Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Religion is a poor substitute for ethics?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Saturday that a fight is being waged against the introduction of ethics classes in primary schools.

The context: scripture classes.  New South Wales allows for one hour per week of religious instruction.  Those who opt out of such instruction - as many as 80% in some schools - are not allowed to be placed at an advantage by learning or revising other subjects.

In fact, the quality of the 'scripture' classes, and the availability of different religious options, is fully dictated by the availability of suitable volunteers in each school.

For example, this has meant that at my kids' school, the offerings have for some time included Anglican, Catholic - and Baha'i.  And now some parents have felt sufficiently moved to organise a Buddhist class for next year.

Meanwhile, the Federation of Parents and Citizens Association of NSW has commissioned the St James Ethical Centre to develop a pilot program to offer ethics classes for those who opt out of scripture.

But the State Government's religious education advisory panel has spoken out against the program (see the report mentioned above).

They don't want those opting out of religous classes to gain unfair advantage?  That's akin to saying that a properly focused ethics class provides kids with a sounder ethics education than religious instruction.  A rather dangerous admission?


Ingrid said...

I like the idea of exposing children to a variety of religions. It may allow them to form objective views towards various beliefs without forcing them to worship one religion unconditionally.

This "unfair advantage" business could be a product of too many anti-discrimination lawsuits, but then again, the ad hoc manner in which RE is taught may cause trouble in the future. Coupled with sentiments for the separation of church and state, I sense that these "ethics lessons" may be the first step to abolishing RE in state schools altogether.

S Simmonds said...

In fact, my kids do get cycled through the different scripture classes on a yearly basis, so I'm glad they'll have a chance next year for Buddhism - for which I definitely have some respect. But my point is that ethics classes can confer an 'unfair advantage', since they constitute a less diluted form of teaching right and wrong to the children (albeit less contextual).

I do, however, have my doubts that this would give rise to watershed politics. There's a lot more to go through before scripture classes would be questioned per se: few would argue against the teaching of some sort of ethics or moral underpinning.

Take, for example, the daily opening of Australian parliaments, which incorporates the reading of the very Christian Lord's Prayer.

That's another debate altogether, but I suggest that if it came to a religious bunfight, one thing the various groups could easily agree on is some sort of ethics/morality teaching in school.