Who Needs Ethics When You've Got Religion?


The beginning of ethics instruction in NSW primary schools makes this a black day for right-thinking people everywhere. Last year newmatilda.com talked about this crazy idea — crazy because there are perfectly good instructors already in place: Special Religious Education teachers.

SREs and their predecessors have been doing an outstanding job since 1880 when the Public Instruction Act was introduced, allowing young people the opportunity to learn about the glory of God for up to one hour per week. But of course, like everything these days, people want to "modernise" with the latest whiz-bang concept, in this case teaching a 10-week ethics course to the 50–80 per cent of school children that have asked not to participate in the current SRE program.

Now of course you can’t go around and confront each of those public school children and demand a valid reason why they do not want to take religious classes once a week — that would take too long. So thankfully, the Church — by which I mean those people dedicated to the proper development of young people’s values, namely Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell and NSW Upper House MP Fred Nile — are actively instructing the Christian faithful to lobby NSW MPs. Not ones to sit around idly, members of the Church are also protesting outside public schools to ensure the souls of the state’s young ones may be saved, despite growing up in godless, immoral households.

To give you a better idea of how immoral these households are, under the current longstanding agreement between the state and the churches, children who do not wish to attend religious classes perform alternative tasks such as collecting rubbish in the playground. That’s right: some parents would prefer to see their kids foraging among garbage than learning about the sanctity and salvation of Christianity.

The Anglican Bishop of North Sydney, Glenn Davies, 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".

Of course, there has been private lobbying too. Over the weekend the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Peter Jensen had effectively shut down the trial of an alternative program, due to start at 9am today. Jensen met with NSW Premier Kristina Keneally to reconsider this harebrained idea. No doubt as part of those discussions he reminded her of his concerns which include this prescient statement: "That this is being offered as an alternative to children already in Christian SRE classes is well outside the definition of the trial. It is like [giving Christians]a place for their child in Islamic scripture." If you can’t see the water-tight logic behind that statement then I think you need to read it again.

The ethics trial has been developed by Associate Professor Phil Cam from the UNSW who looks like a fully fledged atheist. He has developed a curriculum with the St James Ethics Centre. Now apart from a fancy name, there’s little to suggest this organisation has any understanding of ethical implications.

Every day, our Christian institutions deal with questions of ethics. Not from some ivory tower, but within large majestic buildings, often made with marble, alabaster and the finest of sandstones. And these questions of ethics aren’t merely empty hypotheticals such as those posed by the devil’s own lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. The Church willingly confronts every day the ethical failings of its very own employees. The Church doesn’t make a big show of these — bragging or parading critical failures or breaches of trust. Instead the Church sensitively deals with these issues behind closed doors, ensuring anonymity and the strictest of confidence because, as we all know, ethics are a personal choice.

Unlike outsiders, who rarely face an ethical problem of any real size, Church leaders are regularly confronted with issues so enormous they would leave most of those outside the Church speechless. One example is the consideration of compensation to those vulnerable individuals, victims of the misguided personal behaviour of some members of the Church. The terms of these agreements are often made to provide certainty to the parties and attempt to bring an end to difficult, and indeed stressful, periods of litigation. When the Church offers compensation on the condition that there be no further action on — or in some cases, public mention of — these regrettable events, it magnanimously offers respite for those victims. But the ethical question over compensation must still be answered: i.e. How much?

Of course the biased media will love the timing of this issue as they savage the Catholic Church over paedophile priests. They are never interested in the good work carried out quietly by Christians. I was relieved to see News Limited journalist Piers Akerman show some sense, using facts instead of hearsay and rumour from so-called victims. Akerman referred to the work of US psychology professor Thomas Plante, an expert in the field of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. His findings cast serious doubt on the scale to which priests are interfering with minors.

Plante points out that just 4 per cent of priests during the past half century (and mostly in the 1960s and 1970s) have had a sexual experience with a person under the age of 18. That’s just one in 25 — not bad, eh? Furthermore, "80 per cent of all priests who in fact abuse minors have sexually engaged with adolescent boys not prepubescent children." That’s right, the majority of abusive priests aren’t paedophiles at all — they are in fact "ephebophiles".

Also, have you noticed how many abuse claims have come from the deaf, mentally ill and orphans? While the media likes to seize on this as proof that the Church unethically abuses its trust to exploit the most vulnerable of people in the community, why not see it instead as proof that at least the church’s paedophiles have enough ethical sense of civic duty to work with the disabled?

Of course where does all of this leave the innocent young godless pupils in NSW public schools? The NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations and the St James Ethics Centre apparently invited the Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen to meet to discuss the trial. Hopefully the Archbishop has ignored this and is instead seeking clarity from the Bible.

It saddens me that public school P and Cs in Sydney suburbs such as Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Leichhardt (all renowned for championing alternative lifestyles) would push to have this non-religious curriculum introduced.

Another danger of a course like this one is that it will erode upstanding respectability in our communities. One scenario the course will ask children to consider is: "You have already accepted an invitation to a birthday party from a classmate when your best friend hands you an invitation to their party, to be held on the same day. What do you do?" Parties? Friends? I expect Fred Nile really hit the roof when he read that.

The crusade by St James Ethics Centre to bring a secular ethics course to children who choose to receive no religious instruction also crosses a line by inviting students participating in SRE classes. Make no mistake about it — this is a fight to stop primary school children being confronted with a syllabus without any guidance from religion. To put it in starker terms, imagine an entire education system without the influence of Christian institutions? I know, it is almost too frightening to contemplate.

Giving our kids the option of thinking about ethics instead of picking up litter is a very slippery slope the NSW Department of Education has decided to throw itself down. As if offering a choice to young people isn’t detrimental enough, before we know it, they will be offering ethics courses to girls as well.

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