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Posted by on May 26, 2008 in events | 24 comments

You can now see online the SBS Insight TV programme on faith schools

Just recorded the SBS TV show Insight, debating faith schools in Australia. Was very interesting – especially the first clip in which a Christian school presents Young Earth Creationism (6 thousand year old universe) in science class as a scientific theory worthy of respect and serious consideration.

I did my best to clarify that I was not attacking all religious schools, merely questioning the kind of teaching that goes on in some. Not sure if that came across sufficiently clearly.

If you see the programme, let me know what you think…

Shows 27th, 7.30pm Sydney time.

You can see it now here:

My first reaction is – Christ I look ill (I’ve got a bug). Plus my hair’s still wet from the rain! Vanity.


  1. I was in the audience for the show. Just because young earth creationism is taught, does not mean it is believed by all students and teachers. Within the religious schools even individual teachers will have differing opinions on the age of the earth. Also, just because the school has a foundational belief on these issues does not mean students will take them on. Teenagers tend to rebel against the ideas of teachers rather than follow them- especially when it comes to religion.

  2. It’s a pity there wasn’t a deeper examination of exactly what is being taught in these schools.As you said during your first cross, the presentation of YEC, OEC and ID as substantial and acceptable alternative theories has no place in a science class – if that’s the sanitised, media-friendly version then who knows what is actually taught.Congratulations on pointing out that Theists dont own “morality”. Schools should strive to turn out “good people”, not good Christians (for example). Decency and moralith are not the exclusive preserve of those of Faith.I can’t imagine why you aren’t fully booked with speaking engagements at faith-based schools….Matt D

  3. The program has just finished. My thoughts on the show1. I think the cross section of the audience was too narrow and did not provide enough support for the independent critical analysis views. The Greens MP and Stephen were the lone articulate presenters of an opposing view. 2. The facilitator underestimated the cohesion of this group who were there ready to defend their existence. THis forced them on common ground and did not allow sufficient dissent on some of the critical issues. I found the experience too anemic.3. The beginning clip supports the argument for independent teaching of science separate from faith theories. The teacher made two very concerning comments at the end of the clip. a) That their purpose is to get the children to ask the “right” questions. What are the ‘right’ questions and b) The teacher also summarised his class by saying (paraphrasing), We will present these views through what god has reveled through man and on the other hand through what god has revealed through the scriptures on the other hand. Perhaps I misunderstood but it appears to me that he was suggesting that all of the questions asked, and the answers provided, will be provided through the paradigm of the Christian faith. That is the fundamental problem with these schools. They are not able to teach the ‘disinterested objectivity’ required in modern citizens because many of the answers and indeed the man of the questions required to be asked exist outside the framework of their espoused doctrines.4. As a father of 5 young children, I am concerned when my children come home from their RE class stating the bible stories are being taught as fact. In our home, we read from a full body of literature including Greek mythology, fables from the original texts (not the disney version) and Shakespeare. On my international travels with work I often bring home examples of various cultures that represent their beliefs. When my 5 year old boy, asked if god was real, my answer is simple “The people believe their god is as real as did the greeks, as do the Indians and the many other religions that have inhabited the earth throughout time. They are belief systems supported by stories that we can engage in but it is not a science. My older children have chosen not to go to RE once they reach about the age of six. I read your book Stephen and it has helped with my confidence to articulate why my views of secular teaching at home with the premise of “how to think, not what to think” being the cornerstone.

  4. thank youreally that was brilliant – your closing comment was dynamite and to disagree with its sentiments would be to advocate denying information from childrennow to get a copy of the war for chirldrens’ minds!

  5. Thankyou so much! If it weren’t for you I might have pulled my hair out. I am a philosophy student at university here in Australia. I am thinking of pursuing my studies in philosophy further. I would be more than happy to be one of those people who are asked to come into schools to talk to kids about atheism (and how we’re not evil and morally corrupt and don’t think that life has no meaning etc etc etc).

  6. I agree with Dan from Oz. There definitely weren’t enough people representing a more secular view, although this could be another show. Religion and education is a highly publicised issue at the moment with the “World Youth Day” and the issue with the Islamic school in Camden (an outer suburb of Sydney). I think your view, Stephen, was clear… that children should be enabled to develop their own view of the world based on critical thinking (and I will be reading your book in the future). I was bemused by some of the comments of students from certain schools, e.g. “Are they going to bomb us?” as stated during the interfaith day between the Christian and Islamic schools. Could that be evidence for some very narrow teachings. If not it shows those kids certainly haven’t developed a broad knowledge and empathy for other communities. I really am against indoctrination and think this is central to all religions. I really am skeptical that critical thinking would be possible in faith-based schools. For this to occur they would have to have do more than the token “Interfaith Day”. They would have to drop the pretense of open-hearted, open-mindedness and genuinely look at all sides of the story. One thing that I want to mention is that I am married to a Christian and we have struggled with how to raise children together. There certainly are some mighty bastions in place when you challenge the views of a Christian, especially when proposing raising children without religion. I do also believe that religion is a manifestation of people wanting to do good, alas just slightly misguided. Stephen, I look forward to reading your book. I think I saw it on a recommended reading list on another blogsite that I have found useful, that is , Dale McGowan’s, who has written books “Parenting Beyond Belief” and “Raising Freethinkers”. I haven’t read either of these books, but will be adding them to my list.

