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Evangelical Ethics

By Meg Wallace - posted Tuesday, 27 April 2010

It is a commonplace that religious groups strive to evangelise and recruit members. That is why they seek to intervene in the schoolroom and preach their message. Now non-religious groups seek to do the same by promoting their views for students not attending religious instruction in government schools. While those advocating such a course state that it is not a kind of ersatz religious alternative to religion, it will be seen as such by students. The issue is one of evangelism by yet another group that wishes to enter a war of beliefs in schools.

The James Ethics Centre, which has helped develop an alternative course to religious instruction as a secular “ethics” course says it is aimed at helping children “to learn to bring evidence to bear in their thinking about ethical matters”. Surely this is something from which all students can benefit were the content of such a new course to be part of the approved national curriculum.

Such a course could complement the values that are already taught to all children through their general education: they learn cultural and moral values through, for example, history, english and drama, civics instruction and even sport. From the point of view of good citizenship, these values are well established in our political heritage (for example in the international human rights documents).


Archbishop Jensen is concerned children may be attracted to the new ethics classes and abandon faith-based acceptance of what is right. Why, because they make more sense?

This is a turf war being fought in schools. The feigned innocence of the ethics course proponents is not helpful. The problem arises from the fact that religion in any form is being taught in our government schools: a political sop to religious groups when government schools were required to be secular. A further cop-out to religion in government schools is the public funding of religious chaplains to provide what the government describes in its budget papers as “general religious and personal advice and comfort to students and staff”. The work of qualified counsellors is supplanted by outsiders unqualified in child and educational psychology but infused with religious enthusiasm.

Accepting religious instruction in school by being part of the system that separates children  by religion perpetuates divisiveness in the classroom and establishes specific “beliefs”, religious or otherwise, as authoritative and formally approved by the government. Schools are not churches or humanist meeting rooms. They are places to learn to reason and think in a classical liberal pedagogical setting: "Secular public schools are, after all, children of the Enlightenment." 

To mimic religious instruction in schools, is to accept instruction in religion as part of public schooling (thus government business) by implication. For the sake of spreading the “ethical” message to schoolchildren, alongside religious groups, this proposal is a sellout of basic principles to which those advocating secular education supposedly subscribe. It condones religious instruction in public schools, where, inter alia, the legislation requires (in all states except Queensland) that education by government schools is to be secular. The one-hour exception to this principle makes the rule: these schools are not, in effect, secular. Those not attending religious instruction are excluded from school activities for the duration of instruction. Even allowing that religious instruction is voluntary in fact and not just name, it is clear that it is perceived by students and parents as established official school activity, and those not participating are sidelined and excluded. Pressure to conform results in stress and conflict between family, school and peer values. Not only is it institutionalised discrimination, it is institutionalised religion, and flies in the face of the principle of separation of religion and state.

Important principles are at issue. The acceptance of secular ethics classes as an alternative to religious classes is an endorsement, by implication, of religion as an integral part of education in public schools and undermines the separation of religion and state. This is at a time when Queensland humanists are campaigning to put the requirement for secular education back in its Education Act, as religious instruction has been legally part of the daily curriculum since the requirement that public education be secular was removed in 1910 (see The proposal is also at odds with the High Court challenge to the federal Government’s institution of publicly funded religious activity in schools through the appointment of religious chaplains, which is in preparation at this time. That case will be asking the High Court to confirm that s.116 of the Australian Constitution means separation of church and state (see

Funding for public schools is for secular education, not for people to be religious. Secular education is not anti-religious, it is just not religious, recognising the individual’s right to adopt whatever personal conviction they wish as part of their private life. It is not the role of the government to be involved in the promotion of any such convictions, religious or otherwise. These can be taught at home and elsewhere. Declining interest in religious activity is a problem for churches to deal with in these places, not in schools.


Rather than participating in a system of discriminatory, faith-based exclusionary practices by introducing secular ethics classes as an alternative to religious instruction, proponents should be agitating for all students to be exposed to the benefits of the evidence-based reasoning they espouse.

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About the Author

Meg Wallace is the President of the Rationalist Society of NSW. She is a lawyer and former academic.

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