Pathways to Understanding in a Multicultural Society

The Sydney Statement Media launch. Photo: CCCMR

The Sydney Statement Media launch. Photo: CCCMR

In 1992 following a considerable effort by predominantly Christian educators, students in NSW were able to undertake an academic study of religion culminating in an HSC examination contributing to their then Tertiary Entrance Score. Thus Studies of Religion (SoR) was born. There are now approximately 14,000 students who complete the HSC exam each year. With a similar number in Year 11 this means around 30,000 young Australians are annually challenged to grow in, “understanding and critical awareness of the nature and significance of religion and the influence of belief systems and religious traditions on individuals and within society.”[i] This potential to contribute to what The Sydney Statement describes as a “Dialogue of Knowledge” cannot be overstated or underestimated.

The Sydney Statement expresses aspirations that also inform the vision of SoR. In the 30 years since the subject commenced, the multicultural and multifaith demographics of our nation have changed significantly. The Sydney Statement reminds us that a quarter of Sydney’s population was born overseas and over 150 religions and spiritualities are now represented in the city.

That’s mind boggling! The team from Youth PoWR who worked tirelessly to develop the statement represent the potential of interfaith dialogue at its best: a means of disarming misunderstandings about the “the other”, of breaking down stereotypes, providing spaces for conversations and opportunities for shared action. Similarly, SoR aims that students will value and appreciate, “ethical and socially responsible behaviours which are brought about through empathy for, and acceptance of, religious diversity.”[ii]

United by a shared purpose, these two distinct projects are vital for the future of Australia. Internationally and locally issues including the rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia[iii] and the vitriol unleashed by some people of faith towards those with differing views, e.g. re politics, refugees or Covid, point to the opposite of mutual respect and positive social cohesion that The Sydney Statement and SoR proclaim.

On 15 March 2019 almost 200 people were gathered in Sydney for the annual ISRA[iv] SoR In-Focus Conference. Towards the close, messages concerning the Christchurch massacre poured in. We held a minute’s silence with limited understanding of what had occurred. As it unfolded that day, this act perpetrated by an Australian, remains incomprehensible and reprehensible. That a minority here and elsewhere hail this person as a hero speaks to me of the enormity of the work that is necessary to break down barriers by educating for understanding and mutual respect.

As a Catholic teacher specialising in SoR, I have faced criticism in respect to my passion for this work. At such times I am drawn to the Parable of the Good Samaritan where “an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.” (Luke 10:25). After some questions back and forward, the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus responded with the story of a man who was robbed and left for dead by the side of the road and was ultimately rescued by a Samaritan. The outsider. The enemy. Jesus asked the lawyer which of the travellers who saw the injured man was the neighbour. The lawyer had no option but to acknowledge it was the Samaritan. Jesus’ reply was, “Go and do likewise.” (10:37)

My faith, actions such as The Sydney Statement and my work in SoR tell me there is no choice but to, “go and do likewise”. Today SoR is taught in schools across Christian denominations, in Jewish and Muslim schools, and fortunately in State schools. While the Good Samaritan does not hold a religious message for all, it is hopefully a reminder of why we teach … in a room or via Zoom. The Sydney Statement is for all Australians. SoR is #MoreThanAnATAR and both are pathways to understanding in our multicultural society. There is no other way forward.

Helen Smith DipT BA MEd, Churchill Fellow

[i] Aim of the Studies of Religion Syllabus, NSW Board of Studies, 2009, p8

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Evidence of these issues: August 2021 Anti-Semitism and the 2019 Islamophobia Report 

[iv] The Islamic Sciences and Research Academy of Australia 

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