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In Victoria, religious diversity education is primarily offered in faith-based schools. Many Catholic, Jewish and Muslim schools run interfaith programs, and some community organisations also provide educational initiatives to all schools.
Since the 1990s, special religious instruction has been available to students, with volunteers of varying faiths offering an overview of many religions. Deakin University sociology lecturer and Religion, Ethics and Education Network of Australia representative Dr Anna Halafoff says there is an opportunity to introduce religion and beliefs education in Victorian schools.
“These types of programs can encourage students to explore and respect other religions and cultures through learning about other religions,” Halafoff says. “These programs have been studied and do have a beneficial effect, in terms of increasing inter-religious understanding and respect.
“In the new national curriculum in Australia, there are many opportunities to teach about diverse religion and world views, and there is also an appreciation of the importance of learning about a religion
Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies president Professor Constant Mews – who is also the director of Monash University’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology – says that along with interfaith studies, there is “a strong awareness here for spirituality”.
“The study of different orientations that may not involve institutionalised religion but demands familiarity with the spiritual traditions of different religions is for students who do not feel connected to traditional belief structures,” he says.
“They may find it very interesting to learn the spiritual paths that have been taught by spiritual leaders of different backgrounds.”
An awareness of the importance of interfaith education is growing in Australia. Halafoff says this is important, as globalisation and technology affect how we live and work with people of diverse cultural backgrounds.
“We are living in an increasingly diverse society and we are moving around a lot more,” she says. “If you want to live and work in Melbourne or Hong Kong or Dubai, you need to have a basic understanding of the beliefs of your neighbours, your colleagues or your employers.”
“We are now in a world that you are quite likely to know people who are Buddhist or Hindu, whereas 50 years ago that would be unlikely,” he says. “There is a need for awareness of the meaning and understanding of a secular society, where no religion has a monopoly. This doesn’t mean that there is no religious tradition but, in fact, many diverse religious traditions.”
Mews says ‘world religions and religions of the modern world’ – which is a first-year undergraduate subject at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology – is a response to students’ interest in cultures and religions, sparked by travel.
At secondary-school level, Dandenong High School has taken a lead in offering religious awareness outside the faith-based schools’ sector.
“It’s interesting how enthusiastic students can get about this study,” Mews says. “What is also involved in this education is engaging in critical study in the meaning behind rituals, for example, food and purity laws.
“There is also a great benefit for students involved in the critical study of the sacred texts of their tradition, including the Bible, Koran and Buddhist texts.”
There are many in-school and out-of-class programs for primary and secondary school students, including the Building Bridges program, which offers interfaith dialogue in Melbourne schools.
The Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia’s schools program is used by faith-based and government schools.
“We talk about tolerance and diversity and appreciation of difference, which can be applied across the board with racial, cultural, political, social and religious differences,” the association’s schools committee member, Rabbi Shamir Caplan, says.
“The program’s emphasis is not about Judaism, Christianity or Islam; it’s about giving information to clarify misunderstandings and also to highlight a lot of the commonality.”
The Jewish Christian Muslim Association program includes basic information on different religions. But its focus is on co-existence between religions, including discussing identity, tolerance and what it means to be an Australian today.
The Together for Humanity Foundation Australia provides teacher training, as well as schools programs and advice for parents.
Parents can also guide their children in religious diversity education through online material or books, including The Really Big Beliefs Project by Emma Barnard and Thomas Cho, and Time to Celebrate: Identity, Diversity and Belief by Mark and Olga Fox.