Teach religion in schools? History professor says yes

This week, Kiwis are preparing to celebrate the death and resurrection of a figure holy to several of the world's major religions by tricking children into believing a man-sized rabbit is delivering them chocolate.

It's perhaps no coincidence then a university professor who specialises in the history of religion in New Zealand has chosen this week to call for compulsory religious education in schools.

"There's a great variety of religious views in New Zealand today, and the potential for tension and misunderstanding is very, very high," Prof Peter Lineham of Massey University told The AM Show on Thursday.

"We're in a situation today where kids are just blatantly ignorant of the most simple facts of what the person sitting at the desk beside him or her actually believes and cares about."

Presently, between a third and half of schools offer Christian education on a voluntary basis. It's an "historic anachronism" Prof Lineham says has no place in the modern world.

"Originally, in 1877 when we first gained compulsory primary education, religion was banned from schools and history was banned from primary schools because they were scared the English-Irish battles would be fought out between Catholics and Protestants. They hoped everybody would be involved in the state schools by banning subjects.

"It's not the solution. The solution has got to be to find a way to give people material so they can actually begin to understand each other. That's the task of education."

So instead of getting in Christians of particular denominations to spread their version of the word of Christ, he wants kids taught about the world's many religions - in particular the big four in New Zealand - Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Though Christianity is New Zealand's predominant religion, Prof Lineham says many Kiwis don't seem to know what Jesus actually taught, let alone Muhammad or Buddha.

"Some of the crazy things that get said suggests people have got not the remotest understanding of either Christianity or of Islam, or of Hinduism or of Buddhism."

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show there's "nothing wrong with us understanding the wide breadth of religious affiliations that different people have", but didn't agree with making it compulsory.

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett agreed.

"I'm not into compulsion on it, but I do think knowing a bit about other religions and what goes on does set you up in the world as well."