Religious education – a new interfaith voice

A new group called the Religions, Ethics and Education Network of Australia (REENA) has emerged to promote a review of the way religion is taught in Australia. This relates to a number of previous posts I have made concerning the teaching of ethics and religion in schools. REENA’s Statement of Principles makes some excellent, and much-needed recommendations to address some of the problems with the current system. One of REENA’s guiding lights is Anna Halafoff of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils.


Vardy vs. the Buddha

I’ve just come back from another interfaith event. This was the Studies of Religion in Focus Conference 2011, entitled Core Ethical Teachings, held in the New South Wales Parliament building (although the event was educational rather than political). A range of speakers from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism were invited to speak and discuss on certain ethical issues, especially as they pertain to the New South Wales high school syllabus for Studies of Religion. Key areas included sexual ethics, bioethics, and environmental ethics. I was invited to speak from a Buddhist perspective on sexual ethics. I don’t quite know why a celibate monk ended up speaking on this – is there some special kink here that I don’t know about?

As always, interfaith discussions revealed a range of rich and fruitful insights, but I want to specially focus on the contributions by the main speaker, Dr Peter Vardy. He’s an English theologian and educationalist of note, and gave two articulate and persuasive speeches that dominated the main event. His position seemed to be received very well, but I had some serious concerns with his approach, which I’d like to discuss here.

Vardy wants to bring education back to focus on the whole person. He despises the fragmenting and degrading of education, the relentless focus on performance and outcomes, and speaks eloquently of an education that draws students on to their highest potential. These ideas found a strong resonance with the audience, who were mainly teachers of religion in high schools. I couldn’t agree more with this critique, and have believed the same thing since, well, since I was in high school.

The problem lies with Vardy’s analysis of the cause of the problem, and his consequent inability to propose any persuasive solution. He points to the modernist and post-modernist trends, the loss of a center of values, and the relativization of all morals. He argues that if we adhere to a purely ‘relativist’ postion on morality, we have no solid ground with which to withstand evil. His litany of evils included the usual suspects: Hitler, Pol Pot, modern art, the sexualization of teenage girls. In his own words, and his own emphasis, ‘WE ARE IN A MESS!!!’; and post-modern relativism is to blame. The solution is some kind – and here Vardy was quite timid as to details – of absolutist ethics, a rock solid ground of morality.

I beg to respectfully disagree. The reason for the arising of relativism was the failure of absolutist ethics. Lest we forget, the era of absolutism was the era when my own view was right, and anyone else was a heretic. The inevitable outcome of that attitude, when combined with technological superiority, was colonialism, with its program of imposing European Christianity on the rest of the world.

Vardy laments the intellectual vacuity of relativism, bemoaning the tendency for young people to just say, ‘Well, I’ve got my view and you’ve got yours, and everyone is entitled to their own view’.

I agree with him: this kind of relativism is shallow, and is usually little better than an avoidance of seriously grappling with the issues. But Vardy, I believe, seriously misrepresents the context in which this kind of dialogue operates. It has not risen as a replacement for serious intellectual discussion; rather, it replaces dogmatism and ignorance. In past ages, only a tiny fraction of the population received a higher education, and our record of intellectual activity is the record of the intellectual elite. Now the debate is broadened, and millions of voices who were previously silent can suddenly be heard – in classrooms where their opinion is sought, or blogs or Facebook. The quality of debate should not be compared with the Socratic dialogues, but with the chatter in the market or the village square.

From this perspective, to say, ‘Everyone’s entitled to their own views’ is actually a tremendous advance. It requires a degree of empathy, of understanding that there are many people in the world of different views, that different societies function in different, but equally valuable ways. Perhaps even more significant, it acknowledges that my views are a construct of my mind and environment, that they are conditioned, partial, and subject to change.

By all means, let’s not rest content here. Let’s delve meaningfully, rationally, and compassionately, get underneath our surface views and see where the real problems lie. But let’s not ignore the very genuine developmental achievement that relativism signifies.

