Aussie Christians nix ethics classes

September 13, 2010 • 6:50 am

We tend to think that, among English-speaking nations, the U.S. is the worst in cramming religion down the throats of its kids.  And because Australia is so far away, and the U.S. so politically insular, we Americans are largely ignorant of religious doings in the antipodes.  Well, from the land that brought us Mel Gibson and Ken Ham, I submit for your approval a particularly noxious specimen of religious tomfoolery.

New South Wales (NSW) is Australia’s most populous state; it sits at the southeast corner of the continent and contains Canberra, the nation’s capital, and Sydney.  And it’s home to a really bizarre incursion of faith into the schools.  By law, all public schools provide up to one hour per week of “special religious education” (SRE) to the children.  This is not outside of school hours: SRE happens during regular school time.

And this is not education in the tenets of the world’s faiths: representative of a single “approved” faith (most of them Christian, of course), come into the classroom and simply proselytize the kids.  The churches regard it as a golden opportunity to get their hooks into young and impressionable meat—in the schools.

About 85% of the kids take advantage—if you can call it that—of this in-school preaching.  What do the other 15% do? Also by law, they are not allowed to receive any other instruction, presumably because that would give them an “unfair” advantage over the faithful.  They are supposed to do “homework, reading, and private study.”

In response to parental complaints, the NSW minister of education recently approved an alternative activity for the students opting out of SRE: an “ethics complement”.  Students are supposed to learn critical thinking, hash out matters of right and wrong, and engage in junior-grade philosophy.  Classes explicitly avoid inculcating specific moral precepts in the kids. This was just given a trial in ten NSW schools. Here’s a 5-minute video showing one of the ethics classes.

Sounds great to me, and although it’s early days, the program certainly deserves support, especially because the majority of other kids are having religiously-based morality drilled into their heads.

As you might expect, the churches are furious about these classes.  A consortium of Christian churches, including the Anglicans, Catholics, and Baptists, have published a document giving all kinds of reasons why ethics classes are a bad idea: the kids in religion classes don’t get to take ethics (though they contend that “competent teaching of Christian SRE . . contributes to the development of ethical thinking”), and—get this—they don’t sufficiently brainwash kids into taking particular moral stands:

The lessons in ethical thinking, as most likely a component of the Philosophy in Schools curriculum, are not a ‘complement’ to SRE, as advocated in the SJEC proposal, in the sense that they are antithetical to both the Christian faith and all faiths that have a “higher court of appeal.”

They even manage to drag the spectre of Darwin into the picture:

Dr Lipman himself says that Philosophy for Children (P4C) is heavily dependent on American pragmatism and a sociocultural theory in cognitive development “Philosophy for Children (PMC) didn’t just emerge out of nowhere. It built upon the recommendations of John Dewey and the Russian educator, Lev Vygotsky, who emphasized the necessity to teach for thinking, not just for memorizing.” . .

John Dewey’s total rejection of Christian faith is well documented. In its place, he proposed a theory of mental evolution heavily dependent on Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Teachers are not instructors but ‘facilitators’ guiding students through problems they pose to try out various pragmatic solutions to discover what works for them.

O noes! Darwin! But the real reason the churches don’t like ethical education is patently clear in this extremely scary  2.5 minute video, where advocates of SRE discuss their opposition to ethics classes (YouTube has forbidden embedding, but do watch it—it’s very short):

Video: Christians with meat hooks

By the way, a miracle happened when I viewed this video (see lower right):

Have you ever seen a more blatant and naked grab for the minds of children? Here’s the statement by Murray Norman, Presbyterian Youth general manager:

The value of SRE in our local schools is that we get to go in and share with young people about Jesus.  We get to share from the Bible, and they get to meet Jesus personally there. The threat that the ethics program creates is it’s actually providing competition with SRE, and that has a massive potential to reduce the effectiveness of us telling young people about Jesus throughout the state.

And pay attention to this statement from Peter Adamson, Presbyterian Youth SRE and “camping director” (would you put your kids in a tent with this guy?):

In the case of this particular program [the ethics program], what we know from the outline which we’ve been given—and we’ve only been given an outline—is that in actual fact it comes from a particular background.  It comes from an evolutionary background. Just as some scientists believe that animals evolved, so many social scientists think that our morals and our values have evolved as well.

Secular Aussies: rise up against this stupidity!  The religious loons are in ur schools, warping ur children!

There’s a website devoted to this issue, Statereligionvic’s posterous.

65 thoughts on “Aussie Christians nix ethics classes

  1. I don’t suppose that the consortium of Christian churches will ever notice that they are sitting in the position of the East Bloc countries of yore, whilst the Ethics classes are Radio Free Europe…or perhaps they have noticed, and that’s why they’ve got their panties in such a bunch?

