Ethics vs. Religious Education in Australia April 26, 2010

Ethics vs. Religious Education in Australia

Last month, Julie Cowe wrote about religious education in Australian schools.

Essentially, Australian law mandates that students receive one hour of religious training per week. The Christians who run these services get tens of millions of dollars per year to make this happen.

What happens if parents don’t want their kids wasting their time in these classes?

Parents are able to opt-out their children from the religious education class, however that hour is spent idle. My children are separated for this hour from the rest of the class and given computer time. My 5th grader and her fellow opt-out students are unsupervised for that hour. Some parents have reported their child sat for the hour in empty hallways, alone.

It’s ridiculous.

A couple days ago, Dr. John Kaye of the Greens party spoke about an alternative for students who opt out of religious training: ethics classes. He framed it in terms of the religious-training-or-nothing dilemma many parents face:

… The practice is discriminatory and wasteful and is founded only in the conviction held by some religions that their beliefs should hold a privileged position. That is not only clearly unacceptable in a multi-cultural and multi-faith free society but also deeply offensive to those who do not share confidence in the infallibility of the religious beliefs.

Professor Philip Cam from the University of New South Wales developed the course materials that invite students to develop responses to challenging ethical dilemmas. Ethics or the science of moral reasoning is a well developed area of study and has been taught successfully in schools around the world. The developmental consequences for students are well documented and always positive. It is clearly understood that the course does not substitute for the values and ethical reasoning that are already taught across the curriculum in public education. It is surprising and alarming to watch a number of churches and religious organisations seek to stop the trial.

Wait, what? Churches and religious groups are against ethics training?


Parents and their children should not be forced to choose between ethics classes and SRE [special religious education].

The more programmes the Government offers at the same time as school scripture, the fewer students who will be enrolled in SRE.

It also means that parents who would like to send their children to both SRE and ethics classes will not be able to.

There’s also this from “respected Christian leader” Gordon Moyes:

Be warned: if the Government allows this course to continue after the trial, it will jeopardise religious education in public schools, and without such a religious component, public schools will cease to be inclusive of all children. We Anglicans have always been committed to public education. Any decline of SRE would make public schools less attractive to Christian parents and will accelerate the shift to non-government schools.

It’s like they’re asking, “How can my children learn ethics if they’re too busy learning about Jesus?”

One would hope religious education would include ethics… but the way they’re framing this as a dichotomy makes it sound like the religious education lacks any ethical substance.

We know it’s possible to be good without god. Several millions of us around the world do it daily. Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on ethics. But this isn’t an atheist ethics class. It’s one that has nothing to do with faith at all.

If parents are choosing to enroll their kids in ethics classes at the expense of the religious classes, maybe the religious educators ought to think about offering something more useful.

Or maybe Australia should eliminate the religious education classes altogether. Let the kids come to school to get a real education. Leave the religion to the parents or churches.

Maybe someone can explain that to these pastors.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • We are trying to educate the pastors, but you know how hard *that* can be.

  • I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how teaching one religious viewpoint to all the kids makes the school more inclusive.

    Logic Fail.

  • It requires a united world wide movement to stop such practice in schools.

    Almost all countries this way or that way promote religion through schools.

    Nonbelievers should be actvists by moving courts, organising rallies and electing atheist parliamentarians to drive home the point.

  • Emily

    ITA, Doubtful Daughter. The cognitive dissonance…it burns.

    The rest of Moyes’ entry doesn’t really help, though I was vaguely amused by his fifth reason that teaching ethics is a bad idea. Apparently it’s a slippery slope where, at next revision, students might want to learn maths *gasp* or English *horrors* instead of religion. I mean, who goes to school to learn things?

  • plutosdad

    I think the best way to end the religious education is to get Catholic or Orthodox teachers (or, horrors! Jewish or Muslim!), The Protestants might just try to replace them, but maybe they will realize how horrible it is to have another religion forced upon you and decide what they are doing is unethical and immoral, in addition to violating everyone else’s rights.

    Most people pay taxes and send their kids to school to learn not sit there, and to have some security knowing an adult is at least supervising them. It is robbing the parents that aren’t part of their religion, and doing a disservice to the children who are not part of their religion.

  • Nice how comments are closed on Moyes’ editorial. It’s always easier to assume your opinions are fact when no one can talk back to you.

  • What if children learn that they could be moral without the justification of an invisible sky daddy? Have you ever thought of that? And then who would tithe?

    Noah and the dinosaurs

  • Tim Carroll

    How is it discriminatory to offer Ethics and biblical studies to all students, who can decide for themselves which they prefer? The fact that biblical studies are an option at all is wrong as far as I’m concerned, but I am not Australian, so that is a moot point.

  • Aaron

    I love how “Religion Class or sit in the call” is OK, but “Religion Class or something useful” is bad! bad! bad!

  • Miko


    Most people pay taxes and send their kids to school to learn not sit there, and to have some security knowing an adult is at least supervising them.

    I think you’ve hit upon it in the second clause, but regarding the first half:

    1) Most people pay taxes because they don’t want to be thrown in prison. If they get something good back, it’s a nice surprise akin to a mugger giving you change, but it has nothing to do with the actual purpose of the payment.

    2) Any parent who takes an active role in her children’s education knows that they aren’t really learning anything useful at school. With two-worker families becoming the norm, modern schools are primarily intended as a form of mandatory daycare.