  7. Stephen – thank you for your succinct and insightful comments. You presented a far less highbrow and (dare I say pompous) persona than Richard Dawkins (and ‘the horsemen’) – which clearly struck the studio audience. Personally I would have liked to see your closing comments starting the discussion rather than closing them – but hopefully we’ll see you in Australia to continue the debate soon.As an aside, my 11 year old daughter, having read and re-read thee Philosophy Files 1 & 2, would like to know when your next children’s book will be available.

  8. Hello Stephen.It was great to listen to what you had to say – that perspective was definitely needed in this type of discussion. And interesting to hear all that tried to interrupt you!It was the first I heard about you, so I look forward to reading “The War on Children’s Minds”.Btw I didn’t think you looked sick. I just thought you were another pale Briton :DThanks again!

  9. Yes, I thought you looked sick!:) But thanks for balancing out what was a weighted audience poorly moderated by the presenter.I also got the impression that a lot of editing had been done. Hope I am wrong.Incorrectly, I thought I was going to be more alarmed by what the Muslim view points might have been. How wrong! The statements from the so called christian based educators just scared the crap out of me. Was the catholic education system represented in the audience?Most of the representatives implied that they provided a balanced holistic approach to education but I couldn’t help but wonder whether they practiced what they preached?I also would have liked to have heard your closing statement at the beginning of the show.BTW I can’t seem to locate a publication of the book you have made reference to..does anyone know where I can find it in Oz? In summary, thought your points of view were good but the moderator missed a great opportunity for a vigorous debate.

  10. One member of the audience noted that one important role that religious schools offer is a way in which parents can have the values they want taught to their children. I think Stephen you had said earlier that you agreed that good values should be taught in school also. I think though there is an opportunity for objection here.Simply put, religious schools don’t teach only values, they also teach propositions – factual content (that god exists, that god has an interest with the way in which we live our lives, that it is important in that respect to live in a way that god deems satisfactory). Religious education is not simply about the conveyance of values. Now, values like aversions to lying, stealing, cheating (etc) can all be adequately taught through the use of nonreligious examples. Its not clear then that religious schools are at all necessary for teaching many values that parents value and want their children to take up also.Nor is it clear that utilising (false) propositions in order to establish good values in children is a good way to go about things.

  11. I didn’t expect it to be quite that biased. Apart from you, the biologist and the greens senator I don’t think there was a single critical voice in the audience. Still, compared with similar discussions in the mainstream media, I think the important points came across.Had the audience not been so one-sided I think you could have made your religious/political school analogy. But given that several speakers gave religious opinion the same weight as scientific theory it’s doubtful they would see political opinion as having anwhere near the same value as religious opinion.Thanks for going on the show.

  12. Sean: Yeah, it’s true that students often rebel against what they’re taught in class (I tutor philosophy at a local high school so I get it a lot – actually it’s sort of encouraged in philosophy classes). But that doesn’t mean that teachers should teach things that are wrong. The teacher from Pacific Hills said that “we have just as much respect for their viewpoints [about evolution] in our school as we do for any of the others”. I don’t know about you but I have more respect for veiwpoints that are correct than those that aren’t. Veiwpoints that are obviously wrong, such as holocaust denial, the idea of a flat-earth and 2 + 2 = 5, merit less respect than those that are right.Neil: I got my copy from Borders but with the Aussie dollar so good it might be just as cheap to order it from Amazon.

  13. Thanks for going on the show. I do hope it will be one of many appearances in OZ. What did not come across clearly in the show was the weight of the parental right (recognised by the UN) to select a values/religious system for their child, overshadowing the right of the child to an education that encourages critical thinking. This was ironically illustrated in the example of the Islamic teacher who verbalised that ‘a Muslim must make the choice to be Muslim themselves’, and yet the choices for sending a child to a Muslim (or other religious)school are made before the child is educated in the broader concepts of religions. How can a child choose to be a’christian/muslim/jew…’ at the age of 5?In addition, it is not only faith based schools that should be monitored. In scripture classes in public schools, church-sponsored, untrained volunteers teach children their version of truth and doctrine every week. None of this is monitored but should be cause for concern. My public school child returned from scripture class last week to tell me that ‘Jeesis’ was her King. If there was an alternative to colouring in and time wasting, I would take her out of the scripture class. It is time Australia was given a broad-based ethics/philosophy/comparative religion course in public schools as the standard alternative to scripture.

