Philosophy-Based Ethics as an Alternative to Religious Education in Australian Government Schools

In Australia and New Zealand, faith-based religious classes are still permitted in government schools, and this is the source of considerable controversy. Religious Instruction (RI), where students receive instruction in one religion, most commonly Christianity, is distinct from General Religious Education (GRE). The latter involves students learning about a range of religious and non-religious perspectives (e.g., atheism) in a neutral, relativistic manner. In this column, I will outline the controversy surrounding RI, focusing on the Australian context. The controversy has led to calls for GRE and/or philosophy-based ethics classes to replace RI or, at least, to be offered as alternative programs for those students who do not wish to attend RI classes. I will briefly outline and evaluate all three educational programs: RI, GRE and secular ethics classes based on the Philosophy for Children program. While RI is undoubtedly the most problematic of the three, we will see that GRE and philosophy-based ethics classes can also be problematic, especially when they are positioned as an alternate curriculum to RI. It is recommended that RI be removed from all government schools and GRE and ethics be integrated into the official curriculum.

Unlike GRE, RI is not part of official school curricula in Australia, nor is it taught by schoolteachers. Rather RI programs are developed and implemented by approved religious organisations and delivered by representatives of those organisations. Currently, every state and major territory permits government schools to run RI classes, typically for 30 minutes – to 1 hour each week. However, in South Australia, RI is restricted to four half-day seminars per year. In 2015, Victoria banned the teaching of RI during regular class time, restricting it to the hour before or after school or during lunch breaks. In all other states and territories, RI is taught during regular class time. However, it is not compulsory for students to attend. Nonetheless, it is widely taught in schools, especially in states where schools are legally mandated to offer it (e.g., NSW and Queensland).

In Australia, RI has become increasingly controversial as the population has become more religiously diverse and secular. This has resulted in increasing numbers of students opting out of RI classes, either because they come from non-religious backgrounds all because they come from minority religious backgrounds and there are no RI classes offered in their faith. For example, in 2012, three parents took legal action against the Victorian department of education, arguing that RI encouraged religious sectarianism and discriminated against children who opted out of RI and, consequently, were left with no meaningful educational activities during RI time. Other controversies have centred on the content of the classes, including complaints that instructors distributed materials to primary school students that contained homophobic messages and discouraged relationships with non-Christians. A NSW review of RI detailed parental complaints about RI instructors telling students ‘that people who do not believe in God would die young’ and ‘children who had stopped going to scripture would go to hell.’ Research by Catherine Byrnes has found similar issues, including RI materials that claimed the earth was 6000 years old and children being told they ‘would burn in hell if [they] did not believe in Jesus.’ Such controversies have sometimes resulted in law and policy changes (for further discussion of this, see Crawford, Byrnes, Maddox, Bleazby). However, usually, they are dismissed as isolated transgressions, and RI remains in schools. Even in Victoria, where RI is now banned during school hours, the opposition government has promised to reinstate it if they are elected to govern. In New Zealand, the relevant laws also permit government schools to offer RI classes, which has resulted in the same sorts of controversies and problems as seen in Australia. (For an overview of the NZ laws and controversy, see Lana Hart’s recent opinion piece, Ban religious instruction and teach world religions in our schools.)

In a recent book chapter, titled ‘Education,’ published in Graham Oppy’s collection, A Companion to Atheism and Philosophy, I discussed another perennial criticism of this sort of religious instruction, namely that it involves indoctrination – a teaching method generally considered to be immoral. The concept of indoctrination is contested and has been subject to considerable debate amongst philosophers of education. In 1975, Ivan Snook provided an extensive overview of this debate in his book, Indoctrination and Education. A more recent discussion of the different accounts of ‘indoctrination’ has been provided by Barbara A. Petersen. I haven’t the space to discuss that philosophical debate at length here. Rather, I will just provide a common definition of indoctrination that helps to elucidate the concern with this sort of religious instruction. Indoctrination involves using non-rational methods in order to compel students to adopt beliefs in an uncritical, non-evidentiary way. As such, it seeks to actively undermine capacities like critical thinking, reasonableness, and autonomy (i.e., thinking for oneself), as well as open-mindedness, because, when successful, it fosters dogmatism. Common methods of indoctrination include the use of fear and threats (e.g., ‘going to hell’), emotional manipulation, charm, promises of rewards, and various forms of deception in order to compel belief. The reason indoctrination has long been associated with this sort of religious instruction is because it aims to encourage students to adopt beliefs that are, in fact, highly contentious. Thus, teachers cannot rely upon reason and evidence because there is a lack of evidence. There is also considerable counterevidence. Hence, a propensity to resort to non-rational methods. For similar reasons, certain types of political and moral education are also prone to indoctrination.

