree in Religious Education in order to get the next step on their promotion. And so we were kind-of a service provider for the Catholic Education Office. And then ACU (the Australian Catholic University) got set up and so we lost that client base, and the department isn’t there anymore. But it was a fantastic department, and I learnt there what non-confessional RE – Religious Education, education about religions – is, because we were providing it to all these Catholic school teachers. We would see them come in and think that Religious Education was catechesis, and then they would go through this programme and they would discover that there is this whole other way to think about religion. I worked there for 5 years as I was on contract, and then my contract ran out. Then I cast around and applied for jobs, and the one that I happened to get, again, was in Australian Politics, at the University of Adelaide. And while I was doing that I thought, “Hang on a minute! There’s all this work on religion and politics in America, but no one is doing anything on religion and politics in Australia. But there is a huge story here!” And while I was doing that two-year contract in Politics at the University of Adelaide, a big story was in the paper every single day, on, and on, and on. In fact, it started while I was still in Religious Studies at the University of South Australia. And that was the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission, which anybody who lives in South Australia will still know what that is about straight-away – it was on the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser for a couple of years. It was an inquiry into whether a group of Aboriginal women from South Australia had fabricated so-called “secret women’s business” – which is now a phrase in Australian vernacular but it wasn’t until then – which was a set of traditional beliefs that, because they were secret, they hadn’t talked about before. So wider Australia went, “We’ve never heard of this, you must have made this up!” But the point of it was that these beliefs were about a tract of water between Hindmarsh Island and the mainland. And its sacredness, these women said, should prevent a marina being built, that was wanted to be built by some developers. And so this whole question of “Should sacred sites stand in the way of development?” blew up into a question about “Do Aboriginal peoples make up traditions in order to stop development?” and “Are they being manipulated by ‘Greenies’?” And so there was a series of inquiries. So this question of how non-Aboriginal Australia deals with questions of sacredness seemed to me to be a very religions-and-politics question that mainstream Australia did not have a vocabulary to deal with. So I wrote quite a lot about that. And then, when my University of Adelaide ran out (laughs) . . . . It seems my academic trajectory has been really shaped by the conditions of the labour market! I then applied for, and got, the Australian Parliamentary Fellowship which was a fantastic programme run by the parliamentary library which still exists but, I think, in not as a good a form. But in those days it was a one year programme where you worked in parliament as a research fellow for a year, where you spent half your time doing an individual independent research project, and the other half of the time supplying information for members and senators on anything they ask about. And my independent research project was about religion and Australian parliamentary processes. And I wrote my first book which was called For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, which was the only Parliamentary Fellowship monograph ever to sell out, and go to a second printing! And it is now available on-line for a free pdf download. And then, after that, I got my first permanent job – Yes! – at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. And there we had a course on Religion and Politics. So there’s a long answer!

TW: Oh well, OK! This segues nicely with a question that I was going to ask towards the end but: the situation of politics and religion in Australia, and the situation of politics and religion in New Zealand – was it quite a shift going to Victoria, after developing all your expertise on your situation in Australia?

MM: It really was. I was quite, well . . . I had been to New Zealand once. I did the interview over the phone, so I had only been there once, years earlier, for a conference. So I did not really know anything about New Zealand, except that I heard this rumour that they have really good coffee – which proved to be true!

TW: Excellent coffee, yes!

MM: Yes, yes! And that was such a wrench, coming back! But when I got to Wellington, I remember going to my first faculty meeting and thinking, “I’m going to have to get a dictionary!” Because there was so much Maori language which is used as just a matter of course, in everyday discourse, from university management and in university processes. And I didn’t know what all these words meant. So if you are a student, and a student has a problem, you are allowed to bring whanau support, you know, so I didn’t know. I learnt. But it was a very sharp learning curve, and that required a whole sort of cultural shift. And when I moved back to Australia it was a culture shock again, to have that indigenous perspective suddenly not present in university processes. So that was one thing that I noticed. And the political system, when we moved to New Zealand. New Zealand had only quite recently made the shift to MMP, multi-member proportional voting, whereas Australia uses single transferable vote in the lower house and a version of proportional representation in the upper house. And so I learnt that the voting system has quite a strong effect, which I hadn’t really . . . I’d kind-of intellectually known, but I hadn’t really seen it in action. And so I hadn’t really, viscerally, appreciated the effect it can have on, like, the way that religious interests can have an effect in electoral politics. And while we were in New Zealand there was that dramatic election when a religiously influenced party, United Future New Zealand, got an unexpectedly big vote and, effectively, the balance of power in the New Zealand parliament. So, I learnt a lot things and I did have to go on a sharp learning curve, and I couldn’t kind-of, be an expert on New Zealand politics straight away. I had to make a quick catch-up.

TW: Well, that’s interesting. So trying to rephrase that in very broad brush, and perhaps overly clumsy positioning: is there the implication that New Zealand is a bit more open to ethnic difference – in terms of the Maori having much stronger representation within the political system – this is carried over to more access for religion within the public space, or more representation for religion in the public space in New Zealand, than in Australia?

  1. MM. Well, I would say it is a different kind of presence. Australia has a history of a strongly articulated policy of multiculturalism, which has been under increasing attack over the recent decade or two. But multiculturalism became official policy in 1974, and for a long time there was quite a strong infrastructure of policy and practice to support that. Whereas, New Zealand’s policy is biculturalism, so that has kind of made different spaces for religious communities to be present in the public space. New Zealand is further down the secularisation path than Australia is, if we think of secularisation meaning the religious practice of the majority of the population. So in the last Australian census, 54% of Australians claimed to be of some sort of religious adherence. I’m not sure what the figure is for New Zealand, but New Zealand got to that 50%, just over that 50%, a couple censuses ago. So I imagine it’s lower now. But the striking difference about religion in the public space that I noticed when I lived in New Zealand is that, in New Zealand Maori make up not only a bigger proportion of the population, but also a much more cohesive proportion of the population than Aboriginal people – Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders – do in Australia. So indigenous Australians are about 2-3% of the population whereas Maori, at the time I was living there, were about 15%. And the other big difference is that Maori have a common language, whereas Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have many different language groups: there were about 500 different language groups at the time of European contact. So, for example, when I enrolled my daughter in primary school in Wellington, on her first day, when she was 5, we went along to Newtown primary and there was a ceremony to welcome to the new students. And it was forty-five minutes long and every last word of it was in Maori! And all the little pakeha kids, like my daughter, just had to sit there and . . . sit there politely and listen. And the principal made a quite long speech – I guess about 15 minutes long – and every now and then a smattering of people in the audience laughed and the rest of knew that he’d made a joke! And there was a haka, and my daughter had never seen a haka before – having just come from Australia – so she was just kind of gobsmacked! And then, once she started at school, everyday started with a karakia – which is a Maori prayer which is offered at the beginning of something important – which is in Maori. And the children who didn’t speak Maori didn’t know what the content of the karakia They just knew this was something that they had to pay respectful attention to. And then, one day we were sitting in a church service and the vicar said, “We will now chant the Lord’s prayer in Maori”, and my daughter said in a triumphant state, “I know this!” And only at the point did she realise that what she had been saying every day in school was actually with Christian content, but delivered in Maori language. So there is a lot more kind-of theological presence in New Zealand public life through the Maori traditions than there is in Australia – partly because of the Treaty obligation to respect Maori tradition, much of which has Christian content. So that was a bit of an eye-opener to me, in the way that religious meaning can be present in public life.

TW: Yes, it gets carried in the representation of Maori voices, yes. Excellent, that’s an interesting contrast taking place there. So throughout your career very much looking at public policy, you mentioned in your paper that you take great value from Bacchi’s approach to public policy in terms of “framing the problem”. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners what that’s about?

MM: Well, yes. So Carol Bacchi was, in fact, one of my colleagues at the University of Adelaide. And see developed this approach called ‘What’s the problem represented to be?” which is a problem-framing analysis technique that she has very successful disseminated – particularly to Australian public policy practitioners, and the people working on the boundaries of academia and public service. And so it’s taking off from the observation, that anyone working in policy-framing is aware of, which is that how you frame the question has a big influence on how you find the solution. So if the problem is traffic congestion, if you think the problem is not enough roads, then you build more roads. But then you’ll still end up . . . because all that happens is that everyone takes their cars out, and you end up with still more blocked roads. So is the solution to traffic congestion more roads? Or is it having to think about traffic in a different way? So she developed this six-point technique, based on a Foucauldian set of assumptions, where you ask, in any particular policy framework: what is problem represented to be? Why is the problem represented to be this way? What assumptions underlie this problem representation? How could it be represented differently? And whose interests are being served by representing it in this way rather than some other way? And, what if we represent it in a different way? Or what different problem representations can we come up with? And who would benefit or lose when we represent it in different ways? And what consequences would flow from different problem representations? So I was applying that approach to looking at the way questions about secular education have been framed and applied in the 19th and 21st Century in Australia and France.

TW: Yes. So, I really enjoyed the paper.

MM: Thank you.

TW: It think it got a really good response from the audience: the comparative analysis of the trajectories of religion in schools in France and Australia. I think probably, most of our Listeners, they would be more familiar with the France situation because of the veil, and that’s received a lot of popular attention. So, starting with Australia, what’s the story regarding religion in schools in Australia? How has that developed?

MM: Well, the story about education in Australia goes back to before it was a country, and was a set of colonies. The Australian colonies federated in 1901 – and, at the time, everyone thought New Zealand was going to join in as well, but it didn’t – and each of the colonies started out with the schools being mainly provided by churches, because that was who had the resources to do it. And then, as they were scrambling to set up local infrastructure, gradually, they were governed directly from the UK. And then they established local parliaments and then the parliaments set up school systems. And so there is a very good record in the local Hansards, the records of parliamentary debates, about the parliamentarians debating what kind of school system they should set up. And they all, each of the parliaments in turn, debated whether religion should be put into the public schools, and should the parliaments or governments be subsidising religious schools alongside the public system? And each of them decided, for very similar reasons – and the same debates were had in parliament after parliament – “No. They should not be subsidising religious schools, and they should not have religion taught in the public schools.” And both of those things for the same reason: namely, that children should be encouraged to go to public schools because they wanted to overcome the problem that they’d perceived which was sectarianism that was dividing . . . . The biggest potential division in their communities was sectarianism. And so divisions between Catholic and Protestant students was the main division. But other divisions like between . . . . Particularly in South Australia, they talked a lot about . . . they imagined a future colony where there might be Jewish and Muslim students as well, and maybe Buddhists they mentioned. In the 19th Century parliaments they thought that the best way was for all of those students to be educated side-by-side and to grow into one cohesive community. And they thought that any attempt . . . . They wondered, “Could there be some non-denominational Christianity?” or could there be some sort of . . . ? “Er, no. That won’t work. Because that will still exclude the little Jews and Buddhists.” “Could we teach some general religion that doesn’t offend anybody?” But they sort-of flirted with that idea for about five minutes and then realised that isn’t going work.

TW: Yes, you’re always going to offend somebody.

MM: Yes. So, in the end, they concluded that the only way was just not to have religion in the public schools. And all the people in the debates were very religious people by and large, or fairly religious people; they were not anti-religion. In fact, some of them were very devout. And some of them said that religion is simply too important to let it be politicised by letting it be kicked around in the education debates: “We need to protect religion by keeping it out of the public schools.” And churches also, some of them, wanted to have the Bible in schools. But some of them, like the Congregationalists in Australia, they passed a series of motions through their Synod, saying that the Bible needed to be kept out of public schools to protect it from being turned into a fetish or being turned into a political football. So there was quite a unified – surprisingly, to me – unified view across the religious and non-religious spectrum – but the non-religious spectrum in 19th Century Australia was minute – but that religion didn’t belong in public education.

TW: And we’re still talking here religious instruction – a values-based religion-type education – as opposed to the RE that you might get in more contemporary schooling systems, which is just exploring descriptive aspects of religion?

