Australian Students Flock to Ethics Courses May 10, 2010

Australian Students Flock to Ethics Courses

There’s been a controversy in the Australian education system lately.

A bit of reposting:

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. If you don’t attend these classes, you can just sit around and do nothing.

One alternative that is being tested in a few schools is a (secular) ethics course.

Churches and religious leaders are actually opposed to this type of ethics training.

And no wonder.

In the ten schools where an ethics class is having a trial run, check out what’s happening:

The controversial trial of secular ethics classes has ”decimated” Protestant scripture classes in the 10 NSW schools where it has been introduced as an alternative for non-religious children, with the classes losing about 47 per cent of enrolled students.

The figure was calculated by the Sydney Anglican diocese, which is so concerned about the trial that it has created a fund-raising website to ”protect SRE” (special religious education).

Wow. That’s incredible. Of course, the churches are fighting back and trying to get rid of the ethics classes. They say that time is reserved for “Judeo-Christian ethics” only and the secular ethics courses are undermining their special religious time.

The Atheist Foundation of Australia’s president, David Nicholls, explains why (secular) ethics classes need to stay put:

“Secular ethics classes are not undermining religious classes: rather, parents are just voting with their feet,” Nicholls said.

“If religious classes are not being presented in a way that feels relevant to today’s families, it’s important that they have another option.”

“Allowing ethics classes is about maximising choice for families. It is a shame that the Sydney Anglicans would strip families of this choice,” Nicholls added.

It’s unbelievable that churches think a secular ethics class would be bad for anyone. It just shows that they can’t win on their arguments alone. You don’t need a god to be good. They know that. And that’s why they’re afraid.

(Thanks to Emma for the link)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mak

    I think it’s sad that my first two thoughts were

    1. I feel sorry for those kids, my ethics class sucked,


    2. I wish we could return to using the original definition of decimate.

    But yeah, this is totally awesome!

  • Aaron

    I would have loved to have had an ethics class offered in public school. Damn Dirty Ozzies.

  • Aaron

    From the 47% reduction, perhaps the religious classes were “Quadrâgintâseptemated” instead of decimated.

  • Eliza

    If I have to hear one more Christian hem and haw around “our ethics come from God!” and try to justify evolved moral codes like abolition, for instance, I’ll scream. Good for Australia! Instead of assuming it’s just parents voting with their feet, think of all the teenagers smart enough to reject one creation myth with all the others.

  • Matto the Hun

    Thus demonstrating yet again, the tyrannical nature of religion.

    Nothing but a cabal of trumped up thugs.

  • Sandra

    Um, I have a question that involves this:

    “fundamental ‘ethics’ that have underpinned Australia’s moral framework for hundreds of years”

    Would someone please enlighten me on this, I thought Australia’s framework hundreds of years ago involved surviving being in prison in whatever way kept you alive. Or is the writer of that article simply doing revisionist history?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Ha ha, they are asking for “special rights.”

  • Aaron

    From the anglican web page, they just want to protect “choice” by denying “choice” apparantly.
    Kinda like protecting marriage from people who want to get married.

  • Richard Wade

    The tag line of the “Protect SRE” website basically says it all, with perhaps unintended candor:

    We can’t afford to lose it.

    Yes, exactly. They don’t want to lose tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

  • Amy

    If they want to base primary school scripture classes on Judeo-Christian values, they’ve been losing there for a long time. As someone who attended compulsory scripture in New South Wales in the early to mid 90’s, I *distinctly* remember there being a Muslim class. The system as it currently is also isn’t fair on smaller Christian groups, who usually end up going to the Anglican, Catholic, or Uniting classes (Uniting is a combination of Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist, I think unique to Australia. It’s how I was raised)- but I suppose the Anglicans like it that way.

    I also remember thinking that scripture was a waste of time (and being jealous of the kids who got to play while some old lady droned at us and made us colour in Noah’s Ark etc). I’d learned all about it in Sunday school (which surely is what it’s for, as opposed to taxpayer funded class time). It also says a lot that a student like me (super enthusiastic) thought it was a waste of time, even then.

