Update – Schools, Scripture, Banning of Books and Sexual Orthodoxy

My previous post mentioned that some books used in Special Religious Education (SRE) in NSW had been summarily banned by the Department of Education and Communities, apparently on the grounds that they conveyed classical Christian teaching about sexual morality. In that post I said:

It is to be hoped that on review the Department will realise both that the way this was done is entirely unacceptable, and also that the content of the books concerned is not as harmful as it has been alleged to be.

One of those hopes has been realised, but the other has not. On 19 May 2015 the Minister for Education wrote to the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney to advise that there was no longer any ban on “two books, and their accompanying student handbooks, namely, You: An Introduction by Dr Michael Jensen and A Sneaking Suspicion by Dr John Dickson”. The minister confirmed that the third book mentioned in the previous Departmental email, Dr Patricia Weerakoon’s Teen Sex by the Book was not on the list of reading for SRE. (The letter indicated that this book may have been used in some government schools outside Sydney; I have seen no independent confirmation that this is so, but of course it is not impossible.)

The process issue

My first hope was that the Department would realise that the process that was followed in this “book banning” was entirely unacceptable. The Minister in his letter “regrets” the lack of prior consultation and assures the Archbishop that “if similar concerns are raised in the future it will immediately discuss the matter with SRE providers as a first step”. That is something, although it would have been perhaps more appropriate if there had been a frank acknowledgement that this was clearly wrong. As it is arguable that what was done was completely outside the lawful authority of the Department mere “regret” seems fairly weak.

The content issues

My second hope, that the Department would clearly resile from the view that these books were harmful in some way, has not been fulfilled at all. The closest we come to understanding why on earth these books were a concern is as follows:

the original memorandum was issued by the DEC on advice that there was a potential risk to students in the delivery of this material, if not taught sensitively and in an age appropriate manner.

This language seems to conceal more than it reveals. What sort of “risk”?

While so far the Department has not seen fit to enlighten us about the risk, some hints may be obtained from a post by one of those who strongly supported the ban. A member of the Greens political party who supported the original ban has posted a document which, if it is not the very one that was used to persuade the Department, seems likely to be similar. The complaints about the material include that they contain “negative views about abortion”, “outdated and sexist female headship views” (I assume the intention was to refer to Biblical views about male headship), and of course that dangerous proposition that sexual relationships are meant to be reserved for marriage:

The lessons reinforce that love is only between a man and woman and that men and women are designed to perfectly complement each other. This sends a message that anything other than a heterosexual relationship within the bounds of marriage is wrong.

The document also includes without comment an article entitled “Thank God for the Gift of Cancer”, which was intended to be used as a discussion starter with senior students. No doubt  it is challenging to read, but equally there are no doubt many books accessible in high school libraries dealing with illness and death. There are then comments labelled as “homophobic” such as the suggestion that the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is “promoting sexual selfishness, triviality and unfaithfulness”.

There is then the following sequence of non sequiturs:

This lesson is designed to instruct the student that sex outside marriage is wrong according to God, teaches as fact that extramarital sex is bad and sex within marriage is sublime.

Purity culture is one in which young people – particularly young girls and young women – are expected to remain sexually chaste until marriage.

Abstinence only sex education is linked to higher teen pregnancy rates and higher STD rates.

The first statement seems unobjectionable as a summary of Christian morality; the second defines a modern term “purity culture”, which as far as can be seen is not used in the book in question; and the third makes the massive (and totally unjustified) leap to suggesting that the book somehow is suggesting a program of “abstinence only sex education”. Whatever the detriments of the latter as a general way of educating teenagers about sex, that is not what this book is about. It is not a “sex education” book; it is a book which discusses aspects of life from a Christian perspective, and accurately reports the Biblical view of sexual morality among a large number of other topics.

Finally, the summary somehow turns a passing allusion to Genesis 34 and the incident of the rape of Dinah into a comment “equating rape with sexual promiscuity and shame”. Just to be clear, the chapter concerned records a dreadful incident of rape, but does not in any way suggest it was produced by Dinah’s “sexual promiscuity”.

I have noted these allegations in some detail in order to illuminate the chasm that seems to be emerging between some views of modern Western morality and traditional Christian beliefs. The books being attacked here are not at the fringes of Christianity, they are squarely in the mainstream of Biblical thought. The views being attacked are central to the Christian faith. Yet they now being characterised as “harmful”.

Even if many now think those views are wrong, why is it necessary to prevent them being taught by representatives of a religious group which has legislative permission to provide religious education, to young people whose parents are willing for them to have such education? Values of both freedom of religion and freedom of speech count in favour of an ongoing dialogue on these issues, instead of an attitude which enforces one “acceptable” line and treats young people, who are exposed to a huge range of competing views through the media and the internet, as too fragile to be told that the Bible’s teachings differ from those of their general community.

How many remember that in the late 60’s and early 70’s Australia was shaken by controversy as a radical book for students, “The Little Red Schoolbook“, was distributed by left wing activists to high school students? It presented a view of sexual behaviour which was at odds with the majority community consensus. But many on the left loudly supported the circulation of the book, in line with principles of free speech and free thought. The tables seem to have almost completely turned. Views of “free love” and sexual liberation outside marriage are now the current orthodoxy, while books that support chastity and sex within long-term committed marriage are now the ones under attack. Students are entitled to hear points of view at odds with the majority culture. Rather than the heavy-handed enforcement of majoritarian sexual orthodoxy, why not allow other views to be heard and evaluated?

Australia is a country with a wide range of views on religious and other matters. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for religious groups to be able to teach the children of those who want them taught, the views of those religions.