A victory for secular ethics

By Ken Perrott 25/11/2010 9

I have been following a small controversy which has raged this year in New South Wales. It involves the teaching of ethics in school classes.

Well, a bit more complicated than that (why should anyone oppose the teaching of ethics). This year 10 NSW schools ran a trial project of ethics classes developed by Professor of Philosophy Philip Cam  for the St James Ethics Centre. In the trial schools it was introduced as a voluntary alternative to the religious scripture classes. (These classes are similar to those run in many New Zealand schools where the school is closed for the duration and volunteer religious teachers come in to instruct children, with their parents permission).

Secular ethics popular

Controversy arose due to opposition by several prominent religious spokespersons and religious activist groups. They felt there was an understanding with the government that there would be no competition offered to their scripture classes by any other form of education. This had been used to reject non-religious alternatives in the past. And non-attending children were forced to read in school libraries or the back of the scripture class, or even to clean the playground. Proponents of the scripture classes were shocked to find that many parents preferred to consent to ethics class and the scripture class enrollments plummeted in many cases.

Despite petitions and campaigns by Christian groups the trial went ahead, was successful and got a generally positive response from parents, schools and the official assessment. Now the state government has approved introduction of ethics classes, starting in the first term next year. They will be offered under the system used for the trial, using volunteers as teachers (see Ethics right, refusal wrong for state schools, and Ethics classes to start next year).

Religious opposition

Opposition from some religious groups is expected to continue and these classes may also be opposed by the opposition coalition. I have been amazed at how disingenuous many of the arguments against secular ethics classes have been. Some are hones enough to express concern at the effect of market forces (decline in enrollments for their classes). But others have complained because  running classes at tlhe same time “deny” ethics to children of religious parents. Or they object that ethics should be taught in normal class time, and hence be available to all.

Some of the protesters have objected to the philosophical nature of the ethics classes. They believe kids should be taught what is right and wrong, not trained to solve problems for themselves. And so on. Some have even insisted that the class content should be vetted by religious experts! The old lie that religions are the authority when it comes to ethics.

So this little controversy is bound to continue. And the state’s deciosion could even be reversed – especially if there were a change of government.

But meanwhile I think ethics classes are great for kids. I suspect they really enjoy the opportunity to discuss and solve ethical questions.


Of course this situation is far from ideal. Ethics should be part of the normal school curriculum. But of course comparative religion and beliefs should be too. All children should have an opportunity for proper education in these subjects. However, religious groups oppose this, preferring to impose religion instruction, rather than teaching about religion and other life stances. They also want control.

A very narrow attitude. Surely it is best for our children to have the opportunity to consider the best information in these subjects, to appreciate the fact that different beliefs exist in a pluralist society, and to learn how to behave as responsible and autonomous moral agents. Religious instruction doesn’t help this.

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9 Responses to “A victory for secular ethics”

  • Teaching in a state secondary school I can see a need for deliberate education in the area of ethics. Your footnote contains a lot of truth and a lot of good challenges to religious communities also.

    Too many Christians are sheltered within a narrow box of a world-view that is of their own creation. They need to know enough about the world around them to have a more comprehensive and fully formed picture of reality. And I am a fundamentalist, bible-believing Christian saying this!

    We can’t force people to become Christians or to undergo religious education grudgingly. Nobody should even be expected to engage with our message under such conditions. We must also realise that such systems of religious education, e.g. Bible in schools in NZ, are rather amazing to even exist when the majority of people in our countries (NZ and Australia) are not Christian in more than some vague cultural sense that doesn’t really impact on the rest of their lives.

    Perhaps Christians have had it too easy for too long, riding on the back of missionary work left over from the settlement period of their nations? Perhaps it is time to collectively get back to their roots and find out what it was that “worked” in the past. Maybe in doing so they will find out, and deal with, just what it is that drives the average, rational, realistic, and thoughtful person up the wall!


