Public schools in secular Australia have religious education, or scripture, classes. NB: That would be Christian scripture. Children of godless atheists, children of Jewish people, children of Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus get to kick their heels doing nothing, or may get a supervised class elsewhere, if they’re lucky. So the St James Ethics Centre has developed a set of secular ethics lessons which could be offered as a viable alternative to scripture classes for children who parents do not want them to attend classes in Christian scripture. The classes will be trialled in New South Wales this year, but predictably, some Christians think the sky will fall. Apparently, you can’t teach ethics without referring to Christianity. Mindy has written about that nonsensical claim at Hoyden about Town: Values are not exclusively Christian.

But some Christians can’t help meddling. The Anglican Archbishop of New South Wales has inserted himself into the trial, even though he refused to meet with representatives from the St James Ethics Centre. Apparently even just teaching secular ethics in schools will put scripture classes in grave danger of being canceled, and that amounts to being mean to Christians.

”Be warned: if the government allows this course to continue after the trial, it will jeopardise religious education in public schools,” Dr Jensen wrote in the Anglican newspaper Southern Cross. ”Without such a religious component, public schools will cease to be inclusive of all children.”

So it’s okay to run scripture classes that exclude atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christian faiths, but it’s not okay to offer an alternative alongside Christian scripture, because that would exclude Christians.

Can anyone explain that thinking to me?


15 responses to “Irony

  1. With the public schools I attended (through ’98-’02 in NSW) the rule was, from memory, that if there were more than 3 people whose parents wished them to attend a particular class, they’d get the class. I wonder if that’s the case elsewhere? Also can I just say, thumbs up on framing the attendees of these classes as ‘children of [members of group’. It’s really important to remember that children themselves often have little agency as to which class they might wish to attend. So thanks for that :).

    To answer your question: I cannot explain this thinking to you. I just get astounded when Australian Christians seem to think they’re under threat. From… what? Anyway, I hope schools get an ethics course and that more children will be able to attend the right class for them.

  2. I believe I can explain that thinking handily; ” The Anglican Archbishop”.

    There we are.

    I think this is a real step forward, regardless of the dinosaurs howling and beating their fists about it.

  3. I had an enlightening conversation recently with a friend who is very upset about the Christian education offered at her daughter’s government school. She’s Jewish, and her husband is atheist, so they were reluctant to agree to Religious Education (in fact, were completely taken aback that it was offered) but this reluctance was trumped by their fear that their daughter would be teased for not going to the classes. (Upon phoning the school, she was informed that all the other students were attending them.) Stories like this make a total nonsense of the Archbishop’s comments. I think we really should welcome any kind of secular ethics in schools – after all, ‘they’ are always banging on about how ‘kids these days’ don’t learn any values. But a government school has no place teaching a particular religion, in my opinon.

    Incidentally, my friend’s daughter has now been pulled out of the Religious classes after she trotted home from school declaring that Jesus loved her and Jesus died for her. My friend had been under the impression that RE was for learning about religions, not indoctrination into one particular faith – but, well, her illusions have been shattered.

  4. Chally is right, SRE rules allow for classes to be run for any recognised religion that can get a volunteer to teach and for which there are students in the school whose parents have identifed as belonging to that religion. Plus I gather parents can change which class their child attends simply by notifying the school. My niece has been able to attend both Christian and Buddhist classes at her school.

    As for the “thinking” I’m not sure that’s the right word for it, scare-mongering seems a more appropriate label. Or possibly outright lying.

  5. My child attends such a small school that the only option is for me to supervise him while the other kids have scripture. Unfortunately at the moment this isn’t an option, also I usually only know he has been to scripture when he comes home talking about it. It only happens once a term so it’s not too bad, and so far all he’s gotten from it is a song which he sings “my god is so big, so mighty, so evil” which cracks me up every time. But as he gets older I think I’m going to have to find an alternative, as he is a quite literal thinker and I don’t want that crap in his brain.

  6. I really hope the trial goes well, my eldest starts school next year, so it would be great to have the ethics option. I have a real issue with the idea that any religion or brand of ethics has a monopoly on the teaching of values. There are so many ways to learn to be a good person, which seems to be the purpose of most religions regardless of their origin. It would be great if there was some recognition of the many, many roads to learning to live well by yourself and others.

    I do take issue with the idea that schools see religion as the way to teach ‘values’. If religions could be incorporated into a broader discussion about faith/myth/history etc I can see a place, but otherwise leave religion out of schools.

    And yeah, what is the Church so afraid of?

  7. Pissweakparent, according to Peter Jensen “Ethics and religion sound as though they’re sort of similar but they’re really not the same thing. And there’s a thought I think amongst many that well the main point about religion is ethics. But that’s not true. There’s a huge amount to religion beyond ethics.” (From tonight’s PM program on ABC Radio National.)

