Podcasts

Nonreligion, Religion, and Public Health

The link between religion/spirituality (RS) and health is a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology and sociology of religion, medical studies, and other disciplines. Although this research is usually limited to correlational studies, RS is often interpreted to be an important causal factor in positive health outcomes. This has led some academics, NGO’s, and governments to argue that the putative health benefits of RS might be harnessed for public health and public policy more broadly. For example, the United States Army has recently launched a “spiritual health” program, and in the United Kingdom there is an ongoing debate about whether mindfulness meditation should be taught in schools. Government initiatives aside, what if the nonreligious are equally as healthy? In this podcast, Thomas J. Coleman III interviews Dr. David Speed on how research using nonreligious and nonbelieving samples problematizes some of the underlying assumptions of the relationship between RS and public health.

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


Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health

Podcast with David Speed (22 April 2019).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Speed_-_Nonreligion,_Religion_and_Public_Health_1.1

Thomas Coleman (TC): Thank you for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project. I’m Thomas Coleman. And I have an interesting topic that I don’t believe we’ve broached before, on nonreligion and public health. And I have a special guest with us today to talk about this. But I kind-of wanted to provide the Listeners with a little bit of background first, before we introduce him. So the link between religion and public health is really a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology of religion, public health, medical studies and other disciplines. This research is often limited to correlational studies because the procedures required to test these things experimentally are either unfeasible or raise serious ethical considerations. For example, as psychologists it’s really hard for us to figure out how we could validly manipulate someone’s nonreligious or religious identification, their beliefs or their behaviour, in a laboratory setting. And university ethics committees have a problem with us kind-of assigning people to the cancer condition for an experiment. So we can’t do that! But when many of these aforementioned correlational studies – some of which we’ll talk about in a second – identify a relationship between religion and improved health, religion is often interpreted to be an important causal factor. And in today’s podcast I’m pleased to have with us Dr David Speed who is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick. And his own research has applied a critical perspective to the religion and health literature, specifically focusing on how the nonreligious have comparable health to the religious. David, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

David Speed (DS): Hi Tommy. Thanks for having me.

TC: Excellent, excellent. So I was hoping we could have a little discussion along the lines of religion, nonreligion – kind-of the intersection on public health more generally – but also from the perspective of just psychological and individual’s health.

DS: Sure.

TC: And I know – just pointing out some further relevance for the Listeners here – in the US I think the Department of Defence has a multimillion dollar initiative looking at “spiritual fitness training“ and in screening of troops. And I can see David grimacing right now! But you know, this underscores an important fact that many governments and public health researchers are not simply interested in understanding or studying the relationships between religion and health, but actually using the purported benefits of religion and spirituality to shape public policy. And then, a last example here, I’m reminded, because I’ve been living in the UK off and on for the past two years, of how the United Kingdom has recently funded mindfulness meditation interventions I think in over two hundred county wide schools. So I’m excited to get down to a critical discussion about the nature of religion and health with you David and see where it goes.

DS: That sounds wonderful.

TC: So where does some of your own research fit in at the nexus between religion and nonreligion, and personal health and health in general?

DS: So I guess I can start with my dissertation. I started my PhD in 2011 and I graduated in 2015. And when I got accepted into my PhD programme I was told by my adviser I had to pick a health-related topic. And like many grad students I didn’t really know initially what to study. I knew I wanted a PhD but wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. And essentially, I got to the point where I was considering, well, if I could study anything, what would I want to study? And I had a pre-existing interest in atheism and in religion and so I was like, “I wonder how those things relate to health?” And so you go to the literature, as one does. And I immediately found literally hundreds of thousands of citations or references to various religions. So I thought “Well, ok. Obviously someone’s been very busy!” Because this was my first real exposure to it. And then I was like, “OK, well I’m curious how atheism fits into this.” And I found, I think, fewer than maybe a dozen papers, two dozen papers addressing atheism and health. So right away I knew that there, obviously, just on the numbers scale, atheism and health was under-studied (5:00). So I was curious about how atheism fits within the religion and health paradigm. And I started going through the literature. And over and over again you see this recurring set of findings that you’ve alluded to in your intro, that “Religion equals better health; religion equals better health.” So, going to church is good, being religious is good, prayer is good, meditation is good, spirituality is good, religious affiliation is good, belief in God is good, yadayadayada!

