High School Chaplaincies

Recently there was a classic post in the Sydney Morning Herald attempting to defend the role of religious Chaplains in secular schools. The author bio at the end of the article should probably have been at the beginning, since it immediately explains the author’s unsurprising bias:

Tim Mander is the chief executive of Scripture Union Queensland, Australia’s largest employer of school chaplains in  government schools.

I guess when people get their medical advice from cigarette companies and have their opinions on climate change shaped by oil companies, one more written piece of blatant bias shouldn’t really surprise me. Of course those whose businesses revolve around Chaplains are going to be in support of their positions in schools – they’d be out of a job if they weren’t.

Tim Mander makes the common mistake of assuming that atheists and secularists have pitted themselves against religious teaching in schools simply because they don’t understand the issue. What he fails to comprehend is the concept that people might understand the issue completely and still disagree with him.

I’ve been mulling over this article and thought that it might be worth going through it and tearing it apart line-by-line, since it contains some real doozies – the kind of ‘arguments’ that crop up over and over, and which make no more sense on repetition than they did in the first place.

Let’s begin at the beginning:

It’s surprising that this relatively benign decision —  to allow school  communities the option to receive federal funding for a chaplain – is so  controversial, considering chaplaincy has existed within many spheres of  Australian society for years.

1a) Basically untrue: The government funding religion in secular schools is not a benign decision. (Although, one may truthfully say it is relatively benign when compared to, say, slaughtering small puppy dogs, I suppose.)

1b) Argument from tradition: Racism has existed throughout many spheres of human society for years, as well. Does this make it a good idea and a policy worth keeping?

During recent disasters, such as bushfires, floods and cyclones, chaplains were  well accepted as providers of an important role in the multi-faceted community  response.  Chaplains have also proved valuable in more than just disaster  response. For example, the “Salvos” embody the pastoral care and spiritual  support that typifies the role, and have been a much loved part of the  Australian landscape for decades.

2) Irrelevant: Are these the same “Salvos” that discriminate against people in need on the basis of their sexuality (or do they only do that in America)?  Either way, what’s the relevance of this paragraph? Chaplains helping out after disasters and Christian charity work have nothing to do with exposing impressionable children to religious dogma.

Similarly, chaplaincy in schools is not new, having started in some states more  than 50 years ago, and chaplains have long been in the emergency services,  hospitals, the defence forces, and even professional sporting teams.

3) Argument from tradition: see above

The High Court Challenge threatens funding for more than 2500 chaplains across  Australia, and whether the current concerns spring from ideology or from a lack  of information, understanding the National School Chaplaincy Program is  important.

4a) Well, if you call a concern for the separation of Church and State “ideology”…

4b) We already understand the Program. It is the Program that is the problem, not the public’s understanding of it.

Importantly, having a school chaplain is voluntary. In the first instance, a  school community will decide whether it wants a chaplaincy service, and then  they agree on the faith background of the prospective chaplain. The reason that  the majority of school chaplains come from the Christian faith is because the  school community has made that collective choice.

5) Argument from popularity: otherwise refuted as, “just because everyone thinks it’s a good idea doesn’t mean it’s actually a good idea” (refer to racism and the argument from tradition, above). I bet that those schools didn’t ask the permission of every single parent before installing a Christian Chaplain. Manders acts like everyone is on board with the idea, which is weird – clearly everyone is not on board, or he wouldn’t be writing an article about it and there wouldn’t be a High Court challenge on the matter.

Nevertheless, no matter what the faith of the chaplain, they provide comfort and  support to all students and staff, regardless of their religious affiliation or  beliefs. People often make the mistake of equating religious education classes  with chaplaincy, however, the two are separate and distinct in role, function  and personnel.

6a) Blatant lie: If you were a teenager struggling with your sexuality, or having a crisis of faith and considering atheism, would you be stupid enough to go and see your school’s religious Chaplain? Do you really think they would offer you ‘comfort’ and ‘support’? A more useful way of supporting students and staff would be to put the money towards qualified counsellors and psychologists.