Because of the serious criticisms of RI, it is commonly argued that it should be replaced by GRE classes, which are assumed to be more inclusive of students from diverse backgrounds (e.g., Hart, Byrnes, Maddox, Halafoff & Lam). While such classes seem to be more inclusive and educationally valuable (e.g., learning about diverse cultures), advocates of GRE tend to overlook the problems with this approach. For one, in order to appear inclusive and religiously neutral, GRE tends to be relativistic, discouraging students from critically evaluating the claims of different religions. Such relativism may undermine critical thinking skills and the critical evaluation of religious claims and practices. Secondly, these classes may not be all that inclusive. It seems that many religious parents perceive them to be atheistic because they, understandably, believe that religious neutrality and religious relativism are secular or atheistic perspectives. That is, those who are religious may not want their children being taught that all religions are equally valuable sets of cultural beliefs and practices. This is one of the reasons Quebec’s, soon to be replaced, Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum has been so controversial. It includes secular ethics and GRE in one course. When it was first introduced, some Quebecois religious parents launched legal action to have their children exempt from the mandatory program because they believed it undermined their right to raise their children in their own faith.

Secular, philosophy-based ethics classes have also been proposed as a more inclusive alternative to RI classes. Since 2010, government primary schools in NSW have been able to offer secular ethics classes (called Special Education in Ethics) as an alternative to RI classes. Like RI, these classes are also taught by trained volunteers from an approved organisation, not by teachers employed in the schools. This came about because increasing numbers of students opting out of RI were left with no meaningful educational activities during the time set aside for RI. The original ethics curriculum, administered by an organisation called Primary Ethics, was created by Australian philosopher Philip Cam, who is well-known for his work in Philosophy for Children (P4C). Thus, the program utilised P4C’s classroom Community of Inquiry pedagogy as a means for students to examine ethical problems and develop the capacity for ethical inquiry and judgment making. (For a more detailed description of P4C’s aims, content, methods and history, see my previous column on this website.) The original Primary Ethics program relied upon Cam’s particular approach to P4C, which often uses small group tasks as a kind of segue into the larger, whole class dialogues. For example, in small groups, students would be given some sort of stimulus (e.g., a scenario, a picture) and a question, such as ‘Is it ever acceptable to tell a lie?’ After their small group discussion, the students move onto a whole class Community of Inquiry where, sitting in a large circle, the students present and justify their responses to the small group task, ask each other questions, pose counter-arguments, compare perspectives, and so on, so as to develop ethical inquiry skills and a deeper understanding of the contentious ethical issues explored.

However, as I have explained in detail elsewhere, these philosophy based ethics classes have also been controversial. A key problem is that, like GRE, some religious parents and students see the classes as atheistic and, thus, they are also not necessarily inclusive of all students. This is partly because they presented as a secular alternative to RI but, also, because the very notion of secular ethics is considered atheistic by those who believe that one’s ethical principles are derived from their religion and scripture. That is, they perceive religion and ethics as inseparable and believe that only atheists accept the notion of secular ethics. Thus, there are still considerable numbers of NSW students who do not attend either ethics classes or RI classes because there is no RI class in their faith, and they believe the ethics classes are for atheists. Thus, secular ethics as an alternative to RI does not solve this central problem of some students having nothing meaningful to do during RI time and feeling marginalised within their own schools. Furthermore, the secular ethics classes help normalise and legitimise RI classes, which, as explained above, are problematic for a range of reasons.

It seems to me that the only solution is to remove RI from government schools altogether so that they are truly secular and inclusive, as was intended when government schools were first established in the 1870s. There is no real need to replace RI with any alternative program.

While I agree that students should learn about diverse religious perspectives, including indigenous belief systems and non-religious perspectives, this should be taught as part of the humanities curriculum so that students can examine religions in relation to broader historical, political, social, cultural and economic issues and events. Teaching the world’s religions as a stand-alone subject, at least within the primary and middle years of schooling, seems to lead a the problematic relativistic study of religions so that schools are not seen to promote any particular religious viewpoint over others. As is the case with all other content in the official curriculum, students should be able to critically compare and evaluate religious and non-religious beliefs. As Nel Noddings argues, they must learn how to discuss and critique such belief systems in a respectful and caring manner.

Ethics, especially the capacity for ethical inquiry and contemporary ethical debates, should also be taught in schools by qualified schoolteachers. As every school subject has an ethical dimension, it should be taught across the curriculum so as students can come to understand the way ethical issues permeate all areas of knowledge and many aspects of our lives. Australia already has a well-developed curriculum to support this, called the Ethical Understanding Cross-Curriculum Priority. In a recent paper in The Journal of Curriculum Studies, I provided a detailed analysis of this ethics curriculum, explaining how it reflects Deweyian educational ideas. I also outline how it can be effectively implemented in different subject areas and for students of different ages, using P4C’s classroom Community of Inquiry pedagogy and content from philosophy.

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Full Citation Information:
Bleazby, J. (2021). Philosophy-Based Ethics as an Alternative to Religious Education in Australian Government Schools. PESA Agora.

Jennifer Bleazby

Jennifer Bleazby is senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia. Prior to taking up her position at Monash University, she worked as a philosophy, history, humanities and media studies teacher in both government and independent secondary schools. Her main areas of research are philosophy of education; philosophy for children; ethics and religion in schools; children's rights; curriculum theory; feminist philosophy; and pragmatism, especially the philosophy of John Dewey. Jennifer is currently conducting a research project on religious education in Australian government schools, generously funded by a Rationalist Society of Australia Patron's Grant.

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