Pathways for Diversity Education

Photo of girl picking flower in gardenWhat was the PathWays Program?

PathWays for Diversity Education was a not-for-profit incorporated society that provided an incursion program directed towards Year 10 school students. Young adult speakers with a range of worldviews told their stories and answered questions about their beliefs and practices in a respectful and candid manner.

The PathWays team presented voices of Abrahamic and Asian faiths alongside Humanist, Rationalist and Atheist voices. It also offered voices of Indigenous spirituality and of sustainability activism, representing worldviews which are significant for young people in contemporary Australia.

PathWays was managed by a coalition representing religious and secular groups in Victoria. This ‘inter-belief’ cooperation was a watershed development in the field of conversations across difference. The groups were

  • Humanist Society of Victoria
  • Rationalist Society of Australia
  • Second Strike (student leadership)
  • Victorian Skeptics
  • Progressive Atheists
  • Council for Christians and Jews
  • Freethought Student Alliance
  • Living Faiths Commission, Victorian Council of Churches
  • Religions for Peace
  • Commission for Mission, Uniting Church in Australia
  • United Religions Initiative

The Rationalist Society of Australia has shown a key commitment to the PATHWAYS program.

What were the Objectives of PathWays?

The objectives of PathWays for Diversity Education Inc. were set out as follows. The purpose of this charity is to advance education and promote mutual respect in Australia by:

  • conducting educational presentations about religions, ethics and non-religious worldviews in secondary schools and other settings that exemplify and stimulate the exploration of personal values, worldviews and life commitments;
  • nourishing through these presentations the general capabilities set out in the national curriculum, including intercultural understanding, ethical understanding and personal and social competence;
  • recruiting and training as presenters lively and articulate young adults from diverse faith and freethought traditions, who can demonstrate mutual respect in dialogue across differences of ethnicity, culture and worldview;
  • engaging in dialogue and cooperation with representatives of faith and freethought associations to promote inter-belief understanding and social cohesion;
  • demonstrating to governments the value of engaging and supporting the young adult volunteers making these educational presentations in advancing mutual respect, tolerance and social cohesion in Australia.

Behind these objectives is the view that all students should benefit from Education about the Beliefs, Religions and Ethics (BREE) of major religions and Enlightenment worldviews. The coalition also advocates changes in educational and public policy that ensure a level playing field for all worldviews and does not perpetuate privilege of Christianity or any one worldview.

How did PathWays Begin?

Dialogue across differences of belief has not occurred easily in western history. Organizations representing all worldviews are rare. There were early steps within the Christian world after WW2 with the formation of ecumenical conferences among Protestants; Catholics participated decades later.

Interfaith engagement among different religions emerged as Jews and Christians created councils which were the model for interfaith dialogue and educational programs for the public. The multicultural character of cities like Melbourne brought citizens the new experience of living close to people of a different faith. Late in the twentieth century, interfaith committees were formed in local government areas across Melbourne. The disaster of 11 September 2001 generated energy for conversations with Islam.

Interbelief participation came to Melbourne in 2009, when the Parliament of the World’s Religions was attended by Humanist representatives. Meanwhile, through the Victorian and the Australian Multicultural Commissions, Humanist and Rationalist organizations and voices gained recognition, and their leaders contributed to public policy. A few interfaith committees welcomed the attendance of Humanists.

The move to interbelief cooperation occurred in Melbourne in October 2010, through a submission to Victorian Multicultural Commission  regarding ‘Citizenship in a Multicultural Victoria’, initiated by Rod Bower of the Humanists and Paul Tonson of the Uniting Church.

Around this time, the State government was concerned about racist incidents in the suburbs of Melbourne. They decided to fund an incursion program for schools, featuring young adults of different faiths who presented their stories and the significance of their worldviews for life today. Following his participation by organizing presentations by Jews, Christians and Muslims, Paul Tonson was contracted by Victorian Council of Churches to administer the program.

In the third year of this program, a teacher in a public high school welcomed the program offer but asked, ‘Could you include an atheist?’

At the Humanist Society of Victoria’s Sunday meeting in Hawthorn on May 11, 2014, two members of the PATHWAYS Coalition for Diversity Education demonstrated the PATHWAYS presentation designed for Year 10 students. The presentation opened with personal stories from a Christian viewpoint by Paul Tonson, coordinator of the PATHWAYS Coalition, and from a Humanist perspective by Sam Mason-Smith, a member of the Humanist Society of Victoria committee. In response, the Humanist Society of Victoria audience was invited to simulate a Year 10 class by asking questions to the presenters.

The inaugural Annual General Meeting, held on 18 October at the Uniting Church Synod, Melbourne, reviewed the eight presentations made before incorpora­tion and the ten during the year to 30 June 2016. A welcome feature of the meeting, chaired by the President, Dr Meredith Doig, was the address by the Victorian Multicultural Commissioner, Helen Kapalos. Ms Kapalos noted the emerging dynamic of inter­belief and expressed strong support for the PathWays project in the interest of social cohesion. She observed that freethought world-views were now included alongside religious education in England and Canada. PathWays anticipated to some extent the movement’s ambition now realized in the ‘worldviews’ component of the official 2017 Victorian education curriculum.

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