Hey, New Zealand, Stop Trying to Be Like America

Another public school. Another prayer. Another administrator who thinks those two things belong together.

The only surprising thing is that this is happening in Auckland, New Zealand.

At the beginning of the day at Kelston Intermediate School, students recite karakia — a Maori prayer. The principal doesn’t see anything wrong with that:

Kelston Intermediate School Principal Phil Gordon

Kelston Intermediate principal Phil Gordon said he had no idea some staff were unhappy with karakia in the classroom until contacted by the union representative.

Gordon said he reassured the union representative the karakia was a cultural component of school life and an expression of beliefs that reflected the Kelston community.

“I guess what they might have been inquiring about is the presence of karakia, etc, within school so we talked about what we’re doing is not a religious thing but a cultural thing.”

Staff and pupils were free to abstain, he insisted. “I think perhaps there has been a mismatch in understanding.”

There’s no misunderstanding. When you have kids talking to the Lord at the beginning of the school day, you’re pushing religion on the students.

The same thing applies to the prayer they say at West Auckland’s Rosebank School:

Principal Heather Bell says beginning the day this way brings a sense of grounding to the school and creates a sense of belonging.

Translated, the brief Maori prayer penned by the school’s kaiarahi reo or Maori language assistant, says: “Lord look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name.”

Bell says there has always been great community support for karakia in school, which also includes a lunchtime blessing for food and a prayer for safekeeping at the end of the day.

And if any child felt uncomfortable they were free not to join in reciting the lines.

Bell may not have caught the contradiction there, but I’m sure all of you did.

If a child chooses not to recite the prayer, there’s no “sense of belonging” taking place. The prayer forces them to pray to a Lord they don’t believe in or be shunned by their classmates. Neither option is acceptable, and no child should be put in the position of having to choose one.

In case you’re wondering, all primary schools in the state must remain secular, so the praying isn’t allowed. The local union is taking steps to fix the problem — but if the principals don’t even understand what the issue is, it’s going to be hard to fix.

I guess none of this is all too surprising when you consider that the country’s Associate Education Minister John Banks is a Creationist.

(Thanks to David for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • compl3x

    I really don’t understand why people fail to understand that this standard “kids are free to abstain” counter argument simply isn’t acceptable.

  • http://benny-cemoli.myopenid.com/ Benny Cemoli

    Karakia are prayers or incantations.

    So I would assume that Mr. Gordon is full of shit when he claims it’s a not a “religious thing” but is only a “cultural thing”.


  • closetatheist

    wow, three prayers a day? Is NZ the “Bible Belt” of Australia? While I think its super cool that the kids are exposed to aboriginal culture, this is the wrong way to go about it. If they wanted to create a real “sense of belonging” among all the children they wouldn’t do things that could potentially make a minority group feel like they don’t belong….duh.

  • 3lemenope

    Because they’ve never been on the raw end of “why don’t you go sit out in the hall alone (or get stared at judgmentally) while everyone else participates” and so don’t really know what it feels like.

  • 3lemenope

    It’s not a clean line separating the two, especially when one is talking about, as we are here, non-Evangelic tribal religion, where the overlap between religion and cultural distinctiveness is nearly perfect.

  • Sam B

    1) New Zealand is not in Australia, the comparison of Canada & the US would be appropriate.

    2)Don’t let the local indigenous population find out you called them “aboriginal”, although it may be the correct anthropological term it is more commonly applied to their Australian equivalents. (See point 1). They prefer to be called Maori.

    3)Unlike the US, this story has been reported on because it is so unusual. I can’t remember a similar story in the past 20 years. For a comparative view, I attended a private Anglican boarding school and we only mentioned religion 3 times a week (in chapel).

    4) I would imagine that on some level these prayers are more of an indication of the ignorance of the Maori language by the educators, than a malicious attempt to add religion to public schools (but I am prepared to be proved wrong on this point).

  • Artor

    I was thinking that might be conceivable; that the Maori “prayer,” was simply a traditional song about life and community, until the gave the partial translation, “Lord look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name.” That’s a prayer, plain and simple. I don’t know what NZ’s laws are regarding church & state, but I’m glad this is getting the appropriate attention. I wonder if there are any good Maori songs they could use that aren’t prayers?

  • Artor

    Yup. If you’ve never been an outsider, you’ll never know what it’s like to be excluded. Somehow, those folks never seem to remember how they treated the “outsider” kids when they were in school.

  • closetatheist

    I apologize, for point number 1#. However, if you were to specify which land mass NZ “belonged” to it would be Australia as NZ is considered to a part of that continent. That’s the point of view I was coming from – that it is all one land mass – instead of your point of view – that they are two separate political entities. I meant no disrespect.

  • LesterBallard

    Fuck New Zealand anyway; they sent us Ray Fucking Comfort; same for Australia and Ken Motherfucking Ham.

  • David Pearce

    Actually no, we are not part of the Australian continental plate, at least not completely – large parts of the NZ are on the Pacific Plate, so we are neither geologically nor politically ‘part of Australia’. I don’t know where you get the idea we are ‘considered’ part of the Australian landmass? There is 2000 km (1200 miles) of ocean between us and Australia. We can hardly be considered a single landmass. I have never heard that idea before – better to just apologise for your original mis-statement, than to try to rationalise it.