MM: Yeah. But the exception was New South Wales. And because New South Wales is so big, a lot of the debate that we have now takes the New South Wales experience as normative. But, actually, New South Wales was really the exception. And what New South Wales did was that it was the last state to pass . . . or colony, to pass its secular Education Act in 1880, and it was also the most equivocal. Because the sectarian issue was the fiercest in New South Wales. But it kept something called ‘General Religious Education’ in its Education Act and that was where teachers could give general religious information, which the 19th Century legislators thought was going to be a kind of non-denominational Christian RE, not education-about-religions education as we think about it now. There was going to be some Bible instruction but without dogmatic commentary. And New South Wales also kept in a capacity for ministers of religion to come in for up to an hour a day – but nobody actually did that – to instruct members of their own denomination: an in-house catechetical instruction.

So the more education-about-religions, as an educational subject, by and large, is still not taught in Australian schools. There is a little element in the Civics curriculum, in the National Curriculum. But I think it would be true to say that most Australian students wouldn’t notice that they’d received it. A bit about, you know, the religions of your neighbours. And in New South Wales, there is also a Studies of Religion which you can take in the last two years at High School as an optional subject. Nearly everyone who takes it takes it from private schools, religious schools. But it is a very good programme in that it is seriously non-confessional RE, and you can’t just do it in one tradition. Like if you are a Catholic school . . . . Most Catholic schools make Catholicism one of their traditions, but you have to do another one.

TW: Is that an initiative that is coming out of the Catholic Church itself, or is this something that is coming out of the national education body?

MM: No, it’s overseen by the Board of Studies, which is the New South Wales education. And although the majority of students that take it are in private schools, some public schools offer it as well, and some students take it as an independent study unit.

TW: OK. But as your paper was suggesting there is a wind of change blowing through the Australian education system – or ever since John Howard, anyway – where things, perhaps, are moving in a different direction. Is that correct?

MM: Well, there are currents of change pulling in different directions. So actually, even going back before John Howard there has been a move of increasing segregation in Australia’s education. So Gough Whitlam actually – the hero of progressive politics – he, in 1973, introduced a huge change which was to bring back public funding of private schools. He also greatly increased school funding across the board, so there was just so much largesse going around the schools, that it didn’t create a great deal of protest. And also he directed it towards the most needy, poor Catholic schools. But every reiteration of the funding arrangements since then has been to the benefit of wealthier schools and to the detriment of the public school system. So we now have a very segmented school system where large numbers of wealthy schools are funded over their official allocation, because they’ve managed to do special deals where they get funding for their running costs, and on top of that for their building programmes, and for additional special projects. And the funding allocation of public schools has gone down, proportionally.

TW: And it’s the private schools that are more often the religious-run schools?

MM: Over 90% of private schools in Australia are attached to Christian denominations, one way or another. And whereas public schools are officially secular, the other change – that is a Howard change – is that public schools also have increasing amounts of religious presence in them. For example, through the National Schools Chaplaincy Programme, which is a government-funded programme which puts almost exclusively Christian chaplains in public schools. And another Howard change is that the make-up of the private school market has changed with the easing of the regulations for small private schools – most of which tend to be from the more conservative-evangelical end of the spectrum.

TW: Are these changes actually done with a religious motive, or a motive of actually helping religions gain a larger foothold in education? Or is this actually due to kind-of changing educational policy in relation to the freedom of institutions to develop their own curricula, or to have more autonomy from national or state education bodies?

MM: I think, from looking at Howard’s statements for why he was making those changes, I’d say it was a combination of things. The Liberal Party, which was his government, the Liberal Government, their general preference is for private providers rather than public provision. Not on the basis of any educational evidence, but that’s just . . . . They oversaw out-sourcing of public services in a whole range of areas and education was one. I do, however, think he had a deliberate strategy of courting the conservative Christian end, the conservative Christian demographic. Because, before he came to power in 1996, he had identified progressive churches as one of a series of groups, including feminists, academics, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the environmentalists, he had this list of people . . .

TW: The usual troublemakers . . .

  1. MM. Yes, that’s right! . . . who had blocked reforms that his predecessors in the Liberal Party had tried to implement, and liberal Christians were one his targeted groups. And so, when he got in in 1996, he embarked on a programme of telling progressive churches to get back in their box, and stick to talking about spiritual matters. And at the same he went out his way to go to Hillsong Church conventions; to do this thing of easing the regulations for small Christian schools; to make a series of statements on conservative so-called “family values” issues; to complain about political correctness, and generally sort-of court that so-called Christian-values/conservative-values end of the religious spectrum – which is actually only a very tiny proportion of the population of Australia. Australia doesn’t have a big S Christian right market, but he was talking that sort of language. And this was the same time that George Bush was aligning himself with the U.S. Christian right. And Howard was echoing, in a more muted way, that same sort of language and appealing, in Australia, to . . . not so much of an existent evangelical-voter-base, but more to a part of the population that doesn’t go to church, but thinks that values are a good idea: “Christians seems to have them, maybe. Society is falling apart, and maybe we ought to stick with the person who appears to know what values are and where they are to be found.”

TW: So, to summarise: where the Australian education system started out with a strong commitment to keeping religion out of its education system, in the name of openness and inclusivity, under the Howard government, religion, and specifically Christian values, are making a quiet return as an educational resource, largely to push against a liberal politics in Australia. And, indeed, confirming some of the earlier reservations in the 19th Century about religion in education becoming a political resource. Fascinating. Professor Maddox, thank you very much for your time and expertise. And thank you to our Listeners for tuning in.


Citation Info: Maddox, Marion and Thomas White. 2018. “Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 November 2018. Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-education-and-politics-in-australia-and-nz/ 

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Conference Report: Religious History Association Biennial Conference/Australian Historical Association Annual Conference 2014

Conference report by Josip Matesic, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong

The University of Queensland hosted last month (8-10 July) the biennial conference of the Religious History Association (RHA). The conference itself was one stream of a larger conference: the annual conference for the Australian Historical Association (AHA) (7-11 July). The theme of the AHA and therefore RHA conference was ‘Conflict in History’. This theme was broadly interpreted by the presenters. The RHA conference also had its own guest speaker in the form of Professor Emeritus Ron Numbers (Wisconsin-Madison).

conference

The first day only involved a keynote address by Ron Numbers in the evening. I have to admit, I had never heard of Numbers until the conference. Not the best form on my part but it resulted in the feeling of being pleasantly surprised when you hear a speaker speak authoritatively, and humorously. For those who are unaware of Numbers, he is currently the Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His interests lie principally within the interplay and ‘battle’ between religion and science. In this field his most famous book would be The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992), expanded in 2006 and with the subtitle, From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Numbers’ keynote touched broadly the exchange of religion and science in the West over the past few hundred years; rectifying some myths about the Catholic Church and Galileo, and mentioning how religion and science as modern categories did not exist until the mid-nineteenth century. It was fitting that Numbers also spoke about the state of creationism and evolution, since Queensland is globally speaking, an infamous location for creationism, being among one thing, the home state of Ken Ham. The evening was completed by drinks and canapés on a balcony of the Sir Llew Edwards Building, not far from the Brisbane River. The pan fried salmon skewers and vegetarian curry samosas were the best eats.

The first full day started off with a hitch as the ‘Secularism and Human Rights’ session was cancelled in the morning. This left ‘War and Religion on the Australian Battlefront’ as the sole morning session. Independent scholar Yvonne Perkins spoke about the religious beliefs of the soldiers at the battlefront during World War I. Perkins was not concerned about whether the beliefs complied to the teachings of the various churches, but what the soldiers themselves believed irrespective of the churches. Perkins’ primary sources were the soldiers’ diaries. Check her blog piece about her presentation if you’re interested.

Perkins was followed by Simon Farley who presented about the World War I holdings at the State Library of Queensland, which include diaries, letters, newspapers, memoirs, photographs and oral history recordings to name only a few things. Rounding out the morning session was Doris LeRoy who presented on the Czech Lutheran pastor, Professor Josef L. Hromádka and his visit to Australia. All of the papers were well received.

Perhaps two people who travelled the most to reach Brisbane were Willem and Erna Oliver from the University of South Africa. After lunch they presented on Regina Mundi or the ‘the people’s church’ in Soweto and its role in student uprisings in 1976, and the contested nature of the Afrikaner identity and the role religion plays within this respectively.

The Wednesday afternoon session consisted of Ron Numbers chairing a session on ‘Science and Religion’, and Micheline Astley-Boden chairing a session on ‘Religion and Conflict: From the Bible to the Middle Ages’. I attended the first session and heard presentations from Dr Tom Aechtner, PhD candidate James Ungureanu and Professor Peter Harrison, all from the University of Queensland. In many ways, and fittingly, the session touched upon and elaborated on various topics which Numbers had addressed or passed by briefly in his keynote address the night before.

Thursday morning saw two sessions in progress while there was a keynote delivered at the AHA. One session was ‘Empire and Film’, while the other was ‘Church and State’. I cannot comment too much on the first presenter in the ‘Church and State’ session as it myself, although I think I did reasonably well: not my best but not my worst. I was followed by Dr Sarah Walsh (Sydney) who presented about eugenicists in Chile in the early twentieth century and their links to the Catholic Church; and Dr Timothy Jones (LaTrobe) examined canon law and whether it was a help or hindrance to those seeking justice in child sex crimes involving clergy.

Since I became involved in a long discussion about freemasonry during the morning tea break I missed the next session entirely. After lunch though I did manage to hear Dr Sam Hey (Christian Heritage College) talk about problems within Australian Pentecostalism, and PhD candidate Tiarne Barratt (Sydney) present on her research about how the Catholic Church’s views on sexuality have been misrepresented and limited to Humanae Vitae.

I don’t want this report to be simply a list of presentations that I saw. I wasn’t able to see all of them. I do want to highlight though that religion was broached by the presenters even when they were not in the RHA stream/conference. For example, on Friday morning, the RHA conference officially over, Elizabeth Miller (Sydney) presented on popular suspicion that Australians have had towards Pentecostal megachurches. She did this historically, examining how public opinion on megachurches has evolved. Professor Joan Beaumont (ANU) on Wednesday morning in her AHA conference keynote speech spoke on a century of Australian memorial commemorations across the world and how in some aspects, religious elements have seeped in to the commemorations.

At the conference there were a number of diverse speakers, nationally and internationally, and despite some minor hiccups at the beginning, the conference was an overall success. Since I forgot and only took the photo of the main building the presentations were held in below, I should try to give you an idea of the event another way: if you attended and stayed on to Friday after the RHA conference had finished, you would have enjoyed a wonderful barbecue lunch with Jamaican spiced chicken, garlic steak, vegetarian Japanese pancakes, numerous salads, rices and condiments. The conference was not to be missed irrespective of the barbecue lunch! Next year it is at the University of Sydney, 6-10 July.

Multiplying The Modernities: Reflections on the 2012 AASR/AABS Conference

Multiplying the Modernities: Reflections on the 2012 AASR/AABS Conference

By Morandir Armson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, Australian Association for the Study of Religions – 28-30 September 2012 – Sydney, Australia

I first attended the annual AASR conference in 2006. Although I was a good eight years older than my  fellow honours students, I felt very small and alone, talking about my Honours thesis topic; UFO-based religions and religious discrimination.

I have maintained since that Critical Discourse Analysis, does not an entertaining topic make. But I survived, and going drinking afterwards with Doug Ezzy, Marion Dalton et al. helped to dull the pain.

I’ve been to more AASR conferences since and have a lot of positive memories gathered therefrom. I would like to share some of my experiences from this year’s conference.

AASR/AABS 2012 – Multiple Religious Modernities.

After gathering at the University of Western Sydney (Parramatta Campus), nibbling nibbles, collecting our goodie bags and name tags, and milling about drinking our free wine, we were all ushered into a very nice lecture theatre to hear the welcoming speeches and the Presidential Address. (Unbeknownst to many, the Women’s Caucus and the AASR and AABS committee meetings had taken place earlier that day). Professor Douglas Pratt served us a nicely cooked address, entitled “The Persistence and Problem of Religion: Modernity, Continuity and Diversity”. Professor Pratt spoke at length, of the predicted “end” of religion, which was confidently predicted, only half a century ago, and of the religiously-based violence which seems to bedevil the world. He even delved into my areas of expertise once or twice, mentioning the Discordian Society and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, eliciting a titter or two from the audience. (Alas, only Adam Possamai laughed at my Cthulhu Mythos joke during the Q&A session). In the end, Professor Pratt presented more questions than answers – and that, it seemed, was his intention. His contention – that modern religious extremism can be seen to be a reaction to modern religious pluralism, an attempt to impose a truth, an authority, a single way, and that extremist secularists can and do exist –  was well presented and seemed to come from a man that genuinely loved the study of religion. And this kind of manifestation of genuine pleasure in, and love of religious studies was a recurring theme throughout the weekend.

