Thursday, 22 April 2010

Surprise. More Ethics.

I've been meaning to update this blog for a couple of days. Unfortunately, life has gotten in the way a bit. I'm going to rectify that now. With bonus pictures, because someone pointed out that there were no pictures on my blog and nobody reads blogs that do not have pictures.

Pictured: A Picture.

Carol Duncan and the NSW Ethics Trial

So, there's a lot to tell. It's an interesting story and it's supported by audio, so prithee, come along for the ride.

It all began on Tuesday when I sent Carol Duncan a tweet with a link to an article by Robert Haddad - Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Archdiocese of Sydney (why do religious folk tend to have the most outrageously long titles?). I asked her the following:

@carolduncan can you get someone on the radio to explain this? High takeup = a case for SCRAPPING ethics classes?

Carol, being a fantastic sport and always willing to give me a chance, wrote back shortly thereafter with thrilling news:

Carol Duncan carolduncan
@MitchSully Catholic spokesperson on 1.30pm (the guy in the story, feel free to call in & help!)

So, let me take a moment to thank Carol for her wonderful efforts on this - she has done her best to satisfy my whims and I'm nothing more than a regular old listener. She really does deserve to be thanked for her willingness to engage this topic, so if you get a chance send her a tweet at @carolduncan to let her know you appreciate it.

Robert Haddad Came On-Air at 1:30pm as promised and began to elaborate on his position. You can hear his entire interview here. I recommend listening - I have to say that, as I listened down the phone, Mr. Haddad appeared to become quite belligerent as the interview progressed. Listening back it probably wasn't as bad as all that, but it seemed clear to me that he was not interested in a clear and honest discussion about his objections to the trial. I may be wrong - you get to decide for yourselves. But what follows is a breakdown of my reaction to his arguments. (unfortunately my phone dropped out and I was unable to return the call to the station to continue my on-air comments. I would murder someone at Optus for this if it weren't so damn unethical).

Haddad Claimed That The Proponents of the ethics trial (the St. James Ethics Centre) made a promise that the ethics classes would only be offered to the parents of children that had already opted out of SRE. One of the primary objections he had was that the trial was operating dishonestly because, at one school, parents of all children were given a choice between an Ethics trial and SRE, with a 47% takeup of ethics in this particular school. Mr Haddad called this an 'abuse' of the trial. Carol, and I, disagreed with him.

For one thing - how can a trial of an ethics course for children be fairly and honestly assessed if only a fraction of parents are aware of its existence? I imagine that takeup rates are going to be discussed when the evaluation of this trial is eventually conducted. If we are not going to allow the parents of everyone to make a choice between SRE and ethics (or nothing at all), how are we to get an accurate picture of how many parents and families want this course to continue beyond the trial?

Robert Haddad - the Catholic Clark Kent.

Mr. Haddad chose to enter bizarre territory when he ventured here and two concerns immediately sprang to mind. The first is that it strikes me as incredibly hard to determine whether or not a parent has opted out of SRE because there is an ethics trial on offer - in other words, the ethics trial had a direct, causational impact on the decision to opt out of SRE - or whether a parent has opted out of SRE because they would have anyway and then enrolled in the ethics trial. How does Mr. Haddad propose we measure the difference between these two sides of one infinitesimally split hair? No matter how the parents found out about the ethics trial, whether by general media discussion or a letter from the school itself, their decision to enroll their child into the ethics class is not a matter for Mr. Haddad to police.

The second concern is that it seems that Mr. Haddad appeared to be advocating the withholding of information from parents on the matter of their options for their child's schooling. Are we seriously expected to believe that all parents who have not opted out of SRE (and please note the big difference between 'not opting out' and 'actively enrolling in') should be kept in the dark about the existence of this trial for the greater good of the trial itself? It seems to me that it serves only one stakeholder to this trial - the proponents of SRE.

In any case, Mr. Haddad did not ingratiate himself to the listenership. A flood of positive-NSWethics correspondence flooded in and only one negative text message was received in the immediate aftermath.

Sticking True To The ABC's Policy of fair and balanced reporting, Carol went on to interview Phil Cam - the man who authored the ethics trial - and get his response. I have to say, this interview was like a warm bath and a cup of tea after the Haddad wrestling match. You can hear it all here.

