For a few months now there has been a trial underway in select primary schools around New South Wales offering an ethics course as an alternative to scripture – or Special Religious Education, as it’s called. It’s a wonderful initiative, and I wholeheartedly support it. In fact, I’m on the waiting list to teach should the programme be approved by the NSW state government following the trial.
However, the trial hasn’t progressed without impediment, primarily coming from religious quarters. Some religious figures have seen the ethics course as a threat to the scripture classes, some even suggesting they’re losing students to the secular course. This is even after the organisers of the ethics trial made all their material freely available to the various SRE conveners should they wish to use it, nullifying the competition issue. Yet many scripture classes continue to provide ample colouring-in and singing activities, but are a little thin on actual ethics.
Last night a programme aired on SBS called Insight – a rare and wonderful show where representatives from various perspectives in an issue are put in a room and have a moderated debate – that dealt with the religious opposition to the ethics trial. The show was gruelling, but fascinating all the same. I actually reckon the children were the highlight – they were far more insightful and open minded than the religious adults who spoke.
The religious proponents posited all the regular arguments, including the veiled notion that one cannot teach ‘real’ ethics without religious backing. It’s this fallacy that I offered some thoughts on on the ABC’s discussion page, The Drum Unleashed. As you can see, it’s been up less than a day and there are already 264 comments. Unsurprisingly, there are some strong opinions on either side, though I’m buoyed by the upwelling of support for secular ethics from some quarters.
A couple of clarificatory points, though. I’m not interested in disproving the existence of god. Nor am I interested in converting people to atheism. The arguments against God have all been made, and they haven’t changed significantly for at least 100 years. If there are still some unconvinced, then I’m not going to try to batter their dogma head on. I’d rather offer alternatives to supernaturalism that people see as being viable and desirable instead of simply tearing down religion.
In fact, in some ways I support the notion of organised religion, although absent supernaturalism and dogma, and with added checks and balances. We need cultural institutions to propagate values, and atheism, being a negative thesis, doesn’t even attempt to build something positive like this. It’s this secular religion approach, I believe, that is what non-theists of all ilks should be aiming for. Hammering away at the faithful isn’t going to achieve much – building a better world and welcoming the faithful in is a much more powerful approach.