Speech on Special Religious Education

Speech by Rod Benson, Public Affairs Director, NSW Council of Churches, to a public meeting for “Save Our Scripture,” NSW Parliament, Monday 28 February 2011.  There were about 180 people present.

For more than 140 years students in NSW state schools have enjoyed access to religious education, a situation that is the envy of my Christian friends in godless nations such as the United States of America. 

Both General Religious Education (GRE) and Special Religious Education (SRE) are offered in NSW.  SRE is education in the distinctive religious tenets and beliefs of the home and family, provided by the churches and other religious groups for children of parents expressing the desire for such teaching, whether they are of a particular faith or no faith.

 As NSW Baptist Past-President Professor Alan Rice has observed, students surveyed have expressed positive views about the legitimate spiritual benefits of attending SRE classes:

  • “I am glad I have had the chance to learn about Christianity and about God – I would otherwise know practically nothing if I had not come to this class.”
  • “I think this subject has provided me with the opportunity to be accepted by God.”
  • “I think it has helped me … I would definitely find it easier now to turn to God as I understand things better.”

There are many facets to the operation of SRE, both educational and practical.  It is not about indoctrination; nor is it about proselytizing from other religions; nor is it, as one opponent put it to me on Twitter, about the better organised and resourced churches “brainwashing our kids.”

The committee responsible for the Rawlinson Report (1980) into religious education in schools concluded that a study of religion can make a contribution to the intellectual, moral and spiritual development of children as well as to their understanding of society and its religious traditions.  

The benefits of religious education are seen to result from a range of skills and qualities such as:

  • Development of empathy and social conscience
  • Self-reflection
  • Whole person learning – social and emotional development
  • Trust and care
  • Positive environment based upon security and supportiveness.

After 140 years, the foundations of a broad-based approach to the provision of religious education in NSW are firm.  But the foundations could be tested and opposed at any time, and could be varied if there were democratic and/or political will to do so. 

That time has come.

The push by the St James Ethics Centre and the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations of NSW to introduce secular ethics classes, with a curriculum created by Professor Phillip Cam of the University of NSW is commendable, but not at the expense of SRE.

One has to ask: How will this new educational initiative be funded and administered?  Where are the volunteer teachers, and will they receive adequate training?  And the biggest question of all: how can ethics be values-neutral?

It is simply wrong to undermine SRE by teaching ethics as an alternative under the guise of providing “complementary” curriculum content.  The ideal alternative for those students who opt out of an SRE class, where there is critical exposure to a particular faith, is a comparative religions class, not an ethics class with the spiritual oxygen sucked out of it.

At its best ours is a pluralist society and an inclusive community, and of all our institutions, our schools should model those ideals.  Let’s not build walls where there should be none.  The current debate should be about how moral philosophy could be better integrated in the whole school curriculum, not tacked on as an optional extra for students who opt out of religious education classes.

But as the March 26 election approaches, the issue of ethics versus SRE has been politicized by the NSW Labor Party, and set aside by the Coalition.  And it goes to the heart of what The Greens, the CDP and Family First stand for – The Greens committed to a world emphatically without religion, and the Christian parties committed to Christian Australia, or something approaching that.

We all know that the Labor Party won’t help us.  They signed the virtual death warrant of SRE last November, and then prorogued Parliament.  But Barry O’Farrell’s Opposition Coalition is set to feed off the bones left behind by Labor should they win on March 26. 

On the basis of statements by Mr Piccoli on November 24, it seemed clear that a Coalition Government would not support the continuation of the ethics classes.  Then in early February Mr O’Farrell backed down, claiming the battle was over, and vowing to support the Keneally Government in rolling out ethics classes across the state.  

Then on February 15, at a televised event here in this room organised by the Australian Christian Lobby, both party leaders backed away from agreeing to calls by church leaders for a comprehensive review of the ethics classes in 2012.

What we need today is leadership on this issue.  I call on Mr O’Farrell to commit to a comprehensive independent review of the ethics classes including their impact on the teaching of SRE; and to assure people of faith in NSW that ethics classes will not, by design or default, spell the demise of Special Religious Education.

