South African schools and the Religion / Atheism debate
Two weeks ago the director of an organisation known as Sceptic South Africa stirred up a hornets’ nest when he revealed his intention to go to court to force schools in South Africa to stop propagating religion during class time in schools. Those interested in his arguments, can read it here: Public schools flout national laws on religious instruction.
He has in the meantime apparently decided not to go to court. While one can never be 100% sure about the outcome of a court case, I doubt whether he would have been able to win this one. South Africa has an extremely liberal constitution, probably one of the most liberal in the world. But this is a blessing in disguise, because the constitution guarantees that nobody will be discriminated against for whatever reason, including religion. Furthermore, the school act allows the school’s governing body to determine the ethos of the school as well as the predominant religion of the school, with the clear understanding that there will be no discrimination in whatever form against people who do not follow this religion.
Formerly, in the pre-1994 years, all government schools were Christian. One could not be appointed as a teacher within the Education Department if one was not (at least on paper) a Christian. During my school years, we had Bible periods which were mostly a waste of time. These periods were mostly used to do homework. With the exception of my last year at school when we had a wonderful teacher for our Bible period, I learned absolutely nothing in these periods and it did not help me to grow closer to God in any way.
The school where my youngest two children attend and where my wife is also teaching, start and end each day with prayer. Nobody is forced to partake in these activities. People with strong objections are allowed to be out of the classroom during these times. What the director of Sceptic South Africa intended, was to stop any form of practising religion within school hours, which would make any prayer during school time illegal.
I don’t get overly stressed about things like this. History has shown time and again that any attempts such as this to stop the influence of Christianity, leads to the strengthening of the church. It was Tertullian who said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” After all missionaries were forced to leave Mocambique during the Frelimo period, the church, instead of dying, became stronger. But I also realise that, should this case go to court, then I do not have the ability to make any change to the final decision. I can pray for the outcome, but that is more or less as far as it will go. Even lobbying for a certain cause, is not supposed to have any influence on the outcome of a court decision.
However, I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two weeks. With all due respect, I think anyone thinking that they will stop the influence of Christianity by forbidding religion in schools, still has a lot to learn. Most probably, should this case go to court and even more so if they should win the case, there will be a huge rise in people professing their faith (good), but there will also be a rise in extreme Christian fundamentalism (not so good) and both of these are going to be totally counter-productive towards the purpose of the sceptics who, it seems to me, want to eradicate all forms of religion as unscientific and therefore untrue.
But, speaking from my experience as missionary, I believe that the sceptics are also missing another extremely important point, which is the influence of African churches in Southern Africa. As the White population seems to be focussing increasingly on physical science and less on God, the opposite seems to be happening amongst Black people. Last week I was at a school in Swaziland around the time that they closed for the day. All the children gathered outside the building (they don’t have the luxury of an assembly hall) where a few closing remarks were made by the principal before the day was ended with a prayer. Because most Black churches are poor and cannot afford full-time pastors, they often make use of dedicated Christians in other occupations (tentmakers) to lead their congregations. We have at least four school teachers in our church (which is a very small church) who are tentmakers. I cannot for one moment think that these people will stop Scripture reading and prayer at their schools, even if they should be forbidden by law to do so.
I hope this doesn’t lead to a court case, as the only people who will win in the process, are the lawyers. But if it should reach that point, it will be interesting to see how the people of South Africa are going to react.