A question that Professor Pratt never asked though, was what exactly modernity was. This was a question that seemed to hover unseen above many of the sessions, and sparked a fair chunk of rigorous and, dare I say it, heated discussion. And do you know, we properly nailed it down. None of us. This kind of question, involving the assumed definitions of terms, can be a little difficult. Like wading through syrup or tying knots in sand. But, as is often the case, we ended up with a group of six, passionately arguing and ending up with eight different definitions.

Overall, we had a fantastic depth and breadth of scholarship displayed throughout the weekend. Many of the presenters were students and some indeed had been students and were now out of the academy completely. All of the presenters however, were alike in one way; their love of, and immersion in, religious studies was both profound and genuine.

Alas, the conference had five parallel streams, so an unpleasant choice was forced upon us all – not “what do I want to see”, but rather “what can I bear missing”. And sometimes, it was a very unpleasant choice. What did Farjana Mahbuba have to say about the ‘invisible presence’ of Bangladeshi women? I don’t know, I was in the Paganism and Shamanism stream, listening to Michelle White (Independent) and Dominique Wilson (University of Sydney) speaking on Pagan Pluralism and the archetype of the Wise Man respectively. I’d make the same choice again, but I’d still regret it.

Overall, the conference featured ninety speakers, presenting one presidential address, two memorial lectures, and eighty-eight papers. They covered an impressive array of topics, from the spiritual aspects of home-birthing, to the phenomenon of Christians that seek membership of outlaw motorcycle clubs, to religious pilgrimage in Myanmar, and Shariah in the context of Australian law.

I was lucky enough to be presenting with two fascinating and erudite presenters. The first was John McGuire (University of Western Sydney) whose examination of portrayals of Islam and Muslims in American superhero comics, based on his PhD thesis, was worth going a long way to see. It was both heartening and slightly disconcerting to see another presenter using superhero comic books as their primary source material. John’s knowledge of his material and the depth in which he has explored the socio-religious elements thereof are both impressive and he gave us a wonderful insight into the themes of Islam in post-11th of September superhero comics. The second presenter in my stream was Lauren Bernauer (University of Sydney), who spoke on the re-enchantment of modernity, using the Percy Jackson and the Olympians pentalogy, the television series Supernatural and the MMOG The Secret World as her examples. She gave a beautifully cogent examination of hidden worlds, fan communities, and ways in which the modern world is examined through a re-enchanted lens. I for one, will be very glad if she publishes her findings. My own unworthy contribution, examining themes of occult resurrection within Golden Age and Dark Age superhero narratives, seemed to be reasonably well-received.

When one has such a wealth of material to examine, it becomes difficult to pick favourites. There were some real highlights.

  • Sylvie Shaw (University of Queensland) delivering the Penny Magee Lecture, on the religious and moral aspects of climate change. Her contention; that religious groups and climate scientists would do well to engage together, in an effort to inform public policy was argued with both passion and humour. Her arguments surrounding the role of religious groups in disaster relief and  the creation of civil religion was well-constructed and had a little of that “why hadn’t I thought of that before” feeling – always a sign of a well argued thesis.
  • Christina Rocha, speaking in the ‘Religion and Travel’ stream (the stream which also included Alex Norman and Pheroza Daruwalla) gave us an examination of Abadiânia, a tiny hamlet in central Brazil, which has been transformed by devotees of John of God, a local medium-healer.
  • Carole Cusack delivering the Charles Strong Lecture, on  “Fictional Religions and Religious Fictions: Narratives of Secularisation and Sacralisation at Play in Multiple Modernities”. I was very interested in this, as my own work has brought me into contact with the Discordian Society, the Illuminates of Thanateros, and the Church of Satan, groups that strongly value play, absurdism, and the use of fictional rituals. Dr Cusack favoured us with a lecture both illuminating and adeptly argued. It was clear that many in the audience were unfamiliar with concepts such as Discordianism, the Church of the SubGenius and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Overall, the 2012 AASR/AABS conference was delightful. And, as is usually the case, one is left with bitter-sweet memories. I would have loved to continue my discussion with John McGuire (University of Western Sydney) about the shockingly unpopular black Captain America (who was also a Muslim convert). I wanted to keep talking to Milad Milani (University of Western Sydney) and Glenys Eddy (University of Sydney) about violence and the indoctrination of men, in modern Western cultures. I wanted to talk about Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos with Adam Possamai (University of Western Sydney). But we only had two-and-a-half days. And they were pretty full days at that.

And did we ever find a satisfactory answer to the question of what is modernity? No. Like the Snark, which was really a Boojum, modernity is a slippery creature, which grows ever more elusive, the closer one draws to it. The hunt goes on!

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Morandir Armson is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. His thesis explores the interrelations between popular occultism, contemporary Paganism and online communities, connected by an examination of the role which chaos magic and paradigm shifting has had on all of these areas. Forthcoming publications include an article that examines the shifts in meaning in occult dichotomies, which popular, Internet-based occult communities have wrought.

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

By Zoe Alderton, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 9 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Media and Violence (7 May 2012).

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. In this latest podcast he discusses the relationship between religions and media, focusing on issues of violence and peace. This material touches on his upcoming book, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (Routledge: 2012). In this text, Mitchell problematises overly-simplistic readings of the media’s role in discussions of religion, conflicts, and resolutions.

In this response to his podcast, I wish to summarise some of the fascinating points raised by Mitchell. In doing so, I aim to foreground those that may illuminate Australia and its approach to sacralised violence. Living in a country where the national culture is largely secular, it is interesting to consider what the implications for Mitchell’s research are on Australian media and its presentation/proliferation of violence. Mitchell mentions a variety of nations who have undergone relatively recent conflicts and conflict resolutions, which have somehow engaged with religious groups or belief systems. At first it may seem that Australia is totally outside of this paradigm. Since the genocide of our Indigenous population, we have not seen the same kind of civil war as Mozambique. Nor have we defended our borders in a manner comparable to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Religiously motivated terrorism is more of a fear than a reality. In terms of faith, Australia is nominally Christian but has no official state religion. While the importance of this religion in Australian culture should not be underplayed, it is not a tradition that is generally considered to be an agent of national bonding.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s framing of the media and his comments on violence as a kind of public spectacle provide an effective lens through which to consider Australia’s complicated public engagement with Anzac Day and the Anzac legend. This national holiday, intrinsically connected to violence via its origin in a First World War conflict, has an arguably religious relationship with Australian nationhood. Through various media (including television broadcasts, paintings, movies, and sculptures) the very complex and ambivalent meaning of Anzac Day is negotiated and perpetuated. Mitchell’s arguments in regards to the sensationalism and spectacle of violence will be used to account for the extreme emphasis on sacred martyrdom that permeates our national legend via a pragmatic reading of its dissemination through popular media.

For those of you who wish to read a bit more about Anzac Day, the Anzac legend, and the relationship between Anzac Day and the Media, Zoe has written a longer version of this post which is accessible here.

The spectacle of violence

In Mitchell’s podcast, he describes occasions in which media become the site, source, and inspiration for different forms of violence. The broadcast of religious motifs is a clear part of this process. Mitchell uses the example of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In this conflict, posters and mural celebrating martyrdom were produced. These images did not just concern themselves with contemporary sacrifice in the immediate conflict. Rather they wove in foundational martyrdoms such as that of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, often conveying both narratives at once. This relationship between the media and symbolic culture is a vitally important one. In modern Australia, the troops involved in current or more recent battles are constantly conflated with the original Anzacs, making their modern-day sacrifice part of an ongoing narrative of martyrdom that feels real and compelling in its immediacy.

On a related note, Mitchell claims that news media is drawn to spectacle, and that violence is spectacular. His suggestion that media attention is often unproductive in the peace-making process tends to imply that its utility is often in the realm of proliferating conflict. Thus, it is reasonable to view the news media as a channel that prioritises that which is exciting, colourful, or engaging. Spectacle connects an audience with their television or other news medium. Spectacle helps to proliferate the aforementioned immediacy of the Anzac martyrdom that is useful and desirable if Australia wishes to draw upon its citizens’ essentially positive attitude towards sacrifice in war. The televised aspects of Anzac Day and its associated rituals tend to focus on that which is engagingly monumental and celebratory. The solemn Dawn Service at Gallipoli, including the stirring ‘last post’ by a lone bugler, is necessary viewing for a substantial portion of the nation. It is part of their ritual, and is conveniently televised.

So too is the annual commemorative parade in which veterans of all Australian wars march (or are represented posthumously by their heirs). The televisation of the Anzac Day Parade helps the nation to participate in the imaginative renewal of its mythology. Slade (2003 p.792) calls the Gallipoli story part of the sustenance of Australia. Through television, all can participate in this ceremony of cultural renewal and recitation. Of course, violence need not be advocated by any of these moving, engaging, and spectacular ceremonies or their media portrayal. Indeed, there is little about them that is openly pugnacious. Instead, the media tends to valorise holy martyrdom, implying on occasion that such a sacrifice is still necessary in order to maintain the social order of Australia as we know it today.

Is Anzac Day an example of the ambivalent sacred?

A major part of Mitchell’s podcast is the complex interrelationship of war, peace, and religion. As connected as religions may be to violence, he maintains that they also have a role to play in pacificism. His podcast speaks comprehensively of “the ambivalence of the sacred,” a term coined by R. Scott Appleby. Mitchell employs this phrase to imply “the scared can both incite violence and promote peace.” He feels that religious agents are, and can be, part of the conflict resolution process. Interestingly, Mitchell argues that this role is less publicised as it tends to happen away from cameras. The arduous process of negotiating peace does not lend itself to short broadcasts. Perhaps the potentially peaceful or anti-violent aspects of the Anzac mythology have been ignored in the popular press due to a lack of interest or broadcastability. This does not mean that they are absent, or that the reverence inspired by the Gallipoli campaign and its commemorative sites could not inspire an entirely pacifistic agenda.

Indeed, it is not clear if the Anzac legend is a discourse of war or peace. It appears to be both simultaneously, but also has potential to represent only one side of the dichotomy depending on the cause that employs it. In his discussion of Anzac as sacred and secular simultaneously, Seal (2007 p.143) calls this myth the most powerful “manifestation of an ambivalence that lies at the heart of our sense of national identity.” He compares this tonal equivocality with the confusion over Ned Kelly as hero or villain, or the simultaneous perception of British citizens as our kin and rivals. So too can Australia be seen to negotiate the sombre spaces and ceremonies of Anzac veneration with the iconic larrikin soldier and his playful disrespect for pomposity. The Anzac mythology, in negotiating equivocal and contradictory meanings, opens itself up to possibilities for violence or peacemaking. It can be used as a call to arms for present-day conflicts or a means of expressing the horrors and suffering of war.

In the case of Anzac Day 2012, the news media has shown examples of ambivalence in terms celebrating or denying violence in the name of this mythology. This is exemplified in Charles Waterstreet’s Sydney Morning Herald article Civil War Defies the Anzac Spirit. Here Waterstreet rallies for suburban peace in the wake of violence in the Sydney region. He denounces the current climate in which criminals are fighting petty wars of bluff and false bravado, betraying those who died and tried to keep such conduct from our shores. Turf wars over drug-trafficking rights and injured pride are an embarrassment to this city, to the soldiers who fought in countless wars … Taking up arms in peacetime is to spit in the face of every soldier, sailor and airman who fought.

Ambivalence is certainly present in this division of ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’, framed within a discourse of respect for the Anzac tradition and the sacred sacrifice.