The Christian faith has profoundly shaped Australian society, has a central place in Australian life today, and will continue to shape our great nation for generations to come.  

Politicians and policy makers must resist pressure by atheist and secularist lobby groups to excise religious belief from the minds and hearts of the young, from our books and screens, from our education curriculum.  Because what they offer in its place is an arid alternative, born of the will to power, fostering an arbitrary moralism that will ultimately and inevitably bring about the death of civilization.

We flourish amid diversity of opinion and belief.  Special Religious Education offers children in NSW an excellent opportunity, at their parents’ or guardians’ discretion, to learn about life, ethics and personal responsibility from the vantage point of a religious tradition.  For more than 140 years children have enjoyed this privilege.  

Christians who care about the spiritual heartbeat of our nation, and the spiritual welfare of our state and its institutions and community fabric, cannot stand idly by as this precious gift is dismantled by the enemies of faith and freedom.  Save our Scripture.

This address may be quoted or distributed with full referencing attached.

5 Replies to “Speech on Special Religious Education”

  1. Hi Rod,

    I’m finding it hard to reconcile your messages here. It seems to me that you’re arguing for freedom of choice and less division (if I’m to understand ‘…At its best ours is a pluralist society and an inclusive community, and of all our institutions, our schools should model those ideals. Let’s not build walls where there should be none…’ as it sounds).

    But I’m confused. You’re all for freedom and choice right up to the point where it is not Christian anymore, at which point those who think differently to you have crossed the line and are now trying to dismantle everything you hold dear. Indeed, so dangerous is this not-Christian point of view that it is “an arid alternative, born of the will to power, fostering an arbitrary moralism that will ultimately and inevitably bring about the death of civilization.” I am indeed sensing a division here, Rod, but it is not being perpetrated by the non-religious side of things. I am yet, for example, to hear Simon Longstaff of the St James Ethics Centre refer to scripture in a remotely negative way. But SRE folks calling the ethics alternative the first step toward the end of the world? I needn’t look past this page. Though I very easily could.

    You’re also glossing over one very important point: there is already a division where SRE is concerned. That is, between those students who are allowed to spend time in a structured learning environment and those who are not. As it stands, non-SRE kids are forced to do nothing with their time. So all very well and good to argue that the ethics alternative ought to be integrated into the curriculum for everyone (though by the sounds of it, you’d be none too happy with that, what with the ushering of the end times and all). It still leaves the vacuous gap of wasted time for a group of students that choose not to participate in SRE. I’d be happy to consider the idea of a GRE complement to SRE, but that isn’t being offered by anyone, anywhere. What we DO have is a private organisation that is willing to put in the time, the money and the training to provide a solution to a greatly unjust imbalance of student productivity. Object to this as you will – I will not. This ethics alternative will give students a fantastic introduction to the concepts of ethical thinking and equip them with critical thinking skills that may serve them for the rest of their lives. Arid, Arbitrary and Apocalyptic as you think this to be, I’m sure the parents of these particular children are grateful that their young ones have a chance to do something meaningful with up to an hour of each school week that would normally be spent watching Disney classics on DVD.

    1. You misunderstand me, Mitch. I’m all for secular ethics classes in our schools, indeed I would happily volunteer to teach them.

      What I don’t warm to, and I said it in my address, is the way in which the St James Ethics Centre’s curriculum appears to have privileged an approach to ethics in which spirituality and moral principles based on the teachings of the world religions have no place. Show me where I am wrong about this, and I’ll gladly sing your song.

      Further, your attempt at alliterative humour (“Arid, Arbitrary and Apocalyptic”) misses the point that there are individuals and groups committed to excising “religious belief from the minds and hearts of the young, from our books and screens, from our education curriculum,” and replacing the values and morals sourced in religious traditions with an alternative moral framework based on an alternative fundamentalism, which I chose to describe as “an arid alternative, born of the will to power, fostering an arbitrary moralism that will ultimately and inevitably bring about the death of civilization.”