TC: So, could you give us a few examples there, though? Because I was very general about that – where these relationships appear.

DS: Sure, so if you’re looking at, say, church-based studies, you’ll find that religious congregants who attend church more frequently are more likely to report, say, lower levels of depression. They might report better perceived well-being. If you’re looking at national studies you might find that people with higher levels of church attendance report better happiness. It varies from country to country. There’s a cultural effect that happens. But a lot of the positive literature really centres around the US where religion tends to be more dominant. There’s a smaller proportion for Canada, and the UK, and other areas. But generally, a lot of these studies just kind-of recurrently suggest that if you go to church, or if you’re religious, you might be more likely to go for screening behaviours for cancers; if you’re religious you might be more likely to feel empowered; if you are religious, or if you believe in God, you are more likely to be comfortable in a situation where you have to face your own mortality. Something like that.

TC: And so you’re kind-of reviewing the literature, here, as you’re doing your doctoral studies. And you uncover this stuff, and what happens? What has happened since then? What did that prompt you to test, do, or dig in deeper?

DS: So as I’m going through the literature, there’s a few things that I start noticing kind-of simultaneously. And what it was is, you know, you read a few papers and you say, “Ok. People are saying that going to church is good. Ok that’s fine. Whatever. They’re generalising by accident.” But whatever. So you go through a few more and then you’re like “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” So a lot of the studies – not all the studies, but a good chunk of the studies – they recruit from exclusively religious samples. So they’ll go to different church locations, they’ll ask congregants who are there, “How often do you go to church?”, “How happy are you?” and they’ll form a correlational relationship between these two ideas. And correlational research is not that. It’s difficult to make a causal argument with correlational data, but you can point to associations that are recurring. But if you are using an exclusively religious population in order to test something, you can’t generalise the benefits of whatever they’re doing to everyone, because not everyone’s part of that exclusive religious population. So if you sample like five Methodist churches in the Midwest, you can’t then say, “Well, everyone should go to church because of this sample.” You have to say, “Well, people who go to Methodist churches more frequently, congregants have better wellbeing.” That’s a fair conclusion. Now often the literature would say this in kind-of a round-about way. But they would often talk more broadly about the benefits of going to church, or the benefits of being religious, or prayer, or whatever. The other issue too is a lot of the research that is like large-scale is looking at outcomes that are intrinsically related to going to church frequently. So the classic one on this is slighting on the dependent variable. And self-rated health is one of the big benefits of being religious, or of scoring higher on measures of religion and spirituality or RS. So what researchers will do is go into say a religious organisation and they’ll say, “How often do you go to church?”, “How healthy do you think you are?” Or “Do you have any health issues?” They find that people who go to church more frequently report better perceived health and fewer health issues. Well, yes! Obviously! Because people who are really ill or people who have recurring health issues can’t get out and go to church frequently. That’s not shocking. It’s kind-of pointing out that, I don’t know, people who are going through some sort of medical treatment are somehow less healthy than people who don’t have to do that. Obviously they’re going through medical treatment because of the way they are, not because of some factor that’s driving the magic of that medical treatment! So this is a separate issue altogether is that if you’re slighting on the dependent variable, what essentially you’re going to do is that you’re limiting people who maybe on the lower end of that health, who would love to go to church more frequently but can’t (10:00). And the other issue with it – sorry I’m just rattling off a list of issues because this is my life!

TC: No. Perfect.

DS: Another one of the issues is that there was often a conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So it’s the idea that if you get really low levels of religiosity, so like: “I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, I don’t really pray”, the implicit conclusion or sometimes explicit conclusion of the researchers who do that kind of research would say, “Oh. These people embody secularism.” That is not an equivalent statement. The issue with that is, secularism is adhering to or taking specific positions on other topics, right? It’s not merely being apathetic towards religion, it’s endorsing other specific values that are more secular in nature. So there’s this conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So researchers will report, “You know religion’s healthier than secularism.” But they’re not assessing secularism the vast majority of the time. They’re just equating high secularism with low religiosity.

TC: And then we might say, more specifically, just secular nonreligious people per se. Because we’re used to, on the Religious Studies Project of course, taking a very critical approach to these terms. That’s something we don’t usually do in Psych of Religion although we should more. So just kind-of giving that to our Listeners as a blanket term here, you know, confusing people who probably self-identify as secular nonreligious with actually people who would identify as religious.