Celebrity and violence

Another applicable component of Mitchell’s podcast is the blurring of celebrity and religious leadership. This too may be read in to the impact of spectacle in regards to what is and is not broadcast. Mitchell argues that the popular media (for example, news broadcasters) thrive on the celebrity factor. Celebrities build audiences through a process of viewer identification. Media consumers feel as though they ‘know’ a celebrity or can identify with them. As this relationship is pre-existent, a news snippet need not feel obliged establish empathy or interest in such a figure. Considering the time poverty of televised news broadcasts, the employment of a familiar religious figure with a pre-established narrative and context makes pragmatic sense. Mitchell uses religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as an example of a familiar face with a familiar agenda. In the case of Anzac ritual and mythology, political figures are the celebrities consulted by the media in this manner.

Of course, the political celebrities themselves are transient. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.160) specify that civil religions do not connect too closely with any specific government lest they become an “idolatrous cloak of transcendental rhetoric tossed over the pursuit of momentary ends.” The proposed ultimacy of the Anzac legend has remained supra-partisan despite its intimacy with the leadership of the day. Unsurprisingly, the figure of the Prime Minister seems to be the main focal point of this engagement. In 2012, Julia Gillard has upheld this mantle, not only in terms of her actual addresses to the nation, but also in regards to the sound bites of her speeches that were disseminated through the television and printed news. For example, in a particularly popular news article, Gillard referred to Anzac Day as all that Australia embodies, more significant in terms of emotions and values than Australia Day, and a meaningful event for migrants (like herself) “who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.” Putting aside disturbing political undertones, these convenient sound bites are easily broadcast around the nation, presented by a political celebrity who needs no introduction.

Although people with anti-Anzac or anti-war sentiments may have commented on the celebrations in an equally eloquent manner, they cannot compete with one of the most easily recognised faces of Australia in a media landscape that requires abbreviation. The political celebrity Barack Obama also made news (in a story that seems entirely overblown) after sending “best wishes” to Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day. Although the sensationalist headline would suggest otherwise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the message on Obama’s behalf. She also thanked Australia for their ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a meaningful conflation of past and present sacrifice of lives. Obama is another example of a celebrity who is suitable for a short news story on account of his national renown. His (albeit proxy) endorsement of the Anzac commemoration coupled with an endorsement of current conflicts requires little in the way of contextualisation.

Media and violence in its broadest sense

Mitchell’s broad take on the definition of ‘media’ is a useful one when considering the depth of a culture’s communicative devices. Although media is commonly shorthand for television and newspapers, Mitchell reminds us of the vast array of communicative devices that can fall under this umbrella term. Media need not be seen as the exclusive domain of the literary elect or wealthy broadcasters. Rather, Mitchell employs the term to describe a variety of devices from YouTube videos, to murals, to architecture. It is in the medium of architecture and effigy that Australia expresses some of its most reverential emotions towards the war dead.

The Pool of Reflection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The work of Ken Inglis, especially Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998), is vital reading on this complex topic. To briefly summarise, Inglis illuminates war memorials as sacred shrines of Australian civil religion, allowing for the preservation of memory. This sacred architecture helps to reconcile the distance between Australia and Turkey. It is difficult to negotiate sacred turf when your creation narrative takes place in a foreign nation. Slade (2003 p.787) speaks of various features of the Gallipoli battleground that make it a sacred or elevated region. This includes the lack of modern development on the peninsula (keeping it ‘authentic’ to the era of the battle), the burial of the dead where they fell, and the subsequent framing of the entire area as a cemetery. Obviously, Australia itself cannot provide this kind of sacred Anzac space. Instead, war memorials are a way of making a geographically unconnected site equally meaningful.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital city, the Australian War Memorial contains the Hall of Memory, a cathedral-like structure that performs the typical duties of a religious shrine. Seal (2007 p.140) calls the Hall of Memory “spiritual but without religious symbolism.” Although it may not contain traditional religious indicators, it still evokes religious emotion. The Hall is designated as a place of eerie silence and hushed contemplation. It is clearly demarcated as a holy site that demands respect. It is also the tomb of the Unknown Solider, with his body housed like the relics of a saint. Above his remains, viewers may look upwards to a dome reminiscent of Byzantine cathedral architecture. The dome, created in brilliant gold hues, depicts souls migrating from distant battlefields. The Hall of Memory clearly connotes the existence of the extramundane.

The dome ceiling

The museum component of the Australian War Memorial should also be seen as a communicative device in terms of Australia’s relationship to sacred violence. As Chris Healy (1997 pp.73-74) argues, the museum is a medium that trains citizens in their acquisition of social memory. A visitor to the Australian War Memorial is encouraged to have a spiritual, or at least reflective, experience in the Hall of Memory. They may then use the educational, historical museum in order to arrange their feelings of awe, or reverence, or respect into a cultural narrative. This narrative, conveyed through the museum medium, contextualises the violence and horrific loss of the nation into a rhetoric of sacrifice, sacred ‘mateship’, and a patriotism that transcends personal concerns.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Conclusions

Much more could be said on the Anzac legend, its various components, and the reverential lack of critique it receives in the present era. I believe it is valuable to consider what our state mythology and most revered holiday dictates in terms of the national character. Mitchell’s exploration of the sensationalism and spectacle of violence explains much in terms of the news media’s preferences as to which aspects of the legend they choose to show and propagate. So too does Mitchell help to illuminate the value of celebrity in moral debates. Pragmatically speaking, the Anzac narrative is a story that most Australians know and care about. It is a discourse that is easily associated with well-known political and public figures. It is also an exciting and visually stimulating event that transfers well to the broadcasting of its rituals, or the artistic enactment of its sacred narratives and archetypal heroes. At its core, the Anzac mythology may indeed contain the ambivalence that Mitchell sees in the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. Nevertheless, its present incarnation seems to be concerned with the public condoning of martyrdom and the celebration of militaristic duty in deeply spiritualised terms.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

References:

Bellah, R.N., 1967. ‘Civil Religion in America’, Daedalus, vol. 96, no. 1, pp. 1-21.

Crouter, R., 1990. ‘Beyond Bellah: American Civil Religion and the Australian Experience’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 154-165.

Demerath, N.J., and Williams, R.H., 1985. ‘Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 480, pp. 154-166.

Geertz, C., 1966. ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, in M. Banton (ed.), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, Tavistock, London.

Healy, C., 1997. From the Ruins of Colonialism: History As Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Inglis, K., 1998. Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Sacket, L. 1985. ‘Marching Into the Past: Anzac Day Celebrations in Adelaide’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 9, iss. 17, pp. 18-30.

Seal, G., 2007. ‘ANZAC: The Sacred in the Secular’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 31, iss. 91, pp. 135-144.

Slade, P., 2003. ‘Gallipoli Thanatourism: The Meaning of ANZAC’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 30, no. 4, pp.779-794.

 

Podcasts

Religious Education Down-Under

by Helen Bradstock

It was great to hear Marion Maddox interviewed by Tom White on the subject of Religion in Australian Schools. In response, I’d like to affirm Maddox’s position on voluntary religious instruction,  add some additional comments about the situation in New Zealand where I undertook my own research into this subject, and reflect briefly on the relevance of this debate for critical religious studies scholars.

Religion in Australian schools

Marion Maddox’s book, Taking God to School: the end of Australia’s egalitarian education? , does not pull its punches in its criticism of evangelical, biblically literalist,  discriminatory attitudes and practices promoted in many Australian public primary schools through volunteer-led religion programmes, known variously as SRE, SRI, CRI and CRE in different states. Maddox makes a fervent plea for a rethink of neoliberal outsourcing of values education and chaplaincy and a return to the secular education advocated by the founders of the nation. She advocates a broader form of education about religions within the curriculum.

The lobby group Fairness in Religion in Schools highlights the many problems associated with Special Religious Education (SRE) in the state of New South Wales. Its website provides links to religious instruction providers and their materials. Access Ministries provides religious instruction classes in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, and Western Australia and parts of New Zealand. Although the provider asserts its educational rather than evangelical mission, its materials are confessional in approach and its CEO has be known to speak about the programme’s “missional” role of “making disciples.”

Cathy Byrne’s 2014 book Religion in Secular Education  provides a thorough treatment of the Australian situation, including a state-by-state account of provision of religion in schools. However, it is an ever-changing landscape. Lobbying from parent groups led the Victorian State Government to issue a new policy document for Special Religious Instruction  (SRI) in 2016, stating that it should take place at lunch time or before or after school. This appears to have reduced take-up of SRI classes among schools in Victoria.

New Zealand Religious Demographics

Maddox is right to say that New Zealand is further down the route of secularisation – in terms of religious affiliation – than Australia. The figures for the 2018 census have not been released yet, but in 2013 just below 49% professed Christian affiliation, just under 42% stated no religion, and around 6% affiliated to other religions. Māori represent about 14% of the total population and have a similar spread of religious affiliation as the general population. Neither the population nor their religious affiliations are spread evenly across the country. Sixty-five percent of the population lives in one of the thirteen cities in New Zealand, and these areas are more religiously diverse. Just over a third of New Zealand’s children live in the Auckland region, where over one in ten in the population affiliates to a religion other than Christianity. This changing religious demography is not reflected in policy on religion in public schools.

Religion in New Zealand Schools

The word religion does not feature in the New Zealand Curriculum. Children in New Zealand public primary and intermediate schools do not learn about religion from education professionals but from church volunteers. As in Australia, units on religion available to pupils in the last two years of high school have minimal take-up and are largely taken by youngsters in church school settings. For example only 1% of 4490 secondary school students who took National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) level two Religious Studies unit 90823 in 2011—the only unit to have a comparative element—were enrolled in secular schools.

Just as they had in the Australian states, New Zealand’s early parliamentarians debated the issue of religion in public schools as they sought to create a cohesive education system within the colony, open to all denominations, and funded through general taxation. The Education Act of 1877 had established at Clause 84 (2) that teaching in state-funded primary schools would be “entirely of a secular character”. A voluntary system of religious instruction led by church volunteers during the school day was quickly established, known as Bible-in-Schools. A Bible-in-Schools League made repeated, but unsuccessful, attempts to revoke the secular clause. Heated public debates veered between concerns for the moral welfare of children in “Godless schools” and the need to protect the secular curriculum and the rights of teachers, as this cartoon from 1912 shows.[1]

In this 1912 political cartoon, an advocate of using the Bible in schools holds a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other–pointed at a school teacher. The teacher argues that he couldn’t violate his conscience by teaching from the Bible rather than advocating for a “free and secular education.” But the Bible in School activist demands he choose his conscience or his living–that is, teach the Bible or lose his job.

By the 1960s, most primary schools had Bible-in-Schools classes, and the hitherto informal arrangement was incorporated into education legislation in the 1964 Education Act. Schools could technically “close” for religious instruction at any time of day, for up to half an hour per week (later changed to an hour, and no more than 20 hours per year), and children’s parents could request their child be withdrawn from the class. In 2017, the Churches Education Commission (CEC – the main, but not only, provider of Bible-in-Schools) stated that they were operating in around 650 schools (around 40%), with 2500 volunteers and teaching 60,000 children each week.

In 2012 a campaign was launched by the Secular Education Network (SEN) to lobby against religious instruction in public schools and to provide support to parents. A high profile media campaign against Bible-in-Schools has led to considerable changes in the programme materials and teaching now used by the CEC. The more overtly evangelical and confessional elements – very apparent in the Access Ministries material used until 2016, and still in use in Australia – appear to have been excised from the new curriculum.  However it remains a programme designed to endorse Christianity, and a particular brand which promotes belief in Biblical literalism and Creationism. While its guidelines to volunteers make clear that they are not to proselytise, the lessons include prayers and music that may be coercive like “Raise Your Hands” and “Imagine the Impossible”. Some schools still use the Access Ministries’ resources, and schools in Wanganui use the more overtly evangelical Connect programme produced in Sydney. The SEN are currently awaiting a hearing at the High Court at which they will claim that Bible-in-Schools breaches Human Rights legislation protecting freedom of religion and belief. My research identifies numerous ways in which the institutional accommodation (and implied endorsement) of Bible-in-Schools engenders an unwarranted complacency towards monitoring of groups and materials by school boards and parents alike.