Vardy seems to assume that all religions share his horror of post-modernism and relativism, and the modern ‘utilitarian’ ethics that these accompany. I would argue, on the contrary, that Buddhism ethics have always been relativistic and utilitarian. The problem does not lie with these tendencies as such, and therefore the solution does not lie in a return to absolutism. The problem is that these tendencies are still immature, and need to broaden and deepen.

What do I mean when I say that Buddhist ethics are relativistic and utilitarian? Let’s start with utilitarianism.

In the West this is associated with English philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham. According to Wikipedia, Bentham argued:

in favour of individual and economic freedom, usury, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children. Although strongly in favour of the extension of individual legal rights, he opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights, calling them “nonsense upon stilts.”

As such, he is diametrically opposed to Vardy’s call for a return to ‘natural rights’, a morality grounded on an absolute, timeless sense of right and wrong.

This is not the place to debate Bentham, but it is interesting to note how many of his moral positions have come to define our progressive modern society. I for one agree with him on every one of these points. The very fact that he had to argue for these things, which seem self-evident, points to the failings of the absloutist morality which prevailed in Europe before his time.

Bentham’s approach is that what is right is what brings the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. The great virtue of this approach is that it is grounded on a clear and recognizable reality, the experience of pleasure and pain. The Buddha explicitly grounded his morality on the same principle: What is good (kusala, literally ‘skillful’) is what leads to happiness.

There are various theoretical problems with utilitarianism, perhaps the most pressing of which is the nature of pleasure. No-one wants a morality that leads straight to hedonism, so any utilitarian philosophy must lead to the psychology of pleasure, and specifically, it must account for different qualities of pleasure; the instant gratification of eating ice-cream versus the peace of a life well-lived, for example.

As I understand it, every spiritual tradition does in fact have some such analysis, and recognizes that short term hedonic stimulation must often be restrained for the sake of long term happiness of a more meaningful sort. Certainly the Buddha, as a direct consequence of his utilitarian ethics, developed a sophisticated psychology of pleasure, evolving and deepening at each stage of the spiritual path.

This is clearly an issue for we moderns, and there is no doubt the nature of pleasure and gratification needs a serious deepening. But this is not a flaw with the utilitarian approach as such, it is just that, like any moral philosophy, its application in the real word is messy and inadequate, and it needs time to grow into its potential.

While the Buddha’s ethics were a form of utilitarianism, this is not exactly the same as Bentham’s. Most important is the incorporation of kamma, which is firmly based on utilitarian principles: do good and you’ll be happy. The ideas of kamma and rebirth are intrinsic to a full understanding of the Buddha’s ethical teachings, and as such cannot provide a basis for ethics for those who don’t believe in these things. Nevetheless, the workings of kamma and rebirth are simply an extension of principles that can be observed here in this life. When the Buddha encouraged ethical conduct, he typically gave a list of utilitarian reasons, culminating in a good rebirth. In addition, for practicing Buddhists, ethical conduct is the foundation for all higher spiritual development. So Buddhist utilitarianism is still applicable and relevant within an entirely secular context, but within the context of the path as a whole it takes on an even deeper signifiicance.

Turning to relativism, as is well-known the Buddha characterized his own teaching as being about conditionality and inter-dependence. Whether in ethics, psychology, or metaphysics, there is no room for any absolute ground. Everything is, just as it was for Einstein, relative to everything else.

But it does not follow from this that our ethics are limited to just, like, whatever dude. And the analogy from physics works here as well. (I’m using the physics analogy because in the conference Einstein was quoted as saying that relativity applied to physics, not ethics. This statement, however, is not about the basis of morality, but about the relation between science and ethics, which Einstein always believed should be kept separate. Using Einstein to justify moral absolutism is highly problematic, as he also said: ‘A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary’.)

All motion is relative, and must be measured according to Einsteinian Relativity. Newtonian physics is wrong, as it relies on discredited notions of perfect absolutes, such as ‘a straight line is the shortest distance between two points’. This appears self-evident but is incorrect in the real world, due to the influence of gravity. Nevertheless, we still learn Newtonian physics at school, and for almost all practical purposes it’s good enough. Why? Because we share a common frame of reference: the planet earth. Unless we have to fly to Jupiter or build a nuclear reactor, Newton works just fine.