      If you took the time to get to know me, you would discover that I hold an equally pessimistic and antagonistic view of all types of rigid fundamentalism – religious, nationalist, fascist, socialist, anarchist. Fundamentalism is the enemy of faith and freedom.

  2. I’ve no doubt that you’re an enemy of fundamentalism in all its forms, please don’t take my comments as critical of anything but those that I read above, and if you feel I misunderstood then I apologise.

    Your first approach to eliminating fundamentalism when it comes to the issue of the St James Ethics course, however, might be best served in examining your rigid assertion that ethics should be sourced from the spiritual tradition of the world’s religions in the first place. I know you aren’t saying that they must ALL come from religion, but your implication is that ethics without religion is, at best, an inferior ethics.

    Can we at least agree that this point is contentious? There are plenty that believe that an ethical life is not dependent on spirituality, religion, faith or any of the other terms you might want to put on it. In any case, the ethics alternative is provided for those chidren who have been opted out of religious instruction in scripture. I do not think it’s hard to imagine why a religious lens was not included in the examination of ethical issues for young children in such a case. The position of Special Religious Education and the St James Ethics Course is not a dichotomy of extremes. There’s plenty of good can come from SRE, but that does the students who don’t attend it in the first place absolutely no good at all. There is plenty of good to be found in the secular examination of ethics informed by non-religious sources, which is not to say that it will appeal to those who feel religion plays an important part in said ethics. ‘Non-Religious’ doesn’t mean ‘A single concept to the ignorance of all others’. There is a wealth of balanced, well-considered sources to draw on that are not religious. By definition, the ethics course must explore an approach to morality and ethics that is not addressed in SRE. Because St James privelleges non-religious sources of ethical instruction is no more remarkable than the fact that SRE does privellege Christianity as its primary source of ethical instruction.

    I’ll put out, by the way, that ‘not warming to something’ and ‘vehemently opposing something with rhetoric nothing short of doomsaying’ are two different things. Certainly, you’re concerned that there are groups and individuals who want to crush religion. I am not one of them, neither is the St James Ethics Centre, neither are the parents who want their children to attend their courses. They are simply ‘not religious’. The only reason to speak in such virulent terms as you did is to create a false duality. Scripture doesn’t need ‘saving’, it is provided for in the NSW Eductation Act.

    Further, I’m sorry my attempt at alliterative humour did not measure up to alliterative humour best practice. Rest assured I am scouring my house for Dr Seuss books in an attempt to improve myself.

  3. Mr. Benson
    To me it seems that you have the bull by the wrong horn.
    You state above (The push by the St James Ethics Centre and the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations of NSW to introduce secular ethics classes, with a curriculum created by Professor Phillip Cam of the University of NSW is commendable, but not at the expense of SRE.)
    It is not at the expense of SRE.
    It was never planned that way.
    Just settle down and let those thousands of children that don’t attend religious classes do something useful with their wasted time whilst SRE classes are going.
    What are you afraid of?
    Or are you just misinterpreting the situation.

    1. Bruce,
      It’s not a bull. It’s a Trojan horse. I am happy to accept on face value the assurances of Simon Longstaff and others that their intentions were entirely benign, although they are perhaps naive to assume that their product would have no deleterious effect, ideologically or practically, on the provision of SRE.

      However, there are parents, schools and teachers who certainly view the current developments as an opportunity to sink nails into the coffin of SRE and despatch it to the crematorium. There is no doubt that the ethics classes are convened at the expense of SRE – in terms of rival content dubbed “co-Scripture,” and in their delivery administration. I understand the concern of parents of students who, according to conscience, opt their children out of SRE but would prefer them to engage in directed learning activities. I am aware that this is an apparently wasted opportunity for many students. My point was that the ethics classes directly compete with SRE – a situation which previous departmental policy sought to avoid.

      A better way is to give all school students access to philosophical ethics classes where this is not already happening. But please don’t expect competent teachers to teach ethics in a “values-neutral” environment.

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