The Ministry of Education has been exceedingly reluctant to intervene in debates about religion in school. It has never produced any curriculum guidelines for teachers about religions and beliefs. However, under a new administration, a consultation on draft guidelines for schools running Bible-in-Schools classes has just been launched. This addresses some, but not all, of the SEN’s concerns. An omission, in my view, is the provision of any criteria with which school boards might assess the suitability of Bible programmes. Even if adopted, the guidelines will have no legal status and will not be binding.

Why Should We Care?

As critical religious studies scholars, why should we care about the religious instruction/education debate? It has been argued that liberal religious education, such as takes place in schools in England and Wales, is simply another form of indoctrination: that children are encouraged in these classes to believe in an essentialised, liberalised, de-politicised, tolerant and generic form of religion.[2] It is posited that liberal religious education is a governmental technology of state and altogether as problematic as confessional religious instruction for the critical religious studies scholar, who should not take sides in these matters. Such criticisms are acknowledged by many religious educationalists in the UK.[3]  They advocate not retreat from the debate but engagement with religious studies scholarship to improve teaching content and pedagogy. New approaches are being developed to assist young people to develop critical awareness of the religious and non-religious worldviews – and governmental educational practices – to which they are exposed. A new Report from the Commission on Religious Education proposes a “national statutory entitlement” to “Religion and Worldviews” education. It recognises the role Religious Education has had in promoting, rather than challenging, religious stereotypes in the past. It acknowledges that a more nuanced approach to teaching about religions is required. It states that “being able to explore, at a conceptual level, how worldviews work in practice, is as important as knowing the content of particular worldviews.” The report recommendations, in my view, exemplify the benefit of engagement between religious studies scholarship and religious education professionals in the development of curriculum policy.

As it stands, the New Zealand Curriculum does not equip young people to exercise informed judgement in matters of religion and belief, and the Ministry of Education facilitates approaches to religion in school that are difficult to reconcile with human rights legislation. The subject of religion has been given little attention by educationalists and remains un-theorised as a curriculum area. In neither Australia nor New Zealand have debates on religion in schools advanced in many decades. They proceed without reference to, or the benefit of, critical religious studies scholarship. It seems to me that any critical scholar of religion interested in the future of their academic discipline, or its relevance to the wider world, might consider this to be of some interest.

 

References

[1] Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand. Previously published in Helen Bradstock, “Religious Education, Knowledge and Power: Religion as Discursive Construction in New Zealand Primary Schools”, in Identity, Difference and Belonging, ed. Dina Mansour, Sebastian Ille, and Andrew Milne (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2014), 45. See also: Helen Bradstock, “Religion in New Zealand’s State Primary Schools”, Journal of Intercultural Studies 36, no. 3 (2015): 338-61.

[2] Russell T. McCutcheon, “Our ‘Special Promise’ as Teachers: Scholars of Religion and the Politics of Tolerance”, in Critics Not Caretakers, ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (New York: State University of New York Press, 2001). Timothy Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 29.

[3] David Lundie and James Conroy, “’Respect Study’: The Treatment of Religious Difference and Otherness: An Ethnographic Investigation in U.K. Schools”, Journal of Intercultural Studies 36, no. 3 (2015). Andrew Wright, “Critical Realism as a Tool for the Interpretation of Cultural Diversity in Liberal Religious Education”, in International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education, ed. Marian De Souza, et al. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009).

 

Religion, Education, and Politics in Australia and NZ

Following on from the delivery of her conference paper at the EASR 2018 in Bern, in this podcast, Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University speaks to Thomas White regarding the historical, national and regional differences in the presence of religion in Australian and New Zealand schools. The podcast begins with a brief biography of Professor Maddox’s rise to academic tenure, and the various post-doctoral positions that paved her transition away from theology, and towards the subject of religion and politics.

Covering projects including the training of Catholic school teachers and deputy-principals in secular religious education, her research into the Hindmarsh Island affair – which investigated Aboriginal women’s claims to ‘secret women’s business’ – and her work under the Australian Parliamentary Research Fellowship, the discussion turns to national differences between public religion in New Zealand and Australia. Contrasting Australian multi-culturalism with New Zealand bi-culturalism, Professor Maddox explains how, despite New Zealand being further along a path of secularisation (by religious affiliation), religion often obtains a greater presence in the public sphere as it is carried on a policy of cultural recognition for Maori tradition, as mandated in the country’s Treaty of Waitangi. This was particularly evident with the daily expression of Maori karakia (prayers) in her daughter’s school, which later transpired to be the Lord’s Prayer!

Focusing on the Australian experience of public policy on religion and education, Maddox explains how 19th Century Australian concerns regarding both sectarianism and protecting religion from political manipulation led to a surprising consensus across colony parliaments that religion should be kept out of the public school system. In the late 20th Century, however, ‘currents of change are pulling in different directions’.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Men at Work’s “Business as Usual” album, Vegemite, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ

Podcast with Marion Maddox (26 November 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Maddox_-_Religion,_Education_and_Politics_in_Australia_and_NZ_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Well it is a beautiful morning here on the penultimate day of the EASR in Bern, and I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University in Sydney. Marion is a Professor of Politics at Macquarie and she has PhDs in Theology from Flinders, and another PhD in Philosophy from the University of New South Wales. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Professor Maddox is the leading authority on questions of religion and politics in Australia, and it is an absolute pleasure to have you with us in the recording studio this morning. Professor Maddox, welcome!

Marion Maddox (MM): Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

TW: So, your paper was delivered on Monday. Today’s Wednesday, so we’re a couple of days down the line. But I thought perhaps before going into the paper, as a first question to ease us into the interview, could you please tell us a little about how you became a Professor of Religion and Politics in Australia?

MM: Yes, well, sort-of by mistake! I did a PhD in Theology, and by the time I’d finished I was very sure that I didn’t want to work for the Church – which is pretty much the only thing you can do with a PhD in theology in the normal kind-of career progression in Australia. So I applied for jobs all around the place. And the one I happened to get . . . which was not what I imagined myself doing, but you know how it is when you finish your PhD and you apply all around the place, and you get what you happen to get. The one that I happened to get was in a fabulous department that no longer exists in the University of South Australia. And what we did was provide teacher training to teachers of Religious Studies. Because, in those days, South Australia had thought that it was going to have a non-confessional RE programme for teachers in public schools, and they had set up this whole department to train the teachers for it. But what had actually happened was that that programme was never implemented, and instead we provided teacher training for Catholic schools mainly. Our main clientele was Catholic schools’ deputy principals, who had to get a degree in Religious Education in order to get the next step on their promotion. And so we were kind-of a service provider for the Catholic Education Office. And then ACU (the Australian Catholic University) got set up and so we lost that client base, and the department isn’t there anymore. But it was a fantastic department, and I learnt there what non-confessional RE – Religious Education, education about religions – is, because we were providing it to all these Catholic school teachers. We would see them come in and think that Religious Education was catechesis, and then they would go through this programme and they would discover that there is this whole other way to think about religion. I worked there for 5 years as I was on contract, and then my contract ran out. Then I cast around and applied for jobs, and the one that I happened to get, again, was in Australian Politics, at the University of Adelaide. And while I was doing that I thought, “Hang on a minute! There’s all this work on religion and politics in America, but no one is doing anything on religion and politics in Australia. But there is a huge story here!” And while I was doing that two-year contract in Politics at the University of Adelaide, a big story was in the paper every single day, on, and on, and on. In fact, it started while I was still in Religious Studies at the University of South Australia. And that was the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission, which anybody who lives in South Australia will still know what that is about straight-away – it was on the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser for a couple of years. It was an inquiry into whether a group of Aboriginal women from South Australia had fabricated so-called “secret women’s business” – which is now a phrase in Australian vernacular but it wasn’t until then – which was a set of traditional beliefs that, because they were secret, they hadn’t talked about before. So wider Australia went, “We’ve never heard of this, you must have made this up!” But the point of it was that these beliefs were about a tract of water between Hindmarsh Island and the mainland. And its sacredness, these women said, should prevent a marina being built, that was wanted to be built by some developers. And so this whole question of “Should sacred sites stand in the way of development?” blew up into a question about “Do Aboriginal peoples make up traditions in order to stop development?” and “Are they being manipulated by ‘Greenies’?” And so there was a series of inquiries. So this question of how non-Aboriginal Australia deals with questions of sacredness seemed to me to be a very religions-and-politics question that mainstream Australia did not have a vocabulary to deal with. So I wrote quite a lot about that. And then, when my University of Adelaide ran out (laughs) . . . . It seems my academic trajectory has been really shaped by the conditions of the labour market! I then applied for, and got, the Australian Parliamentary Fellowship which was a fantastic programme run by the parliamentary library which still exists but, I think, in not as a good a form. But in those days it was a one year programme where you worked in parliament as a research fellow for a year, where you spent half your time doing an individual independent research project, and the other half of the time supplying information for members and senators on anything they ask about. And my independent research project was about religion and Australian parliamentary processes. And I wrote my first book which was called For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, which was the only Parliamentary Fellowship monograph ever to sell out, and go to a second printing! And it is now available on-line for a free pdf download. And then, after that, I got my first permanent job – Yes! – at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. And there we had a course on Religion and Politics. So there’s a long answer!

TW: Oh well, OK! This segues nicely with a question that I was going to ask towards the end but: the situation of politics and religion in Australia, and the situation of politics and religion in New Zealand – was it quite a shift going to Victoria, after developing all your expertise on your situation in Australia?

MM: It really was. I was quite, well . . . I had been to New Zealand once. I did the interview over the phone, so I had only been there once, years earlier, for a conference. So I did not really know anything about New Zealand, except that I heard this rumour that they have really good coffee – which proved to be true!

TW: Excellent coffee, yes!

MM: Yes, yes! And that was such a wrench, coming back! But when I got to Wellington, I remember going to my first faculty meeting and thinking, “I’m going to have to get a dictionary!” Because there was so much Maori language which is used as just a matter of course, in everyday discourse, from university management and in university processes. And I didn’t know what all these words meant. So if you are a student, and a student has a problem, you are allowed to bring whanau support, you know, so I didn’t know. I learnt. But it was a very sharp learning curve, and that required a whole sort of cultural shift. And when I moved back to Australia it was a culture shock again, to have that indigenous perspective suddenly not present in university processes. So that was one thing that I noticed. And the political system, when we moved to New Zealand. New Zealand had only quite recently made the shift to MMP, multi-member proportional voting, whereas Australia uses single transferable vote in the lower house and a version of proportional representation in the upper house. And so I learnt that the voting system has quite a strong effect, which I hadn’t really . . . I’d kind-of intellectually known, but I hadn’t really seen it in action. And so I hadn’t really, viscerally, appreciated the effect it can have on, like, the way that religious interests can have an effect in electoral politics. And while we were in New Zealand there was that dramatic election when a religiously influenced party, United Future New Zealand, got an unexpectedly big vote and, effectively, the balance of power in the New Zealand parliament. So, I learnt a lot things and I did have to go on a sharp learning curve, and I couldn’t kind-of, be an expert on New Zealand politics straight away. I had to make a quick catch-up.

TW: Well, that’s interesting. So trying to rephrase that in very broad brush, and perhaps overly clumsy positioning: is there the implication that New Zealand is a bit more open to ethnic difference – in terms of the Maori having much stronger representation within the political system – this is carried over to more access for religion within the public space, or more representation for religion in the public space in New Zealand, than in Australia?

