Scripture vs. Ethics (again)

Those of you living in NSW may be familiar with the debate that’s cropped up over the past few years regarding teaching ethics in schools. At the moment, primary school students are enrolled in Special Religious Studies (SRE), otherwise known as scripture classes, by default. If they opt out they have a free period. This is usually half to one hour each week.

The St James Ethics center, a secular organization, has proposed that those not attending SRE should take part in an ethics class, which would consist of discussions about relevant ethical issues.

I’ve written about this earlier, and noted that the Sydney Anglicans and some other groups are strongly opposed, while Buddhists are in support. The underlying ideological issue is that the Churches fear the diminishing of their moral authority.

The issue has received quite a lot of press coverage. this article rebuts some of the criticisms made about the proposed ethics classes, while this article looks at the positive and negative aspects of the current SRE classes. The researcher notes that there is currently no independent oversight on what is taught in SRE, and some of the things that go on are truly frightening. I was told by one Sydney Buddhist that her daughter – at a top posh school – was told that if she isn’t a Christian she’ll go to hell. It’s not certain how widespread this is, which underscores another problem with this debate, the lack of empirical evidence. It all seems to be driven by ideology rather than facts.

Last week there was a new turn. As reported by Dr Simon Longstaff from the St James Center:

Yesterday morning, the NSW Council of Churches issued a press release, under the name of the Reverend Richard Quadrio that included this statement:

“Meetings have already been held between leaders of the Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Buddhist religions to discuss a strategy to oppose this policy in the upcoming election campaign.”

This would seem to suggest that Australia’s healthy interfaith movement had produced a common policy of opposition to secular ethics education. This is not the case: the article reports that the Jewish and Islamic communities had in fact not been consulted after all, and they do not oppose the proposal. The statement was retracted by the NSW Council of Churches. (The NSW Council of Churches is an independent body based in Sydney. They are not affiliated with the National Council of Churches, who do have a genuine interfaith engagement through the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations and other forums.)

In his article, Longstaff expressed uncertainty about the Buddhist position. In fact our position is clear: the Buddhist community supports ethics education in schools. I have discussed the matter on several occasions with community members and leaders, and they have an overwhelmingly supported the ethics teaching proposal. The Buddhist Council of NSW has been involved in various discussions with the St James Center and others where they have made their position clear.

So the NSW Council of Churches press release does not represent the mainstream Buddhist position in NSW. I don’t know where they got their ideas from, and have contacted them to find out – I’ll let you know when I hear back.

In my opinion, teaching ethics from a secular philosophical perspective is essential for we who are to live and make decisions within a secular context. Surely it should be a basic requirement of a secular education system that it teaches children how to understand and deal with ethical questions within that context. All our children will grow up and in their study, work, relationships, and recreation they will encounter and have to confront ethical dilemmas together with people of different faiths.

The only way to do this is to rely, not on metaphysics, but on the common ground of all forms of ethics: compassion and reason. This kind of approach is fundamental to Buddhist ethics, which grounds ethical behavior on the observable benefits of ethics.

I did a little experiment on this with a group of Buddhist supporters from the Sri Lankan community who visited Santi the other day. I asked the kids what was right and wrong, and after a little hesitation we had a great discussion. What was clear was that they already knew what was right and wrong. I didn’t have to tell them; but in some cases I tried to lead them on to reflect a little more about the complexities: “Yes, that’s wrong: but is it always wrong?”

I noticed that in the whole discussion, no-one invoked any particularly Buddhist notions to understand ethics. No-one said, “This is wrong because the Buddha said so”; or “This is right because it’s good kamma”. We negotiated the issues simply by talking about ordinary realities: sadness, helping, harm.

In other words, Buddhist ethics shares much ground with secular ethics and does not fundamentally contradict it. This is not to say that Buddhist ethics are limited to secular ethics. On the contrary, Buddhist ethics take into account dimensions that are ignored by the narrow scope of a purely secular approach. We believe that our acts do not merely create observable results in this life, but also in future lives. Even more important, our ethical conduct is not merely as a basis for living well and not harming, but is the basis for meditation and wisdom, leading all the way to the highest freedom.

This is why there is a role for religious education as well: religion is not just ethics. A profound religious sensibility informs our ethics, deepens them, and provides a sense of meaning that secular ethics cannot approach. This is why we should not think of secular ethics as competition with religion. In fact, we could see it in exactly the opposite terms: if the kids are learning ethics in their secular classes, there’s not so much need to teach that in the religious classes, and we can deepen our focus on the more profound dimensions of our religion. I’d like to see a Buddhist class in school that had more time for meditation and discussions about questions of meaning and identity, issues that are of crucial importance for young people, especially adolescents.

The current situation does not reflect the religious demographic of Australia. Around 90% of the scripture classes are Christian, while Christians make up only around 60% of the population at large. Fair enough, the Christians have been doing this longer than anyone else and are better organized and resourced. But it is clear that Buddhist children do not have the opportunities that Christians do. In many cases, despite the ongoing efforts of the Buddhist Council, we are still not able to find enough teachers of Buddhist SRE to meet the demand.

Buddhists of Sydney, take note! Give the Buddhist Council a call and see if you can help. This is especially important for the English-speaking Buddhists out there. The majority of Buddhist children in Sydney have parents for whom English is a second language, and this is a serious limitation for many of the parents who would like to help with SRE in schools, but don’t have the language skills.

For now, however, an ethics class would provide for the ethical growth of Buddhist and other children in our schools. And that, I think, would be a Very Good Thing.

3 thoughts on “Scripture vs. Ethics (again)

    • Thanks Michael.

      I agree completely that there should be oversight in the way religion is taught. In fact, there are some proposals being worked on now that will hopefully raise the issue at a more substantial level, looking towards the English model of multifaith classes in all schools.

      I disagree, however, that the need for ethics classes is somehow an insult to teachers. Of course teachers – and parents and others – provide powerful ethical role models for children, and by and large do a great job. The ethics classes, however, are an acknowledgement that since ethics is such an important area, fundamental to all other areas of life, there is a need to focus specifically on ethical studies.

      From my own experience, I went to a good Catholic school (Aquinas College) and earlier a couple of state primary schools, and we never had any specialized discussion of ethics. It wasn’t until I went to Uni and did some ethics classes that I really learned some of the basic notions and skills.

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