DS: Yes, absolutely. The biggest issue, though, for the research is that the mechanism driving the relationship between religion and health isn’t always clear. The big one that has the most support, I would argue is social support.

TC: Yes, I was going to say, what do mean by mechanism, here, in terms of driving? How does that work?

DS: Sure. So if you say that Advil is related to pain reduction, right? Advil is doing something – or Ibuprofen if we want to be non-brand specific – Ibuprofen is acting on your body in some biological way in order to produce the desired outcome. If the argument is that religion is connected with health, well, how is it connected with health? We can point at an association of high religion, high health, but why is that? What is the driving mechanism under-pinning that relationship? And arguably the strongest contender for that, from what I can see, is social support. And social support is associated with health. Social support is the perceived availability of resources around you from people. So I’m crying and I call my friend, will he or she console me? If I need money for rent until next week, will my friend have my back? If I really want to share about my day, will my wife humour me and listen to me talk about research for the 35th time that week? So that’s social support. So the more available social support a person has, and the higher degree of availability, the healthier they are. And this isn’t shocking. Like, having friends around you and having family and peers who you can rely on, that’s associated with good health. Religion’s associated with good health, this is true. But social support is also associated with religion. So people who are religious tend to report higher levels of social support. And to me this makes a lot of sense. Like, it would be astounding if you went to church on a weekly basis, or mosque on a weekly basis, or synagogue on a weekly basis and there was no social benefit to you. It would be astounding if that were the case. So the problem is . . . because the three of these things are inter-related, when you’re talking about social support. When we talk about religion benefitting health, a question that’s really important for researchers is “Why?” And if it’s social support, it gets more dicey about how we’re interpreting this then. Social support is a general benefit of social activities. It’s not a specific benefit of religion and spirituality.

TC: I was just going to get to asking that. Aren’t there some arguments that, maybe, religion is not the only source but, people might argue, a very good source of creating these social connections? How does that kind-of bode here? No – it’s not religion per se, but it is a really being driver of social connectedness?

DS: Sure. And I think that’s a very reasonable position to take. About half of my family I would describe as quite religious. They tend to go to church frequently. They tend to really enjoy church. But often they’re talking about. “So this happened in church . . .” or “So and so said this . . .” “I really like engaging with this person.” And it would be. . . . I think it’s a fantastic way of socialising with like-minded people. I think that’s wonderful (15:00). The problem is, is that the way this is presented within findings, and the way you often see justification for religious-oriented policy, say, like from government or from specific initiatives looking at improving spirituality in the fine young men and women of the United States is that you might see this as saying, “Oh well, religion is doing this.” It’s not social support via religion. It’s just religion. So last year I wrote a paper about this where I was discussing that it’s very frustrating talking about the benefits of religion when social support seems to be playing a major role in this. So, if you don’t mind I was going take an excerpt from that paper to help illustrate.

TC: Absolutely.

DS: I said, for example, “It is not difficult to imagine that persons who are active in chess clubs will have access to social support from their fellow members. Furthermore it is not unreasonable to imagine that more active members of chess clubs report better access to social support than less active members. However, if it were found that attendance at chess clubs was positively related to mammography it would be unusual for a researcher to frame these findings as ‘Chess enthusiasm promotes breast X-rays’. Instead, it would be likely argued that social support, which is accessible from any number of institutions including chess clubs, was responsible for increased screening behaviour. However in much of the existing religion and health literature a general benefit of social support, better screening in this case, appears to be presented as a specific benefit of religious activities.” And this is what I find very frustrating as a researcher: it would be shocking if going to church every week didn’t do something. But the important thing there is the social activity for it and not necessarily the religious angle for it. In fact there’s several studies where, when they’re controlling for social support – bringing in the relationship between religion and health, that relationship – the religion and health relationship goes to nothing. Because they’re controlling for social support. This doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens in several studies. And this is an important thing to consider. And finally I have one more point on this. I have one more quote on things that I find frustrating about the literature. It’s that even when researchers, when they work with looking at exclusively religious samples, they were . . . these are general samples, right? What they would do is they would describe everybody’s relationship between religion and health with a single type of consideration. So everyone got the same description of that relationship. So there was no real strong interest in looking at whether or not the relationship between religion and health was affected by other factors. Now researchers have tested moderation before. They find that, say, less-educated people tend to find a stronger benefit from religion and health.