  1. MM. Well, I would say it is a different kind of presence. Australia has a history of a strongly articulated policy of multiculturalism, which has been under increasing attack over the recent decade or two. But multiculturalism became official policy in 1974, and for a long time there was quite a strong infrastructure of policy and practice to support that. Whereas, New Zealand’s policy is biculturalism, so that has kind of made different spaces for religious communities to be present in the public space. New Zealand is further down the secularisation path than Australia is, if we think of secularisation meaning the religious practice of the majority of the population. So in the last Australian census, 54% of Australians claimed to be of some sort of religious adherence. I’m not sure what the figure is for New Zealand, but New Zealand got to that 50%, just over that 50%, a couple censuses ago. So I imagine it’s lower now. But the striking difference about religion in the public space that I noticed when I lived in New Zealand is that, in New Zealand Maori make up not only a bigger proportion of the population, but also a much more cohesive proportion of the population than Aboriginal people – Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders – do in Australia. So indigenous Australians are about 2-3% of the population whereas Maori, at the time I was living there, were about 15%. And the other big difference is that Maori have a common language, whereas Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have many different language groups: there were about 500 different language groups at the time of European contact. So, for example, when I enrolled my daughter in primary school in Wellington, on her first day, when she was 5, we went along to Newtown primary and there was a ceremony to welcome to the new students. And it was forty-five minutes long and every last word of it was in Maori! And all the little pakeha kids, like my daughter, just had to sit there and . . . sit there politely and listen. And the principal made a quite long speech – I guess about 15 minutes long – and every now and then a smattering of people in the audience laughed and the rest of knew that he’d made a joke! And there was a haka, and my daughter had never seen a haka before – having just come from Australia – so she was just kind of gobsmacked! And then, once she started at school, everyday started with a karakia – which is a Maori prayer which is offered at the beginning of something important – which is in Maori. And the children who didn’t speak Maori didn’t know what the content of the karakia They just knew this was something that they had to pay respectful attention to. And then, one day we were sitting in a church service and the vicar said, “We will now chant the Lord’s prayer in Maori”, and my daughter said in a triumphant state, “I know this!” And only at the point did she realise that what she had been saying every day in school was actually with Christian content, but delivered in Maori language. So there is a lot more kind-of theological presence in New Zealand public life through the Maori traditions than there is in Australia – partly because of the Treaty obligation to respect Maori tradition, much of which has Christian content. So that was a bit of an eye-opener to me, in the way that religious meaning can be present in public life.

TW: Yes, it gets carried in the representation of Maori voices, yes. Excellent, that’s an interesting contrast taking place there. So throughout your career very much looking at public policy, you mentioned in your paper that you take great value from Bacchi’s approach to public policy in terms of “framing the problem”. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners what that’s about?

MM: Well, yes. So Carol Bacchi was, in fact, one of my colleagues at the University of Adelaide. And see developed this approach called ‘What’s the problem represented to be?” which is a problem-framing analysis technique that she has very successful disseminated – particularly to Australian public policy practitioners, and the people working on the boundaries of academia and public service. And so it’s taking off from the observation, that anyone working in policy-framing is aware of, which is that how you frame the question has a big influence on how you find the solution. So if the problem is traffic congestion, if you think the problem is not enough roads, then you build more roads. But then you’ll still end up . . . because all that happens is that everyone takes their cars out, and you end up with still more blocked roads. So is the solution to traffic congestion more roads? Or is it having to think about traffic in a different way? So she developed this six-point technique, based on a Foucauldian set of assumptions, where you ask, in any particular policy framework: what is problem represented to be? Why is the problem represented to be this way? What assumptions underlie this problem representation? How could it be represented differently? And whose interests are being served by representing it in this way rather than some other way? And, what if we represent it in a different way? Or what different problem representations can we come up with? And who would benefit or lose when we represent it in different ways? And what consequences would flow from different problem representations? So I was applying that approach to looking at the way questions about secular education have been framed and applied in the 19th and 21st Century in Australia and France.

TW: Yes. So, I really enjoyed the paper.

MM: Thank you.

TW: It think it got a really good response from the audience: the comparative analysis of the trajectories of religion in schools in France and Australia. I think probably, most of our Listeners, they would be more familiar with the France situation because of the veil, and that’s received a lot of popular attention. So, starting with Australia, what’s the story regarding religion in schools in Australia? How has that developed?

MM: Well, the story about education in Australia goes back to before it was a country, and was a set of colonies. The Australian colonies federated in 1901 – and, at the time, everyone thought New Zealand was going to join in as well, but it didn’t – and each of the colonies started out with the schools being mainly provided by churches, because that was who had the resources to do it. And then, as they were scrambling to set up local infrastructure, gradually, they were governed directly from the UK. And then they established local parliaments and then the parliaments set up school systems. And so there is a very good record in the local Hansards, the records of parliamentary debates, about the parliamentarians debating what kind of school system they should set up. And they all, each of the parliaments in turn, debated whether religion should be put into the public schools, and should the parliaments or governments be subsidising religious schools alongside the public system? And each of them decided, for very similar reasons – and the same debates were had in parliament after parliament – “No. They should not be subsidising religious schools, and they should not have religion taught in the public schools.” And both of those things for the same reason: namely, that children should be encouraged to go to public schools because they wanted to overcome the problem that they’d perceived which was sectarianism that was dividing . . . . The biggest potential division in their communities was sectarianism. And so divisions between Catholic and Protestant students was the main division. But other divisions like between . . . . Particularly in South Australia, they talked a lot about . . . they imagined a future colony where there might be Jewish and Muslim students as well, and maybe Buddhists they mentioned. In the 19th Century parliaments they thought that the best way was for all of those students to be educated side-by-side and to grow into one cohesive community. And they thought that any attempt . . . . They wondered, “Could there be some non-denominational Christianity?” or could there be some sort of . . . ? “Er, no. That won’t work. Because that will still exclude the little Jews and Buddhists.” “Could we teach some general religion that doesn’t offend anybody?” But they sort-of flirted with that idea for about five minutes and then realised that isn’t going work.

TW: Yes, you’re always going to offend somebody.

MM: Yes. So, in the end, they concluded that the only way was just not to have religion in the public schools. And all the people in the debates were very religious people by and large, or fairly religious people; they were not anti-religion. In fact, some of them were very devout. And some of them said that religion is simply too important to let it be politicised by letting it be kicked around in the education debates: “We need to protect religion by keeping it out of the public schools.” And churches also, some of them, wanted to have the Bible in schools. But some of them, like the Congregationalists in Australia, they passed a series of motions through their Synod, saying that the Bible needed to be kept out of public schools to protect it from being turned into a fetish or being turned into a political football. So there was quite a unified – surprisingly, to me – unified view across the religious and non-religious spectrum – but the non-religious spectrum in 19th Century Australia was minute – but that religion didn’t belong in public education.

TW: And we’re still talking here religious instruction – a values-based religion-type education – as opposed to the RE that you might get in more contemporary schooling systems, which is just exploring descriptive aspects of religion?

MM: Yeah. But the exception was New South Wales. And because New South Wales is so big, a lot of the debate that we have now takes the New South Wales experience as normative. But, actually, New South Wales was really the exception. And what New South Wales did was that it was the last state to pass . . . or colony, to pass its secular Education Act in 1880, and it was also the most equivocal. Because the sectarian issue was the fiercest in New South Wales. But it kept something called ‘General Religious Education’ in its Education Act and that was where teachers could give general religious information, which the 19th Century legislators thought was going to be a kind of non-denominational Christian RE, not education-about-religions education as we think about it now. There was going to be some Bible instruction but without dogmatic commentary. And New South Wales also kept in a capacity for ministers of religion to come in for up to an hour a day – but nobody actually did that – to instruct members of their own denomination: an in-house catechetical instruction.

So the more education-about-religions, as an educational subject, by and large, is still not taught in Australian schools. There is a little element in the Civics curriculum, in the National Curriculum. But I think it would be true to say that most Australian students wouldn’t notice that they’d received it. A bit about, you know, the religions of your neighbours. And in New South Wales, there is also a Studies of Religion which you can take in the last two years at High School as an optional subject. Nearly everyone who takes it takes it from private schools, religious schools. But it is a very good programme in that it is seriously non-confessional RE, and you can’t just do it in one tradition. Like if you are a Catholic school . . . . Most Catholic schools make Catholicism one of their traditions, but you have to do another one.

TW: Is that an initiative that is coming out of the Catholic Church itself, or is this something that is coming out of the national education body?

MM: No, it’s overseen by the Board of Studies, which is the New South Wales education. And although the majority of students that take it are in private schools, some public schools offer it as well, and some students take it as an independent study unit.

TW: OK. But as your paper was suggesting there is a wind of change blowing through the Australian education system – or ever since John Howard, anyway – where things, perhaps, are moving in a different direction. Is that correct?

MM: Well, there are currents of change pulling in different directions. So actually, even going back before John Howard there has been a move of increasing segregation in Australia’s education. So Gough Whitlam actually – the hero of progressive politics – he, in 1973, introduced a huge change which was to bring back public funding of private schools. He also greatly increased school funding across the board, so there was just so much largesse going around the schools, that it didn’t create a great deal of protest. And also he directed it towards the most needy, poor Catholic schools. But every reiteration of the funding arrangements since then has been to the benefit of wealthier schools and to the detriment of the public school system. So we now have a very segmented school system where large numbers of wealthy schools are funded over their official allocation, because they’ve managed to do special deals where they get funding for their running costs, and on top of that for their building programmes, and for additional special projects. And the funding allocation of public schools has gone down, proportionally.

TW: And it’s the private schools that are more often the religious-run schools?

MM: Over 90% of private schools in Australia are attached to Christian denominations, one way or another. And whereas public schools are officially secular, the other change – that is a Howard change – is that public schools also have increasing amounts of religious presence in them. For example, through the National Schools Chaplaincy Programme, which is a government-funded programme which puts almost exclusively Christian chaplains in public schools. And another Howard change is that the make-up of the private school market has changed with the easing of the regulations for small private schools – most of which tend to be from the more conservative-evangelical end of the spectrum.

TW: Are these changes actually done with a religious motive, or a motive of actually helping religions gain a larger foothold in education? Or is this actually due to kind-of changing educational policy in relation to the freedom of institutions to develop their own curricula, or to have more autonomy from national or state education bodies?

MM: I think, from looking at Howard’s statements for why he was making those changes, I’d say it was a combination of things. The Liberal Party, which was his government, the Liberal Government, their general preference is for private providers rather than public provision. Not on the basis of any educational evidence, but that’s just . . . . They oversaw out-sourcing of public services in a whole range of areas and education was one. I do, however, think he had a deliberate strategy of courting the conservative Christian end, the conservative Christian demographic. Because, before he came to power in 1996, he had identified progressive churches as one of a series of groups, including feminists, academics, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the environmentalists, he had this list of people . . .

TW: The usual troublemakers . . .

  1. MM. Yes, that’s right! . . . who had blocked reforms that his predecessors in the Liberal Party had tried to implement, and liberal Christians were one his targeted groups. And so, when he got in in 1996, he embarked on a programme of telling progressive churches to get back in their box, and stick to talking about spiritual matters. And at the same he went out his way to go to Hillsong Church conventions; to do this thing of easing the regulations for small Christian schools; to make a series of statements on conservative so-called “family values” issues; to complain about political correctness, and generally sort-of court that so-called Christian-values/conservative-values end of the religious spectrum – which is actually only a very tiny proportion of the population of Australia. Australia doesn’t have a big S Christian right market, but he was talking that sort of language. And this was the same time that George Bush was aligning himself with the U.S. Christian right. And Howard was echoing, in a more muted way, that same sort of language and appealing, in Australia, to . . . not so much of an existent evangelical-voter-base, but more to a part of the population that doesn’t go to church, but thinks that values are a good idea: “Christians seems to have them, maybe. Society is falling apart, and maybe we ought to stick with the person who appears to know what values are and where they are to be found.”

TW: So, to summarise: where the Australian education system started out with a strong commitment to keeping religion out of its education system, in the name of openness and inclusivity, under the Howard government, religion, and specifically Christian values, are making a quiet return as an educational resource, largely to push against a liberal politics in Australia. And, indeed, confirming some of the earlier reservations in the 19th Century about religion in education becoming a political resource. Fascinating. Professor Maddox, thank you very much for your time and expertise. And thank you to our Listeners for tuning in.


