(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, January 23.)
There was a striking synchronicity in the timing of two of the New Year’s first political pronouncements.
On January 13, Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced that parents would in future be required to give written consent for their children to attend religious instruction classes.
This effectively signalled the end of religious teaching in state schools, since parents are far less likely to opt in than to opt out, as they are permitted to do now. RI classes will likely wither on the vine through lack of interest, which is Hipkins’ avowed intention.
The public response was so muted as to be unnoticeable. This may have been because most of the population was still on holiday and focused on other things – a factor the minister very likely took into account in the timing of his announcement.
But the public’s apparent indifference may also be explained by the fact that New Zealand is now an essentially secular society that quite reasonably sees no place in the education system for religious instruction. Only a small minority will lament its abandonment as a lapse into paganism.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and the government had a quasi-religious substitute locked, loaded and ready to fill the gap. January 13 was also the date on which the far more significant news broke that climate change is to become part of the school syllabus for Years 7-10 pupils, which means those aged between 11 and 14.
This was no sudden political impulse. The climate change curriculum (you can read it online) emerged fully formed, with the Greens’ fingerprints all over it. It was trialled at Christchurch’s South New Brighton School – an ideal test bed, since the school’s pupils have been primed with fears that their neighbourhood is at risk from rising sea levels.
Join the dots. Out goes religious instruction and in comes its secular substitute in the form of politically charged dogma surrounding climate change. The two announcements neatly complemented each other, serving as a kind of metaphor for wider political and social changes driven by the “progressive” Left.
And make no mistake: While purporting to be based on solid science, the climate change curriculum is heavily freighted with ideology and represents a world view that’s capable of being every bit as dogmatic and authoritarian as religious indoctrination.
It is quite explicit about its goal, which is to groom a generation of climate change activists. Apparently drawing inspiration from Greta Thunberg, the teaching resource is threaded with statements such as: “Climate change poses a severe threat to children’s most basic rights”.
It’s a piece of work the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels would have been proud to call his own – one that targets malleable young minds in much the same way as the Hitler Youth did in the 1930s.
Guilt is an unstated sub-text throughout. The message is that earth has been put at risk through greed and complacency and we must act fast before the process becomes irreversible. Parents and grandparents can expect to be held to account for allowing this to happen.
In effect, schoolkids will be captive zealots in training. Indoctrination isn’t too strong a word for this, and it raises questions about the morality of using the public education system to impose adult anxieties and political convictions on the young.
Again, the public response to the announcement was low-key, but that may change when children start coming home from school and badgering their parents to stop using the car and cut back on meat and dairy products, as the curriculum urges them to do; or when they start exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression, which the teaching resource acknowledges are possible consequences of heightened climate-change awareness.
Indeed, the curriculum seems almost to relish the prospect of impressionable pupils panicking over the prospect of an overheated, perhaps uninhabitable, world. The teaching resource is tinged with New Age gibberish about the need for children to explore their feelings – anger, frustration, sadness, fear – relating to climate change. Teachers in turn will be encouraged to listen, empathise and “reinforce the key message”. If that’s not indoctrination, I don’t know what is.
Valid scientific scepticism is caricatured as Donald Trump-style craziness. Nowhere in the teaching resource is there any acknowledgement that many of the statements it makes are scientifically contestable.
But this is where we have ended up. If climate change alarmism is the new religion, then scepticism – or denialism, to use the more damning term favoured by climate-change activists – is the new heresy.
There’s a disturbing whiff of totalitarianism in the way this secular religion permits no dissent. If you believe that it’s dangerous in a democracy to allow one view to hold complete and unchallenged sway, denialism starts to look like an honourable stance, purely on principle.