  • Bob

    Christian Ethics is bunk.

    Nothing brings this home like being in church and hearing all about Jesus Christ and love and brotherhood … then going out into the schoolyard and being picked on because you’re short, you’re not white, and/or you’re smarter than most of ’em.

    Prayer and tossing God’s name about doesn’t make a good person or a moral person. That’s governed by the choices you make, and if ‘God gave us free will,’ then God has nothing to do with it.

  • L.Long

    They have religious instruction classes and ethics classes. They can choose which to attend. The religious classes are losing 40% of their students. What those con artists can convince their younger flock to stay in religious classes or maybe the problem is even worse, in that the younger ones don’t even go to church either. So the con artists cant indoctrinate then there either.

  • Bob

    And then there’s Alaska’s Talibunny, St. Joan of Snark, the Quitta From Wasilla … Sarah Palin:

    “Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.”

    Can’t fight Islamic fundamentalism when a majority of the population is practically doing a happy-dance to embrace the Christian version here at home.

  • Claudia

    If they were honest they’d say that ethics actually helps them, since it forces them to make the subject relevant to the reality of kids lives. The better American pastors I’ve seen reacting to atheist billboards take this stance “At least they’re talking about God”.

    Of course, they aren’t honest. They’ve had a priveledged platform to try to indoctrinate kids into their religion and are terrified that millions of kids could reach adulthood, and develop their brains fully, before the religion could get to them. They say so themselves:

    The case for SRE is clear. Should Ethics be ultimately approved as an SRE option, its objective is to not only remove Jesus Christ from the State school system, but from the consciousness and hearts of the next generation.

    They are terrified that kids might actually learn that you can be a good ethical person, religion optional. They know they can only lose if they are forced to try to convert adults and not vulnerable children.

  • Erp

    I’m not sure the government pays for the SRE classes besides providing time and the indirect cost of handling the paperwork, but, I could be wrong.

    Admittedly the particular Anglican diocese in question (Sidney) really needs more sheep to donate. The recent economy apparently cost them 160 million Australian dollars leaving them with 44 million Australian dollars in their portfolio.

  • Claire

    I remember myself and the one JW were the only ones who sat out the RE classes in my level at the small Australian country school, but we only sat at the back of the class playing computers and don’t remember the RE learning any morals just colouring in pictures of the animals on a big boat.

    @ Sandra – while around 200 there were a few big prison camps, there was also many settlers farmers, a large gold rush in the 1830’s that bought many people, plus while many prisoners were there for “term of their natural life” as they mostly pickpockets they were allowed the go free after a few years service.

    @Erp – its actually Sydney.

  • Saffron

    I’m in New Zealand. Back in the early 80s my state school brought in religious classes. Kids complained and as punishment the school provided an unpleasant option out: extra maths classes.

    After two weeks enough parents were threatening to remove their children from the school that the classes were axed.

    It was pretty awful for those two weeks: an evangelical bad tempered pastor screaming at us. He was vile to the non-Christian students (Muslim, Bahai, etc) and aggressive to the rest. I still cringe when I think about it.

  • The ethics classes are only a trial and are only in one State, here in NSW. Each of the six states and two territories have their own education systems.

    The trial is a pilot scheme in just ten Sydney primary schools and it is obviously very popular, despite the attempts of bigots to sabotage it.

    The real battle will begin when the trial ends and a decision needs to be made on the introduction of Ethics classes on a permanent basis across the state, as an alternative to religious indoctrination classes.

  • brent

    Small correction – in Australia the law actually is that if any religious organisation approaches a school which does not already have a religious education program then that school has to provide them one hour a week.

    Children can choose to attend or not to attend.

    This is the kicker – those who don’t attend are prohibited, BY LEGISLATION, from learning anything in that hour. Yes. Christians can come to school and just TAKE 1/30th of the school year and throw it in the bin.

