Interfaith educator Jean Holm says the present Bible in Schools programme is inappropriate and needs to be replaced.

Ms Holm says the problem with Bible in Schools is that it assumes the truth of Christian beliefs and this is inappropriate for a programme that includes children from non-Christian backgrounds. She says the designers of the Bible in Schools programme claim they are broadminded and that they are not brainwashing children, but the fact that they assume Christian beliefs about God and Jesus are true, shows they are brainwashing.

She also shared the concern expressed by the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists about children from other faiths or non-religious backgrounds being humiliated by being sent to the back of the class, during Bible in Schools, or into a separate room.

Ms Holm is a former co-president of the Council of Christians and Jews, and she said their approach contrasts with that taken by Bible in Schools. CCJ aims to create greater understanding between different faiths. Under no circumstances are they criticising each other.

Asked whether CCJ discusses conflicting Jewish and Christian beliefs, such as the resurrection of Jesus, she said differences do come up, but in a non-critical way. For instance, they have a joint meeting once a year between Christians, Jews and Muslims. They may talk about the person of Jesus, or different food customs, or the subject of death, and this has been quite successful. But this is not done in an argumentative style.

Ms Holm also helped set up religious studies syllabuses in Britain in the 1970s and 80s, and favours this kind of approach for New Zealand. She says Religious Studies is a statutory subject in the UK. Syllabuses are created by committees of representatives of different faiths. They covered material for primary and secondary schools. Different regions of the country were able to use this material; but could also add or subtract material, to suit local needs.

She stressed that religious studies means children learn about the practices held by major groups in their communities …but her programme was not education into religion and it didn’t criticise the other religions.

Ms Holm edited a series of five books about growing up in different religions … one each about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, and the ceremonies involved in each faith. Booklets were not prepared for Buddhism, as teachers had difficulty dealing with its wide range of branches. And non-religious beliefs were not covered, as the focus was on religion as a phenomenon; also, suitable material was not available on non-religious ceremonies.

But Buddhist and humanist beliefs were included in discussions on human experience themes, and questions such the different approaches to death and suffering. These were included in a book for teachers, and the background reading list included 10 books on humanism and atheism; books on science and religion and the problem of evil and the god of love. Other topics included the “creation myths” from various religions.

Applying this to the New Zealand situation, Ms Holm didn’t recommend teaching about humanism. She had three concerns:

(a) It didn’t fit with the philosophy of teaching about religion as a broad phenomenon, with each religion being used merely as examples,

(b) She wondered whether humanism or atheism were appropriate subjects for primary schools, though she thought they might be appropriate for older high school children,

(c) She wondered whether humanists would be able to adopt an approach that was not critical of other belief systems. When told that many NZARH members wanted their lifestyle to be presented alongside other beliefs in a professional, neutral way … she said that was a positive development, and seemed to represent a change over the past 10 years.

She agreed with the view of some NZARH members who say that a social studies approach is needed. She said it should not be promoting religion: “The aim is to understand what religion means to the people who practice it. It’s not teaching religion; it is teaching people about religion”.