  2. Ahem… Canberra is its own state, like your federal district, so it is not part of NSW.

    To be honest, as a German I am somewhat more relaxed with regard to this, and think the way it sounds in Australia is better than what we had. At least it seems (correct me if I am mistaken) as if the salary of the indoctrinators does not come from the state, and people can opt out of it! I would certainly prefer if there were no such thing as religious instruction in school, but this is how it is in Germany:

    The schools offer religion classes that are, in principle, compulsory. There are protestant and catholic ones, given by teachers paid for with tax money, although they simply teach a specific religion. No separation of state and church in Germany, no sir (except in Berlin – a lawsuit against the lack of religion classes in that state failed recently. Hooray!).

    If you are a younger child of atheist parents you can be excused and have free hours instead. Unfortunately, my parents, although atheists themselves, thought it would do me good to learn about the dominant religion of our culture, so that for years I had to endure some teachers that I recognized as foolish even at age 10 lecturing about the life of Jesus while the other atheist children had a nice free hour in the park. Then from grade 9 or so there were ethics classes that you had to take instead if you did not want to do religion, so from then on I enjoyed doing something less idiotic and useless and the other atheist kids lost their leisure time. Well, you can’t please everybody…

    1. I had a variant experience, with Ethics/Philosophy as a third option besides Catholic and Protestant religious studies.

      This may be due to the state (Hessen), the period (early and mid-90s), or the school (private, but publically accredited).

      The Ethics courses were some of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking I remember; all in all very useful.

      1. Well, it was certainly more enjoyable than protestant religion, but the educational value of my ethics courses was still quite limited due to the fact that my Gymnasium did not have any qualified ethics teachers.

        I had, in order of appearance, a deeply conservative math/physics teacher who spent most of the courses complaining about the social democratic party and how hunters like himself are not allowed to shoot certain animals; a likable and well-meaning catholic religion teacher who at least did comparative religion with us; and a German language teacher who had taken some philosophy courses in university but was a complete cloud-cuckoo-lander whose main asset was making unintelligible or offensive statements (ranging from “the USA are held together by capitalism and pollution” to a rabid pro-life stance to the defense of the Waffen-SS as, believe it or not, being morally consistent). You can imagine that the main thing we got out of the courses was ridiculing the first secretly and the last openly…

        1. Daaaaamn. Those teachers sound like recipes for disaster. Ours were usually also German-language or religious-studies teachers, but we read a good smattering of philosophy (bits of Plato, Kant, Hegel, phil. of art, ethics etc.). And (if I remember this alright) the political commentary was only very occasional.

      1. Yes, sorry, but what is the difference for the purposes of discussing the educational policies of North South West? The important point is that Canberra is not part of that state, no matter what the precise taxonomy of administrative districts in Australia.

    1. Well, according to traditional attribution, Matthew and John did . . . which, while not proven, is still within the realm of possibility as all reliable dating places the Synopotic (but not Johannine (sp?))gospels in the late first century. Also, John Mark (who wrote Mark) was transcribing the oral tradition of Peter, who also met Jesus.

  3. In the UK the situation is more invidious as schools
    “must provide daily collective worship for all registered pupils” unless the parents choose to opt out. Every morning I had to pretend to pray and sing along to the hymns.

    Interestingly when I was at school (60s and 70s) the only opt-outs where the Jehovah’s witlesses who didn’t want their children polluted with the claptrap of Church of England doctrine – oh the irony!

    1. “the Jehovah’s witlesses “? bwahahaha! I just noticed that–good thing I didn’t have anything in my mouth. I can’t believe I’ve never heard that before. Good one, Dave:))

  4. I remember Irish religious education classes in secondary school in the 80s as being more traumatic for the priest that taught us than for the pupils (“Father, if being a homosexual is not a sin, so long as you don’t have sex, would the ideal solution therefore be for the church to recruit them to be priests?”)

  5. The comment from the pastor “We think we already have all the answers” is exactly why Ethics should be taught in schools and not left up to religious entities.

  6. In Finland, we teach “Ethics” (that is the official translation for “Life Stance Education”) for students who do not participate in Religion, both in the Basic School level as well as in Upper Secondary Schools. Much of that is influenced by Lipman’s “Philosophy for Children” (or “P4C” as it is abbreviated). You can see the Curricula here for Basic Education (pages from 17 to 21):
    And here for the Upper Secondary Schools (pages 169-174)
    Besides Ethics, we have one compulsory and three elective courses in Philosophy in Upper Secondary – for all students.
    And Religion is supposed to be Religious Studies, not worship, which means that non-religious persons are nowadays permitted to teach it, too.

