What is religion if not ethics

By Chris Dyson
Updated November 6 2012 - 1:29am, first published January 2 2011 - 5:24am
What is religion if not ethics
What is religion if not ethics

It's time to choose, parents: religion or ethics. Welcome to 2011, the year that will see the introduction of ethics classes in NSW schools. Debate on this topic raged throughout 2010 and continued after Premier Kristina Keneally's announcement in late November that the classes would start in Term 1, initially for Years 5 and 6 only, but eventually for all primary school students.Some critics of the plan argue that the classes will undermine our schools' century-old tradition of teaching scripture, and that to teach ethics and values without mentioning the Bible will lumber students with an incomplete ethical outlook.Supporters - and the Government - reply that the ethics classes are not replacing special religious education (SRE) classes; they are simply providing greater choice to parents. After all, they say, at the moment if a parent makes a conscientious decision to opt out of SRE, their kids will be supervised but are not allowed to be taught anything else during that time. Clearly, that is an absurd position and one that needs to change. But why replace an absurd policy with an unfair one?The Government says the new policy is about choice. In reality, it's about forcing parents to choose. What about parents who have no problem with ethics classes or scripture? What if parents want their children to learn about ethics but also want them to gain a greater appreciation of the great Christian stories in the Bible? There are lessons to be learned from every religion and ethics should be taught alongside religion, not as an alternative. I know the terminology being used suggests the ethics classes will complement SRE rather than compete. And yes, the ethics class materials will be made available for use in SRE classes, but this move by the St James Ethics Centre seems to be designed chiefly to deflect criticism: it is unrealistic to think SRE classes will incorporate more than a small sampling of the materials, if at all. Ethics, and each religion, represent massive subject areas and it would be difficult to do justice to any one in a lesson plan, let alone two.From a personal point of view, I'd like my children to learn more about the Bible even though I would not consider myself religious. Isn't it worthwhile having a thorough understanding of something even if you don't have faith? What possible value is there in ignorance, on any topic? Apart from the guidance for life that can be gleaned from religious parables, the Bible is chock-a-block full of great yarns. Why should my desire to have my kids access further lessons from this great tome deny them access to ethics classes?During the lead-up to Christmas, the natural curiosity of my three-year-old son and four-year-old daughter turned our house into one continuous Bible class. What's a manger? Why is the baby Jesus in one? What's the star of Bethlehem? Why do we put presents under the tree? Who were the three wise men? What's myrrh? But kids' curiosity doesn't choose between alternatives. Ethics, values, civics, religion, science; it all gets a look-in. Why shouldn't I kill the ant? Why shouldn't I hit my brother for killing the ant? Why does Santa say I should be kind and good and generous? Why can't I throw your iPod into the pool?We should be feeding this curiosity with a Renaissance education that traverses wide intellectual landscapes. A broad education is a noble and worthwhile pursuit, and it seems unfortunate to force parents to choose between two subject areas so massive and important - religion and ethics.

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