  • My kids had to attend Religious Education during one year at a school in Victoria, Australia. The RE volunteer ‘teachers’ were so awful that all of my kids were converted to vehement atheists within the year. For that, I am very grateful to those volunteers, although I still resent the one who called my 5-year-old a “child of Satan” because he had not gone to church the previous Sunday (what sort of thing is that to say to a 5 year old?!). However, it does raise the disturbing question of whether secular ‘ethics’ classes would churn out unethical, immoral individuals. I would support ethics classes in schools only if they were taught by high quality teachers, in order to avoid such a backlash.

  • Yes, I can still remember being terrorised as a little kid by a religious fanatic.

    I get your point, Rosalind, about the quality of teachers. I guess the current situation in NSW is that the contracting organisation (the St James Ethics Centre) would have to vet and perhaps certificate volunteer teachers. And parents would need to decide if they had confidence in this.

    I guess even if ethics and comparative religion were incorporated into the ordinary curriculum there would still be the problem of maverick teachers. (As I guess there is with fundamentalists who become science teachers and teach biology).

  • “Perhaps it is time to collectively get back to their roots and find out what it was that “worked” in the past.”

    I suspect that one of the things that worked in the past was that we were taught not to question the religious leaders or the bible. Unfortunately, some Catholics are learning the folly of doing such a thing. So unless we regress to a society where questioning religion is not allowed, I doubt that there will be a resurgence in Christian religion.
    Perhaps science also has had a role in the questioning of religion. It seems to me that most religions “cherry pick” when it comes to the use of their bible/religious texts, something not compatible with science.
    Furthermore, science has disproved religious dogma around the use of condoms/contraception, equality of men and women, homosexuality, age of the Earth etc. So why should people base their ethical and moral views on historical documents that contain a multitude of inconsistencies and errors?

  • I guess even if ethics and comparative religion were incorporated into the ordinary curriculum there would still be the problem of maverick teachers.
    Ken, are you suggesting that anyone who identifies strongly with a particular religion should not be allowed to teach ethics or comparative religion?

    I wouldn’t consider what you described as “working” but I wasn’t particularly clear. I was meaning the service side of the mission such as providing food and clothing for the hungry and cold. Showing love without expecting anything back in return, in other words.

    The issues you’ve mentioned have such a wide range of different perspectives among different religions and denominations that it is quite misleading to simply group them all under the title of “religious dogma” and then dismiss them all with a casual comment. Perhaps you would like to pick one of those “dogmas” and share what it is that has been disproved? You might find that there are a lot of religious folk that agree on a lot of counts.

    Disagreements are normally grounded in the assumptions that different groups begin with. Some of these assumptions are unconsciously held, which is where a lot of the heated debate comes from. If an ethics course started from these assumptions and showed how they are built upon, then there would be little problem with “biased” teachers. I guess you would still get mavericks from either end of the spectrum on any issue, but that happens already in non-ethics based courses anyway. Part of teaching is interacting with the students and students ask all sorts of questions about all sorts of topics. They even ask, “What do you think?”

  • @samhight

    Indeed, the world would be a better place if there was more of a focus on service to others, and showing love without expecting anything in back in return. However, one does not require religion to display these behaviours.

    I disagree that it is misleading to state that “science has disproved religious dogma…” The Roman Catholic church’s views on contraception and its until recent opposition to the use of condoms to limit the spread of AIDS, are to say the least, unscientific. Also, many christian and other religions condemn homosexuality , while science has established it is both natural and innocuous.
    I agree with you that dogma can differ from religion to religion. In stating that “science has disproved religious dogma such as … ” I did not intend this to mean ALL religious dogma, rather that there are religious dogma/views that science has disproved.

    “Disagreements are normally grounded in the assumptions that different groups begin with. Some of these assumptions are unconsciously held, which is where a lot of the heated debate comes from.”

    I couldn’t agree more. A rational discussion of assumptions and terminology is always a good starting point.

  • For secondary school guidelines on facilitating the study of ethics etc., look up the Philosophy Teaching and Learning Guidelines on the NZ Ministry of Education’s TKI website.