    So, has the skies fallen, has the Divine Wrath hit the hapless Finns because of these soul-destroying arrangements? Not exactly, the Finnish system of basic education is seen, thanks to the PISA-studies, the best in the world…:)
    Which means, I guess, that the hue and cry of the Aussie Christians may well be the sort that teh Ceiling Cat is keenly interested in…:)

    1. One additional note on this “have the skies fallen” – theme (and I notice that this kitteh-language is taking its toll on my writing!): new curricula are now under discussion and debate, and they suggest that some sort of Ethics would be made compulsory for all children in Basic Education…

      1. “Has the skies fallen …”

        Well, it [let’s see whether html-marks work here] is very dark in Finland for a good part of the year … (-:

        So is philosophy commonly taught in the winter? And are the courses more intensive in the Northern part of the country?

        1. Depends on who is teaching, I suppose!…:) But you are right, it is gradually getting darker and ultimately it will be very dark indeed to the north of the Arctic Circle as the sun does not rise during the “kaamos” period at all:

          and here a particularly nice picture of kaamos in Norway:

          As you can see, it is not pitch black all the time but sort of shady. Well, many Canadians and Alaskians know what I mean. And I am not referring here to Sarah Palin who “sees” Russia and many other things, apparently even during the Alaskian kaamos…:)

          Anyway, as kaamos is rather stressful even to those who are accustomed to it, one might think that philosophical thinking could alleviate the depression. Maybe!…:)

          1. You mean the eternal twilight? It’s horrible; even Luton seemed to be a paradise after a week of unending light.

            1. Oops – wrong impression – the twilight in between the dark then? Still awful. Isn’t Tromso just inside the Arctic circle?

            2. Hey what’s wrong with Luton. I assume you mean Luton, Bedfordshire.
              Mind you I was born there but don’t plan on going back…

          2. Thank you for the beautiful replies to my silly remarks. Where’s the first picture made? I couldn’t find an English link at the site and am (sadly) incompetent in suomen kieli [if wiki doesn’t lie, and if that is what the site’s language is]. (I like the ephemeral furthest two hills/peaks quite a bit.)

            The sun is setting earlier en Allemagne, too, now. Well, I guess we’re turning towards exposure to the universe’s major temp.s. And while darkness can engender the sensing (not perception) of many things, I can see Palinesque thing by just pulling a blind over my eyes.

            So what does “kaamos” mean? I know Finns who are very capable thinkers (on my impression) but whether philosophizing can solely provide reprieve from depression, je ne sais quoi.

            1. “Kaamos” means “Polar Night”. I just realised that Wiki actually has a nice intro on it, including that beautiful pic on Tromsø:
              As for the first pic, it is by Tero Makkonen somewhere in Finnish Lapland, but he has not given the precise location – judging from the landscape I think northern part of Lapland is very likely the place he took the picture.

    2. Well, the skies may not have fallen yet, but I hear you Fins are gearing up to let teh geys get married in your country. We’ll see about the structural integrity of the Finnish sky then!

      P.S. Don’t tell my wife about this — I really can’t afford to move to Europe, but if you assholes in the Nordic countries keep up with this sensible secularism, she’s going to make me!

      1. Yes, that is true! There is a proposal on gender neural marriage law that will probably take in effect in 2012. We’ll see then whether it is time for Fire and Brimstone…:) Too bad that I cannot yet share some rather nice pics on the Helsinki Cathedral, but maybe I shall post them here just before it becomes very dark…:)
        But one thing than has an influence on all these perverse developments is surely this:
        the two most influential political figures in Finland, namely, the President and the Prime Minister are both women.
        Although you may now well have doubts on whether it will be a good thing to have a woman as the President…:)

      2. I’ll have to tell your wife then; there aren’t many people I can talk to on that sliver of land west of Finland and Sweden.

  7. The threat that the ethics program creates is it’s actually providing competition with SRE, and that has a massive potential to reduce the effectiveness of us telling young people about Jesus throughout the state.

    One has to appreciate that they are so up front about their agenda.

    1. I understand that you are being sarcastic here, and I like that. But at the moment I just can’t laugh about it. At the moment I wouldn’t mind having a face to face with this guy and ridiculing him until he cries. I know that’s not nice, but…

      I’m sure I will feel bad about feeling this way about it, later.

  8. I always laugh when I hear that the stated goal of thus-and-such programs are to “teach people about Jesus”…

    As if there was one person in the entire country who had never heard that name before.

