Mixing values and Jesus in secular education

By Ken Perrott 05/06/2012 18

Daniel Dennett calls it the “last big fib.*” The claim that religion and human morality are intimately entwined – that you can’t be good without god. That does seem to be a widely held misconception, or should I say widely promoted.

The New Zealand educational curriculum provides for values education. And in public schools by law the education must be secular. But these  (the teaching of values and secular education) are threatened by the legal provision which allows religious (Christian) groups to come into public schools and provide religious instruction. The “trick” is that schools are legally “closed” during that time – and parents can “opt-out” their children (if they know what is going on).

I think that is bad enough but some groups, and schools, pull another trick. They tie in values and religion so that the intruding religious group provides the curriculum requirement for values education – or justifies their intrusion this way.

On the one hand children are taught a very biased form of values and in practice these groups are more interest in converts and talking about “Jesus” than they are in values). On the other, those children who are opted out miss even that form of values education.

Very unsatisfactory!

A newly formed New Zealand group, the Secular Education Network, is attempting to publicise and change this situation. If the issue interests you or you wish to participate in this work go and have a look at their website at http://reason.org.nz/.

Here’s an excellent, and short, video highlighting the problem in Auckland.

Religious recruiting in our schools.

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*Have a look at this excellent video of a recent discussion between Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins where Dennett uses this term:

Richard Dawkins & Daniel Dennett. Oxford, 9 May 2012

18 Responses to “Mixing values and Jesus in secular education”

  • I remember children doing this during my first years of primary school, my parents ‘opted out’ of it for me, I didn’t really know what was going on until many years later. In terms of ‘values education’, I think I was well served by my parents and a number of excellent teachers through primary school.

  • Very interesting subject which I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of, How to be good without God .The Christians generally have good and evil spelt out in the the Bible , but can any one explain how Humanists define good and where it came from if they only believe in a Big Bang and Evolution. Can those things provide moral guidance and values or is just left up to the individual or group to decide right and wrong ? And do they exist as entities in themselves like gravity, or are they concepts we’ve just made up.

    • Morgan, if you are interested in my take on human morality have a look at some of my posts on this.

      Christians derive their morality in much the same way as the non-religious. The certainly don’t get it from their bible – there are so many wrong moral teachings there that they must have some way of selecting which they accept and which they reject.

      I see morality very much based on human values. Biological value is itself an important requirement of living things – the need to survive and reproduce. One can understand much of our values as essentially based in biological value. This is of course modulated by our evolution as a social, intelligent and empathetic species. This provides an objective basis for human values.

      Gods offer no more explanation in this area than they do in explaining the world around us. We have had to ditch such mythology in the process of developing a scientific approach to our surroundings – we need to do the same if we are to understand human morality.

  • Thankyou Ken for taking time to answer my questions but now I have more. I was a little surprised to read your definition of humanistic morals/values. They seemed to me to be so general that they could be used to justify almost anything. For example , I thought even Hitlers Final Solution would come within the boundaries of your definition in that the Nazis thought the extermination of the Jews was neccessary for their survival and continued purifying of the Aryan race. Plus the evolving consensus at the time was that it was morally acceptable to the majority. Am I right in thinking that your definition would make the Holocaust morally acceptable or have I totally missed it. . Probably what Iwas expecting was something a bit more definate like , ” Thou shall not steal “. Even if Christians and Jews never live up to it , it is at least a definate moral standard that says stealing is wrong. Do humanists have anything similar in which they could say that some behaviour is definately wrong or do Humanists not use right and wrong in regard to morals ? . And are your views typical of most Humanists ?.

    • Morgan, you seem not to be discussing this issue in good faith.

      You asked for a non “supernatural” basis of human morality – I gave a brief idea. Note, a list of moral positions was neither asked for or given. And my point was that you and I had the same basis for our values. That the god story was just an invention which explained nothing.

      Now you claim “Hitlers Final Solution would come within the boundaries of your definition in that the Nazis thought the extermination of the Jews was neccessary for their survival and continued purifying of the Aryan race.”

      Morgan that is neither honest or in good faith.