  14. Read through the transcript. (Wish the BBC would provide these more often!)One thing that struck me as rather unfortunate was your comment “there was a poll conducted in the UK recently which revealed that 36% of young British Muslims think that the appropriate penalty for anyone who leaves the Muslim faith is death. Now, clearly the schools that they were attending were not communicating this message clearly enough.”At first read it seems as if you were implying that 36% was not enough, which I suspect was not your intent. That aside I thought it was a pity they did not take the snippet from Irfan Yusuf about god in government a bit further and give an opening for your point about political schools. Don’t worry about the hair – they didn’t mention it in the transcript.

  15. Hi Stephen, Watched SBS Insight and was grateful to hear your words as I was becoming frustrated and some what concerned about some of what was said. It also surprises me when something or someone mentions something that resonates with oneself. What you said did, so, I have ordered your book to read. What I would like to know is the name of the book you mentioned about the people that rescued those in the holocaust (Ultruists? or something). Look forward to knowing the name of this book and reading yours. I am very interested in what you have to say.

  16. Hi Arjuna – the book is The Altruistic Personality, by Pearl and Samuel Oliner. Another good one on similar theme is Humanity, by Jonathan Glover.

  17. Hi last anonymous – yes that was a bit weird. They edited what I said. I was referring back to something that was removed in editing.In fact much of what I said was tidied up. Whenever you see a cutaway, something is cut. They did warn me that everyone’s speech is “tidied” like that.Thanks for all the comments. As this is first TV thing I have done, it’s interesting, and useful to hear what people think…

  18. I’d say, do more! You have a good tv ‘presence’ (certainly not all in academia can claim it).

  19. I think your last comment and summation on Insight was brilliant! and made me rethink and revisit some of my previous comments on this Blog. Visually, but to me most importantly; vocaly, you came across well in spite of the editing and in attitude, far more rational than many of the Australian guests.The discussion appeared patriarchal too? and I was suprised by the few female educators present.Would love you to do more television!

  20. I watched the Insight programme on SBS and was absolutely delighted to hear your views. You were the only person apart from the Greens MP who made any sense. I am thrilled that I have discovered your website and intend to buy every book of yours I can lay my hands on. I have three young children and it is important that they learn how to think not what to think. I want them to have the benefit of a private school education here in Australia but my dilemma is that most of the private schools in my area are all faith based schools. I want them to attend a school that helps them as you say give them free choice and develops within them the ability to criticise and question overall belief systems. Hopefully as a parent and with the help of your books I will be able to introduce alternatives to my children.

  21. Thank you, Stephen! You comments were fascinating, and clear – though i doubt whether many of the “religious right” taking part in the discussion heard you clearly.I was appalled by the students on the show who parroted the party line (each one a “chosen people”) with such an air of certainty. Their schooling had been a “success”. Their teachers seemed to be unaware of the history of the western open society, and even more the history of science and philosophy. As for religious tolerance, it was interesting watching Jew, Christian and Muslim partake in a seeming love-fest, when many of us are more used to watching them in very public hate-fests. Maybe they just need a common enemy to bridge their otherwise endless sibling rivalry – that enemy being modern secular democracy? Your argument for a set of foundation values (such as empathy and altruism) beyond the core values of each sectarian group was very fine. Your position seems to sit well with the global self-identity and community view of the philosopher Peter Singer, and just as vital a voice.

  22. Waow! How good is it that for once I turned the tv on to see if there was any news, but even better it was the SBS Insight TV programme on faith schools! Exactly what I needed. I have been trying to ask around how to “teach” my kids about my “non-faith” since my 5 year old one came home to tell me: you know who created the earth? God did!!!! I was so shocked and unprepared, I quicky mumbled OH no, I don’t believe this is the case, but then realised I didn’t have a clue on how to bring this subject to her. She started prep and 3 weeks later we received a letter giving us the “choice” about having RE classes. But all the mums told me everyone goes, your daughter would have to go to another class and do some drawing and worst of all, will feel left out! I was very upset since I felt pressured into letting my kid do RE. So since the big question popped I went to our local library to find children books on non-religious “beliefs” like atheism, evolutionism, agnostics, any children book that could help me to teach my kids the fundamental about respect, choice, love, care, … Nothing. But it appears that I will be able to read a few books, and someone could even suggest some other, hopefully childrens books. All I can add is that I am so glad I have seen this show, because I have been able to find out about Stephen Law, and I can’t wait to tell the librairian about a few books to add to her shelves!

  23. Well said! I agree with everything you said. I think that they were just opposed to your atheism and that is why they were so ‘offended’. You made some really good points and that’s really what the government should be focusing on; ensuring schools are raising critical thinking children.

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