Oikophobia Triumphans, or The Place of Religion in the Draft National Curriculum for History

by David Daintree

This is a chapter from a collection of pieces on the proposed  National Curriculum published by the Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne, in late 2010.  It was edited by Chris Berg.  It is reproduced here by kind permission of the IPA (www.ipa.org.au)

An invitation from the editors to contribute a chapter on the treatment of religion in the draft National Curriculum for History opened an exciting prospect.  Here was a chance, I thought, to defend the honour of Christianity amidst the cut and thrust of educational theory, pitting myself against the intricate arguments of those who would deny, or at least downplay, the greatness of the influence of Christianity in the unravelling of the great events of the ages.

I was in for a disappointment;  it was a kind of ‘no ball’.  The compilers of the draft curriculum have chosen the simplest strategy of all:  deliberate, pointed, tendentious and outrageous silence.

In its 20 pages, the draft Ancient History curriculum mentions religion twice (p.14).  There is no reference to Christianity anywhere in the document.  Now that is perhaps understandable in Ancient History (if one is prepared to leave unexamined authorities such as Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny the younger in the old world and Gibbon in the new), so let us move on.

The draft Modern History curriculum is 30 pages long.  Surely here we may expect that Christianity and the other major monotheistic Faiths will enjoy a higher profile?  Not so.  Christianity is simply never mentioned – at least not explicitly.  The word religion appears twice, the first occurrence in the context of Indian history (p. 10), and the second in the context of Asian and African decolonization.  However the precise phrase in which it is found discloses, I think, the agenda of the compilers: ‘the effect of racism, religion and European cultures’.  I said before that Christianity is never mentioned, but here, surely, is an oblique mention of Christianity and a judgement upon it at the same time.  This is an example of what I call tendentious silence.

Let us now look at the K-10 document on History.  Here are 29 pages, five references to religion, one mention of Christendom, and one use of the word Christian.  All but two of the seven appear in a cluster in the section on the Middle Ages.  Beyond that, there is nothing.

Roger Scruton took the word oikophobia and gave it a new meaning.  Oikophobia literally means fear of one’s own home, but Scruton nicely adapted it to mean ‘the repudiation of inheritance and home’[1], the contemptuous rejection of everything that one’s parents and grandparents respected, fed by the vanity of a new and supposedly enlightened way of looking at the world.  W.S. Gilbert must have had people of that mentality in mind when he spoke of –

‘…the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,

All centuries but this, and every country but his own.’[2]

Nowhere is oikophobia more rampant than in matters of religion, and the name of Christianity is particularly odious to those oikophobes for whom the hope of a multinational and god-free world stands in the place of the dream of a promised land.  For such people Christianity has brought more misery than relief, more gloom than joy, more war than peace, more hatred than love.

And – let us be honest – they can produce evidence to support all those opinions.  They can point to the massacres of the Crusades, the use of torture and connivance at capital punishment by the Inquisition, the ruthless eradication of the Albigensians, the Thirty Years War, apparent indifference (in some places) to slavery, the treatment of the Jews throughout European history, the fighting in Northern Ireland, the brutish behaviour of certain clergy towards children.  Rightly can enemies of the Church list abuses such as these as examples of the failure of the rule of love.

But against that – if they are honest – they will have to acknowledge that all the evil deeds done by men professing themselves Christian have been counter-balanced (I would say outweighed, but let us be cautious) by all the good things that have been done in the name of Christ.  The systematic care of the poor, the relief of prisoners, the establishment of hospitals, schools and universities, the self-sacrificing saintliness of many clergy, active resistance to the bullying of civil authorities, the amelioration and ultimately the prohibition of slavery, and the improvement of the lot of women (yes, that too) – all these things have emerged within a society that has been predominantly Christian.  Even today, in the shadow land of the post-Christian era, there are many who insist on calling themselves Christians still who have abandoned the Faith but maintain a firm commitment to what they rightly regard as the ‘Christian Ethic’.  Amnesty International is a good example of precisely that:  though founded by a committed Christian, it is now a secular organization driven and motivated by that same ethic.

Those of us who live in the twenty-first century, inheritors as we are of two millennia of Christian thinking, can easily forget that concepts such as modesty, humility, mercy, pity, love for one’s neighbour and humanity in warfare have not always held such a potent place in the human temperament.  You won’t find them in Homer, though perhaps you’ll see the dawning of a new and more enlightened sense of humanity and of the brotherhood of man in Sophocles, Virgil, Cicero and Seneca.   But once Christianity bursts through into our world and sheds a new kind of light upon it, a light which has affected our vision even if we cannot see or will not acknowledge it, we hear St Paul (whose very name raises the hackles of many modern men and women who have never read him) proclaim an astonishing idea.  Had anybody before his time ever soared as high as to make a claim like this?

‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female’[3]?