    The exact religion is not specified but it does have to be a ‘religion’ and until the current Prime Minister all forms of secular ethics were defined as being not a ‘religion’. The big deal about this trial is that this first time that secular ethics has been given 50/50 footing with a religious ethics class… and surprise surprise almost immediately 47% of kids wanted to be in the secular class (and you can only expect it to get better).

    The controversy is that “We gave them a fair go expecting them to fail so we could close the debate on whether to allow secular ethics in RE classes… and it turns out the bastards have turned around and been successful! Mongrels! That’s not fair!”

  • Ben

    Would someone please enlighten me on this, I thought Australia’s framework hundreds of years ago involved surviving being in prison in whatever way kept you alive. Or is the writer of that article simply doing revisionist history?

    Uhh, we might have started out as convicts, but Brittain stopped sending them here about 150 years ago. However even before that, as early as 1793, people were arriving voluntarily, with Brittain actively pursuing voluntary migration with free land in the first decade of the 1800s.

    Perhaps people should learn history before accusing others of being revisionist 😉

  • RBH

    The ‘voting with their feet’ phenomenon isn’t confined to Australia. In central Ohio, testimony in the John Freshwater administrative termination hearing showed that when parental permission was required for students to attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings at the school (in non-school hours at noon or before school), attendance dropped in half. One fundamentalist Christian mother who testified in the hearing thought that was a tragedy. How arrogant of her: Parents assuming control of their childrens’ religious training and opting out of proselytizing is a tragedy!

  • S

    Just so we don’t sound like a completely backwards nation, I feel the need to point out that the laws referred to only apply in New South Wales. Like the US, education policy in Australia is (mostly) dealt with by individual states.

    I was educated in 2 states (well, one state and one territory)and in neither of those states was I taught religion by a special interest group. In fact, during my 9 (fairly recent) years in the ACT system, religion was not mentioned once. Even the thought of having religious education classes when I moved to Victoria was something of a shock. But the classes were run by a full time, qualified teacher, and taught comparative religion, not indoctrination.

    I learnt a few years ago that a small group of parents wanted my primary school to give some time to a Scripture group to teach a short course on the bible. The reason I never knew about it till now? The school board stepped in and said it was inappropriate so it never happened.

    The situation has changed slightly, with the previous government starting a program of funding for school chaplains (something else my ACT school never had!) but my understanding is that the decision of whether to hire one is up to the school administration.

  • What a game of Chinese whispers!

    As I understand it, the original concern was one of “false advertising”. The concern is run by those with an actively anti-religious agenda which is being presented to both parents and students as a “neutral” point of view.

    As the original article, “A plea for truth in advertising” says:

    “I also have no opposition to secular
    humanists presenting their own
    worldview as an alternative to SR E —
    though for the sake of integrity and
    transparency it should be relabelled
    and placed on a level playing field
    with Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and
    Christian religious education. Why not
    simply call it ‘Secularism’ or ‘Atheism’?”

    > Australian law mandates that students receive one hour of religious training per week.

    That’s untrue as I understand it. There is the option to opt out.

    > The Christians who run these services get tens of millions of dollars per year to make this happen.

    Most are volunteers who give their time to do that. For example, I know one physics professor who takes time off work to teach religious education in his local primary school.

  • I find it amusing that they would claim the time is reserved for “Judeo-Christian ethics”. This is simply false. At the school my kids attend, one of the popular religious class options is “Buddhist” (there’s a large asian population in the area).

    Last I looked, Buddhism isn’t jedeo-christian.

    Many other schools have other options.

    Do they want to put the non-jewish non-christian groups that *do* already do religious instruction off-side as well?

  • Chucky:

    hemant’s presentation of the information is no more misleading than yours. I’ll just tackle one misleading aspect

    Yes, you can “opt out”, but it’s not quite that simple.

