Should we be opposing secular ethics classes?

Earlier today the Sydney Morning Herald drew attention a Bishops entering the battle against secular ethics classes.

They write “THE Bishop of North Sydney has urged Anglican priests to collect information from principals of public schools to stop the spread of the secular ethics classes the Sydney Anglicans believe may threaten religious education.”

I have to question the Bishop’s approach on multiple fronts.

Firstly, is it really so hard to believe there are large numbers of students not enrolled in Special Religious Education (SRE)? Ha, he should drive out here to western Sydney where Hindu scripture classes are sometimes the more popular.

Secondly, does the Bishop realise how defensive and panicked he sounds? Surely a negative media response to this action wasn’t too hard to imagine or anticipate?

Thirdly, explain to me why non-Christians should be denied alternatives to Christian scripture classes? Our churches do support freedom of religion (and irreligion) do they not? You think forcing them is going to improve the situation?

Christendom is dead guys. Lament and get over it. The future is mission. Try thinking of a more missional approach.

10 thoughts on “Should we be opposing secular ethics classes?

  1. First quote from the article:
    “THE Bishop of North Sydney has urged Anglican priests to collect information from principals of public schools to stop the spread of the secular ethics classes the Sydney Anglicans believe may threaten religious education.”
    Second quote from the article:
    “His principal concern is that the ethics classes have been offered to all children at the pilot schools, not just those who have opted out of religious education, which he said was the original intention.”
    My comments:
    I’m not really sure how an alternate ethics class is a direct threat to religious education. Surely religious education is about more than ethics, isn’t it? It seems to me that the only students currently enrolled in a religious education program who would transfer over to the new ethics course would be those whose parents simply wanted them to attend religious education so they learn good ethics. If that’s the only reason their in the religious education program, then it seems to me that they might even be there for the wrong reasons, and they’d be better off in the “secular ethics” class anyway. It also seems to me that the Christian thing to do would be to tell such students that you’re sad to see them go, but that you wish them well.
    The bishops’ attitudes also suggest to me that there’s a real fear that their religious education programs cannot successfully compete in a truly open marketplace of ideas. That is a rather problematic belief for a religious leader to have even on an unconscious level, and I would encourage them to work through why they feel so ill-equipped to enter into a more open “marketplace” and what they can do to correct that problem. Because expecting others to stay out of the “marketplace” seems to be a rather unhealthy non-solution.


  2. Agree absolutely. They fear the loss of SRE monopoly, and in one sense that’s understandable, but when the loss is inevitable hanging onto such fears only hamstrings you for the future.
    And you may not have seen the facebook side of the conversation but I made the point that Christian ethics is tied to Christian faith. Embedded even, so it’s hard to teach one without the other.


  3. I’d be interested to see how Pagans engage with a secular ethics class. In my experience people’s ethics tends to significantly shaped by worldview and the stories they value. Given a diversity of worldviews it is difficult to see how a consensus ethic could be arrived in a secular ethics class without either (a) privileging atheistic worldviews as natural “neutral” arbitrators over pantheistic, polytheistic and monotheistic worldviews or (b) honouring all worldviews to such an extent that the only concesus ethic achievable is a lowest common denominator style of tollerance. Would pagans be any more comfortable with option (a) than Christians? Would pagans affirm option (b) to the extreme of tollerating intollerant people as equally ethical, or does relativism have limits? I wonder whether there would be space within the secular ethics corriculum to debate different ethical stances.
    In either event I think it’s counter-productive for Christians to oppose this rear-guard action style. It reinforces the popular stereotype of Christians as arrogant, authoritarian and out of touch. Far more productive to recognize it’s an open market now, not a monopoly, and the need to Spiritually inspire rather than religiously enforce.


  4. Good ole Sydney Diocese strikes/stikes out again! Maybe the “Connect 09” campaign didn’t work to gain enough converts…
    Funnily enough, it was just a week or two ago that I opened up my box of Scripture teaching resources that I’ve had stored for a decade. Yep, I used to teach 5 x Scripture classes a week to Primary school aged kids as one of the 3 part-time jobs I was stretched between at the time. I wasn’t Anglican, but at that time, they had co-operation from other Christian denominations to provide volunteer teachers.
    Amongst the manuals and activity books complete with song cassettes (which would now be museum material), I found a cute muppet-type fluffy puppet and a few even cuter apology notes from some kids who had obviously misbehaved in class. That made me think about the methods of teaching that are mostly used… stories and activities generally lacked relevant “application in practical experience” kinds of activities, so the stories remained just stories or the songs just remained songs… no actualization or follow up as to actually living out the point of the story.
    I think that whether it’s secular ethics or religion classes, there should be a more practical and transformative approach to the education process.