    Now I’m not sure what that other stuff is; and if it is something else then surely it goes against his argument that the ethics classes stand as some kind of competition to scripture classes.

    As to what the Church is afraid of, that seems to be precisely it – competition. From the same story:

    ROBERT HADDAD (director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine): “It’s not what’s happening in Baulkham Hills North for example where they offered, the school there offered the ethics trial to all the parents of the students in years five and six, not just the parents who opted out of SRE (special religious education).

    “As a consequence there was a 47 per cent uptake by the students for the ethics-based course. That reduced the number of students in SRE down to 50 per cent while another 3 per cent are still doing nothing.”

  8. I guess the problem is that at the moment there are a lot of kids who do SRE because everyone does it. They don’t want to be the only family who stand out, or be the parents who make their kid sit alone in the hall during religion. When there’s an alternative all the people who were ambivalent, or who signed their kids up because they didn’t want them to be bullied, will drop out.

    For what it’s worth, my experiece of state education (in inner city Melbourne) was that the kids doing religion were the minoirty, but I gather the numbers are rather different in the area where I live. But where I live the local kinder (which is run by the Council) thinks they have to teach the kids the “real meaning” of Christmas. I tried to explain to a friend here that for my household the “real meaning” was different from her family’s, she was baffled.

  9. Obviously kids are different, but when I dug my heels in at age 11 and refused to go to Scripture classes at school (or church) any more I absolutely adored going to Non-Scripture in the library instead. We just had to abide by normal library time rules (me and the boy from the atheist family in primary school and then also the two Jewish brothers in High School). But then I was a swot, so what could be better than extra library time?

    There was also little stigma because it was a school full of migrants so there were lots of different Scripture classes (all the different Protestants, Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Salvation Army all had their own classes) which meant that atheists didn’t stick out as obviously not going, because everybody was going in different directions.

    For my kids in primary school there were many families who chose not to send their kids to RE (secularists in Sydney’s inner-west). Apparently there was a Dept of Education rule that the teachers were not allowed to teach core curriculum stuff to kids who don’t go to Scripture while the other kids were at RE classes, which tended to mean that they got to do interesting side-projects during that time, so more and more kids would “forget” to go to Scripture classes over the years from kindy.

    I expect that the take-up for a secular ethics class would be rather high for that school.

    @Mindy, why can’t the teachers who are there anyway supervise your son while the volunteer RE instructors do their stuff? That’s how it’s happened at every school I’ve ever had anything to do with, and I had thought it was a departmental requirement.

  10. I used to have to visit quite a lot of state schools for my work and it was astonishing to me, at the time, that some were quite heavily Christian. Obviously the State Intergrated ones, which were mostly Catholic, were, but these were supposedly secular schools. One school even had a short prayer over the intercom before morning tea with the notices.

  11. @Tigtog – they told me there was no-one available to do it, which I took to mean no one wanted to give up their free time and I didn’t want this to cause issues for my son. I think I will make more of a thing about it when my daughter goes to school next year. It shouldn’t be beyond them for the kids to go to the library or the computer lab.

  12. Mindy: It is a Dept regulation that supervision must be provided by the school for children not participating in SRE. Push the point. Go to your regional director if you need to.

    As a Pagan, I did not allow my son to participate in SRE while he was at primary school. He was one of the few students that did not participate. While it is possible for other religious groups to teach their faith at state schools, it can take some doing for it to actually happen. My biggest ‘beef’ is the federal funding for ‘chaplains’ at state schools. I fail to see why state schools need ‘chaplains’ rather than counsellors. State schools are meant to be secular yet the provision of funding for chaplains over counsellors proves that state schools are not truly secular at all. Personally, I don’t think ANY religion at all should be taught at state schools.

  13. But…. but…. what about sport?! 🙂

  14. We’ve taken to letting our girls choose for themselves whether or not they attend the “Christian option” service just before Easter. This year Miss Eight the younger decided she wanted to go along, but the other two said no. I put a note for their teachers in their diaries explaining that it was their choice, and I expected the school to support their choice i.e. if Miss Eight the younger changed her mind, then she was not to be forced to go.

    Miss Eight the elder hung out in the library with the other children of atheists, Muslims and Jews (a small, select bunch), and Miss Eight the younger trotted off to the service. She reported back later on that it was very boring, poorly presented, and there were no Easter eggs given out. So she doesn’t think she’ll go again.

    There was no service for the older children, so Ms Eleven missed out altogether, on either going to the service, or enjoying being a godless atheist. She’s always enjoyed being different from other people – she’s not a crowd follower – so she has always found it rather fun to be one of the few children not going off to be educated in religion.

  15. @ Bri – I was pretty sure that was the case, but it was more of an issue that I didn’t want the blow back affecting my son, who was having some problems of his own settling in. Also I think it could have made him feel isolated, but if his sister is with him it won’t be so much of a problem. As I understand it most of the kids go to SRE so he would have been by himself and might have felt he was missing out on something.