Ethics vs. Religious Education in Australia


May 05, 2010

Last month, Julie Cowe wrote about religious education in Australian schools. Essentially, Australian law mandates that students receive one hour of religious training per week. The Christians who run these services get tens of millions of dollars per year to make this happen.

What happens if parents don't want their kids wasting their time in these classes? According to Cowe:

Parents are able to opt-out their children from the religious education class, however that hour is spent idle (emphasis mine). My children are separated for this hour from the rest of the class and given computer time. My 5th grader and her fellow opt-out students are unsupervised for that hour. Some parents have reported their child sat for the hour in empty hallways, alone.

It's ridiculous.

A week ago, Dr. John Kaye of the Greens party spoke about an alternative for students who opt out of religious training: ethics classes. He framed it in terms of the religious-training-or-nothing dilemma many parents face:

…The practice is discriminatory and wasteful and is founded only in the conviction held by some religions that their beliefs should hold a privileged position. That is not only clearly unacceptable in a multi-cultural and multi-faith free society but also deeply offensive to those who do not share confidence in the infallibility of the religious beliefs.

Professor Philip Cam from the University of New South Wales developed the course materials that invite students to develop responses to challenging ethical dilemmas. Ethics or the science of moral reasoning is a well developed area of study and has been taught successfully in schools around the world (emphasis mine). The developmental consequences for students are well documented and always positive. It is clearly understood that the course does not substitute for the values and ethical reasoning that are already taught across the curriculum in public education. It is surprising and alarming to watch a number of churches and religious organisations seek to stop the trial (emphasis mine).

Wait, what? Churches and religious groups are against ethics training?


Parents and their children should not be forced to choose between ethics classes and SRE [special religious education].

The more programmes the Government offers at the same time as school scripture, the fewer students who will be enrolled in SRE.

It also means that parents who would like to send their children to both SRE and ethics classes will not be able to.

There's also this, from "respected Christian leader" Gordon Moyes:

Be warned: if the Government allows this course to continue after the trial, it will jeopardise religious education in public schools, and without such a religious component, public schools will cease to be inclusive of all children. We Anglicans have always been committed to public education. Any decline of SRE would make public schools less attractive to Christian parents and will accelerate the shift to non-government schools.

It's like they're asking, "How can my children learn ethics if they're too busy learning about Jesus?"

One would hope religious education would include ethics…but the way they're framing this as a dichotomy makes it sound like the religious education lacks any ethical substance.

We know it's possible to be good without a god. Several millions of us around the world do it daily. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on ethics. But this isn't an atheist ethics class. It's one that has nothing to do with faith at all.

If parents are choosing to enroll their kids in ethics classes at the expense of the religious classes, maybe the religious educators ought to think about offering something more useful.

Or maybe Australia should eliminate the religious education classes altogether. Let the kids come to school to get a real education. Leave the religion to the parents or churches.

Maybe someone can explain that to these pastors.


Hemant Mehta is the Chair of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Board of Directors. He has worked with the Center for Inquiry and also is an SSA representative to the Secular Coalition for America. Hemant received national attention, including being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for his work as the "eBay Atheist." Hemant's blog can be read at, and his book, I Sold My Soul on eBay, (WaterBrook Press) is now available on He currently works as a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.