Thursday, May 12, 2011


The Federal Government has announced in the budget the extension of the school chaplain program first introduced by John Howard.

Predictably a leading education journalist bemoans the expenditure going to chaplains rather than other school resources. It was conveniently lined up against cuts to the BER program.

More reasoned commentary asks why chaplains need to be religious and whether they are the right skills for "counsellors" instead of trained psychologists. (Though it still ends with the cute tag line "If “Chaplains in Schools” is a success, the ALP may revisit the “Teachers in Schools” and “Students in Schools” programs.")

The back story though is how to respond to a major societal change. The decline of active participation in organised religion has taken away three of the good things that can come from an active involvement in religion and a spiritual life.

These three are simply (1) engaging in an active conversation about morality, what is right and wrong (2) taking time out to be contemplative and (3) the ability to talk to someone not directly involved about the "big stuff" in life.

Religion gets a bum rap because so much of its public image has been moralist preachers going on about gays or drugs, while inside some churches there have been massive cover-ups of wildly immoral behaviour. But in the bulk of cases that isn't how religions discuss morality. They take the time to use some time honoured expressions of moral standards (do unto others, though shalt not kill) and then try to use these to assess modern moral issues. It might have taken a long time, but it was Christians who - despite religious texts that accepts slaves as a fact of life - led the campaigns against slavery within European empires and the USA.

It is remarkable how taking a couple of minutes in reflection - called prayer or meditation - can help get a greater understanding of ones relationships with others. In the process of praying for either divine intervention or in thanksgiving, the way an individual approaches the world and their fellow humans is changed.

The final one is the kicker. Without a "chaplain" program, where exactly do we expect kids to go with a problem - especially if that problem directly relates to a parent or a teacher, or where the resort to parent or teacher has been ineffective. Chaplains can be great at using a version of the "serenity prayer" - which is a simple invocation to have the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Your average psychologist tends to fail here because they try to change everything.

The radical atheists and other variants of those who aren't actively engaged in a religion could productively turn their minds to the issues the chaplaincy program tries to address, rather than merely criticise the program.

(Note: Personally I don't like the program, nor do i believe that religious instruction in schools as currently conducted makes sense. But I haven't worked out something better yet - and the NSW ethics classes don't look like it to me).

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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