In light of events such as the death of Kirsty Theologo, who was set alight in what many described as a “Satanic ritual”, the Department of Basic Education has set up a “harmful religious practices task team”, charged with developing a charter of rights and responsibilities related to religious practices in schools and other learning centers.
Many of you would know my position on these “Satanic” murders (and other crimes) already, which in short asks us to make a distinction between confused kids, operating in a manner they think licensed by their (mis)understanding of “the occult”, and the many completely sincere, peaceful Wiccans, pagans, Satanists etc., who neither participate nor condone criminal acts such as these.
So when I heard about this task team, I requested that I be included, as I feared that regardless of the (completely appropriate) intent to keep schoolchildren safe, that the eventual charter might have ended up demonising anything other than the mainstream religions in an effort to do so, and also perpetuating misunderstanding of what they actually stand for.
Freedom of religion is for all, including those who subscribe to a religion you don’t like, and those who reject religion in its entirety. Likewise, the law applies to us all – and as I wrote at the time of the Harmse case, it might add little explanatory value to appeal to demons or saints when people do as Harmse did, because:
instead of reflecting on what they did in terms of simple or more typical motivations like anger, attention-seeking, and alienation, they may now start thinking more about nonsense metaphysics, and that could potentially lead them to further confusion and irrationality down the road.
So, a brief report back from Monday’s meeting of the task team, which I ended up chairing the bulk of when Mr. Njobe, the regular chair, had to leave early. First, context: this charter on rights and responsibilities is not aimed at changing what schools teach. As much as that needs attention, in that schools routinely violate the National Policy on Religion in Education, it falls outside our mandate.
What the charter aims to speak to is the conduct of religious organisations who work with schoolchildren in educational settings – so, religious organisations who speak at assemblies, run youth-preparedness classes, host summer camps and the like.
Second, for those interested in process, we’re going to workshop the draft we came up with on Monday by email, before meeting again in January. The draft that comes out of that will be the subject of consultation with interested parties in all Provinces. Then, the document goes to the Minister of Basic Education, before being discussed at a national consultative conference, scheduled for 12 February 2015. I’ll post updates on Synapses, and also on Twitter.
Lastly, some snippets of news on how the day’s proceedings went: firstly, I was rather alarmed to find that the draft document we had in front of us referred to “the existing South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms” as a foundational document, and also quoted this charter extensively. Given that the charter in question has never been adopted officially, and is also a completely bonkers document, this seemed rather unfortunate.
However, I’m very pleased to report that once I informed the group that the document a) had no standing, and (b) was quite mad, it was quickly dropped in its entirety, as were the bulk of the quotes from it that had made their way into our document.
Then, the group was very supportive of a number of crucial insertions into the text that I proposed, which I’ll simply list:
- frequent insertions of language referring not only to those of different faiths, but also to those who don’t have any interest in faith-based activities
- the stipulation that parents need to consult with their children before putting them into or taking them out of faith-based activities
- the rejection of any kind of proscription against blaspemy
- that the right to “religious dignity” in no way prohibits robust debate and criticism
- forbidding religious organisations from seeking financial support, or recruiting membership, from learners
- and lastly, encouraging critical and free debate on matters of faith
There are also all sorts of problematic things that we agreed to delete from the draft charter, that I’ll not list here. These sorts of documents are never perfect, but as the saying goes, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And in sum, I think we had a good day, and I look forward to continued involvement with the project.