In secular societies from Australia to America, a child must attend a private school if he or she is to have a religious education. It could be argued (and often is) that Americans are more religious than their Aussie counterparts. But Australia has no shortage of religiously affiliated private schools. In fact they seem far more frequent than in America. The vast number of parents that choose to send their children to a religious school seems to be a chief exception to the largely secular attitude of Australian society. However the true influence of religious education in Australian private schools is questionable. Parents’ choice to send their children to these religious schools is not necessarily an indicator of religious affiliation or faith.
Not long ago I was out to lunch with a group of women. All were white Australians near 30 years of age. Most had children so the conversation quickly turned to what I deem ‘mum talk.’ Two of the women had their children enrolled in the same Catholic, private school. Both children had taken to using the phrase, “Peace be with you.” This is no doubt a gesture they were instructed to use when addressing their teachers. It is a pleasant gesture in my opinion, but apparently not so to the children’s mothers. They thought it odd that this phrase was added to their regular ‘goodnight routine.’ One mother was especially perturbed by it and instructed her son not to say it at home, but instead to “leave school things at school.”
While this case can not be indicative of every family with children in religious school, it goes to show that religious schools are not exclusive to students from typically religious families. It also shows that secularism is not only an institutional phenomenon, but a phenomenon very active in the minds of Aussies. While religious private schools are allowed to exist and are fairly common in secular Australia, perhaps due to their respected institutional affiliations, their influence beyond their gates is heavily policed and regulated.
For religious families, a child’s religious education may be encouraged and facilitated outside of school. But for secular families simply seeking out the best education rather than a religious education, may lead parents to actively discourage their child’s faith and further enforce the religious / secular boundary. The wider implication of this is an ongoing appreciation of churches and affiliated private schools as institutions, but not necessarily as centers of faith. While these schools may be able to ensure faculty and staff share the philosophical stance of the affiliated denomination, achieving the same with students is much more difficult. As the budget requires tuition paying students, the school may need to be more flexible with student beliefs and backgrounds to remain viable. Secularism not only limits the schools’ influence in the wider lives of their students, but the secular attitudes of the students may make its way into the school culture. Where secular humanists once fought off religious influence, religion is fighting to not become secularized.