      You admit that “Iwas expecting was something a bit more definate like , ” Thou shall not steal “. “

      There are probably an infinite number of specific moral positions one could quote (and we would probably agree on most – because there is an objective basis for human values) and listing them does nothing to explain why.

      Surely you don’t suggest that putting “thou” in front of a claim makes it correct? Nor can you seriously suggest that extracting such a quote from you book of myths (yes you might call it holy scriptures) makes it correct. If you do are you seriously suggesting its OK to stone people, murder children, commit genocide and infanticide just because its says so in your bible?

      Surely you have values which enable you to cherry pick quotes from you book of myths – and reject others.

      Can you describe how you reach such decisions?

  • Morgan, you seem to be setting up a false dichotomy: christian or humanist. How about the views of a range of non-theistic religions, such as Confuscians, Buddhists, etc, on “How to be good without God”?

    I think you’ll find that nearly all religions have at their core something along the lines of the “golden rule” – treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. Including humanists.

  • Ttankyou Ken for taking time to reply again. Please forgive my clumsy approach. I did not intend to make any claim about the Final Solution but was using it to clarify my understanding of your definition; hence the reason I asked you have I missed it. I cherry picked the quote on stealing because it was an uncomplicated example , simply as a way of finding out the humanistic position on such things. I did not suggest seriously or otherwise that it was OK to stone people , murder children, commit genocide and infanticide and neither did I give reason to raise those issues. Your Blog is the first I have ever replied to on any subject. I have been reading your other articles such as Subjective Morality and find them very interesting , almost compelling as it leaves me distracted all day trying to figure out what it means , whether I agree or not and why . It raises no end of questions but the word precision required to accurately discuss it in a useful manner is very challenging. In fact Idon’t even know one person who is fluent in the concepts you take for granted. If you have enough patience , may I be bold enough to ask just one more sincere but poorly worded question ? It occurs to me that belief in God and belief in No God must be equal positions inthat , since it is scientifically impossible to conclusively prove that God does or doesn’t exist , it must require a certain degree of faith to believe in something that noone can ever be certain of. But having read your articles it seems you are totally persuaded that there is no God. So, do you have proof , or abit of faith or some other reasons I am unaware of that makes you so adamant in your position.

  • Morgan,

    This isn’t my usual fare, but allow me to offer a few loose thoughts.

    It seems to me that one problem with talking about morals, particularly for those approaching them from a religious angle, is wanting to define them in absolute terms, that a particular action ‘just is’ moral or immoral (as the case may be).

    Take what you offered as an example: stealing. Consider a culture where there is no, or limited, concept personal ownership of items. With no concept of personal ownership there would be no concept of stealing, either. For those people your suggestion of an ‘absolute’ moral would be bewildering. (For me personally example, this has echoes of missionaries insisting their morals were ‘just right’, when in fact they had no real basis to do that.) You’ll note the difference is not based on religion, but cultural history.

    Looked at that way, it seems to me that (some) morals will simply follow from what type of society is desired or, perhaps more accurately, what has come to be accepted.

    You immediately evoke Godwin’s Law in your defence – fraught with playing on emotion and clouding logic. You might, though, consider that it’s simply case of what kind of society was desired. If you wanted an autocratic society dedicated to Aryan notions, then perhaps persecuting Jewish people might seem ‘appropriate’. If you wanted a pluralistic society, it certainly wouldn’t.

    You wrote: ‘It occurs to me that belief in God and belief in No God must be equal positions inthat , since it is scientifically impossible to conclusively prove that God does or doesn’t exist , it must require a certain degree of faith to believe in something that noone can ever be certain of.’

    I can’t speak for others, but I see this as you projecting your own way of processing things in terms of beliefs onto others.

    These are not equal positions: belief in a god requires, essentially by definition, that the person take a ‘leap of faith’, accepting something in the absence of evidence.

    There’s no equivalent ‘leap of faith’ required to conclude that the most reasonable answer in the absence of evidence for a thing existing that the thing in question doesn’t exist. There you’re basically just not inventing something unless there’s a need for it to explain observations. (While I’m writing, if you’re not familiar with it, check out applications of Occam’s Razor.)