Citation Info: Maddox, Marion and Thomas White. 2018. “Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 November 2018. Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-education-and-politics-in-australia-and-nz/ 

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Conference Report: Religious History Association Biennial Conference/Australian Historical Association Annual Conference 2014

Conference report by Josip Matesic, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong

The University of Queensland hosted last month (8-10 July) the biennial conference of the Religious History Association (RHA). The conference itself was one stream of a larger conference: the annual conference for the Australian Historical Association (AHA) (7-11 July). The theme of the AHA and therefore RHA conference was ‘Conflict in History’. This theme was broadly interpreted by the presenters. The RHA conference also had its own guest speaker in the form of Professor Emeritus Ron Numbers (Wisconsin-Madison).

conference

The first day only involved a keynote address by Ron Numbers in the evening. I have to admit, I had never heard of Numbers until the conference. Not the best form on my part but it resulted in the feeling of being pleasantly surprised when you hear a speaker speak authoritatively, and humorously. For those who are unaware of Numbers, he is currently the Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His interests lie principally within the interplay and ‘battle’ between religion and science. In this field his most famous book would be The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992), expanded in 2006 and with the subtitle, From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Numbers’ keynote touched broadly the exchange of religion and science in the West over the past few hundred years; rectifying some myths about the Catholic Church and Galileo, and mentioning how religion and science as modern categories did not exist until the mid-nineteenth century. It was fitting that Numbers also spoke about the state of creationism and evolution, since Queensland is globally speaking, an infamous location for creationism, being among one thing, the home state of Ken Ham. The evening was completed by drinks and canapés on a balcony of the Sir Llew Edwards Building, not far from the Brisbane River. The pan fried salmon skewers and vegetarian curry samosas were the best eats.

The first full day started off with a hitch as the ‘Secularism and Human Rights’ session was cancelled in the morning. This left ‘War and Religion on the Australian Battlefront’ as the sole morning session. Independent scholar Yvonne Perkins spoke about the religious beliefs of the soldiers at the battlefront during World War I. Perkins was not concerned about whether the beliefs complied to the teachings of the various churches, but what the soldiers themselves believed irrespective of the churches. Perkins’ primary sources were the soldiers’ diaries. Check her blog piece about her presentation if you’re interested.

Perkins was followed by Simon Farley who presented about the World War I holdings at the State Library of Queensland, which include diaries, letters, newspapers, memoirs, photographs and oral history recordings to name only a few things. Rounding out the morning session was Doris LeRoy who presented on the Czech Lutheran pastor, Professor Josef L. Hromádka and his visit to Australia. All of the papers were well received.

Perhaps two people who travelled the most to reach Brisbane were Willem and Erna Oliver from the University of South Africa. After lunch they presented on Regina Mundi or the ‘the people’s church’ in Soweto and its role in student uprisings in 1976, and the contested nature of the Afrikaner identity and the role religion plays within this respectively.

The Wednesday afternoon session consisted of Ron Numbers chairing a session on ‘Science and Religion’, and Micheline Astley-Boden chairing a session on ‘Religion and Conflict: From the Bible to the Middle Ages’. I attended the first session and heard presentations from Dr Tom Aechtner, PhD candidate James Ungureanu and Professor Peter Harrison, all from the University of Queensland. In many ways, and fittingly, the session touched upon and elaborated on various topics which Numbers had addressed or passed by briefly in his keynote address the night before.

Thursday morning saw two sessions in progress while there was a keynote delivered at the AHA. One session was ‘Empire and Film’, while the other was ‘Church and State’. I cannot comment too much on the first presenter in the ‘Church and State’ session as it myself, although I think I did reasonably well: not my best but not my worst. I was followed by Dr Sarah Walsh (Sydney) who presented about eugenicists in Chile in the early twentieth century and their links to the Catholic Church; and Dr Timothy Jones (LaTrobe) examined canon law and whether it was a help or hindrance to those seeking justice in child sex crimes involving clergy.

Since I became involved in a long discussion about freemasonry during the morning tea break I missed the next session entirely. After lunch though I did manage to hear Dr Sam Hey (Christian Heritage College) talk about problems within Australian Pentecostalism, and PhD candidate Tiarne Barratt (Sydney) present on her research about how the Catholic Church’s views on sexuality have been misrepresented and limited to Humanae Vitae.

I don’t want this report to be simply a list of presentations that I saw. I wasn’t able to see all of them. I do want to highlight though that religion was broached by the presenters even when they were not in the RHA stream/conference. For example, on Friday morning, the RHA conference officially over, Elizabeth Miller (Sydney) presented on popular suspicion that Australians have had towards Pentecostal megachurches. She did this historically, examining how public opinion on megachurches has evolved. Professor Joan Beaumont (ANU) on Wednesday morning in her AHA conference keynote speech spoke on a century of Australian memorial commemorations across the world and how in some aspects, religious elements have seeped in to the commemorations.

At the conference there were a number of diverse speakers, nationally and internationally, and despite some minor hiccups at the beginning, the conference was an overall success. Since I forgot and only took the photo of the main building the presentations were held in below, I should try to give you an idea of the event another way: if you attended and stayed on to Friday after the RHA conference had finished, you would have enjoyed a wonderful barbecue lunch with Jamaican spiced chicken, garlic steak, vegetarian Japanese pancakes, numerous salads, rices and condiments. The conference was not to be missed irrespective of the barbecue lunch! Next year it is at the University of Sydney, 6-10 July.

Multiplying The Modernities: Reflections on the 2012 AASR/AABS Conference

Multiplying the Modernities: Reflections on the 2012 AASR/AABS Conference

By Morandir Armson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, Australian Association for the Study of Religions – 28-30 September 2012 – Sydney, Australia

I first attended the annual AASR conference in 2006. Although I was a good eight years older than my  fellow honours students, I felt very small and alone, talking about my Honours thesis topic; UFO-based religions and religious discrimination.

I have maintained since that Critical Discourse Analysis, does not an entertaining topic make. But I survived, and going drinking afterwards with Doug Ezzy, Marion Dalton et al. helped to dull the pain.

I’ve been to more AASR conferences since and have a lot of positive memories gathered therefrom. I would like to share some of my experiences from this year’s conference.

AASR/AABS 2012 – Multiple Religious Modernities.

After gathering at the University of Western Sydney (Parramatta Campus), nibbling nibbles, collecting our goodie bags and name tags, and milling about drinking our free wine, we were all ushered into a very nice lecture theatre to hear the welcoming speeches and the Presidential Address. (Unbeknownst to many, the Women’s Caucus and the AASR and AABS committee meetings had taken place earlier that day). Professor Douglas Pratt served us a nicely cooked address, entitled “The Persistence and Problem of Religion: Modernity, Continuity and Diversity”. Professor Pratt spoke at length, of the predicted “end” of religion, which was confidently predicted, only half a century ago, and of the religiously-based violence which seems to bedevil the world. He even delved into my areas of expertise once or twice, mentioning the Discordian Society and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, eliciting a titter or two from the audience. (Alas, only Adam Possamai laughed at my Cthulhu Mythos joke during the Q&A session). In the end, Professor Pratt presented more questions than answers – and that, it seemed, was his intention. His contention – that modern religious extremism can be seen to be a reaction to modern religious pluralism, an attempt to impose a truth, an authority, a single way, and that extremist secularists can and do exist –  was well presented and seemed to come from a man that genuinely loved the study of religion. And this kind of manifestation of genuine pleasure in, and love of religious studies was a recurring theme throughout the weekend.

A question that Professor Pratt never asked though, was what exactly modernity was. This was a question that seemed to hover unseen above many of the sessions, and sparked a fair chunk of rigorous and, dare I say it, heated discussion. And do you know, we properly nailed it down. None of us. This kind of question, involving the assumed definitions of terms, can be a little difficult. Like wading through syrup or tying knots in sand. But, as is often the case, we ended up with a group of six, passionately arguing and ending up with eight different definitions.

Overall, we had a fantastic depth and breadth of scholarship displayed throughout the weekend. Many of the presenters were students and some indeed had been students and were now out of the academy completely. All of the presenters however, were alike in one way; their love of, and immersion in, religious studies was both profound and genuine.

Alas, the conference had five parallel streams, so an unpleasant choice was forced upon us all – not “what do I want to see”, but rather “what can I bear missing”. And sometimes, it was a very unpleasant choice. What did Farjana Mahbuba have to say about the ‘invisible presence’ of Bangladeshi women? I don’t know, I was in the Paganism and Shamanism stream, listening to Michelle White (Independent) and Dominique Wilson (University of Sydney) speaking on Pagan Pluralism and the archetype of the Wise Man respectively. I’d make the same choice again, but I’d still regret it.

Overall, the conference featured ninety speakers, presenting one presidential address, two memorial lectures, and eighty-eight papers. They covered an impressive array of topics, from the spiritual aspects of home-birthing, to the phenomenon of Christians that seek membership of outlaw motorcycle clubs, to religious pilgrimage in Myanmar, and Shariah in the context of Australian law.

I was lucky enough to be presenting with two fascinating and erudite presenters. The first was John McGuire (University of Western Sydney) whose examination of portrayals of Islam and Muslims in American superhero comics, based on his PhD thesis, was worth going a long way to see. It was both heartening and slightly disconcerting to see another presenter using superhero comic books as their primary source material. John’s knowledge of his material and the depth in which he has explored the socio-religious elements thereof are both impressive and he gave us a wonderful insight into the themes of Islam in post-11th of September superhero comics. The second presenter in my stream was Lauren Bernauer (University of Sydney), who spoke on the re-enchantment of modernity, using the Percy Jackson and the Olympians pentalogy, the television series Supernatural and the MMOG The Secret World as her examples. She gave a beautifully cogent examination of hidden worlds, fan communities, and ways in which the modern world is examined through a re-enchanted lens. I for one, will be very glad if she publishes her findings. My own unworthy contribution, examining themes of occult resurrection within Golden Age and Dark Age superhero narratives, seemed to be reasonably well-received.

When one has such a wealth of material to examine, it becomes difficult to pick favourites. There were some real highlights.

  • Sylvie Shaw (University of Queensland) delivering the Penny Magee Lecture, on the religious and moral aspects of climate change. Her contention; that religious groups and climate scientists would do well to engage together, in an effort to inform public policy was argued with both passion and humour. Her arguments surrounding the role of religious groups in disaster relief and  the creation of civil religion was well-constructed and had a little of that “why hadn’t I thought of that before” feeling – always a sign of a well argued thesis.
  • Christina Rocha, speaking in the ‘Religion and Travel’ stream (the stream which also included Alex Norman and Pheroza Daruwalla) gave us an examination of Abadiânia, a tiny hamlet in central Brazil, which has been transformed by devotees of John of God, a local medium-healer.
  • Carole Cusack delivering the Charles Strong Lecture, on  “Fictional Religions and Religious Fictions: Narratives of Secularisation and Sacralisation at Play in Multiple Modernities”. I was very interested in this, as my own work has brought me into contact with the Discordian Society, the Illuminates of Thanateros, and the Church of Satan, groups that strongly value play, absurdism, and the use of fictional rituals. Dr Cusack favoured us with a lecture both illuminating and adeptly argued. It was clear that many in the audience were unfamiliar with concepts such as Discordianism, the Church of the SubGenius and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Overall, the 2012 AASR/AABS conference was delightful. And, as is usually the case, one is left with bitter-sweet memories. I would have loved to continue my discussion with John McGuire (University of Western Sydney) about the shockingly unpopular black Captain America (who was also a Muslim convert). I wanted to keep talking to Milad Milani (University of Western Sydney) and Glenys Eddy (University of Sydney) about violence and the indoctrination of men, in modern Western cultures. I wanted to talk about Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos with Adam Possamai (University of Western Sydney). But we only had two-and-a-half days. And they were pretty full days at that.

And did we ever find a satisfactory answer to the question of what is modernity? No. Like the Snark, which was really a Boojum, modernity is a slippery creature, which grows ever more elusive, the closer one draws to it. The hunt goes on!

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Morandir Armson is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. His thesis explores the interrelations between popular occultism, contemporary Paganism and online communities, connected by an examination of the role which chaos magic and paradigm shifting has had on all of these areas. Forthcoming publications include an article that examines the shifts in meaning in occult dichotomies, which popular, Internet-based occult communities have wrought.

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

By Zoe Alderton, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 9 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Media and Violence (7 May 2012).

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. In this latest podcast he discusses the relationship between religions and media, focusing on issues of violence and peace. This material touches on his upcoming book, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (Routledge: 2012). In this text, Mitchell problematises overly-simplistic readings of the media’s role in discussions of religion, conflicts, and resolutions.