In the same way, fundamental moral issues are shared, not because of some ill-defined metaphysical ‘absolute’ by which we are somehow to measure our acts, but because we share a common frame of reference: the human condition. And all humans share certain values more or less in common. Most obviously, we love life, which is basis for the moral precept against killing. As long as humans are human, this principle is found and forms the basis for a shared morality, one which cannot be argued away by shallow cultural relativism.

By an incredible stroke of luck, we are just now able to test this idea in practice. Last week humanity was contacted by a race of sentient spiders from the planet Zog. They are an advanced arachniform civilization, who have mastered interstellar travel and, so they say, want to help humanity.

It all looked good, until we found out a curious detail of Zogian anatomy: each one of them gives birth to 1000 babies every week. All of these cute little spider-babies are able to speak from birth and are as intelligent and sensitive as a human adult. The Zogians take it as a matter of course that almost all of these little ones will die shortly after birth, leaving only the fittest. They are astonished at the care and love we lavish on our infants; it seems that the human race is unique in the galaxy in this respect. If the Zogians were to preserve the life of their babies, within a few weeks their planet would die of overcrowding. (This scenario is based on the much more realistic sci-fi world invented by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye.)

It’s a bit of a worry for we humans. Just a few Zogian colonists, and the earth could be taken over within weeks. What are we to do? Is it up to our enlightened moral absolutists to convince the Zogians that they are wrong to let their babies die, and that they must preserve their lives at any cost, even if that cost is the rapid and inevitable extinction of both our worlds?

I suspect that even the most die-hard absolutist would have little trouble convincing themselves that the Zogish ethics were right for the Zogs, and human ethics were right for humans.

This example shows why all attempts at absolutism will fail. It is because they attempt to impose an unchanging value on a changing world. The values of our religions, our sacred scriptures, our traditions, were not abstract laws crystallized out of the fabric of the universe. They were guidelines that helped people, in their own time and place, to live better lives. Those times and places change, and the values needed to live good lives also change.

Some things, however, change much less and more slowly, such as the moral precept against killing. Others might be more flexible; for example, while it takes an exotic sci-fi scenario to imagine a world where the precept against killing babies did not apply in a recognizable form, it is easy to imagine societies where there is no need of a precept against stealing, whether in hunter-gatherer societies who have few possessions, or in utopian post-materialist communities.

Appeals to absolutism are persuasive only to the extent that boundaries are limited. As moral horizons expand, more and more of what we formerly considered to be ‘writ in stone’ comes to be seen as product of a certain limited time and place. As our modern world changes and adapts with terrifying, unprecedented speed, the desire to find an absolute rock for moral foundations is understandable, but can never provide a common ground of ethics for all humanity.

Many religious people can find a sense of moral certainty within their own religious framework, but that framework will never be shared by all people. We must have a universal language of ethics that all people can share. It seems to me that utilitarian ethics, which is based on the compassionate understanding of our shared experience of pleasure and pain, is the best ground for such a common ethical framework.

It is quite true, such a language will in some senses be lesser, as it is concerned solely with the mundane or secular. Nevertheless, utilitarian ethics has fuelled many of what I consider to be humanity’s greatest ethical advances. In the past, the Buddha and Bentham are two great utilitarians who made radical, lasting, and meaningful reforms in the moral landscape. In the present, Peter Singer has articulated many of our most urgent moral challenges based on utilitarian principles, including the welfare of animals and the sufferings of poverty.

Utilitarianism is not a burnt-out or trivial bureaucratic exercize. When we take it seriously, it upturns our most precious assumptions and points to a revaluation of all values. The morality of the future will be grounded in the compassionate response to the shared human experience of pleasure and pain. As we pursue this, in our typical stepwise, faltering, and uncertain way, it will force us to question the nature of happiness more and more deeply. Our initially trivial ideas of happiness and suffering, which are sufficient to give moral guidance in simple situations, must be continually re-assessed as we are faced with new and more complex challenges.

Ultimately, we will reach the deepest reaches of meaning, just as in the great religions. But rather than imagining a doctrine of the absolute from our position here in the very relative world, we arrive at the depths from the ‘inside’, from working through and with matters of importance. The utilitarian principle lasts to the very end, as the Buddha said, ‘Nibbana is the highest happiness.’