  • Courtney

    Aaron said:

    I love how “Religion Class or sit in the [h]all” is OK, but “Religion Class or something useful” is bad! bad! bad!

    The difference is that in the former situation, the students not electing religious instruction are obviously “othered” from the students who do. Pressure to conform is very high at that age (and… at any age, really), and there are probably students who opt to attend the religious instruction because not doing so could result in teasing/harassing/bullying, etc.

    If everyone just went off to a classroom to do their given thing during the mandated time, it might accidentally seem as if all people and beliefs deserved equal standing and respect. We certainly can’t have that.

  • Almare

    “Essentially, Australian law mandates that students receive one hour of religious training per week.”

    Really? There were never any religion classes when I was at school here (aside from the optional comparative Religion and Philosophy class in year 11/12). I’m only 20 so it was too long ago I was at school.

  • Keith

    These days, there are few stories regarding religious shenanigans that cause my jaw to drop to the floor. But this is one.

    That religion can cause such an enormous cognitive blind spot just boggles the mind.

  • cathy

    I think the religious education has no place whatsoever in public schools, however, I can see why having class time during this instruction would put the religious kids at an academic disadvantage. The last thing that religious kids need is less ethics education than their peers.

  • Ben

    Here in Australia we have a two-tiered schooling system, like in most western countries: public and private. Many, if not most, of the private schools are religion based.

    How’s this for choice, churchies: if you desperately need your kids to learn about the religion of your choice while at school instead of, I don’t know, any of the 138 hours a week that they’re not at school, send them to a school based on that religion. Let the rest of our children attend school without the need to choose between learning a lie or not learning at all.

    I think we’re typically complacent about the creeping religiosity in this country. Most of those who aren’t religious would tend to class themselves as agnostics: agnostic in the sense that they don’t give a shit and try not to think about it. It’s this attitude that means at our next election later in the year, we get to choose between the most religious leader we’ve ever had (our current PM), who apparently pulls out his bible and prays when meeting with other MPs, and an ex-seminary attending highly-conservative dipshit who’s policies to date are brainfart reactionism and what his daughters want.

    I’d never seriously considered giving my vote to the eco-nazi Greens before, but this year I think it might just happen. I would rather see a truly liberal party in power (even if they would rather we all went thirsty than built a dam that endangered a fish) than one who’s only liberal by name, and the other who gave up their liberal nature in order to win the last election. Not that the greens have a chance in hell of winning, but if they managed to hold the balance of power in a minority government and the senate, I’d be happy enough.

    “Essentially, Australian law mandates that students receive one hour of religious training per week.”

    Really? There were never any religion classes when I was at school here (aside from the optional comparative Religion and Philosophy class in year 11/12). I’m only 20 so it was too long ago I was at school.

    They’re not necessarily talking about a class at the school itself, but 1 hour per week set aside for religious education (RE), particularly in primary school. I remember, out of the three primary schools I attended, two of them had library time instead of RE, while one had forced RE. I only lasted a few months at that school, after I came home in tears one day for being forced to draw a picture of a guy nailed to a cross — it was brutal. High school didn’t seem to have quite as much, maybe an hour a semester.

    It could be different these days, or it might just depend on the school you went to.

  • The law varies across states in Australia and we don’t yet have a fully rolled out national curriculum. The trial that is under fire is taking place in New South Wales, as I understand it in NSW the law makes provision for up to an hour a week for religious education. It is however Dept. policy that mandates that opt-out children can do nothing meaningful at this time.

  • A quick review of the State Act in Suth Australia reveals less stringent provisions. In SA time must be et aside for RE in state schools though the time is not mandated. Their is also a provision for conscientious objectors. On reviewing Education dept.policy there is no requirement for children to be intellectually idle.

  • kashka

    If a parent wants their kid to learn religion at school they send them to a private school. Public schools are for people of every relgion, and if Religion classes are held they should more be learning about all the differant religions. I mean the churches do enough in private schools, why move on to public schools? I had to give up one of my TEE (year 12 exam) subjects because at my catholic school we are forced to do religion, I know I go to a religious school but religion should not interfere with education.

  • mal99

    Ah, reminds me of the time when I went to school (in Germany)!

    In elementary school, instead of going to religious education, I went to… German for foreigners! 8D

    Yep, as I was not a Christian, I was obviously not German so I needed to learn how to really speak my own language! And yes, that was the only alternative we got! The teachers soon realized the futility of teaching German to Germans and we didn’t really do anything productive during those classes… but at least we were supervised.

    When I entered a higher school, we basically were put into a classroom with a teacher to supervise us while we were allowed to do anything we wanted. At least no one insulted me any more by telling me that I was someone who wasn’t able to speak my own language simply because of my non-christian belief.

    Two years later, we finally got ethics classes! ^^ We learned about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and several secular philosophers in this class. Many found that boring, but I had always been very interested in religion and philosophy, so I thought it was great. And even the kids who found it boring agreed that it still seemed to beat what the Christian kids had, as they were always whining how boring and repetitive their classes were, and how they were doing the same crap every year. 😛

    So… yeah, I’m all for ethics classes. Actually, I think it should replace religious education all together. The kids are still gonna learn about that precious Christianity… just also about other religions and philosophies. Seriously, how many hours do you think one can fill studying ONE BOOK like the bible when you want to ignore all the atrocities and contradictions contained therein (something which was also done in ethics classes… don’t wanna offend any believers)?

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