By Hugh Harris
Rector Michael Jensen’s article, If you want kids to be happy, try religion, in the ABC’s The Drum provides a striking example of how readily the religious mind contents itself with insufficient evidence.
His thesis as follows (my emphasis):
There’s been a lot of alarmist stuff written recently about the potential detrimental effects of religious teaching on young people. What the hard data says is otherwise: an active religious faith is much to be desired in young people, and the benefits of such a faith persist into old age.
The first is a summary report by The World Health Organisation (WHO) seemingly based on data supplied by HBLPY surveys run by UNICEF. It doesn’t provide any of the data, nor the sample size, but indicates several factors which correlate to reduced risk of early sexual initiation, substance abuse and depression. One of the factors is spiritual beliefs which get a green tick for being more often associated with less risk. There’s no detail of the actual statistics, the sample size, or the ratio of correlation. Jensen doesn’t explain what relation this has to Religious Instruction.
The second piece of “hard data” contains no data at all, rather an anecdote contained within a pop-psychology book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment. It’s a story of a blind undergraduate student who criss-crosses the United States visiting religious congregations getting a measure for the relation of optimism and faith. She found that the more fundamentalist they were the more optimistic they were. Hard Data this is not – the opinion of one psychology student based on some conversations she’s had with exclusively religious people. Perhaps the message is to train children to be religious fanatics to maximise their happiness?
The third example, taken from an article in the UK’s The Independent, is a survey of 9000 people over the age of 50 who report going to church as beneficial to their mental health. I’m not so sure that the self-reported mental health of English men and women over 50 years old has any bearing on the efficacy of religious instruction for children in Australia. Again, the sequitur is missing.
So there’s our “hard data:” a report with no statistics, a survey of over 50 year olds, and the observations of a psychology student in the US. From this we are supposed to draw the conclusion that Religious Instruction is beneficial to students, or that religion makes children happy.
There’s a myriad of good reasons why the Victorian government scrapped Special Religious Instruction from its curriculum. Once parents had to opt in to the program, rather than opt out, it suffered a 40% decrease in participation. This followed controversy due to overt proselytization by Christian service providers, particularly Access Ministries, whose CEO, Evonne Paddison, had previously said:
In Australia we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples.
Children should be taught how to distinguish between beliefs and knowledge prior to considering religion. Religion should be taught as a comparative course in the development of a variety of religious traditions.
Currently, Special Religious Instruction, as it offered in all states of Australia, is taught as knowledge rather than belief. Presented as a complete worldview, by volunteer pastors from the local church, the program takes advantage of children, presenting them with a solution when it should be offering a mystery.
In an irreligious country like Australia, where less than 10% attend church, where 70% regard religion as “having no importance” (Gallup 2008), our education policies are unrepresentative of the population. Most non-believers are ambivalent about the role of religion in the public life.
This might explain why Australian children are force-fed religious belief when adults have little interest. And perhaps this also explains the apparent confusion between knowledge and belief present in the faithful who champion policies aimed at privileging the Christian tradition such as the National Chaplaincy Scheme, and Special Religious Instruction.
Once we humans adopt a belief and integrate it into our lives, the belief becomes notoriously difficult to dislodge. We must be extra careful then to ensure our children learn to use their minds as a reasoning tool for establishing knowledge, not for a rationalizing tool for defending unjustifiable beliefs. Or else we wind up content with argument fashioned out of the evening breeze, such as the “hard data” of Michael Jensen.
Hugh Harris is a freelance writer who owns a blog called The Rational Razor on philosophy, and rational thought, and is a member of the Rationalist Society of Australia.
Hugh is a contributor to the ABC, U.S. online mag The Daily Banter, the Rationalist, the Australia Times, and Secular Web.