In this response to his podcast, I wish to summarise some of the fascinating points raised by Mitchell. In doing so, I aim to foreground those that may illuminate Australia and its approach to sacralised violence. Living in a country where the national culture is largely secular, it is interesting to consider what the implications for Mitchell’s research are on Australian media and its presentation/proliferation of violence. Mitchell mentions a variety of nations who have undergone relatively recent conflicts and conflict resolutions, which have somehow engaged with religious groups or belief systems. At first it may seem that Australia is totally outside of this paradigm. Since the genocide of our Indigenous population, we have not seen the same kind of civil war as Mozambique. Nor have we defended our borders in a manner comparable to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Religiously motivated terrorism is more of a fear than a reality. In terms of faith, Australia is nominally Christian but has no official state religion. While the importance of this religion in Australian culture should not be underplayed, it is not a tradition that is generally considered to be an agent of national bonding.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s framing of the media and his comments on violence as a kind of public spectacle provide an effective lens through which to consider Australia’s complicated public engagement with Anzac Day and the Anzac legend. This national holiday, intrinsically connected to violence via its origin in a First World War conflict, has an arguably religious relationship with Australian nationhood. Through various media (including television broadcasts, paintings, movies, and sculptures) the very complex and ambivalent meaning of Anzac Day is negotiated and perpetuated. Mitchell’s arguments in regards to the sensationalism and spectacle of violence will be used to account for the extreme emphasis on sacred martyrdom that permeates our national legend via a pragmatic reading of its dissemination through popular media.

For those of you who wish to read a bit more about Anzac Day, the Anzac legend, and the relationship between Anzac Day and the Media, Zoe has written a longer version of this post which is accessible here.

The spectacle of violence

In Mitchell’s podcast, he describes occasions in which media become the site, source, and inspiration for different forms of violence. The broadcast of religious motifs is a clear part of this process. Mitchell uses the example of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In this conflict, posters and mural celebrating martyrdom were produced. These images did not just concern themselves with contemporary sacrifice in the immediate conflict. Rather they wove in foundational martyrdoms such as that of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, often conveying both narratives at once. This relationship between the media and symbolic culture is a vitally important one. In modern Australia, the troops involved in current or more recent battles are constantly conflated with the original Anzacs, making their modern-day sacrifice part of an ongoing narrative of martyrdom that feels real and compelling in its immediacy.

On a related note, Mitchell claims that news media is drawn to spectacle, and that violence is spectacular. His suggestion that media attention is often unproductive in the peace-making process tends to imply that its utility is often in the realm of proliferating conflict. Thus, it is reasonable to view the news media as a channel that prioritises that which is exciting, colourful, or engaging. Spectacle connects an audience with their television or other news medium. Spectacle helps to proliferate the aforementioned immediacy of the Anzac martyrdom that is useful and desirable if Australia wishes to draw upon its citizens’ essentially positive attitude towards sacrifice in war. The televised aspects of Anzac Day and its associated rituals tend to focus on that which is engagingly monumental and celebratory. The solemn Dawn Service at Gallipoli, including the stirring ‘last post’ by a lone bugler, is necessary viewing for a substantial portion of the nation. It is part of their ritual, and is conveniently televised.

So too is the annual commemorative parade in which veterans of all Australian wars march (or are represented posthumously by their heirs). The televisation of the Anzac Day Parade helps the nation to participate in the imaginative renewal of its mythology. Slade (2003 p.792) calls the Gallipoli story part of the sustenance of Australia. Through television, all can participate in this ceremony of cultural renewal and recitation. Of course, violence need not be advocated by any of these moving, engaging, and spectacular ceremonies or their media portrayal. Indeed, there is little about them that is openly pugnacious. Instead, the media tends to valorise holy martyrdom, implying on occasion that such a sacrifice is still necessary in order to maintain the social order of Australia as we know it today.

Is Anzac Day an example of the ambivalent sacred?

A major part of Mitchell’s podcast is the complex interrelationship of war, peace, and religion. As connected as religions may be to violence, he maintains that they also have a role to play in pacificism. His podcast speaks comprehensively of “the ambivalence of the sacred,” a term coined by R. Scott Appleby. Mitchell employs this phrase to imply “the scared can both incite violence and promote peace.” He feels that religious agents are, and can be, part of the conflict resolution process. Interestingly, Mitchell argues that this role is less publicised as it tends to happen away from cameras. The arduous process of negotiating peace does not lend itself to short broadcasts. Perhaps the potentially peaceful or anti-violent aspects of the Anzac mythology have been ignored in the popular press due to a lack of interest or broadcastability. This does not mean that they are absent, or that the reverence inspired by the Gallipoli campaign and its commemorative sites could not inspire an entirely pacifistic agenda.

Indeed, it is not clear if the Anzac legend is a discourse of war or peace. It appears to be both simultaneously, but also has potential to represent only one side of the dichotomy depending on the cause that employs it. In his discussion of Anzac as sacred and secular simultaneously, Seal (2007 p.143) calls this myth the most powerful “manifestation of an ambivalence that lies at the heart of our sense of national identity.” He compares this tonal equivocality with the confusion over Ned Kelly as hero or villain, or the simultaneous perception of British citizens as our kin and rivals. So too can Australia be seen to negotiate the sombre spaces and ceremonies of Anzac veneration with the iconic larrikin soldier and his playful disrespect for pomposity. The Anzac mythology, in negotiating equivocal and contradictory meanings, opens itself up to possibilities for violence or peacemaking. It can be used as a call to arms for present-day conflicts or a means of expressing the horrors and suffering of war.

In the case of Anzac Day 2012, the news media has shown examples of ambivalence in terms celebrating or denying violence in the name of this mythology. This is exemplified in Charles Waterstreet’s Sydney Morning Herald article Civil War Defies the Anzac Spirit. Here Waterstreet rallies for suburban peace in the wake of violence in the Sydney region. He denounces the current climate in which criminals are fighting petty wars of bluff and false bravado, betraying those who died and tried to keep such conduct from our shores. Turf wars over drug-trafficking rights and injured pride are an embarrassment to this city, to the soldiers who fought in countless wars … Taking up arms in peacetime is to spit in the face of every soldier, sailor and airman who fought.

Ambivalence is certainly present in this division of ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’, framed within a discourse of respect for the Anzac tradition and the sacred sacrifice.

Celebrity and violence

Another applicable component of Mitchell’s podcast is the blurring of celebrity and religious leadership. This too may be read in to the impact of spectacle in regards to what is and is not broadcast. Mitchell argues that the popular media (for example, news broadcasters) thrive on the celebrity factor. Celebrities build audiences through a process of viewer identification. Media consumers feel as though they ‘know’ a celebrity or can identify with them. As this relationship is pre-existent, a news snippet need not feel obliged establish empathy or interest in such a figure. Considering the time poverty of televised news broadcasts, the employment of a familiar religious figure with a pre-established narrative and context makes pragmatic sense. Mitchell uses religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as an example of a familiar face with a familiar agenda. In the case of Anzac ritual and mythology, political figures are the celebrities consulted by the media in this manner.

Of course, the political celebrities themselves are transient. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.160) specify that civil religions do not connect too closely with any specific government lest they become an “idolatrous cloak of transcendental rhetoric tossed over the pursuit of momentary ends.” The proposed ultimacy of the Anzac legend has remained supra-partisan despite its intimacy with the leadership of the day. Unsurprisingly, the figure of the Prime Minister seems to be the main focal point of this engagement. In 2012, Julia Gillard has upheld this mantle, not only in terms of her actual addresses to the nation, but also in regards to the sound bites of her speeches that were disseminated through the television and printed news. For example, in a particularly popular news article, Gillard referred to Anzac Day as all that Australia embodies, more significant in terms of emotions and values than Australia Day, and a meaningful event for migrants (like herself) “who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.” Putting aside disturbing political undertones, these convenient sound bites are easily broadcast around the nation, presented by a political celebrity who needs no introduction.

Although people with anti-Anzac or anti-war sentiments may have commented on the celebrations in an equally eloquent manner, they cannot compete with one of the most easily recognised faces of Australia in a media landscape that requires abbreviation. The political celebrity Barack Obama also made news (in a story that seems entirely overblown) after sending “best wishes” to Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day. Although the sensationalist headline would suggest otherwise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the message on Obama’s behalf. She also thanked Australia for their ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a meaningful conflation of past and present sacrifice of lives. Obama is another example of a celebrity who is suitable for a short news story on account of his national renown. His (albeit proxy) endorsement of the Anzac commemoration coupled with an endorsement of current conflicts requires little in the way of contextualisation.

Media and violence in its broadest sense

Mitchell’s broad take on the definition of ‘media’ is a useful one when considering the depth of a culture’s communicative devices. Although media is commonly shorthand for television and newspapers, Mitchell reminds us of the vast array of communicative devices that can fall under this umbrella term. Media need not be seen as the exclusive domain of the literary elect or wealthy broadcasters. Rather, Mitchell employs the term to describe a variety of devices from YouTube videos, to murals, to architecture. It is in the medium of architecture and effigy that Australia expresses some of its most reverential emotions towards the war dead.

The Pool of Reflection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The work of Ken Inglis, especially Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998), is vital reading on this complex topic. To briefly summarise, Inglis illuminates war memorials as sacred shrines of Australian civil religion, allowing for the preservation of memory. This sacred architecture helps to reconcile the distance between Australia and Turkey. It is difficult to negotiate sacred turf when your creation narrative takes place in a foreign nation. Slade (2003 p.787) speaks of various features of the Gallipoli battleground that make it a sacred or elevated region. This includes the lack of modern development on the peninsula (keeping it ‘authentic’ to the era of the battle), the burial of the dead where they fell, and the subsequent framing of the entire area as a cemetery. Obviously, Australia itself cannot provide this kind of sacred Anzac space. Instead, war memorials are a way of making a geographically unconnected site equally meaningful.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital city, the Australian War Memorial contains the Hall of Memory, a cathedral-like structure that performs the typical duties of a religious shrine. Seal (2007 p.140) calls the Hall of Memory “spiritual but without religious symbolism.” Although it may not contain traditional religious indicators, it still evokes religious emotion. The Hall is designated as a place of eerie silence and hushed contemplation. It is clearly demarcated as a holy site that demands respect. It is also the tomb of the Unknown Solider, with his body housed like the relics of a saint. Above his remains, viewers may look upwards to a dome reminiscent of Byzantine cathedral architecture. The dome, created in brilliant gold hues, depicts souls migrating from distant battlefields. The Hall of Memory clearly connotes the existence of the extramundane.

The dome ceiling

The museum component of the Australian War Memorial should also be seen as a communicative device in terms of Australia’s relationship to sacred violence. As Chris Healy (1997 pp.73-74) argues, the museum is a medium that trains citizens in their acquisition of social memory. A visitor to the Australian War Memorial is encouraged to have a spiritual, or at least reflective, experience in the Hall of Memory. They may then use the educational, historical museum in order to arrange their feelings of awe, or reverence, or respect into a cultural narrative. This narrative, conveyed through the museum medium, contextualises the violence and horrific loss of the nation into a rhetoric of sacrifice, sacred ‘mateship’, and a patriotism that transcends personal concerns.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Conclusions

Much more could be said on the Anzac legend, its various components, and the reverential lack of critique it receives in the present era. I believe it is valuable to consider what our state mythology and most revered holiday dictates in terms of the national character. Mitchell’s exploration of the sensationalism and spectacle of violence explains much in terms of the news media’s preferences as to which aspects of the legend they choose to show and propagate. So too does Mitchell help to illuminate the value of celebrity in moral debates. Pragmatically speaking, the Anzac narrative is a story that most Australians know and care about. It is a discourse that is easily associated with well-known political and public figures. It is also an exciting and visually stimulating event that transfers well to the broadcasting of its rituals, or the artistic enactment of its sacred narratives and archetypal heroes. At its core, the Anzac mythology may indeed contain the ambivalence that Mitchell sees in the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. Nevertheless, its present incarnation seems to be concerned with the public condoning of martyrdom and the celebration of militaristic duty in deeply spiritualised terms.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

References:

Bellah, R.N., 1967. ‘Civil Religion in America’, Daedalus, vol. 96, no. 1, pp. 1-21.

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