Yet the draft curriculum in History avoids all of this.  It is almost completely silent on the whole matter of Christianity.  It chooses to ignore a world-wide religious movement that has marched with civilization for two thousand years, infusing it with a morality that has shaped the thinking of the whole of society, including the minds of those who lost the Faith but clung to the moral view.  This omission is not just careless, it is staggeringly inept and profoundly dishonest.  Such a silence may be justifiable on some vague ground of political correctness, but it is dreadful history.

So how does one do battle against disembodied prejudice?

Let us begin by looking more closely at the one real ball they have bowled us:  ‘the effect of racism, religion and European cultures’.  It is perfectly clear from the context – African and Asian decolonization – that the religion referred to here is none other than the bête noire of the liberal left, Christianity.

In liberal circles it has long been axiomatic that Christian missionaries have been guilty of a wide range of offences against humanity, of which I offer the following selection based upon my own arguments with friends and acquaintances over the years:

  • introducing a sense of guilt into innocent sexual relationships,
  • heartlessly suppressing native cultures of great richness and value,
  • abusing, sexually and otherwise, the women and children of ‘heathen’ tribes,
  • imposing a chauvinistic sense of European superiority,
  • introducing alcoholism, venereal disease and other destructive maladies,
  • expelling kindly pagan religions and replacing them with something harsher and less forgiving,
  • spreading warfare and hatred instead of love,
  • planning, attempting or even practising genocide,
  • promoting the view that coloured people are not fully human

To anybody who takes the trouble to inform himself about the true nature of missionary activity these charges range from the partially plausible to the utterly absurd:  there may be an element of truth in some such claims, but taken together they constitute a colossal and preposterous fabrication.  Yet there is a significant number of people in the world today who believe all this and who are seriously angry about it.

How does one answer them?  Not, in the scope of this chapter, by producing all the contrary evidence, all the instances of good men and women sacrificing their lives and comforts to bring peace and love, nurturing and tenderness, kindness and healing, to societies that were riven village from village by a dark and superstitious paganism.   Nor by homing in on the many failures of paganism – the maiming and abuse of women and children, ritual sacrifice, the mechanistic morality of taboos – for to do that will inevitably invoke charges of racism.

The only answer is to insist upon free and open argument.  Christianity does not fear truth, and is happy and able to answer all charges against it, but innuendo and silence are cowards’ weapons.  The History curriculum, if it is to have any credibility at all, must deal firmly with the issues it now timidly hints at, not leaving it to teachers to flesh out the arguments, but boldly stating the case for and against Christian missions.  We are not afraid to campaign on that ground.

What will an honest and inclusive curriculum look like?   Firstly, it will recognize the enormous influence of religion in the world since late antiquity.  Moreover, being an Australian curriculum, intended for students in Australian schools, it will not pretend to the possibly laudable but utterly impossible task of giving all the world’s cultures and religions equal coverage, but will acknowledge that, like it or loath it, Christianity has been the dominant Faith and moral mentor for our nation since white settlement began, that many indigenous people have embraced it too, and that the more recent waves of settlers – including Muslims and Hindus – have scarcely been unaffected by it.

The curriculum will take all this into consideration and it will prescribe a teaching framework in which the credibility of Christianity and its proponents can be assessed.  It will fairly ask the question, presenting the arguments for and against, whether Lucretius was right when he said:

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum[4].

And if that is achieved, will we (and I presume to speak for Christians generally) be satisfied?

We shall be much happier than we are now, but in a sense it must be said that we never can be completely satisfied.  I say that with a certain regret, for one would like to show a courteous gratitude to those of our unbeliever friends who would be willing, from their generous hearts, to give us the kind of syllabus I have been asking for.  It would be good to see our society facing honestly up to the implications of its own heritage, and mature enough to recognize the good alongside the bad, and wise enough to see that amidst the imperfections of any human organization there is much to take pride in.  But a secular society cannot reasonably be expected to progress past the point of according justice to both sides of an argument.

For believers, though, the reality is that the incarnation of Christ was and is the greatest event in human history, and that this greatness is not simply a matter of degree, but it is a kind of an absolute and ultimate truth by which alone the significance of all other events must be judged.  If we are wrong, then as St Paul said ‘we are of all men most to be pitied’[5] but that is an option that we do not contemplate.  Many unbelievers cannot but be angered by such assurance, and we should not be surprised or disappointed by a savage response to such claims.  Even numerous elements within the nominal Christian community can react with as much anger to expressions of confident faith.

The Azaria Chamberlain case was emblematic of the rift between faithful and believing religious communities and the secular majority.  Lindy Chamberlain was not, by some accounts, a particularly personable or easy woman to deal with.  She was apparently not warm or empathetic in manner.  But her great offence, an offence which juries and a majority of the general public could neither forgive nor understand, was her faith in the resurrection and eternal life of her baby.  Her calm acceptance of her loss was to many observers proof if not of her guilt then certainly of her insanity.   It is said that in pre-Glasnost Russia Christian and other religious believers were sometimes committed to psychiatric institutions.  If this take on the Chamberlain case is right, much the same has happened here.  Dawkins and others are now saying openly what many have long believed:  Christianity in the world’s eyes is perverted lunacy.