  • Geoff Boulton

    There is an average of 1400 miles of ocean between Australia and New Zealand. It’s rather a stretch of the imagination to say they’re part of the same land mass.

  • David Pearce

    First up, I am against regular karakia in schools.

    However, I do believe the intent of the principal and teachers (however misguided) was to incorporate a bi-cultural element into the school life, rather than to impose religion on the students. There is every chance that the principal and teachers are generally secular or non-religous. However, here in NZ bi-culturalism and recognition of Maori culture is a big deal, particularly in the education sector.

    While pre-Eurpoean karakia would have been aimed at traditional gods and ancestors, modern karakia are basically Christian prayers and have no place in the daily life of a state school.

  • http://benny-cemoli.myopenid.com/ Benny Cemoli

    Translated, the brief Maori prayer penned by the school’s kaiarahi reo or Maori language assistant, says: “Lord look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name.”

    Sounds awfully like a Christian prayer to me. I wonder if the School’s kaiarahi reo is a Christian.

  • David Pearce

    Yeah, sorry about Ray – that is an everlasting source of embarrassment. Although to be fair we also sent you William Pickering, so does that sort of balance it out?

  • Lisa

    I wanted to post something along these lines, but you said it much better than I could :)

  • closetatheist

    A cursory Google search reveals that most of NZ’s territory sits on the Australian tectonic plate. This is why it is considered a part of “Australasia,” which comprises New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea and some small Pacific Islands. Australasia can also serve as a geopolitical designation for the two nations, so I guess my original quip should have been, “Is NZ the “Bible Belt” of Australasia?” I can change that if you like. However, NZ is in the region of Oceania which, by geographical definition, is not a continent – so you’re right there, even though it is geologically one land mass. So, I’m not sure this splitting of hairs is worth it…Either way, I’m not apologizing, again, for an honest, and not entirely wrong, mistake.

  • Lisa

    In my opinion the splitting of hairs is entirely worth it, we New Zealanders get VERY tired of most of the world assuming that we are part of Australia :)

  • LesterBallard

    Well, I can’t say that I blame you; there are plenty who were born here in the US that I would exile the shit out of.

  • Michael W Busch

    if you were to specify which land mass NZ “belonged” to it would be Australia as NZ is considered to a part of that continent.

    No. Zealandia and Australia have not been geologically the same continent for over 60 million years. Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zealandia_%28continent%29 . And it doesn’t matter what landmass NZ is on when you consider it in terms of politics and culture.

    It happens that NZ’s largest trading partner is Australia, but it is politically, economically, and geographically a very different place. As mentioned before, what you are doing is something like lumping Canada and the US together.

  • Michael W Busch

    We don’t identify political groupings by the tectonic plates they’re sitting on. Nor has Australasia been a particularly relevant geopolitical designation for a very long time (I’ve only seen it used in terms that date to 100 years or more ago).

    You should simply acknowledge your initial minor mistake, rather than attempting to justify it and making more mistakes in the process.

  • M

    At my primary school, most of the teachers would lead the class in a Karakia at the start and end of every day. I still remember some of the words, even though I only have a vague idea of their meaning. I had one teacher who didn’t do them, and he was an early influence on my atheism.

    We still have some problems with religion in public schools. It isn’t as obviously forbidden in New Zealand, and some schools (including my primary school) get around the limits that are in place by “closing” the school early once a week and then having members of a nearby church come and teach bible classes for the last hour of the school day.

    There is a big difference, that New Zealanders on average tend to be apathetic about religion- this isn’t a sensitive religous issue at all. Very typical that those supporting this would try to justify it in terms of Maori tradition and cultural sensitivity- nobody is really buying that argument. Although it has to be said, when I was twelve, the only maori that I knew was the national anthem, a song, and two karakia prayers.

  • wombat

    It would be insulting to an American to be called the shitty part of Canada, or the crazy part of Mexico, and you lot *actually* share a land mass. New Zealand and Australia are geographically, politically, and culturally distinct, and your claims that we can be lumped together because of some shared tectonic plates is both ludicrous and insulting.

    More insulting, though, is that instead of going ‘oops, I was wrong, I’m sorry’ you refuse to admit that you’re egregiously wrong, try to justify yourself, and refuse to apologise.

  • wombat

    We will be ever ashamed of Ray Comfort. Please accept our deepest apologies.

  • baal

    fwiw – I love watching the haka (spelling?) being done before rugby matches. It would be entertaining to watch a roomful of school kids doing that before classes. Does the haka count as a religious practice?

  • David Pearce

    Haka are generally non-religous unlike karakia which are always in the form of a blessing or prayer. Certainly the two haka that the All Blacks do, Kapa a Pango and Ka Mate, have no religious references in them. Quite a few schools have there own school haka specially written for them.

  • SupergoofNZ

    This is a really tricky one, because it’s so deeply intertwined with Maori culture and biculturalism. To reject the karakia is often seen to be rejecting the Maori culture itself, and you’ll find karakia and blessings in most public ceremonies. I agree that the intention was probably not religious but cultural.

    I wonder if there’s an older version of the karakia which doesn’t call on the christian god, as that is a concept which arrived with the European settlers.