Phil Cam. Looking ethical.

There really isn't much to say about this interview bar the fact that it points out very effectively just how hysterical the media coverage and backlash from the Christian lobby really is. Point by point he details why the ethics trial is a fantastic step forward for children. He also insists - and this is the one thing I would love the Christian lobby to pay most attention to  - that the ethics trial is not a grab for student numbers.

Repeat, for those that missed it: The ethics trial is not a grab for student numbers.

I really want to thank Carol again for organising these two interviews and keeping me in the loop. She is wonderful. That's @carolduncan, readers. ;-)

A valid objection?

Stemming from all of this discussion, I have come across what I believe to be the single, almost valid argument against the introduction of an ethics alternative to SRE. That is, that children who do still attend SRE will not be able to also attend ethics classes. Unfortunately, the religious lobby groups seemed to have picked up on this argument and, to their detriment, are now pounding it into the ground.

Here is an editorial from the Sydney Anglicans website that really takes this ball and runs with it. They write thusly:

Imagine if the only time your child could learn water safety and surf life-saving skills was during the hour given for Special Religious Education?

Most parents would be tempted to send their kids along.

In effect, that’s the dilemma many parents will confront when they weigh up whether to sign their kids up to the new ethics classes.

The Australian Christian Lobby has similarly swooped down on this point, perhaps sniffing a winner in the 'discrimination' angle:

Parents will now have to choose between sending their children to school scripture or to ethics classes.  It will not be possible for a child to attend both.
We are calling on the Government to reschedule the new ethics syllabus and make it available to all students, regardless of their faith. 
Children shouldn’t be forced to miss out on such an important part of their education because of their religion.

I confess myself utterly confused here. It shouldn't surprise me that religious campaigners are being contradictory - they take their lessons from the bible, after all - but this one seems to be especially obvious. A quick, contextual off-site read would be this article here. It is written by the man who directs the ACL (the people who released the statement above this one).

It will be interesting to see how values such as loving one's neighbour, self-sacrifice, helping the poor etcetera are dealt with when the Bible stories that have shaped our understanding of these concepts for hundreds of years are excluded from the discussion.
It seems the ethics of the Bible and of the person of Jesus are now deemed so inconsequential that the Government must fund its own ethics curriculum and use its resources to draw students away from Scripture classes, which have been taught by dedicated volunteers for decades.

Rob Haddad, as you heard, refers to these ethics classes constantly as an 'unneccessary duplication'.

If this is my fault then I apologise profusely, but I have been operating for quite some time now under the impression that the faithful believe that religion provides them with a perfectly sound ethical and moral compass. It has been pointed out to me many times, for example, that you cannot have ethics and morality without god. Why now, so very suddenly, is this idea being abandoned? Is this finally an admission that secular philosophy has something to offer that religious studies does not?

The ACL would vehemently deny it, but then again what other impetus could be driving them to decry the fact that their children may not attend the ethics classes? Apart from, you know, the fact that they're terrified of their numbers plummeting and will use any argument to stop it.

Behind The Obvious, Snivelling Political Grab that the ACL is going for with this point of argument, I do find myself marginally sympathetic to it. I know plenty of parents who do not want their children to abandon SRE in school and yet would still like them to attend the ethics classes. They don't hold a special affection for scripture when it comes to imparting morals and values but, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to part with it. For these people I find room for some sympathy.

I know all of the counter-arguments to this already. The reason they may not feel able to part with scripture, for example, may well be that the alternative was always an ostracism of sorts to the school library with the 'others' - the scary denominations, the scary atheists, there might even be wiccans. A bona-fide alternative may go some way to mitigating this concern and allow them to let go of scripture with an easy conscience.

Wiccans. Satan's Mormons.

The other counter-argument is, of course, that if the ACL et al are so convinced their children are missing out on ethical instruction, perhaps it is time to finally admit that SRE really contains no such special instruction. That it really is just 'Christianity' (more specifically, your local church's take on Christianity), and that it would perhaps be best saved for learning on Sunday mornings. A public school is supposed to be a secular institution, and if SRE really doesn't provide the moral and ethical grounding that its instructors claim then it might be time to institute a special 'opt-in' method of instruction, perhaps after school hours. For years the claim has been made that ethics come directly from religion - why should they want for anything more?