But putting to one side the lamentable truth that Christianity and ‘the World’ will never fully understand each other, at least in terms of the spiritual realities which to us are life itself and to others are mere folly, let us return to our primary demand, that a reasonable and acceptable national curriculum should mandate the measured and proportionate teaching of the history of religion in the material world, and that an Australian national curriculum will be particularly strong on its treatment of Christianity.

That curriculum will boldly examine the sorts of offences alleged against missionaries as set out above.  No true believer will object to the refining fire of academic enquiry being applied to the charges, for we know that the facts can bear examination.  If evil deeds are exposed they will rightly be reviled by decent men and women, but we insist that much good was done and that that too deserves due recognition.

Take for example the first of the charges I proposed above, that the missionaries introduced a sense of sexual shame and guilt to innocent and simple children of nature.  Writing before the last World War, Evelyn Waugh wrote as follows in one of his travel diaries:

‘That is another complaint of propagandists, that the Christian missionaries teach the natives to be ashamed of their bodies and, by distributing petticoats, deprive them of all the moral and hygienic advantages of nudism.  There may be some truth in this legend somewhere.  I have read accounts of the activities of American Baptists in the South Seas that seem to support it, but as far as my personal experience goes I have found the reverse to be true.  I have talked to Dutch, French, German and English missionaries, Protestant and Catholic, in widely different parts of the world and found them either indifferent or mildly opposed to the clothing of their converts.  If they give them clothes, it is because they know it is the most welcome present they can offer.’[6]

Allowing for his cantankerous and provocative style, note that Waugh concedes the point that some missionaries probably were over-zealous in the matter of clothing their charges, but it is abundantly clear, even allowing for the author’s typical hyperbole, that there is another side to the story that an honest enquirer should scrutinize before coming to any conclusion.

Now most of us would probably agree that the matter of clothing unsophisticated native peoples is a relatively light-weight issue compared to the next example I shall introduce, the painful, delicate, sensitive case of the Stolen Generations.  Here we are dealing with the rawest of wounds, and any position one takes will cause distress, either to the indigenous communities themselves or (and here I move beyond the allowed limits of political correctness) to that small army of missionaries, social workers, nurses and magistrates who can no longer defend themselves (for they are almost all dead), who strove to protect aboriginal children according to the accepted principles of their day – flawed though some of those principles might have been – and whose memory is now covered in shame.  Without due discernment, indiscriminately, crassly, cruelly, the Australian Government apologized on behalf of the Australian people for every instance in which an indigenous child was taken into care during that targeted period.  I have no doubt that some of these acts were unjust and wrong, and in so far as they were I condemn them too.  But equally I do not doubt that many were justifiable then on grounds of humanity and decency, and would be justifiable now were we so bold as to examine them.  The Australian government has been guilty of doing some very bad – and very wicked – history.

St Augustine, looking back on his conversion years later in the Confessions, accuses himself of having railed against Christianity without taking the trouble to understand it, of having imputed to it beliefs that believers never held:

‘I was ashamed that for so many years I had yelped, not against the Catholic faith, but against fables of human imagination.  I had in fact been rash and wicked in condemning, as an accuser, things that I ought to have taught myself to understand.’[7]

Christians should not shrink from the possibility of a curriculum that does what Augustine failed to do, that faces them fair and square, encourages enquiry and asks questions fearlessly.

Never before in their history have Christians been faced with indifference.  They have adapted successfully to persecution, sometimes life-threatening, sometimes less immediately severe; they have become used to hatred and revulsion; they have withstood mockery and satire.  But the Church even now is struggling to understand how to cope with perhaps the most subtly dangerous threat of all – silent apathy.

Many of those most bitterly opposed to Christianity have perhaps sensed that we are on the ropes, utterly nonplussed by this apathy, and are determined to continue to wage that kind of war of attrition in the hope that we shall simply and finally melt away.  My suspicion is that some of the framers of the curriculum are driven by such a plan, perhaps consciously, perhaps by instinct.

Many other people of good will, non- or anti-Christian in their orientation, are willing enough to face us on the field of debate and controversy.  Such people may indeed admire and respect aspects of Christianity, while rejecting all or most of its metaphysical tenets.  In many such men and women I think I can see – excuse the presumption – the characteristics of the unconverted Augustine:  all too often they bark against a Faith they have not troubled (or have not been able, through the scandal of our failings and our own poor example) to understand.

Clearly it is the best interest of the Christian religion boldly and confidently to face the challenge of those who would with equal confidence contest the veracity and integrity of our claims.  To take the battle vigorously to the enemy’s gates, to emerge thus from the slough of indifference that now threatens to swallow us, is our best hope.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne

[1] Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy, pp. 23-5

[2] W.S. Gilbert, The Mikado, Act I

[3] Galatians 3:28

[4] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, I, 101 – ‘religion has been responsible for so much evil’

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:14-19

[6] Evelyn Waugh, Ninety-Two Days: a Journey in Guiana and Brazil, 1934 (Penguin edition 1985, p. 123)

[7] S. Augustine, Confessions, 6:3 (translated DD)