  • Morgan, obviously your god belief is important to you and therefore you are concerned when you come across people who don’t share that belief. But think about it – even those people who claim similar god beliefs probably don’t think of their god the same way you do. And in this country most people don’t even declare the adherence to the Christian religion that you do. That’s just a fact of life – you can’t change it so its best for your mental health to accept it.

    I think your perspective makes you unable to see my position clearly. I am not “adamant” in my position. One thing you learn from scientific research is the need to adjust positions. We are often wrong – and we discover that by interacting with reality. I, like many people, can’t see any support for god hypotheses – there just isn’t any evidence for them. The evidence in fact suggest they are more a social or psychological phenomenon than a fact of reality.

    But that is not being adamant – I am perfectly willing to change my mind if and when reasonable evidence occurs and the idea can be tested against reality.

    Why do you say “it is scientifically impossible to conclusively prove that God does or doesn’t exist?” Surely if a god existed, was part of reality and interacted with reality it, like any other phenomena interacting with reality, would leave evidence. We would be able to build structured hypotheses from that evidence and test our ideas against reality.

    Given that no one comes across any suitable evidence it seems entirely reasonable to reject beliefs in a real objectively existing god. But, as I said, one can easily change that conclusion if evidence did ever turn up.

    I don’t see that the claim that you know something exists, but that it is impossible to find evidence for it, is at all honest. It’s a silly way io sticking to a belief despite the lack of evidence. In fact despite strong evidence against the belief.

  • Let me also make a few comments. I think there is a profound problem trying to discuss moral philosophy when you leapfrog over several centuries of (secular) moral philosophy.

    It is also important to understand what objective and subjective means in the context of axiology (theory of values) and ethics. They don’t mean the same thing in the scientific context. In science, ‘subjective’ is bad. In philosophy, all subjective means that the source or location of values is the subject.

    Despite the naive parody advanced by some theists, subjective does not mean morals are subject to personal whim. A subjective moral philosophy (like Utilitarianism or Contractarianism) can be rational and yield stable <moral rules. (We would describe these as either Evolutionary Stable Strategies, or in a social sciences context, a Nash equilibrium). Importantly, a consensus is not evidence of an objective moral rule (one sourced outside the subject)- but merely a stable strategy.

    Early Utilitarians for instance, opposed slavery and supported women’s suffrage. Their opponents were often Christians who used an objective source of morals- the bible- to argue against it. Centuries of black slavery were justified by Christians under the ‘Curse of Ham’.

    From a contractarian perspective (and bear in mind, this takes us all the way back to Hobbes- it’s centuries old), moral rules are rational and all people’s views are given weight. (Rawls employed the ‘Veil of Ignorance as a tool to generate this).

    For a tacit contractarian, the fact that what is regarded as moral changes over time, is a good illustration of the role of groups ‘contracting’ these rules. We no longer think infanticide, human sacrifice, slavery, killing people for witchcraft are acceptable norms in Western Societies.

    In short, subjective does not mean whimsical or bad in moral philosophy. You can’t generate an argument for god being the origin of a moral system by leap-frogging over centuries of moral philosophy. And I’m afraid, the insistence that morals are objective, has too often lead to rules that are arbitrary and abhorrent.

    • Brendan, I agree that so called objective morality “often lead to rules that are arbitrary and abhorrent.” Divine command ethics is painted as objective yet manages to produce the worst sort of moral relativism? It’s really anything goes but justifications are invented by using one’s god. And questioning is not permitted.

      However, I have argued for an “objectively-based” morality. That is not that moral rules exist somewhere out there in the universe or are ordained by some sort of god. But that our morality (and that of other animals) can result naturally from the objective basis of our existence. This helps counter the theist question – “where do you get your morals from? If not a god then anything goes.”

      I like Damasio’s idea of biological values as being inherent in life – even the most primitive organisms must have had mechanisms enabling them to survive, react to environmental and nutrient gradients, to reproduce. It seems to me that such biological value is essential to life and evolution.

      With the evolution of higher sensory systems, and eventually brains, the biological values could become more definite and specific. Animals would experience their values and, need to react, as emotions, feelings.

