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“I Was A Teenage Atheist” – it sounds like the title of some obscure and totally weird 60s teen flick or even a warped Christian propaganda movie. In reality it was the dilemma I faced when I was a school boy back in the 1960s. With all the baloney pitched about religious freedom during the current same sex marriage debate, it’s appropriate to look back at an even less enlightened time.

During the 1960s many Australian government high schools set aside an hour or two each week for so called religious instruction. I can’t remember exactly but I seem to recall it was evangelists from the Scripture Union who visited our school to spread the message of the Gospel and educate impressionable young students on the finer points of biblical interpretation.

The instructor who took our class of Christian indoctrination was a stern, humourless woman in her 60s or early 70s – physically a cross between the Governess on The Chaser and an elderly Magaret Thatcher (complete with the perm). Classes would begin with a prayer, then a reading of several passages from the Bible, followed by a ‘hands up’ if you have a question to ask.

After two or three weeks of Old Testament exploration, all of which I regarded as total mumbo jumbo, I began to assert myself during question time, challenging anything that was vaguely supernatural. The instructor quickly recognised a rat in the ranks and became increasingly annoyed with questions like “Does the Bible condone slavery?”, accompanied by quotations I had meticulously researched to suggest that it did.

Eventually I was unceremoniously yanked from the Scripture Union class and segregated along with a dozen other exemptees in a classroom where we were encouraged to sit and read in silence. There was one Asian boy, who may well have been a Buddhist and a bunch of other kids, mainly from foreign backgrounds who could have been muslims or the sons of Scientologists for all that I knew. Beliefs aside, we were often left unsupervised and quickly became a somewhat rowdy crew – although nothing that would cause concern.

Nevertheless we soon found ourselves out in the playground, forced to pick up rubbish, much to the delight of both teachers and students, who surveyed us from their classroom windows. We quickly became the lepers of the school – the pagans, the infidels and the disbelievers. Although we were performing our penance, in the view of the majority we had just been given a one way ticket to hell.

That was the stigma I carried through my high school education and I often became the target of the more religiously obsessed teachers. Luckily in my more senior years I discovered other students who preferred science over the supernatural and I was glad to graduate with an unofficial certificate in disbelief.

Many of today’s fervent objectors to same sex marriage cite the threat to religious freedoms and the danger posed by the LGBTIQ community pushing their agenda in schools and at large. Despite isolated incidents, it’s a paranoia not supported by the example of countries that have now legalised marriage equality. It’s also a complete furphy and should a gay couple be knocked back for a marriage ceremony at a local church there are plenty of celebrants who would gladly fulfil the task. Bring on the Elvis Chapels like Las Vegas!

The reality is that if the law is changed the average Australian will notice very little change – the sky won’t fall in and the wedding industry will be given a healthy shot in the financial arms – yes jobs will be created! In the meantime I would be more worried about paedophiles still lurking in the catholic education system than a ban on school children referring to the parents as mum and dad as suggested by the increasingly nutty Pauline Hanson.

And finally when it does come to so called religious freedom, what safeguards are there in schools today to protect children who don’t believe, be they catholics, protestants or muslims? Forgive the oxymoron but God help the kid who stands up in class and declares that he or she is an atheist!

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