  9. It is by turn amusing, sad, disgusting and pathetic that these christians don’t understand how morally loathsome and reprehensible their arguments are.

    It is also depressing, and a little scary, that there are a significant number of people who are swayed by the arguments of these christian zombies.

    As has so often been said, the most talented satirist could not have produced a more effective parody.

    I wonder how many of these christian vampires are actually stupid enough to believe what they are saying, and how many are simply taking advantage of the fact that a significant percentage of the population is stupid enough to believe them.

  10. Yoohah:
    How do you know when a Finn is starting to like you?

    A: He stops looking at vis shoes and starts looking at your shoes!

    1. Ha, ha! It used to be true…:)

      There is an amusing paragraph in Theodore Zeldin’s “Intimate History of Humanity” (a book largely devoted to communication, despite its intriguing name) where Zeldin tells his readers that – apparently – the most silent nation on Earth are the Finns, and in Finland the most silent people come from the province of Häme. Zeldin illustrates these statements by telling a very nice anecdote that I am not going to tell now..

      Instead, I just ask you: what do you think, what is the province in Finland I was born and spent my early years?…:)

      Alas, all this peace and quiet is becoming something of a fond memory as Finnish youths are getting that much more communicative – although some males are still defending the tradition…:)

  11. John Dewey and the Russian educator, Lev Vygotsky

    Funny. Until today I’d never heard of Vygotsky, and I only knew Dewey from the decimals. And now here they are, only hours after I first heard of them in the class on Didactics.

    Small world.

    : the kids in religion classes don’t get to take ethics

    Well, they do. They just have to leave religious instruction to do so. I suspect that’s what’s getting their knickers in a knot.

  12. I’m a kiwi, grew up in New Zealand, and without knowing the exact details of what happens in Australia, would say that it is relatively similar to what happens here. We had about an hour a week of divinity (or whatever you want to call it). Generally some old lady coming in and reading bible stories to us.

    Mum and dad were indifferent – told me to make up my own mind. Many of the kids were the same. (Both my parents were religious).

    New Zealand has what I would call a large degree of ‘non-religious’ people, as many as 45% (depending on how you count them). Take out the ones that are non-practising and it goes way higher. And it shows when you live here.

    Having lived in Germany, France, the US and New Zealand, I was truly amazed to see how many people subscribe to religion in other parts of the world.

    I’ve found in business that dealing with anyone from any more religious countries I really have to hold my tongue, as comments that would be perfectly acceptable in New Zealand or Aussie, are the best way to kill a deal (or conversations…)

    Where’s this going? Just because we’re spoon fed it to some extent at school, doesn’t mean that we are incapable of making up our own minds. I would suggest that having some insight into any religion from someone other than ones parents is a good thing, provided you have the ability to make a choice (both on whether you go, and if you do on whether you believe it) for yourself. Well done Australia. Give it another generation and NZ and Aussie will (hopefully) be completely secular.

    1. “Just because we’re spoon fed it to some extent at school…”

      I think that is the path to religious indifference: a form of immunization with a weakened strain of the mind-virus.
      It works in Kiwiland, and it works here (Oz)

  13. I wonder if they even noticed how often they say that the SRE is great for them, and how little they say how it’s going to benefit the children or their parents.

  14. This report and the follow up comments from persons living/having grown up in Europe amazes me. The usual claptrap of basic U.S. History taught to grade schoolers in my country (el Estados Unidos) is that European settlers came to the New World for religious freedom. I never really believed that until now (after all, didn’t “good” Christians enslave and murder Native Americans in the name of Christ throughout the U.S.’s early history?).

    I had no idea that governments of developed countries force religious education on their children. What century do the leaders of Australia, Germany, etc. think they’re living in? How would those good Christians feel if Islamic teaching was required alongside the Bible?

    You can criticize a lot of things about the U.S. but one thing I know for sure, I grew up not being forced to accept any religious teachings in my public school. That’s good because I’m not sure how I would have reacted. My parents forced me to attend Methodist services when I was four and, thankfully, I was able to get my self kicked out and asked never to come back. Where would I have obtained an education if my local public school was forcing the same crap down my throat?

    1. Well yes, that was the traditional approach: cuius regio, eius religio, either convert to the sect of your prince, or leave the state (or suffer the consequences).

      But that was then, and now is now, and often it is not as bad as it appears from a distance. I would prefer that no tax money was wasted on religious instruction, and that the churches would organize the indoctrination in their own time, but it could really be argued that there is no surer way to make most pupils despise religion than to force them to learn it in school and write graded exams on it. Works for making people hate math, doesn’t it?