      Despite seeing ourselves as a rational species we are still very much motivated and driven by emotions and feelings. In one sense this is the basis of our moral values. We have strong feelings of right and wrong and this compels us to react intuitively to situations. Much faster than if rational consideration were required.

      But as intelligent, empathetic and reasoning animals we are also capable of reflecting on moral situations. Of consciously applying our values to situations – even hypothetical situations. I think this is part of the reason for the development of moral values and rules. We learn through conscious deliberation but eventually new moral values become incorporated into our unconscious moral system. Become part of our intuitive reactions.

      This does not require all humans to reflect and consider ethical situations. But many do and their reflection get conveyed in our culture. Even through TV. Just consider the role of popular culture in changing our moral values regarding women and homosexuals.

      Morality must be subjective because we are driven not by reason but by our feelings – especially in immediate situations.

      But morality is objectively based because it is an extension of biological value – the need to survive and reproduce essential for life and evolution. The evolution of social species and brains has enabled a far more complex form of biological value – especially in social animals. Brains are developed to take this into account – we become hard-wired for empathy and altruism (as well as, unfortunately, hostility and xenophobia).

      And in the case of humans, or species which can reflect, plan and organise socially, morality also becomes rational. We can make judgements in accordance with our biological and social values.

      In a sense I see labeling of something as complex as human morality in terms of subjective, objective, emotional or rational, as too naive and mechanical. In complex animals like us we should not attempt to construct such a black and white scenario.

      I think it makes more sense to see that human morality is not described by one of the word, but is a complex phenomenon best described by all of these words at the same time.

  • I understand why you use objective in the way you do, my point was that at the expense of ‘avoiding moral relativism’ this ends up creating confusion. You’re using objective in one sense, someone from a moral philosophy background means another thing with it.

    I of course, agree completely that simple labels are unhelpful.That’s why I made the point that we have centuries of secular moral philosophy to draw upon. It’s not easy to reduce this all to a few sentences. Sadly many theists (I’m certain we’ve encountered similar) seem to have a shallow grasp of this- and equate subjective values as whimsical or selfish.

    From a more axiological perspective, I continue to equate these biological values as subjective. Evolution is gene-focused; that continues to make the gene-carrier (individual) the location of values. In short, the subject is still where the values lie. Some values that are evolutionary stable (selected for) will get tacit or implicit agreement amongst us as ‘moral’. (Indeed, all social organisms seem to evolve ‘moral sentiments’ of some kind).

    In the sense that many theists use ‘objective’ to describe morals, I still prefer to deny that claim- in favour of basing morals with the individual. I’ve noticed that few are able to debate the say, merits of contractarianism and this rapidly exposes the shallowness of their knowledge.

  • Thankyou Ken , Grant and Brendan for your extensive answers which I am still working my way through, and some it is way over my head but I expect Google will explain Contractarianism for me. And you’re right that my perspective makes it hard for me to understand your position clearly. But I’m trying. I don’t agree with your opening comments about me feeling threatened by people of different beliefs. Just the opposite , or I wouldn’t be asking questions , reading your answers or trying to understand your position. Regarding the lack of evidence for God, Iwould be interested to know what examples of evidence would convince you , but also aware of the God-problem that evidence would create ; that you’d be forced to acknowledge God whether you wanted to or not. That aside, I’d like to ask about the belief that everything came from nothing , and life from non-life. Even if you have theories to explain it, does it require faith to believe it happened that way, or that it is even possible, if you are unable to reproduce it or test for it in the way you described to qualify as evidence. I understand if you have more important things to do, so please feel free to ignore my questions, though Iam sincerely interested.

    • Morgan – can’t understand your assertion that if there were evidence I would “be forced to acknowledge (your) God whether [I] wanted to or not.” Accepting a theory is not a matter of emotional desire. It’s a matter of evidence and verification. I would have no trouble accepting a god theory if it had evidential support and verification – none at all. But face the fact – there is not even a structured god hypothesis, let alone evidence and verification.

      Regarding a universe from nothing – no matter how difficult it is for you to comprehend is it actually does seem to be the case. The net energy/mass of the universe, as measured, is thought to be zero so it could well have come from nothing. That said, there are a number of speculative scientific hypotheses for the formation of the universe – some of them allow for pre-existing universes, some don’t.

