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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My letter (well, email) to Penny Sharpe MLC

Dear Ms Sharpe,

I am writing to express my support for the planned trial of a secular ethics course developed for NSW schools as a voluntary alternative to devotional scripture classes.

It is disturbing that the trial is being opposed on the basis that secular ethics classes may prove more popular than devotional scripture classes, and may thus reduce the number of students attending the latter. This argument presumes that viable sizes for the scripture classes must be maintained in NSW schools at all costs, whether they are popular with parents and children or not. That, however, is completely the wrong way of looking at things.

Scripture classes in state schools, taught from a devotional viewpoint (rather than an objective and critical one), are both a privilege and an anachronism. In modern pluralistic democracies, the state should be neutral about the truth and social value of religion, and therefore should not be giving opportunities for religious organisations to present their particular, contested worldviews to school students - at least not unless the same opportunities are given to the presentation of naturalistic worldviews. Thus, the provision of time for devotional scriptural classes is a traditional privilege that has been accorded to religion, but which cannot be strictly justified in contemporary circumstances.

Nonetheless, there is a long tradition of NSW schools providing this privilege, and no one is seriously arguing for its removal. No one is even arguing for the same privilege being extended to atheist, rationalist, or humanist groups that might wish to present students with the merits of philosophical naturalism and a life based on reason - though, strictly speaking, the logic of doing so is irrestible if the state is to be neutral between religion and its rival worldviews.

All that is being suggested is that a secular - but NOT anti-religious or explicitly naturalistic - alternative be provided for those students who would prefer it. This is an extremely modest step, and even this is being undertaken only on a trial basis. The degree of solicitude being given to religious sensibilities is already quite marked. The government is bending over backwards to accommodate them. And yet, we still see some organisations and individuals wanting more: seeking, in effect, a guarantee that no effective competition to devotional scripture classes will ever be introduced into NSW public schools, and that scripture classes will always have viable numbers irrespective of how attractive they are to students and parents.

The opposition to a trial of ethics classes is unreasonable and contrary to good political principles. In particular, it betrays a misunderstanding of the relationship between church and state. It is not the purpose of the state to prop up religion, but merely to protect and promote its citizens' worldly interests, including interests in the education and socialisation of children.

Conversely, the proposal for a trial of secular - but, once more, not anti-religious - ethics classes as a voluntary alternative to traditional scripture classes is more than reasonable.

I urge that the government go ahead with the trial, and that you not be swayed in any way by the current campaign against it. While there may be many emails and letters coming to you in opposition to the trial, that merely reflects the conduct of an orchestrated campaign. I can assure you that the trial has strong support within the community, and indeed that I am hearing much outrage about the actions of Archbishop Jensen and others in attempting to get it scuttled before it even begins.

Yours sincerely,

Russell Blackford


Peter Hollo said...

Thanks Russell, this is fantastic and I need to take some tips from it and write my own letter.
I've been getting more and more angry at bloody Jensen and his hordes.

Carolyn Cordon said...

Great work, you have my full support for this. I am becoming increasingly unsettled by our politicians' stated devotion to God. I don't care whether or not they believe in the tooth fairy, I care about getting dental cover!

Russell Blackford said...

She sent me a very nice reply. :)

Anonymous said...

Certainly an understandable position Russell and one I would support. The scripture study option has not actually kept pace with modern Christian understandings anyway, where the common logical understanding would fit comfortably in a secular study program. The only problem I do have is that you do take a harsh line by stating should and wrong, in the approach. Reason does dictate a logical and bipartisan approach be taken - this isn't and us versus them and the sooner sides agree on that the better the suggested approach will be accepted. Many schools of medicine and science shelved the us and them view years ago and simply removed noun and verb references to appease the masses. It works, and quite effectively so. It is not so much the scripture studies that concern me, it is more the engine behind the version being put forward -- this was all old and misdirected teaching in the 1930s -- it has a good layer of dust today. "Robert N Stephenson"

Ergun Coruh said...

Thanks Russell. I sent a message from Penny Sharpe's Facebook account supporting Russell's email. Penny Sharpe apparently counting 'for' and 'against' emails. Therefore I encourage everyone to send separate personalised emails to her supporting secular ethics program. Please spread the message through social networks too.

Unknown said...

When I compare this to my letter, I'm glad its not just me writing in >_<

Nailed it, Russ!