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Words by Hannah Tricker

On Friday night, members of Melbourne University’s Secular Society and the Melbourne and Monash branch of Christian Union will debate one another on the merits of their worldviews. However—put a hold on those eye-rolls, cynics—this will not be the stock-standard theological debate, with each side working their hardest to trump the arguments of the other. Subtitled ‘a debate with a twist’, this discussion will be unique in that two of the main speakers will defend the views they usually oppose.

The debate, which will feature speeches as well as a Q&A/discussion panel, will involve two naturalists and two Christians. James Fodor, 24-year-old president of the Melbourne University Secular Society, will be one of those making the switch, arguing for the position of Christianity. He has experience debating both in high school, and in university.

“I enjoy the rigorous construction and presentation of ideas, and putting all the reasons out there and debating them back and forth,” James explains. “That can often be done poorly, if people don’t actually engage with the arguments and just talk past each other, which I think happens rather too often in these sorts of things. But when a debate is done well, I think it can be a really useful way of demonstrating whether you understand what you’re arguing for, whether you can engage with what the other person is saying.”

The switch was an idea given to James by a friend of his, who introduced him to the concept of an ’ideological Turing test‘. This test invites people to present themselves as somebody who agrees with a certain position in such a compelling way that observers can’t tell whether they actually disagree with it.

“The idea behind it is that if you can argue an opponent’s position so well that other people can’t distinguish you from them, that’s a good indication that you really understand their position,” James explains. “In my view, if you say that ‘this argument is wrong’, you should be able to articulate that argument in the strongest way possible and say exactly why… if you can’t do that, then how do you know the argument is wrong?”

Thomas Henry Larsen, a co-organiser of the debate, became involved after pitching a similar switch idea to James. Thomas is studying Computer Science at Monash, and is a member and former vice-president of Monash’s Christian Union. Like James, his intention in the debate is to leave people asking questions not of the debate, but of themselves.

“One of the concerns that James and I were talking about when we first started to throw around ideas [was that] often people look for the best arguments for their own position,” Thomas explains. “My concern with that is that no-one actually leaves having learnt much at all. So I think by having a switch…  it’s kind of, in some ways, getting people to leave with a stone in their shoe.”

“If people come away from this and go to the library and pull out five books on the best arguments against Christianity, for example, I’ll be happy. As long as they look into both sides of the issue.”

Tom, who is defending naturalism in the debate, found that a lot of the issues he’s studied in preparation are issues he sought answers to several years ago when he went through “a period of significant doubt”.

“It’s kind of been a ‘me-search’, in some ways,” he chuckles. “That’s kind of the process. I’ve taken some Philosophy of Religion classes with Graham Oppy at Monash; that was helpful. I think he’s probably one of the most fair atheist philosophers of religion I know. So, kind of looking into his defences and different positions—I guess that’s kind of how I’ve gone about it.”

According to James, the decision to use the idea of naturalism rather than atheism to represent the non-religious perspective was suggested by Thomas, and was a sensible decision given the etymology of the latter term.

“Atheism is a problematic concept, really, because it’s sort of empty…it doesn’t mean anything other than simply not believing in God. Atheism has no substantive position of its own; it doesn’t have anything to say,” James explains. “Naturalism says there are only natural entities… things operate only by the laws of physics and matter and energy interaction. So, in a sense, it’s a more substantive position that can be placed in opposition to Christianity.”

Organising the debate was something James, Thomas, and some more of their friends had been considering for a while, as they believe having an understanding of these topics is important and relevant. Thomas thinks it is important that the questions described by religion line up with how reality is, and also thinks religion has historical value.

“If you look at the intellectual heritage of western civilisation, Christianity has had a very significant impact on that. So I think, even just when we want to understand our own intellectual heritage, it’s really useful to have some background knowledge. And that would go both for people who are Christians and aren’t Christians as well.”

James thinks the naturalism-Christianity debate is relevant because it is fundamental to a lot of other “higher-level” social and political issues that are currently part of public discourse.

“If people are arguing about abortion law, or about religious instruction in schools, or these sorts of things, people can talk past each other all day. But at the end of the day, if one person’s belief comes down to [the fact that] they believe in God and God says that this is the case, and another person doesn’t… then they’re not going to really address the core of the disagreement until they start talking about naturalism versus theism.”

In order to avoid arguing over tangential political issues, the speakers on both sides have agreed to blacklist certain topics. Gay marriage, a seemingly ubiquitous tangent during Christian-Athiest dialogues, is one topic that will not be appearing on Friday’s agenda. James insists this isn’t because the topic isn’t important, but rather that it is not relevant to the debate. In its place will be discussions focused on  the more historical and philosophical issues, like the cosmological argument, explanatory power, and the historicity of Jesus.

James is aware that people might not be willing to attend the debate because of negative preconceptions formed through previous debates on this topic. But he reiterates that the organisers are trying extremely hard to make the debate appeal to a wide audience. “I think a lot of people, or at least some people, are a bit cynical about debates… debates can sometimes be too much about the rhetoric, and not enough about the substance of the argument,” he concedes. “We’re definitely trying to focus on making it as constructive, useful, informative, and engaging a discussion as we can. And so I would hope that people would take that into consideration, and if it’s something that they think sounds important and interesting, that they’d come along.”

