Islam, Christianity & religious education

Since I arrived in Australia for the 2009 academic session I have been able to diversify my interests and research ‘expertise’ further.  One area that has captured my interest of late has been the nature of religious and theological education, and so I’ve embarked on reading and writing in this area alongside some of my older theological interests.   As far as I see it, this is not merely an issue of mechanics (how to do better what is already on offer) but a philosophical one (asking about what education is, and specifically religious and theological education within that), and an ethical one too (asking about what the ‘good life’ we are educated into is, about what forms of power and oppression take place in education systems, and so on).

More recently this interest has taken on a further layer.  On 3rd June 2011 I spent a memorable evening at the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy Australia (, delivering the public lecture ‘Would God Hide His Face?  Tracing the End of Religion in the West’.  That evening, along with a further invitation by the Newcastle Herald to contribute an ‘Opinion Piece’ on religious discrimination in suburban Australia, has forced me to think hard about the type of state school education on religious matters that is available.

The Newcastle Herald Opinion piece is made available below.


30th Aug 2011

Two weeks after arriving inAustraliain late 2008 I was welcomed by a neighbour:  “It’s wonderful to finally meet people coming to live here from theUK.  There are too many Asian immigrants!  And they all have funny religions!”  I was not unprepared for just such an attitude – before departing theUKtwo Australian friends argued that there is a lingering racism in the country, despite the relaxed Antipodean exterior the rest of the world.  They mentioned the White Australia policy, the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in the 1990s, the appeal to white supremacism for a unitedAustraliaby PM John Howard, and the growing fears over Muslims after theNew York,LondonandMadridattacks.

A research project launched from the Universityof Western Sydneyover the past decade suggests that my friends were not entirely exaggerating.  In 2006, in reflecting on these findings, ABC News sensationally claimed that a considerable proportion of Australians remain deeply racist.  One in ten surveyed openly admitted to having racist attitudes (12% in NSW), and almost half admit to particularly fearing Islam and the Muslim community (48.6%).  The proportion of people admitting to racist attitudes from theCentralCoast,Newcastle and Hunter regions, ethnically dominated by an Anglo-Celtic mix as they are, was slightly higher again.  I say ‘attitudes’ since several commentators have recognised that the vast majority of people resolutely argue they are not racist, even if often their actions can suggest otherwise.  So six years ago Howard claimed, “I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country.”  However, anAustralianNationalUniversity study of 2009 suggested that people with Asian and Middle Eastern names are less likely to be offered employment interviews than those particularly with Anglo-Irish names.  Occasionally too, local news reports incidents of assault on non-European students at theUniversity ofNewcastle being assaulted in some form or another on our city streets.

Several studies attribute the vehement opposition to the building of mosques and Islamic schools in Australian cities to a growing Islamaphobia.  But it is not entirely clear that this is the case with most of the recent opposition to the proposed mosque at Elermore Vale.  For some time the Muslim community has been using a building in Wallsend, and it has not realised the kinds of fears that are commonly articulated by white Australians in other suburban areas – fears over Islamic extremism, over social and cultural alienation of the residents through an influx of perceived to be ‘alien’ people, and so on.  Several emotively anti-Muslim statements were indeed heard locally, and the Australian Protectionist Party attempted to influence the proceedings and generate support.  But the Party has been largely unsuccessful here, and the arguments against the relocation have been kept free of the taint of ethnic and religious sentiment.  Of course, these may well be a ruse, a cover for anti-Muslim feeling, but it is difficult to demonstrate that that is so (the future building of a mega-church or some kind of temple to the secular religion of consumerism there would reveal that religious and cultural discrimination had indeed been at work).  If nothing else the Muslim community was able to focus its attention on dealing with the practical concerns (traffic congestion, issues of car-parking space, and so on).

Yet if nothing else media reports around this mosque issue, and the various recent studies on racism in Australia, have unmistakably demonstrated that there remains significant ignorance over Islam in our society.  Ignorance, combined with reports of Islamacist violence, encourages separation, misunderstanding and fear – and these can lead, under certain conditions, to prejudice, discrimination and even violence.  In fact, many Christians claim that secularAustralia’s ignorance results in them too being discriminated against by the media and other bodies in society, and, equally, non-religious people have increasingly protested about discrimination against their own children when opting out of ‘Scripture’ classes in public primary schools, for instance.  Religious and non-religious communities are growing apart in such a way that mutual understanding is increasingly weakened, and therefore forms of separation (including private religious schooling) are becoming more the norm.  It is time for state and federal governments to entertain the question of how to improve this religious and cultural literacy.  One place to begin would be to design a good education in religious studies in our public schools, from Kinder classes onwards, by trained specialists who do not push any religious or secular tribal indoctrination.

Prof. John C. McDowell


5 thoughts on “Islam, Christianity & religious education

  1. Dear John,
    Given the ignorance surrounding theology, even in the social sciences, I wonder if you or any of your colleagues would be interested in writing a book for social scientists introducing them to theology. Gerald Arbuckle, SM, wrote such a text “Culture, Inculturation and Theologians” that introduces anthropology to theology. I have his contact if you are interested.
    Thanks for your excellent lecture. It is insightful, useful and invigorating.
    Regards Jane (Postdoc Research Fellow, Anthrop, UWA)

    • Hi Jane, many thanks for your kind comments. The book idea sounds intriguing. Much of my work has involved me more and more reading social scientists, so maybe the book you mention might emerge as a result at some point. I’d like to hear more about Gerald Arbuckle, and his work might function as a shadow guide. Best wishes, John

      • Hi John, Thanks for the reply. Gerard Arbuckle is a cultural anthropologist and Marist priest who has written extensively on religion, particularly the Catholic Church. I have taken the liberty to forward your email onto Gerard, who lives in Sydney. I am sure he would appreciate any contact you might make with him. He is a very generous and knowledgeable character and if you proceed with such a project, he would be an excellent person to speak to. Jane

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts John … I just heard your ABC (Radio National) interview on theology and the future Australian Education – well done. I’m in Brisbane, and have just started a PhD @ Uni Qld in Practical Theology exploring the place of Sacred Texts in Australian Public Education (in particular, as part of the emerging Australian Curriculum). My main aims are to tackle secularisation and assumptions of its neutrality (e.g., finding correlation b/n a Christian theology of education (telos) and the stated aims of the framers of the Australian Curriculum.
    Long story short, other than the radio interview you gave, and the New College lectures in 2011 on a similar topic, have you written much at an academic level for the Australian context? … very keen to hear more of your thoughts, and perhaps find key sources you’ve found helpful toward this end. Thanks for any help, and best wishes with your work in NSW. david.benson(at)

    • Hi Dave, thanks for your kind comments. Your project sounds very interesting and I’d like to hear more. It’s very interesting that while biblical literacy, and even broader religious literacy, is weak in Western cultures many artists/poets/novelists/etc. remain deeply interested in appealing to biblical ideas, motifs and characters. The specific Australian context is one I see myself studying in more detail over the coming years, although my published reflections to date have had a more general reference (largely dealing with a British context in the light of shifts in German idealism). It’ll be good to stay in touch and to hear of how your work develops.
      Many thanks, John

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