Children are Entitled to a Secular Education

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) identifies the right of every child to an education, and that right to an education be directed toward “the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

‘Secular instruction is instruction respecting the concerns of this life. Secular subjects therefore are all subjects except religion. All the arts and sciences are secular knowledge. To say that secular means irreligious implies that all the arts and sciences are irreligious, and is very like saying that all professions except that of the law are illegal.’1

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), is ‘the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history.’2 196 countries have ratified it including Australia.

The Preamble of the CRC recognises that “[T]he child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society, and brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.”

Article 29 (1) of the CRC states that education is to include the development of:

“(a) …the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

“(b) …respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;”

Preparation for:

“(d) …responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin”

However, Article 14.2 of the CRC provides that:

States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.

This creates an apparent inconsistency between the rights of children and parents, resulting, in particular, in widespread acceptance of parents’ entitlement to frame their child’s development exclusively to their liking, and that of their community. The influence of religious instruction and/or counselling in schools can erode students’ preparation for living in a secular society.

Religious instruction and counselling, in the form of indoctrination, rather than provision of a general understanding of different religious beliefs and their function in society, is prevalent in government-funded schools throughout the world including Australia.3 The state, and sometimes parents, has a wide discretion when it comes to religious teaching and counsellors in schools.

People, as members of society, are imbued with a particular concept of the world and the meaning of life from early childhood, as determined by their parents, family and community, when they have little capacity or opportunity to evaluate and choose a belief for themselves. While these capacities and opportunities increase with emerging adulthood and many individuals change or revise their beliefs, the lack of opportunity for a broader outlook on life makes religion a very powerful influence which is difficult to shake off. It may not occur to people to question what they have been told, or they may be coerced, tricked or pressured into adopting or manifesting a world view they have never questioned.4

Evidence of this can be found in the widespread tribalism, divisiveness and even violence that is caused by intolerance of social, ethnic and religious diversity that results from lack of recognition of human rights.

Choice in adopting a worldview becomes a particular issue in the education of children. It is the future of the student, not the future of the parents, that is imperilled by denying children a secular education. Rights are freedoms that can be claimed by the rights-holder (in this case the child) against a third party (in this case the parent or state). They are the expression of an obligation, not of the rights-holder, but of others towards the rights-holder. No one is ever obliged to exercise their rights, but someone else is obliged to ensure that if they wish, they can do so. Thus everyone has the right to freedom of and freedom from religion.5

As future citizens of a democratic state based on the principles of human rights, the state has obligations:

‘The state can be argued to have a legitimate interest in ensuring that children who will be citizens together learn with and from each other from an early age to develop the skills and habits of living together in a democratic society. A Balkanized system would hardly achieve that.’6

However Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, gives parents the right to provide direction in their child’s development ‘consistent with the ‘evolving capacities of the child’. This right has been taken to give parents the right to give religious dogma priority over civic responsibility in their child’s upbringing.

The inclusion of religious instruction or counselling in schools, or home schooling by parents can limit the child’s exposure to a full understanding of democracy through acculturation (‘the way we do things around here’) rather than reason (the basis of democratic society).

I maintain that rather than an enforceable ‘right’ to mandate their child’s worldview, parents ‘rights’ to childcare should be seen as an obligation along with the state, to raise their child for fair, equal and tolerant participation in civil and political life, and to protect that child against others’ attempts to deny this.

A basic liberty is necessary, when it is an ‘essential social condition for the adequate development and full exercise of the two powers of moral personality over a complete life’. These two powers are (a) individuals can rationally pursue a coherent set of values and (b) they can cooperate with others on fair terms to pursue these.7 Consequently, in a society that undertakes to provide for the realisation of the two powers of moral personality, what may otherwise be a ‘liberty’ becomes a ‘right’.

States have ‘positive duties’ to provide facilities necessary for the exercise of these two powers as equal citizens (for example, through provision of secular education, public health and security, and the ability and means for participation in the public political process). Otherwise, the child will be deprived of entry into the world of diversity and human rights and the ability to be ‘masters of their own destiny.’8

Sectarian interests have often overcome attempts at government impartiality towards belief. Individuals in Western democracies are still subject to a very prominent influence of one or more religions.

Australia is a secular nation, committed to the CRC. Children have the right to an education that prepares them for living in such a society.



[1] John Stuart Mill, letter 1849 . See also Denise Cooper-Clarke, A Secular education is not an anti-Religious education.
[2] See, e.g. Countries ratifying the CRC.
[3] For a global overview, see education
[4] e.g., ‘Stereotypes are reinforced by persistent patriarchal attitudes and assumptions that women’s place is in the home supported by men. Male superiority prevails, also in industrial societies, and can amount to an ideology’ UN (2002), ¶92.
[5] I discuss rights and obligations in Meg Wallace, Freedom from Religion, Cilento publishing, Sydney, 2015.
[6] Andrew Copson, Secularism OUP, 2017, p.114
[7] John Rawls, Political Liberalism 2005, NY Columbia University Press, (expanded Edition), 293.
[8] Freeman (2007), Rawls, London and New York, Routledge, 54. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990).