6b) Not entirely true: While there is a slight difference between chaplaincy and religious education, including either one in an educational institution gives religion the illusion of validity. By funding religious Chaplains, the government is lending weight to a religious world view. Imagine if schools paid people who believed in fairies and unicorns to provide ‘support’ for students, purely on the basis of their belief in said imaginary beings. I’m a big fan of fairies and unicorns and all things sparkly, but even I think the notion is ridiculous. Why is religion treated any differently? On what basis are these people qualified to provide guidance to kids?

A key piece of misinformation muddying the issue is the false assertion that  chaplains are there to proselytise. The inability, or unwillingness, to  differentiate between imposition of religious beliefs, and serving spiritual  needs, is fundamental to this confusion.

7) Even more blatant lie: This is the most moronic section in the whole article. Tim Mander’s ability to blithely ignore evidence is impressive and disturbing. That the school Chaplains are there to proselytise is not a false assertion: it is a fact supported by extensive evidence from the Chaplaincy program itself. (For example, see this news article regarding comments made by the head of Access Ministries, Evonne Paddison).

It doesn’t matter how many times Manders and others like him squawk “not-proselytising!” Denying reality does not change it. There is no ‘inability’ or ‘unwillingness’ on the part of secularists, and there is certainly no confusion. The agenda of Chaplains is very, very clear. To pretend otherwise is misleading. Perhaps someone needs to remind these people that lying is a sin.

A chaplain serves the community in a “first-response capacity” by providing pastoral care, spiritual support and referral pathways to access specialist crisis support.

They are able to do this as they are approachable, having a neutral, rather than disciplinary role.

8 ) Again, put yourself in the shoes of a student struggling with their sexuality and imagine just how ‘approachable’ a Christian Chaplain would be. Side note: I don’t care how open-minded and warmfuzzy some denominations are; they all go by the Bible, and the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. I have no idea how these people can possibly consider themselves to be ‘neutral’ when they have an agenda wider than the Nullabor.

A misrepresentation that often fuels suspicion or angst is the cost of the program. Rarely does it get pointed out that the annual funding for each school in the program is $20,000.

9) That’s $20,000 worth of Church-State-Separation-Fail.

The care of school communities is of critical importance, and unfortunately, the issue of whether chaplains are capable and qualified is awash with misunderstanding. It’s important for the community’s peace of mind to know that all chaplains employed by member organisations of the National School Chaplaincy Association (which employs 85 per cent of chaplains in government schools) have minimum training requirements, and they receive ongoing professional development.

10) Weirdly enough, “minimum training requirements” and “ongoing professional development” from institutions that believe in a magic man in the sky and the moral authority of the voices in their heads? Not reassuring to the saner folk among us. Not helping our “peace of mind”.

Importantly, qualified educational professionals overwhelmingly endorse the program. In a 2009 national survey it was found that 98 per cent of responding principals who had a chaplain in their school wanted government funding for school chaplaincy to continue.

11) … Look, pardon the French, but is this guy fucking stupid? Does he really think that principals who have already chosen to employ chaplains in their schools wouldn’t want government funding for it? Also, he’s conflating “qualified educational professionals” with “principals who had a chaplain in their school”, and I’m afraid I just can’t see the logical link between those two groups.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is sure: chaplains promote wellbeing in our community [No, they don’t], and we must find a way to keep them in schools. [Citation needed, buddy.]

Well, there’s the end of that exercise in simplistic literary criticism. If you’d like to read something to get the bad taste out of your mouth, I recommend Peter Fitzsimons’ response to an offended religious letter-writer. Onya, Fitz – my respect for you has duly increased.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nick Vaccari
    Aug 20, 2011 @ 05:38:42

    It may surprise you that I might just raise a few points of contention 🙂

    Having grown up involved with several churches, early years in catholic schools and regular scripture classes thereafter I think I can say with a fair bit of self evident evidence to back me up that teaching kids religion does not make them religious.
    To take a quote from Fitz:
    “The country with the greatest number of Christian nutters per holy hectare is of course the United States of America, and yet within their public education system there is not a skerrick of religious classes”
    So clearly school chaplains aren’t responsible for the religious zealotry.

