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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); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sydney Anglican Church opposes ethics classes

The Sydney diocese is atypical of the Anglican Church in Australia, both in the evangelical version of Christianity that it promotes and in its highly conservative views on social issues. As if to underscore the latter, its bishop is currently opposing the introduction of ethics classes into NSW schools as a voluntary alternative to scripture lessons provided by local ministers. Apparently the bish is scared that the ethics course will prove too popular and undermine scripture attendance. That must not be allowed to happen, it seems - so the scripture lessons have to be propped up by not giving NSW schoolchildren and their parents any alternative.

Worse than the above, the NSW government is taking notice, and has given the Bishop of Sydney some kind of opportunity to vet the ethics curriculum. Surely this is outrageous. Why should the local leader of a religious denomination have any more say over this than anyone else in the community? There is no serious suggestion that the program is anti-religious in any way (teaching, say, that the Catholic Church is corrupt), which seems like the only legitimate concern the religious could have.

One might, of course, ask why religious instruction is included at all within the public school curriculum of a country like Australia. Isn't this an indefensible leftover from an earlier time when Western countries liked to think of themselves as "Christian"? Surely those parents who specifically want their children instructed in religious dogma can arrange for it to happen outside of school hours - maybe at Sunday School or the equivalent. Public education is an activity carried out by the state, which doesn't exist to promote either religion or anti-religion, or to adjudicate on their respective merits.

Indeed, if the various local religious ministers are to be allowed onto school grounds to teach religious viewpoints, then local humanist or rationalist leaders should be given the same privilege and allowed to teach their anti-religious worldviews to whichever children want to attend. Fair's fair.

Seen from that viewpoint, offering children a secular, but not anti-religious, alternative to scripture classes, seems like a modest step. It will still be a long way short of state neutrality in matters of religion and irreligion.

If the ethics program is any good, it might be better simply to make it compulsory in place of religious education. Or maybe the freed-up time could be used for secular (but not anti-religious) study of comparative religion. A program of study like that might be genuinely beneficial for children growing up in a pluralistic society. It could contribute to mutual understanding. Why, in the twenty-first century, with so many pressures on the curriculum, is precious time in public schools being allocated to (largely futile) attempts at religious indoctrination?


Margaret said...

I am so angered by this. If ethics classes siphon off students from religious instruction, that's simply students and parents voting with their feet. If religious instruction is so feeble that it can only cope with competition in the form of children being forced to twiddle their thumbs for an hour a week (as my daughter did throughout her primary years), then maybe it needs to read into that the quality and value of the "education" it's providing.

Neither the Anglican Church nor any other religious group should have ANY input into a secular alternative to religious indoctrination.

Sean Wright said...

Yes I also find it odd that the trial is being fiercely examined yet where is the evidence that SRE classes provide any benefit to students moral/ethical development. Indeed if we are to believe the journalists of such fine programs as ACA and Today tonight our children are out of control - clearly to me, evidence that the Moral teaching of the church has failed :)

Mike said...

I can't even begin to imagine where they'll find ministers vaguely equipped to teach any sort of ethics to students.

My experience of "CofE" scripture classes mandated through NSW public primary and high schools was
a) child-minding of the "cut out pictures of Jesus and Jonah and the whale" variety (even in 6th class!)
b) lots of the fairy-stories: Jonah, Noah, ...
c) multi-denominational scripture seminars where we were told we would all go to hell by various minsters of religion
d) annual visits from Fred Nile, giving him an unchallenged political platform to express his eccentric views

Adele said...

His entire rant is irrational and clearly he is terrified of us evil secularists 'converting' the holy.
Seriously, an alternative is all we ask for. There are children who do not attend scripture lessons and they should be given an option besides twiddling their thumbs.

Mike said...

Perhaps the church could lead by example and talk about the ethics of

1) proposing that the flooding of the city of Carlisle was due to "pro-gay laws being enacted". (Bishop of Carlisle, 2007) rather than an unfortunate consequence of building a city on a flood-plain at the confluence of several rivers

2) lowering standards of communion for African dioceses, skipping rules of adultery so that polygamy was not condemned (Lambeth conference)

3) teaching literal interpretations of Biblical myths despite knowing these to be false ( almost all ministers, everywhere )

Lachie McKenzie said...

It is the church kicking and screaming as they are slowly dragged out of schools where they do not belong. Of course, when they are gone, we should study their fascinating history and many contibutions to music, architecture and culture. But also look at how faith can lead one to the conclusion that flying a plane into the side of a building is a good idea.

Anonymous said...

@davmab11: doesn't even have an answer to CAPSLOCK

Russell Blackford said...

No feeding the troll, please.

Amanda said...

Scripture is a leftover of the political deals that had to be done when the state took over the bulk of education from the churches in 18whatever. So it was a compromise to get pubic education through but has long outlived any relevance. It's in the law though which makes it a big effort to shift.

Kudos have to go to Nathan Rees, former Premier, for supporting it to the trial stage, the current regime is more religion friendly but the NSW Govt has an election next year and needs all the support it can get so I would suggest it would be worthwhile for NSW parents and citizens to get in touch with MPs and Ministers on the issue.

But every time Jensen or who ever is quoted in the papers being so arrogant I reckon it just convinces more people to give the idea a go.

The NSW public school school I went to in Years 7 and 8 (in your new stomping ground, Russell) didn't even have Scripture so everyone went home early on a Monday, probably illegal but good times.

Teddy Bream said...

While I agree that indoctrination of religious principles is abhorrent I also think children should be taught about religions. Not just one, but all. In fact any class that does this should also include discussions about secular humanism and philosophical and theological thinking in general. This is what currently happens in the UK where such classes also teach philosophy, theology, and principles of rigorous thought.

To support this view, is the need to understand such things to gain a full picture of history and culture (in every society) as so much of it is soaked in imagery and reference to these things.

An ethics class is a nice first step but I want it to go further...

Anonymous said...

Teddy, You mention the situation in the UK where there are more broadly based philosophy/theology/critical thinking classes. I presume that these are not offerred as an alternative to the sort of Special Religious Education that we have in NSW, or are they?

Do you, or anyone else, know of a comparable situation to that proposed here, where students have a choice between classes in sectarian religious education or secular ethics/philosophy/religious studies?

Anonymous said...

I am surprised noone mentions the constitutional position.

How does all this square with section 116 of the constitution, I wonder?

Sean Wright said...


I think you will find the horse bolted in the 1980's due to the DOGS case.

Russell Blackford said...

It's state government, so in any event s.116 doesn't have any application. But Sean is right: s.116 has been interpreted very narrowly by the High Court, far more narrowly than the equivalent provision in the First Amendment in the US.

Margaret said...

It's also arguable that the US constitutional provision of the separation of church and state is broader than that in our Constitution.

Amanda said...

BTW on what I said about contacting MPs. Penny Sharpe is an Upper House Labor member (I know her a bit and would be quite sure she supports secular ethics classes), she just tweeted
“Inbox this am is filled with people pleading with the government to stop school ethics programs so that scripture has no competition.” @pennysharpemlc

Clearly they other side has a coordinated campaign (and the same emails would’ve gone to every MP), and such things do influence decisions. If you’ve got the time, you might want to send a note of support to MPs for the decision.

Teddy Bream said...


I'm a little hazy on this, but the classes are voluntary part of O or maybe A levels. My Dad taught such classes up until 2002, so things might have changed since then.

From what I understand they weren't very popular. Interestingly the department that taught this kind of stuff was made up of an Anglican priest, a Pagan, an Atheist and a Hindu. Nice variety if you ask me!