Monday, October 01, 2007

Blog Against Theocracy: Atheists in private schools

This post has been inspired by recent events involving an acquaintance of mine whose contract as a teacher at a religious private school was terminated when it was discovered (I assume via that most cherished of pastimes in John Howard's Australia: dobbing) that said teacher operated a blog containing views contrary to the religious doctrines of the school. The teacher had not made any reference to the school on the blog, nor had students or teachers been made aware of the blog's existence by its author. (Truth be told: I'm not even aware of the sacked teacher's religious affiliation.)

The OUT Campaign, drawing inspiration from gay and lesbian liberation movements, urges atheists to "come out of the closet"--to demonstrate to a theistic world that we are not the horned and scaly demons we are imagined to be. We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. We are your local firefighters or policemen, or doctors, or community workers. We may even be your teachers. & c. & c. Therein lies a slight problem (one doubtless recognised by OUT Campaign organisers): there are some careers in which it is more difficult and dangerous to be an "out" atheist or non-theist than others.

For example, I am an English teacher by trade and an atheist. But given the proportion of private to public schools in Australia, it is clearly against my professional interests to be an "out" atheist, because it would significantly decrease my employment opportunities. This is despite the fact that (a) being an atheist makes no difference whatsoever to my ability to teach English well, any more than if I were a teacher of mathematics, science, economics or history (Christians--apart from a select few who hold that pi=3--don't do mathematics differently than non-Christians, for instance); and (b) being an atheist makes no difference whatsoever to my ability to support the "ethos" of the school--unless, that is, someone wishes to meet Christopher Hitchens' challenge and point to a moral action that a believer could perform but which could not possibly be performed by a non-believer. Should I secure employment with such a school, it would also be against my professional interests to discuss my atheism with my colleagues--even in private over a few beers--because, as my friend's experience demonstrates, it is the kind of thing that could be used against me.

This isn't paranoia--it happened. It is curiously ironic that, in a supposedly modern, enlightened mature liberal democracy such as Australia, one is best advised to adopt a pseudonym if one wishes to speak one's mind freely--particularly on matters religious or political. But there it is: if you are a non-theist, have a blog, teach in a religious private school and wish to keep your job, anonymity is the best policy. That, and being extremely careful about who you share your blog address with.

It may be objected that private schools are just that--private--and therefore have the right to determine their own hiring policies. Furthermore, nobody is forced to seek employment there. Private schools, however, comprise a significant proportion of the education sector, and one of the main reasons for this is that for many years they have received federal funding. Lamentably, private schools overall tend also to provide better teaching and learning environments (e.g. facilities, behaviour management, etc.) than public schools. In other words, money which might have been directed to public schools, and which might have helped improve conditions there, has instead been used to promote the growth of private education. And given that private schools are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or non-belief, whereas public schools are not, the federal government is effectively endorsing discrimination against non-theists with taxpayer's money by funding private schools. That's not to say that I oppose federal funding of private schools. But I do think certain conditions should apply, and one of these is that schools receiving taxpayer funds in a secular liberal democracy should not have hiring policies that discriminate on the basis of religious belief or non-belief. Does that sound so unreasonable? Furthermore, is it really fair or just that teachers are locked out of a substantial proportion of schools merely by virtue of the fact that they are non-believers?

But I digress. I think much of the systemic discrimination against non-theists in private schools stems largely from their invisibility--were it to be more generally acknowledged that non-believers are just as "normal" and moral as any believer, such discrimination might not be so much of a problem. And this can most effectively be achieved if atheists are prepared to "out" themselves. Even if attitudes don't shift so quickly at the level of the schools themselves, there might develop greater legal and governmental advocacy and support for atheists if they were more visible. On the other hand, atheists who "out" themselves do so at potentially great personal, or at least financial risk. That alone is enough to discourage me from outing myself, and I think there would be many atheists in the same boat.

Kudos, however, to those atheists who do have the courage to stand up and be counted, both here and and in the US.