TC: So we’re talking here about moderating factors being like level of education; maybe it only holds for lower or higher; or income, for example; or men versus women? Those kind of things. So I guess adding nuance to this “Religion is good for you!”

DS: The core thing, the frustrating thing is that when you’re looking at general samples you’re sampling people who are not religious, you’re sampling people who are not spiritual, you’re sampling people who are atheist, right? And there’s no reason to suspect that these people would value religion and spirituality to the same extent as someone who believes in God or is religious or spiritual. There should be no default assumption that these groups are equivalent to begin with. If you’re looking at say, sex-based differences like men versus women or males versus females you could say, “Well there’s no reason to suspect that one of these people would have a radically different relationship with religion.” They do not . . . their identity, or their moderating factor there, isn’t a religiously-slighted variable. If you’re looking at people who are atheist, though, that is something related to the very idea of religion and spirituality. If you’re looking at nonreligion that’s something that’s very much related to the idea, intrinsically, to religion and spirituality. But what had happened is that these previous studies they all treated everyone in the entire sample as having more or less the same expressed relationship between religion and health so they looked at sex as a moderating factor, age as a moderating factor, or education. But there was generally never any interest in looking at people who are not religious, whether or not they reported an equivalent relationship. So what the focus of my doctorate was on was looking at the idea of health outcomes and religious and spiritual beliefs and behaviours, but looking at whether or not people who were atheists, or nonreligious or not spiritual, whether or not they recorded a different linear relationship between those activities or beliefs and outcomes. And it turns out quite often they did. And quite often they reported a lower health score when they reported higher levels of religion and spirituality. So if you go to church, that’s fine (20:00). But you would, in this case, you would have to be religious really to see that same relationship. If you’re not religious and you’re attending church all the time, this has different health implications. So, problematically, if you’re saying that there is a monolithic relationship between religion and health you’re losing a lot of nuance there. Because religion and spirituality have benefits, but you have to have a religious and spiritual identity, which is conducive to you benefitting from those activities. So I jokingly say, “Well, my doctoral work, I got a PhD for saying ‘religion is healthy, but you’ve got to be religious to get that benefit.’” So it’s a kind of simplification, but no one had looked at that previously.

TC: And to add to this, I think that these are really important nuances particularly, again, in the domain of public policy and public health. For example, I’m thankful to have been a part of . . . they have different workshops put on by different places that have like week-long courses for private health care providers, government officials and so on, specifically informing them about the research on the relationship between religion, spirituality and health. And the takeaway from these . . . . They’re conducted very well, but there’s also, at the same time, a certain level of nuance that is just missing. And the takeaway message I hear when I’m in some of these presentations or venues or even reading books and chapters on religion and public health, is this kind-of assumption that since we now know . . . we’ve identified the . . . circumscribed the positive effects of religion here, well then: “Now that we’ve found the fountain of youth, let’s drink from it!”

DS: (Laughs)

TC: There’s almost this. . . . It’s not direct, and I’ve been very impressed in some of the more recent literature that has been taking into to consideration nonreligious concerns or saying, “We don’t know here . . .” but typically, it seems like there’s a blanket message that religion is good for a host of things, and we should use this; the government can grab a hold of this. And you’re saying that: “Kind-of . . . possibly . . . but . . !”

DS: Yes. Shockingly, there’s more nuance to this than “religion equals good health”. Because one of the things that really sticks out from the religion and health literature is when you look at people who are atheists, right? Atheists generally – we were discussing this prior to the show beginning. Atheists generally aren’t religious. They generally don’t go to church. They generally don’t score highly on religiosity measures. Atheists have really comparable health to believers. So if you . . . just logically, if you expect that high religiosity equals better health, then low religiosity should equal worse health. Atheists should be fairly unhealthy on average, just on that sort-of simplistic, somewhat reductionist perspective. But it’s not. It’s somewhat paradoxical. My colleague and I, Karen Hwang, we published paper called “The Healthy Heretic Paradox“, in which we looked at atheists who on the measures of health, using nationally representative data from America, we find that on average they tended to report comparable health to theists who were strong believers, despite the fact that they didn’t believe in God at all. So this showed there’s something of a fly in the ointment. Because if religion just uniformly benefits health, well people who are really not religious, like atheists, or they’re not – we’ll say atheists as the more extreme example – you wouldn’t really expect them to be healthy. But they are. Meaning that the description . . . it looks, at the very face value of it, that there’s something very wrong with how that relationship is being summarised.