The problem I have with this second objection is that it is undeniably petty in a way that I'd expect more from the religious lobby than the secular. In a sense, it's like saying 'you made your choice - live with it'. In a sense, this is fair enough. But that petty bit of 'you can't have your cake and eat it to'ism will have a real knockon effect to real kids, and I can't help but feel a little saddened that their parents may have to make a very politically charged choice between ethics and SRE. Yes, it is a rod that they made for their own back. Yes, it's delightful to see pious religious leaders turning themselves inside out and throwing tantrums at the first sign of a little healthy competition. But, I hate to go all Mrs. Lovejoy on you once again - won't someone think of the children?

Don't For A Second Think That I'm letting this argument stand against the ethics trial. In the scheme of things, it is a small issue when compared to the massive benefit that an alternative to SRE would bring into the lives of a lot of children around NSW. And above all - I do not believe the concern is genuine on behalf of the ACL. I do not believe they think secular ethics will even marginally provide something their religion cannot. I think they have raised the issue because it sounds moderate, and even people like me can find the uncomfortable hint of validity to it. It's a facade, in my opinion, for their real concerns, and to brandish it like a jousting stick as their leading argument is dishonest. It's about as far from ethical as you can get.

I tried to find a picture of irony. I couldn't.

My hope is that the trial is conducted to completion, is done in a fair way, is unhindered by political grandstanding from religious-leaning politicians, and evaluated on the results that it achieves. I am more than confident that, if this happens, the trial will be a resounding success.

It takes a special kind of person to object to kids being taught ethics.

Able to make tall leaps of logic in a single bound.

And I won't be one of them. The Ethics trial should be allowed to stand on its own. It doesn't need the ACL's programmable minions trying to rip the carpet out from under its feet.

Forward from here.

There is a lot to be said about the duress admission by the ACL that secular philosophy has something to offer that religion does not (despite what Jim Wallace had previously said about secularism being insignificant next to the great juaeo-christian tradition). I'm looking forward to this issue being explored by the blogosphere.

To go back to what the Sydney Anglicans said - it may well be a hobbes' choice to provide SRE and Surf Lifesaving at the same time. But then again, nobody ever claimed that to be a good surf lifesaver, you also have to be a good christian. They never further claimed that simply by being a good christian, you will be divinely appointed with the skills to be surf lifesavers. Like it or not - as petty as even I may think it is to say - this is the claim that the religious have always made, are making now, and will continue to make unto forever. For as long as the debate over the origins of our species continues, there will be a large community that make the claim that morals and ethics come exclusively from their particular deity.

It in fact seems that they are only willing to abandon this claim when it suits their political agenda. And I think that's pretty sad - for the children, if nobody else.


  1. What if one parent was Anglican and the other Christian: should the school schedule TWO sessions so their kid gets both. Or what if the kid is from a broken home and there are 3+ different religious stances that need to be catered for.

    Here's an idea: ask the kid. Or have them spend one semester in one class, the next in another.

    Where were these twits protesting about schools allowing more than one religion to teach at the school? Oh, that's right: they weren't. That's because all religions offer the same irrational rubbish and this course provides a solid, well thought out structure. Old mate turning up with his bible in hand and flipping to a random spot, reading then filling the rest with superstitious rituals can't compete with that.

    You had over a hundred years of monopoly religion: it's time we remembered this is a secular nation.

  2. The need for the introduction of ethics classes in our schools has never been greater.

    I have doubts that current scripture classes encopmass an adequate discussion of ethical issues. These classes are often delivered by people with little background in the formal education of children (let alone ethics).

    Perhaps the opponents of ethics could make a case based upon ethical considerations.

  3. SO funny....I loved reading this. Can't wait for Ethics to come to son's school so he is not parked in front of Sponge Bob Square Pants for an hour each week. Please, impart some of your knowledge to the folks over at Save Our Scripture on Facebook....they NEED to hear your logic!!!