    Another Fitz quote:
    “Theology is little more than a branch of human ignorance”
    A view you’ve upheld in full in your post. I too will not shy away from saying I think many of the beliefs upheld by religions are delusions. But to use phrases like “gives religion the illusion of validity” and to make comparison to “fairies and unicorns” makes your responses carry just as little weight than those you refute. So the author of this article has an agenda, and you don’t?
    To take as an example the Christian New Testament; to study the text is to study the most faithfully recorded piece of ancient history possessed by the human race. To examine the Quran is to study the most widely held world view when it comes to matters of faith, morality and justice. To philosophise over the moral teachings of the major religions aids one in developing their own moral understanding. Care to argue how these pursuits are “little more than a branch of human ignorance”?

    The school chaplaincy program is implemented with rules against preaching to convert children to a particular belief. Also, the chaplain need not be of any particular faith. So my understanding is chaplains are there to provide spiritual guidance and first line counseling to students who desire it, and to run religious education (what I remember as scripture classes). The obvious reality is the guidance and education will be heavily coloured by the personal beliefs of the chaplain. But I would not on this basis deny these roles have an important place within the education system. I think religious education is very important, particularly if you want to fight against it.

    I feel like I should end on a less argumentative note… I totally agree with point 11)!

    P.S. To avoid misunderstanding, I also agree with point 9). For the state to support school chaplains to inevitably preach there denominational beliefs to children is a joke. But I think your arguments could use some polish 😉
    I am not opposed to broad spectrum religious education having a formalised place in the curriculum and being taught by a qualified teacher, preferably a historian. But save preaching and spiritual guidance for the churches.


    • Andrew Skegg (@askegg)
      Aug 27, 2011 @ 13:30:36

      “The school chaplaincy program is implemented with rules against preaching to convert children to a particular belief. “

      Making the requirement that chaplains employed under the NSCP be religious completely irrelevant. Our government is spending anther $220 million on employing religious people, then telling them they cannot act religion. This is sheer stupidity.

      “So my understanding is chaplains are there to provide spiritual guidance….”

      Define “spiritual”. How do we measure it to determine the effectiveness of the chaplaincy service?


      • Nick Vaccari
        Sep 03, 2011 @ 14:54:42

        Upon re-reading the article perhaps I misinterpreted that Chaplains are religious education teachers? In fact he makes the point “People often make the mistake of equating religious education classes with chaplaincy”.
        If this is the case then it was more Fitz’s article that I was debating because I do believe religious education is important.

        And I agree with you Andrew, “spending anther $220 million on employing religious people, then telling them they cannot act religious” is ridiculous. Making disciples is one of the fundamental tenants of most religions, so do deny this function to a chaplain is to invite a conflict of interest.

        “Define “spiritual”. How do we measure it to determine the effectiveness of the chaplaincy service?”
        This is the fundamental question. But to deny students the access to spiritual and pastoral guidance is potentially more harmful than promoting it. There is no denying that to a proportion of the population, spirituality is very important. What if families prevent children from attending churches?

        “Whatever the outcome, one thing is sure: chaplains promote wellbeing in our community [No they don’t]”
        What is this assertion based on? Sure, we might not agree with chaplains making disciples. But when did promoting generosity, kindness, honesty etc… become opposed to community well-being? You might not be as familiar with the ‘agenda’ of chaplains as you claim to be.

        “If you were a teenager struggling with your sexuality, or having a crisis of faith and considering atheism, would you be stupid enough to go and see your school’s religious Chaplain?”
        Why ‘stupid’, have you tried this recently? Do you really think they would throw the book at you and condemn you for admitting this? How is talking to and learning from someone who has made their choices on these issues one way or another going to make your decision worse. If anything it would make it more informed?

        I think the separation of church and state is important and I do not agree with this funding decision. Coping with issues of children’s wellbeing would be better handled as Reffi stated:
        “to put the money towards qualified counsellors and psychologists.”

        But if this is the claim, then the debate should focus on why this is the case rather than adopting a Tony Abbot style of negative debate that dismisses the opposition as “institutions that believe in a magic man in the sky.”.

  2. Andrew Skegg (@askegg)
    Aug 27, 2011 @ 13:27:21

    2) The Salvos are clearly an evangelical Christian organisation. See their belief statements (http://salvos.org.au/our-faith/beliefs/) and their positional statements (http://salvos.org.au/about-us/overview/positional-statements.php)

    11) You may want to watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVEe_vYV0v4


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