    Opting out involves doing pretty much NOTHING. You’re
    given minimal supervision, you are legally required not undertake any activity that might lead to learning. You are not allowed to do homework, you are not allowed to do any school-assigned reading. You are not allowed to play or undertake group activities.

    I personally know one child whose “opting out” consists of spending that time sitting OUTSIDE the classroom on a bench seat. Alone. She is required to simply sit. On display. Every. freaking. week.

    If parents are given a better option than “you go to religion, or you just be made to sit there”, then they will take it. The churches *want* them to be forced between a rock and a hard place, between choosing to subject their kids to the very real inconvenience (and worse) that goes with “opting out” and just going along with it all.

    Either the churches teach ethics or they don’t. If they do, why can’t non-religious students learn non-relgious ethics? If they don’t, why are they in schools at all – if it’s just for indoctrination, their parents can get their lazy sanctimonious arses out of bed and take them to church.

  • > Opting out involves doing pretty much NOTHING. You’re given minimal supervision, you are legally required not undertake any activity that might lead to learning.

    I took General Studies instead of Religious Education, as did almost everyone else. I don’t know which school you’re talking about, but it sounds like a problem with the school rather than anything else. It’s certainly not the fault of the RE class or a reason why a class on essentially atheist ethics should be promoted the way it was.

    It’s not neutral. Each ethical system comes with its own set of presuppositions, and atheistic secular humanism comes with assumptions which the vast majority (some 80%) of the Australian community doesn’t share.

    > Either the churches teach ethics or they don’t. If they do, why can’t non-religious students learn non-relgious ethics?

    Did you read the article I linked to? The argument is that it’s perfectly valid to offer atheistic secular humanism classes, but not to promote them as “neutral” alternative any more than it would be to promote other RE classes – Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Islamic or views in that way.

  • Erp

    Chucky could you explain why some opponents feel that the course is teaching basic ethics which all should take and therefore should not be held during SRE time? See . This seems to undercut your argument that it is religious and advertising falsely.

    I should also point out that the group arranging the curriculum is the St. James Ethics Centre which though not affiliated now was founded by an Anglican parish back in 1989. I wouldn’t necessarily call the course atheistic since I don’t think it considers whether a god exists or not but humanistic (inclusive of both theists and atheists) is an appropriate adjective.

  • Stutz

    There’s surprisingly little knowledge of what ethics really is, on both sides. I think both sides are assuming that modern secular humanism is going to be what you’ll learn about by reading the great philosophers. I got my college degree in philosophy, which included an ethics class or two, and I can say that for most of history, you’ll find that philosophers were preoccupied to a great extent with God: his nature, his relationship to us, and how to explain our ethical intuitions in his terms. Immanuel Kant, for example, after laying out one of the most ambitious and comprehensive ethical philosophy systems in history, determined that the whole project depended on assuming God’s existence.

    At least in philosophy, God’s existence has been “at issue”, unlike in other fields, where it is either ignored or just assumed to be true. When I realized that his existence was not just debatable, but had been debated by the greatest minds in history for thousands of years, I really began to lose my faith in earnest.

  • As always, religion is demanding a free ride and working to suppress free speech for any other ideas. Small wonder, rational thought and free speech are fatal to any religion.

    Only by continuing these totalitarian practices can any religion hope to survive.

  • ST

    Chucky, get out a dictionary.
    Atheism and Ethics are not the same.
    And while you’re at, have a look at the curriculum online for the course….no mention of atheism in there….

  • It’s unbelievable that churches think a secular ethics class would be bad for anyone.

    They don’t think that. If you read what Archibishop Jensen & Co. are saying, it’s that ethics classes are a good idea, but that they should be a separate class. They make the argument that the ethics-alternative makes the mistaken assumption that SRE is all about ethics, and so they argue that children should not be forced to choose between SRE and Ethics, but be able to do both.

  • Ben


    The conservative Coalition will likely get elected in the upcoming state election and they have agreed to side with the Churches and abolish the ethics classes.
    Hurray for religious oppression!

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