      As for abiogenesis – surely you don’t reject the concept? Or do you honestly think life has always existed? After all, even the religious myths have gods, or ravens, or flying spaghetti monsters, forming living things out of non-living things.

      As with formation of the universe the origins of living matter from non-living is still largely a matter of speculation – although in the case of life the physics and chemistry is far better known (the situation in the first very small time after the origin of the universe was so extreme our current physics just can’t handle it – let alone test some of the ideas). However, many of the required steps in the evolution of non-living matter into living matter can be and are tested. It might be that we can never know for sure exactly how life formed on earth but probably will be able to synthesise artificial life and therefore at least understand all the principles involved.

      Really it is more honest to say “I don’t know – but let’s find out” in answer to such questions rather than just have “faith” that any old idea or fairy story is true. And speculation is a legitimate part of science – as long as we don’t start having faith that our speculations are somehow “true” without the evidence and verification.

  • Hi

    I’m not sure you can compress 4 centuries of moral philosophy into a google search. That was kind of my point. But please don’t let me discourage you. Both utilitarianism and contractarianism are very influential in matters of public policy.

    On the issue of evidence, your question is a little odd. Evidence is that which tested, scrutinised and subject to some corroboration or verification process. Nobody in a legal or scientific setting asks their audience what evidence they’d like. They proceed by presenting it, knowing it must survive some objective process of scrutiny and examination.

    The claim that there is an intercessory god who has intervened in the natural world at a colossal scale, should leave evidence. We can’t find that evidence.

    Research in abiogenesis has made a lot of progress in the last 20 years under the more advanced molecular biology tools we have available. There are issues like whether life began as replicating proteins that latter acquired DNA, or whether the first stage was RNA. But the evidence we have- based on the cellular and ‘life’ components we have formed abiotically- points to a natural origin. We can form primitive cells (proto-cells). Amino-acids form so readily they occur in meteorites; they can form in outer-space. Iron-sulphur reduction chemistry has yielded deoxyribonucleotides in the last decade etc.

    Life seems to be nothing more than the physics of self-organising systems operating on the principles of chemical bonding. But this does lead to what do you mean by ‘life’?

    I’ve noticed many believers are good at throwing out this life/nonlife distinction, but rarely seem to be able to define life. Do you class viruses as alive? Would you class our red blood cells as alive?

  • Morgan,

    I’ll leave this to the others (out of time and, as I was saying, not my usual fare).

    Not sure how you’re having us have said this though: “I don’t agree with your opening comments about me feeling threatened by people of different beliefs.”

    re testing things: tests don’t have to directly reproduce the initial event, but can examine things that would follow as a consequence of the model.

    (I’m not sure you understand when reproducibility is needed, either. It’s needed for ‘wet’ experiments* if there are variables that vary (ha) that the experimenter can’t (fully) control. For models (not ‘wet’ experiments) that take into account all the variables what’s needed is an examination of the model itself and it’s parameter space.)

    Similarly, your question about evidence suggests a lack of understanding of how things are examined, as Brendan has pointed out.

    * Lifting this term from biology, then applying it to physics… –sorry.

  • Morgan,
    I find your following question quite intriguing
    “Even if you have theories to explain it, does it require faith to believe it happened that way, or that it is even possible, if you are unable to reproduce it or test for it in the way you described to qualify as evidence.”

    This is my view which may differ from others here – quite frankly I’m not that concerned with how the universe etc came into being. What I tend to do is listen to the different explanations and my “default” position will be to tentatively accept the explanation which is best supported by the evidence. As Brendan has pointed out there is has been some fascinating research done around abiogenesis which seems to me to be quite reasonable. However, if a different theory comes along which is better supported by the evidence then I will accept that as the best tentative explanation.

    With regards to the religious explanation “god(s) did it” there doesn’t seem to be any reliable evidence to support this, just biblical/religious document “facts” which as science has developed, often conflict with what science explanations.

    If god(s) did exist then why would he/they just appear in a completely verifiable way and say “worship me/us or suffer for eternity”? – it would save a lot of hassle

  • Thankyou again Ken , Brendan , Grant and Michael for your replies. Still processing all the information.

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