TC: And I think there’s something fishy with the way that the relationship is interpreted both at the academic level and certainly bubbles up to policy and other things. What other studies have you conducted that speak to this, say, lack of nuance that was previously in the literature for this. And also I guess it would be strange to see . . . I can only think what the President of the US or different administrations what kind of flack they would take if they decided to prescribe kind-of atheism! Because it seems that people who did not believe in God more strongly had comparable health to the religious (25:00). So I was just kind-of interested in what other research and work you’ve conducted that can speak to this interesting . . . I don’t know if you want to call it a hydraulic relationship, maybe?

DS: Yes. Geez! I don’t know about the political thing, I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering whether or not the government should prescribe religious or atheistic beliefs. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with the government doing that. Regardless of whether or not they prescribed atheism or theism. As to the research, so what I generally do . . . my research uses pre-existing datasets from Statistics Canada, from the General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago. I think it’s the National Opinion and Research Council. I think they do those studies. Anyway, so it’s data that’s publicly available to any researcher who is interested in doing it and has the competence and statistics to do assessment. But I published a little more than half a dozen studies on the topic between religion and health. In each case I’m looking at: OK, well let’s look at how this actually relates, and let’s try and distinguish between people who believe versus not believe, in terms of these outcomes. In virtually all cases I found, it’s that often when there’s a really strong positive relationship between religion and health say for believers, you would find a moderating effect for whether or not someone was an atheist. I published a study with the Journal of Religion and Health in 2016 or 17, I can’t remember now. But it was looking at data from Ontario which is the largest province, population-wise, in Canada. And I found that people who go to church they tend to report better health but . . I think it was satisfaction in life, maybe. But if you’re looking at the nonreligious people recording the same level of attendance then what you see is a very different relationship. It actually reports a negative relationship. Now this isn’t to mean that going to church is bad. It’s just you need more nuance when you’re discussing these things, especially at a public policy level. Because it’s not this panacea that fixes everything.

TC: So it seems like there’s a heavy interpretation factor here, where on one end, you know, the general trend might be to say, “Oh, look at the positive effects of – to use the recurring example – church attendance, here.” But then we would not want to conclude for example that less-religious or nonreligious people should avoid church like the plagues, because it apparently, you know has a harmful impact on their health. What we’re talking about here is not necessarily I guess a causal relationship.

DS: No, no. I think if you made like a group of nonbelievers go to church … Besides the ethical issues with that, I don’t think . . . I wouldn’t immediately suspect that all of them would be miserable and report increases in depression, or whatever. But the problem is that when you’re looking at how the academic findings are used and discussed in the broader social lens, how they’re used to inform public policy, or the potential they have to influence policy, there’s discussion about including… you know, default assuming that you should discuss religion and spirituality in clinical therapy. So there’s a real-world consequence to this type of finding. And the problem is that if you’re looking at these relationships and you’re potentially treating it as “more religion better health”, you’re losing a lot of the nuance; you’re losing sight of the personal idea that perhaps some people aren’t religious because they really are opposed to religion. And forcing them to address those topics or discuss those topics may not be a super-positive thing for those groups of people.

TC: I was going to say, I also think it points, to some degree, to our problems with interpreting the positive findings on religion and health then. Because we don’t . . . I guess that was the comparison I was trying to get at then. We wouldn’t kind-of say that church attendance hurts less-religious people in the same way we say, “Look, people . . “ we’re willing to make that inference that people who attend more do better. We wouldn’t make it one case, but we do in the other. But they’re kind-of conceptually similar . . . is what I hear you saying?

DS: Yes. Yes. So like so if you’re looking at . . . this hearkens back to some of what I do with my doctoral work (30:00). But what happens when you look at say irreligious groups, when they report really low levels of attendance or religiosity – really, really low levels of that – if you compared their average health levels to religious groups who report very high levels of religiosity or attendance, those two relationships, they’re about at the same place. And in cases where they are, say, statistically different, so at p value less than .05, the associated effect size of that – so the actual magnitude of difference between the groups – is really, really small. And often it’s trivially small. So the convention for Cohen’s d , which is a measure of effect size (not to get too far into those academic things at this point!) But anything less than a Cohen’s d of 0.2 is usually seen as trivial. It’s not really something to talk about. And if you’re talking about a social activity or the sociocultural perspectives influencing some sort of health outcome and you’re saying it’s happening at a level of a Cohen’s d of less than 0.2, you’re talking about something that you probably can’t really observe in everyday life. And the underlying mechanism isn’t clear because we’re not sure if it’s social support driving the majority of this relationship or not or if it’s another factor. It’s really hard to talk about that and convey a strong sense of meaning to those findings. I mean it’s statistically significant but that doesn’t mean of clinical relevance or of clinical importance.