    2. Adding to Alex SL’s points:

      Since the religious ed. is part of the official curriculum, some standard of quality has to be maintained (even if that standard may be low at times). In Australia the teachers for SRE seem to be picked by the churches. I don’t think this was the case in Germany, and I wonder whether the churches had any input on hiring decisions. Frankly, I doubt it.

    3. Adding more:

      While it took a while (actually not fully complete yet), for example Sweden’s separation between state and church was greatly helped along by the state’s ability to reign in church power.

      That is in fact how Sweden came to be protestantic, the first Vasa king dis-empowered the catholic church while making a deal with the new church. Symbolically, he made sure to place his garrison’s castles above the churches and with the guns well aimed at them, as a constant reminder that secular powers are mightier than religious. 😀

      Nothing has been more helpful in making Sweden secular than to early adopt and de-fang a specific church. Today education on religion is covered in classes on religion as a cultural phenomena.

      1. I should add that Vasa also took the riches of the catholic church. He made sure to have a pretty good religious excuse (the lavishness of “the robber church” vs protestantic theses). 😀

  15. Ah … maybe if I were born in a different era on a different continent. I’m sure there were folks wishing I weren’t being dragged into *their* Sunday classes. I was such a little beast that I was excused from those. 🙂 I imagine I would have joined these religion classes and had a great time poking fun at the gods – though I’d probably be hauled off to the principal’s office and banned from joining those groups after a mere week or two.

    Of course superstitious kookiness isn’t the only thing – the news in Australia recently had an ad for homeopaths which was disguised as news. Allegedly there was a report published which claims the use of “alternative medicine” (a euphemism for snakeoil of course) is a “cost effective treatment of heart disorders, arthritis, and lower back pain”. The “study” of course is by “Access Economics” – it is not a study by qualified scientists or medical researchers. It is also a bullshit study funded by one of the pro-snakeoil industry groups in Australia. However, the news reporters mouth off the ad as if the claims were true … For an overdose of nonsense see:

    1. Ooops – I shouldn’t say “homeopaths” – but naturopathy, acupuncture, and homeopathy are all the same worthless bullshit to me.

  16. Ken Ham is, unfortunately, an Aussie but Gibson isn’t. He was born in the US and moved here with his parents when he was 12.

  17. Secular Aussies: rise up against this stupidity! The religious loons are in ur schools, warping ur children!

    I already sent email to the state education minister and a bunch of other people on this.

    The churches are freaking out for one reason (and they even say so here and there) – many of the students who attend “religious instruction” currently will be pulled out by their not-particularly-religious parents the second there’s a decent alternative.

    Think of all those sweet little minds when they discover you don’t need a guy in a dress to tell you what’s right and wrong. They might grow up to think churches are a waste of time!

  18. This is all very interesting as I did not realize that religious classes were so prominent in Europe still. In Canada, you must go to a private religious school if you insist on early indoctrination of your children. That is what Sunday school and after school programs are for in the case of the unfortunate children in Canada. The rest of us are spared the woo and philosophy and critical thinking classes are available starting in high school (should be Grade one by my thinking).

  19. I have a child attending Primary School in NSW. I agree with the gist of everything above and was livid when the churches succeeded in shutting down the ethics classes.

    But I would like to correct this part of the article:

    > And this is not education in the
    > tenets of the world’s faiths:
    > representative of a single “approved”
    > faith (most of them Christian, of
    > course), come into the classroom and
    > simply proselytize the kids.

    Not so everywhere. The first school we went to offered about 5 options, including Hinduism because of a significant local Indian community; they also offered a completely non-religious but loosely “spiritual” option of meditation and the like.

    The offerings are not uniform from school to school – they are driven by whatever the nearby community generates in the way of volunteers.

    Presumably if there were enough ethicists who volunteered their time, but who did not collaborate to form a consistent syllabus, they might be able to get away with it.

    Not that they should have to resort to such means.

  20. Wish I had those ethics classes when I attended public school in New South Wales, they’re a damn good idea to begin with (I didn’t study ethics formally until my final year of university – not soon enough really), and the religious objections show just how irrelevant religious thought is. Kind of sad really, there’s no real objection to the classes beyond not wanting an explicit decoupling of religion and morality. Just keep it implicit and that way you can decry the decadence of society and keep the magic sky daddy act going…

  21. Just as some scientists believe that animals evolved, so many social scientists think that our morals and our values have evolved as well.

    I don’t see people stoning disobedient children to death anymore so how do you explain that Morality Creationist?

    1. Currently touring in southwestern Colorado, I was excited to note that my route would include road number 666. However, it was very disappointing to find that the road number has been changed to 491, which is a very evil road number as it has caused the breakage of a shelf in my RV.

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