  5. Matt,
    I suppose it would depend on the Pagan, to be honest. But then, I’d also note that Pagans tend to be so diverse in belief and practice, that we also probably have a “leg up” when it comes to interacting and working with secular ethics.
    Personally, I’m inclined to believe that that there are universal absolutes in ethics, but that they are relatively few and quite broadly defined. They include truths like “every individual is valuable and due dignity and respect” and “those things that improve cooperation between people and improve the world for all are good.” (A lot of this goes back to the video I did on wyrd and ethics a month or so ago, if you watched it.) In my experience, it’s the rare (and foolish) person who doesn’t subscribe to these absolutes in one form or another.
    From there, ethics is a matter of identifying, embracing, and practicing those virtues which embody and promote those absolutes. I can think of three different lists of such virtues in modern Paganism off the top of my head. (And those lists come from the three major paths I’ve personally been involved with or have interacted with adherents of.) Each of those lists are both similar and yet diverse. To me, that’s where an ethics class or discussion gets really interesting, when you start reasoning out how you get from those broadly-defined absolutes to the list of virtues that embody them and then how those virtues play out in every day life.
    Of course, I should also note that I take a far less prescriptive approach to ethics than many Christians (or so it seems to me). To me, an ethics class isn’t so much about telling others what the right thing to do, but engaging in that discussion and helping others build up the foundation for reasoning out their ethical framework on their own.
    I hope that makes sense.


  6. Jarred, I agree with what you said about universal absolutes. In my experience few people are absolute relativists, however strong their affirmation of relativism. I’ve yet to me some who’s ethically relativistic about inaccurate invoice payments from contractors for instance. Once we admit this, the task then becomes one of identifying core values and virtues and non-negotiables as you’ve said.
    For myself, I would say all ethics are relative to Jesus, who is the universal absolute in my understanding of life, the universe and everything. I suspect that makes me less proscriptive than some Christians, but I’m happy to admit there are some issues on which I’m utterly inflexible. Exploitation of the vulnerable is one of these.
    If I were to run a secular ethics class for senior students I think I’d approach it this way. Firstly, I’d admit my bias towards Christian ethics up front. Secondly, I’d challenge anyone who’d claims to be without bias as having blind spots, maybe with short detour through Johari’s window. Then I think it would be instructive to explore different ethical systems, noting similarities and differences as we go along. Then I think it would be instructive to explore the relative importance of these similarities and differences for each ethical system. For example, if the uniqueness of Christ is crucial for Christian ethics, then its impossible to average out the interfaith differences without gutting the system. I’d suggest the same is true for karma and reincarnation within the Hindu system. Some differences are inconsequential, some are not.
    I would then invite people to explore the consequences of following their own ethical systems through to their logical conclusion. You’ll see me sometimes doing this over war ethics. Though I’m a pacifist and am happy to argue the case for pacifism as a Christian ethic, I’ll sometimes just discuss just war ethics and challenge just war Christians to be true to their own system if they take it as seriously as they claim. For while I have definite ethical convictions, I am equally concerned that whatever ethical convictiones people have, that they at least know how to think ethically in some fashion and have a concern for ethical consistancy.
    I’ll take a similar approach where atheists claim to be scientific and more thoughtful than everyone else, claim to ascribe to the golden rule as an ethic, but are left slack jawed when asked to logically derive a golden rule ethic from a scientific understanding of nature. I recall one hillarious incident when Dawkins was challenged by vegetarians to explain how he could logically justify his anti-canibalism ethic given his understanding that humans are just another kind of animal. It became abundantly clear his ethics were free floating, disconnected from scientific understanding and just as socially conditioned as the fundamentalists he like to attack. If only he was as self honest as Nietzsche.


  7. Here’s a case in point.
    “Sexist migrants create legal problems”
    ”Human rights norms are, to a substantial degree, based on assumptions about individual autonomy, the full implications of which are not universally accepted …”
    ”There is a fundamental conflict between a human rights approach to these matters, on the one hand, and the tolerance of cultural traditions, based on an assumption of an equality between cultures, on the other hand … There is no way of avoiding the dilemma arising from this conflict of values.”


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