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New Zealand's Christian-Atheists are Against School Yard Evangelism

A New Zealand secular group is on a mission to kick religion out of state schools.

Christian-Atheist David Hines designed his own t-shirts that play on the acronym JAFA, which usually stands for Just Another Fucking Aucklander. He hopes the shirts will encourage more atheists to come out of the closet.

When the 2013 census forms were counted last year they revealed that Christians had fallen as the clear majority population in New Zealand for the first time in more than 100 years. However, an opening in the education laws still enables religious instruction, usually Christian, to take place in state schools.


Self-described Christian-Atheist David Hines from the Secular Education Network says about 40 percent of public primary schools facilitate for these so-called evangelistic lessons, which often parents don't know are happening.

The network recently supported a group of parents getting the lessons dropped from one school and is now raising money to fund a television campaign to advocate for the repeal of the clause it says allows for the indoctrination of children. Like the Red Sea, public opinion on this is divided, but Mr Hines says if more of the country's climbing atheist population came out of the close the whole argument would be resolved.

VICE: So David, why do you think it's bad for five and six-year-olds to learn about God?
David Hines: Well, they are too young to treat it critically. They are still in awe of their teachers and are likely to swallow stuff that has been said, that really has no authority at all, but that the teacher said it. We have lots of reports from parents saying their child came home asking why don't I believe in God or Jesus. These people are Buddhists or Atheists and it's an attack on their religious beliefs. These kids often end up in this classes without their parent's knowledge, because they didn't know about it and so they didn't object. In some cases parents said yes to the programme, because they thought it was a values classes. But the kids are being taught to be Christians, it's not neutral information.


Creationists like Ken Ham have presented scientific information they claim supports their theories, like the world is only a few thousand years old. Should kids be presented with both models and make their own choice?
No, because the evidence for the creationist models is so pathetic. I'm a lay preacher as well and when Noah's Ark came up as our lesson of the week I did a search of Wikipedia as to what evidence there is for Noah's Ark and it is pathetic. I said that in the sermon that I did, and I don't think that's the kind of controversy I want to put on to these kids.

What are your own religious beliefs?
Well, my own beliefs are quite weird. I'm a Christian-Atheist and I'm a lay preacher. So I've been a Christian all my life, but since I was 21 I've come at it from a secular angle. I don't believe in the legendary stuff, but I still believe in the rest of it—the values and so on. It creates a bit of a problem in that most of the members of my church do believe in God, but on the other hand they are quite happy because I don't imply that they are stupid and I focus on things that we share.

So you don't believe in God? 

Do you believe in life after death?
No, not many Christian-Atheists do.

Are there many other Christian-Atheists?
I wouldn't say there is lots, I know about a couple of dozen of them.

How do your beliefs co-exist with your involvement with the Secular Education Network?
They would mostly be non-religious people, but there is probably a large minority who are Christian. When I was gathering comments against the Bible in Schools programme more Christians came and declared themselves against it than Atheists. A lot of people are Atheists but don't want to say so publicly, but liberal Christians are used to standing up for their weird thoughts.


This campaign to kick religion out of schools mainly targets Christian-based lessons, where do other religions fall on the spectrum of this argument?
They almost all are Christian lessons, I've only heard of two others, which are Muslim lessons. The clause in the law which lets this take place doesn't specify, it just says religious instruction may take place. So any religion may come in, but it would be the school Board of Trustees that would decide. But in practice they are almost all Christian. Probably for the reason that there is not enough manpower in all the other religions to do it.

The network supported a group of Auckland parents who in February successfully had Bible in Schools moved out of regular class time at their school. Do you think this win will be echoed around the country with other parents challenging the system?
I think it will. I know of three other parents who are challenging it subsequently, but they haven't come out in the open yet. And lots of people have been visiting our website and asking for complaint forms. I'd be surprised if all these people ended up stopping Bibles in Schools but there is other action they can take, like complaining to the Human Rights Commission.

Around 40 per cent of state schools hold religious instruction programmes, why do you think schools are so adamant to keep running the lessons?
I think its partly that they are Christians themselves, I think others believe that Christianity is a good way of teaching people morals. Which it isn't, when you treat it the way they do, but it's a common perception.


What do you say to people who think teaching Christianity teaches values and respect?
Values are only a very small part of the programmes run by the Churches Education Commission. But there are lots of values they don't teach. In the lessons kids are taught not to ask questions and not to think critically, now that goes right against the Ministry of Education's first values and that goes against the value of the inclusiveness of other cultures. It quite clearly teaches that Christianity is superior. And there is no respect for other cultures at all.

So, the network is running a Keep Religion Out of Schools campaign, which is trying to raise $20,000 to start television advertising. What's the thinking behind that?
The intention just to get us into the public eye. But the reason it's needed is that there is a huge cloud of ignorance over the whole thing. There are a lot of people who don't realise these are religious classes, so you have to break through that and advertising is one way of doing that.

What sort of blowback are you expecting from people who support religious instruction in schools?
I've had a bit of a backlash already, but it hasn't been huge. I've had people ring me up and tell me they think what I'm doing is wrong. Some parents have been quite upset at the backlash they have gotten. One was accused of being a Muslim. It's misinformed controversy.

How do you take it?
A bit of insult doesn't worry me, but sometimes it gets beyond that.

Like what kind of stuff?
Well, you just get accused of undermining people's faith and undermining their basis of morality, you are removing children's hope of life after death. I got threatened that God will punish me after I die. This was one of my favourites -  that I was responsible for the increase of teenage pregnancies, as if I could. That's the loose line of thinking. But I get it from a distance. The parents who are effected can get it at their school, so it's much more personal.

What sort of response do you think the campaign may gather from the New Zealand Government?
I don't think the government is even interested in the subject. A number of our members have approached their local MPs (Members of Parliament), and I'm the same. I've written to ask for support for a bill that stops this law. And I think that's the final aim we've got, not to do these little fights over individual schools, but to get the law changed. Even though we were quite successful with one school the thought of doing this 1000 times is so big you wouldn't take it on. In an ideal scenario we would do this half-a-dozen times and then the MPs will say the clause is a bad idea.

Follow Danielle on Twitter: @danielle_street