Jackson Doughart
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Bible distribution in schools should be stopped

The Holy Post, 07 December 2010

Recently, the Waterloo Region District School Board in Ontario voted in favour of allowing The Gideons of Canada, a branch of the international evangelical organization of the same name, to distribute Bibles to grade-five students within the school district. There were stipulations, however, including a requirement for parental permission and a guarantee that the Bibles were not intended for in-school use.

According to a National Post article on November 30, the reaction to this decision has been mixed. Trustees who were in favour as well as those opposed to the motion were interviewed, with one of those in favour citing the Gideon program as a method of promoting necessary Christian morals in the secularized public education environment. Those opposed to the proposal question its legitimacy on the grounds that allowing The Gideons to provide Bibles to students amounts to proselytization and indoctrination of children.

It is important to keep in mind that the actual effects of giving out free Bibles to kids are probably quite small, regardless of whether or not this is a defensible endeavour. Most kids will probably never open their free Bibles, just as they do not read most optional reading material. The Bible is also not an easy read for most 10-year-olds, given its length and use of literary devices such as metaphors. It is also important to note that distributing Bibles to students is not the same as making religious texts available in libraries for students who may be interested in reading them for academic purposes. Nonetheless, the legitimacy of this program is questionable, since it involves the school board condoning the dissemination of religious material in secular schools, which are not authorized to promote any particular religion to students.

In a previous article, I advocated for comparative religious studies courses to be introduced by provincial governments in high schools across Canada in part because an understanding of the Bible is vital to comprehending scriptural allusions in English literature. This is one of many reasons why it is important to discuss the topic of religion with high-school students. However, this position does not contradict the contention that elementary schools are not the proper places to begin debating religious claims with students. 10-year-old children are just too young and impressionable to really understand the subject matter on their own. If children of this age are to be discussing religion, it should be in their own homes with their parents.

In a secular public school system, there is no place for attempts to convert children to particular religious beliefs. There exist many other avenues through which faith organizations can legitimately promote their religions without having to target children. Nothing inhibits faith groups from passing out free Bibles to families, except that most parents who are not already Christians would probably not be interested. If faith groups want to promote Christianity to the children of non-Christian parents, they should be made to wait until these children are adults and have developed their ability to consider the variety of perspectives on religious faith.

Those in favour of Bible distribution may suggest that allowing The Gideons to pass out Bibles to students is consistent with respecting freedoms of expression and religion. For this argument to hold, these people must also support distributing materials from all religious perspectives. Doubtless those approving of The Gideons in this case would be less vocal about their support for a group of Muslims wanting to distribute copies of the Koran to 10-year-old children, or a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses wanting to hand out copies of The Watchtower, or a group of atheists wanting to distribute copies of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Allowing religious groups to promote their faiths to children could also open the door to other interest groups, including political parties, to market themselves to children in hope of future support.

Instead of allowing all interest groups to promote themselves in schools, school boards should block attempts by these groups to convert children to a particular world view, religion or ideology at such a young age and affirm that schools are places for children to develop their own academic and personal skills, none of which are more important than the abilities to read, write and reflect critically. These abilities are not learned by accident. Rather, proper instruction from teachers who seek to develop their students into literate citizens while not promoting their own biases best prepares students to make their own decisions about faith and religion when they are old enough to do so – as adults. Thus, neither The Gideons nor any other faith group should be allowed to distribute religious materials to children in schools.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com