TC: I think though, one of the examples I usually use when I’m teaching students or talking about significance in general is, you know, the difference between let’s say a football player who weighs 200 pounds versus one who weighs 200.1lbs. One is significantly heavier than the other, but it would be very odd to kind-of say, “Well the other guy weighs . . . he weighs significantly more than I do. I’m going to have to rethink the game here.” You know. No!

DS: Especially with large population samples. Any difference will become statistically significant with enough people sampled. And the reason is because error term gets progressively smaller with the more people you talk to. So if you have, say, one group has an IQ of 100, another one has an IQ of 110.1. If you sample millions of people and you’re able to find that one mean is 100, the other mean is 100.1, because you’ve sampled so many people, what’s going to end up happening is that it will come out as statistically significant but the associated effect is so tiny, like, why even bother talking about it? And religion health research isn’t quite there – there are cases where it’s really beneficial if you’re talking about optimism and outlook after, say, surgery or something. You’ll see higher levels of optimism or you’re feeling cared for because you’re protected by God. You might see some specific benefits in very specific cases, but in terms of, like, at public policy level, or on a national health level, the differences are often quite small. Not always, but often.

TC: Kind-of wrapping this up, and bringing this towards the end, here . . . I’m interested in talking a little bit about how religion and spirituality are conceptualised here. Now I know, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, per se . . . because one of the things I think the RSP prides itself on doing is deconstructing and exposing underlying structure and assumptions of precisely these kind of terms. But it’s something I think . . . well, public health professionals do not have extensive discussions about discursive practices, or what we would really mean when we use this word, or all the different things we’re lumping together! It’s the same with psychologists as well. It’s generally left to Religious Studies scholars and Humanities. So if you could, in closing here, kind-of bring us into perspective and how some of these studies conceptualise religion and spirituality and particularly from the vantage point of the nonreligious, right? Is it one of those things where everyone’s religious, you just have to find the right . . .?

DS: Personally, I’m not sure if there’s an academic consensus on this specifically. I’ve usually . . . concepts regarding religion tend to be better defined (35:00). So if you’re looking at say church attendance.

TC: Better defined than . . . ?

DS: Better than spirituality. So if you’re looking at assessments of attendance: “How often do you go to church?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that; “How often do you pray?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that. It’s self-reporting. You’re relying on people to provide you with data but that’s ok. But you can get a fairly objective standpoint. When you talk about religiosity you get into, what exactly does religiosity mean? There’s different conceptualisations of religiosity. One that people might be familiar with is intrinsic versus extrinsic. Intrinsic is, in a nutshell, religiosity because you see intrinsic values: with this religiosity you get something out of it, you see it’s rewarding or fulfilling in itself. Whereas extrinsic religiosity is kind-of treating religion as a means to an end. So it’s a tool in order to achieve a greater . . . So there’s kind-of some fuzziness around religiosity. But if you ask people how important they find religion is to them, or how religious do they see themselves you can tend to get a more or less consistent set of ways of assessing those specific behaviours or beliefs.

TC: I often also think that this gets us into kind-of “good religion” and “bad religion”. Particularly from a health perspective: there are consistently some negative social effects kind-of associated with varieties of fundamentalism. And it seems here that the same health professionals and researchers are keen to say, “Well, when we talk about religion we’re not meaning that kind – not the stuff that we think is bad for public health, or social cohesion.” Well, it depends on what we man by social cohesion, here. But I often notice that this gets into a good religion, versus bad. And so then that makes me think, “Well, aren’t you really just interested in things that are improving health or psychological wellbeing in general, instead of something religious per se?”