Christianity vs Naturalism: A Debate with a Twist will be held on Friday 28 March in the Latham Theatre, Redmond Barry building, at the University of Melbourne. 

Words by Duncan Willis
Illustration by Ashleigh Duncan

Throughout primary school, my friend Boris and I were inseparable. We sat next to each other in every class, at lunchtime and at recess. The sole exception was one class each week when Boris got to sit in the corner and draw pictures while I had to learn about a guy who lived 2000 years ago and who could provide everybody with bread and fish. Boris was Chinese and Buddhist, and thus his mother had opted out of his religious education for reasons I didn’t understand until later. While I learned about Jesus and the disciples, Boris read books or joined in other classes.

This simple classroom separation has its origins back in 1872, when the colony of Victoria declared that education was to be “free, compulsory and secular”. Government funding to all denominational schools ceased in 1874, and religious instruction in government schools was banned. Ever since, religion has become an ever-increasing presence in government schools. In the ‘50s, volunteers from Christian and Jewish groups were allowed to deliver religious instruction alongside the curriculum. They were joined in the ‘90s by volunteers of other faiths, providing students with Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu and Muslim options. The Government now spends more money on religious education than it ever has before.

Religious education in Victorian schools was completely overhauled as part of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. The act stipulated that primary schools could provide either Special Religious Instruction (SRI), defined as “instruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs” (2.2.11, section 5), or General Religious Education (GRE), “education about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world” (2.2.10, section 4). GRE was intended to be taught by qualified teachers, whereas SRI is taught by volunteers of various faiths. No syllabus has ever been written for GRE, and unless a teacher develops their own course in their own time, there is effectively no class where children can learn about religion in a secular context. In 81% of Victorian primary schools, the only option is Christian religious instruction, usually taught by a volunteer from ACCESS ministries, an inter-denominational Christian group.

Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) argues the current system is unfair. Scott Hedges, who co-founded the grassroots organisation in 2011, sees the current system as betraying Victoria’s progressive history. He believes that in making schools “free, compulsory and secular”, the 19th-century government was sending a clear message that it would not embroil itself in sectarian disputes between the churches. Furthermore, it was making an effort to construct a society different to that of England or Ireland, which had been racked by years of sectarian violence. However, Field Rickards, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, believes that at the time, secular meant “non-sectarian”, and not, “free of religion”. Hedges refutes this, arguing that Rickards is “totally wrong on the facts … and wrong in spirit”.

FIRIS believes that students should follow a curriculum in GRE that teaches students about the beliefs, architecture, culture and festivals of different religions in a secular context. This new course would be at the expense of all current religious instruction in schools. Hedges points to Australia’s closest neighbours, which include countries that are predominately Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, arguing that to understand the culture of our neighbours, we must understand the fundamentals of their religion.

Dan Flynn of the Australian Christian Lobby rejects the view that GRE and SRI are substitutes for one another and instead, says that they should be taught together. Flynn believes that the stories in the Bible, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule, are important because of the messages they impart to children. He believes that SRI should remain an option for parents, while GRE should be core curricula. He argues that SRI shouldn’t be taught by qualified teachers because true believers of the faith can provide more genuine experience. He likens it to learning about Indigenous Australian culture from an Indigenous elder as opposed to a textbook. However, he concedes that perhaps the volunteers teaching SRI need higher levels of training and the primary schools need to come up with better alternative plans for children who opt out of religious instruction.

Dr David Zyngier, a Senior Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Monash University Faculty of Education, is deeply critical of the ACCESS curriculum from an educational point of view. He states that “students are not being challenged to think independently”, that activities “minimise intellectual growth” and, “moreover, there does not seem to be any logical selection and sequencing of the content”. Where most primary school curricula, over successive years, aim to create an environment where students learn independently and develop deep levels of thinking, the ACCESS curriculum favours individualised ‘busy’ work. Zyngier argues that the curriculum is incompatible with the current Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) and that religious instruction should be removed from Victorian public schools to “ensure that the damage that is being done by ACCESS Ministries to our most vulnerable children end sooner rather than later”.

Lara Wood, the FIRIS campaign co-ordinator, alleges that current system “encourages ignorance”. She argues that religious education in schools is important, but the current system does not allow for education, merely instruction, or “indoctrination”. She believes that SRI is harmful for students, alleging that children “are being taught to be suspicious of children of other cultures” and that they are being taught that if they do not develop a personal relationship with God, then they will go to hell. She accuses ACCESS ministries volunteers of indoctrinating and proselytising children, despite the fact the ACCESS volunteers must sign an agreement which specifically outlaws proselytising.

I didn’t come out of primary school brainwashed, believing Jesus was the only way to avoid hell, I didn’t end up suspicious of other religions and cultures. However, I didn’t leave primary school with an understanding of Gospels, or of the messages of the Bible, or of our Judeo-Christian heritage. I didn’t know a thing about any other religion, believing Islam and Judaism were other denominations of Christianity.  As I found with my friend Boris, understanding one’s religion is key to understanding one’s culture. A secular religious education would have helped me develop a tighter relationship with both my best friend and others of different faiths to my own.