DS: Yes, and you can kind-of see this. This is more apparent within the spirituality literature, in my opinion. So if you’re looking at, say, just like pure religion it’s like, what do you believe? How often do you go to church? Are you religiously affiliated? You get fairly straightforward measures. People know what you’re talking about. People may disagree about whether or not this person’s a true member of this religious organisation, or whether or not they’re a member of that religious organisation. But there tends to be at least consensus on the idea of how you get to those questions. The spirituality literature, I find, is really vague about what that term means. And the way spirituality is assessed, it may not necessarily be intuitive for the laity. It’s just . . . it’s very, very broad in how it’s defined. So I wrote a paper for Skeptic a couple of years ago, where I point out some of the different definitions of spirituality. And one of them defines spirituality as “an inherent component of being human and is subjective, intangible and multi-dimensional”. That literally means anything you want it to mean! So, it doesn’t really matter if you and I are talking about spirituality. If you say “My aunt’s not religious but she’s spiritual,” I’m not sure exactly what you mean, but I understand what you’re trying to convey to me. But if researchers are talking about assessing spirituality they can’t just . . . “Oh yes, I totally know what you mean.” They actually have to quantify and describe and validate measures of spirituality. So when you see these validated measures or these assessments, you see a lot of questions in there that you may not – or at least I wouldn’t, and the people I’m talking to wouldn’t – see these as intrinsically spiritual. So there are questions like: “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong”, “I have a general sense of belonging”, “When I wrong someone I make an effort to apologise”. Those things are included as indicators of spirituality. And to me this is problematic on two different levels. One: this is, in a sense, gaming the system. You’ve chosen . . . or items are being chosen not because I see an obvious connection with spirituality. They might go together, there might be a reason for including these, that’s fine. These have been validated, I have no issue with that. I’m positive these researchers have done their due diligence and this is what has come out. But if you’re talking about spirituality with someone, you wouldn’t say like “Oh yes. When I wrong someone I apologise. That’s a spiritual thing.” Like, that’s a really select definition of spirituality (40:00). So if you’re finding that how well people are engaging socially is an intrinsic component of spirituality and you find that spirituality is related to health – well, yes. Social support and being able to interact, socially, well with other people is related to support. So it just is like a parallel . . . if you said that “I don’t smoke because it’s bad for me” and that’s a spiritual assessment and you find that people who score more highly on spirituality get less cancer, well, yeah! You’ve adjusted the framework of spirituality such that it includes not smoking. Well, of course that’s related to cancer rates, because that’s how that works! So the thing I find frustrating about the spirituality literature – and it’s a really interesting literature, people do genuinely good work in it – but it’s just the variability in what spirituality can mean. And the idea that you feel empowered, or you feel like you have purpose in life – that’s spirituality. I’ve never thought of those things as being spiritual before, like, prior to reading this literature. I’ve always just described that as, “Oh yes, I feel as if . . .I feel autonomy. I feel a sense of mastery.” So, when you’re connecting those measures of spirituality, or that definition of spirituality with health, I’m not shocked that that’s related to better health. But we already knew that from other fields. So my question is kind-of: if spirituality is doing something, what is the unique thing that spirituality is doing? How are you defining that? Is that a good . . . is that a reasonable definition that people would say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely spirituality”? Or is this a hodge-podge of different areas that we’re just kind-of lumping together and saying it’s spirituality and saying, “Oh look, it’s ‘Spirituality – better health!’”

TC: Excellent. I was wondering if you had any kind-of summing up or parting phrase, or words, or thoughts for us on the relationship between religion, nonreligion and health?

DS: (Laughs).

TC: Something to send our Listeners away with? Something even more profound than what you’ve already said?

DS: I don’t know if I can go more profound! But religion is related to health. Like, correlationally we can establish that religion is related to health. If you’re religious and if you go to church, chances are you’re probably getting a benefit from it. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the underlying mechanism is. If it’s the social support angle, if it’s because you have a better sense of coherency, is it because this really makes you feel like spiritually charged as a person? If you’re getting a benefit out of it, continue. Please continue doing it. Don’t be discouraged from not doing it. If you’re not religious and you are hearing all these things about, “Oh. Going to church is associated with better health,” the more elemental question you have to consider is, will this be good for you specifically? If most people are religious and most people benefit from going to church, fine! But that doesn’t incorporate everyone. So there has to be more nuance in the field. Religion is a wonderfully diverse, very complex socio-cultural construct. And chances are that its relationship with health is more complicated than a single edict of “Do more, be healthy!”

TC: Excellent. Dr David Speed, thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

DS: Thanks a lot for having me.


Citation Info: Speed, David and Thomas Coleman. 2019. “Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/nonreligion-religion-and-public-health/

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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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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