Meditation for Study

Here’s an academic literature review that looks at whether meditation is helpful in an academic environment. It concludes that there is substantial evidence that meditation is useful for the student in general, and little or no evidence that it is not. However, it also says that there has not yet been enough studies to conclude that meditation will directly improve test results.

This is interesting in the context of our current situation regarding teaching Buddhism in schools in NSW.

More fundamentally, however, it speaks to the basic Buddhist tenet that meditation leads to wisdom. Most of our scientific study of meditation to date has focussed on the emotional side – meditation leads to peace and happiness. The Buddha was perhaps the first teacher to stress how the emotions and intelligence were interconnected and needed to support each other. This contrasts with the tendency in western thought to make ’emotion’ and ‘reason’ into enemies.

Strangely enough, this dichotomy has been imported into modernist Buddhism as the split between samatha and vipassana, a split which, I believe, was a product of traditional Buddhist cultures’ response to the western colonial influence.

Recent psychology has moved away from this, and now it is generally accepted that emotion and reason support each other. Or at least, they do in a healthy mind: an opposition or disconnect between the two is a sign of illness.

Studies like this one show that a peaceful, happy mind from meditation helps develop and support essential cognitive functions: memory, clear thinking, imagination. And we could all do with a bit more of that!

Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (4)

History Lessons

If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it.

So they say – but I don’t believe them. History is too complex and variable, and susceptible to too many readings. The choices we make now are different, and so they should be.

There’s no sense in trying to avoid repeating history, because that is simply not possible. Instead, we should study history in order to inform our understanding of where we come from and where we’re going.

Like any history, the story of drugs is complex and will depend on who is telling it. There’s a lot of information out there, and I won’t even attempt to make a coherent history. But I think it is essential to bear a few things in mind.

There is little evidence that drug use was widely prohibited before the modern era. In Buddhist history, for example, we find plenty of morality tales that illustrate the bad effects of intoxication, especially alcohol. A good example of this kind of story is the Samuddavanija Jātaka, which we featured here a few weeks ago. In addition, we find restrictions on alcohol consumption. I believe sales of alcohol are restricted on uposatha (poya, wan phra) days in Thailand and Sri Lanka – perhaps someone can supply us with some more information on this. I believe such restrictions have a historical basis, although again I am not sure of the details. In any case, I have certainly come across no evidence that drug use was ever prohibited in any Buddhist country before the modern era.

In modern Buddhist countries, we see a wide divergence, from Singapore which has a very strict anti-drugs policy and, at least according to the official figures, very little usage, to Thailand and Burma, which are global centers of drug production and trafficking, and in the case of Thailand, also of drug tourism.

The point I am making here is that current drug policy does not stem from history, but from 20th century developments in the drug trade and in attitudes towards drugs. It is a historical phenomenon, not a natural state of society, and like all historical phenomena it is contradictory, paradoxical, and we can draw from it what lessons we like.

The modern attitudes to opium and its derivatives, for example, are traceable to a San Francisco ordinance which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens in 1875. The reason cited was “many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.” Meanwhile, the medicinal opiate laudanum, which was popular among respectable white folks, remained legal. For many years, and probably to some degree today especially in Australia, the drug trade was linked in the popular imagination with Asian, especially Chinese, who were seen as depraved, immoral sensualists.

The reality was that opium, although historically used for medicine in China, was promoted on a wide scale by the English. They grew opium in India, and created a massive export program to China, with the result that some 2 million Chinese became regular users, prompting the infamous ‘Opium Wars’.

It was not the mere presence of the substance that caused the problem. Opium had been used for centuries, since it has genuine medicinal applications. It was not until there was a change in the culture and society, and in particular the intervention of an unethical commercial entity, the East India Trading Company, which actively promoted opium as a recreational drug, that the problems arose.

These problems were deeply interwoven with international politics, race, and profits. It is plausible to suppose that the English promoted opium for the purpose of weakening Chinese society; at the very least, there was less ethical concern for ‘them’ than for ‘us’. But since the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are never absolute, the problem comes back.

Chinese laborers came in their thousands to the US, where they helped build some of America’s greatest infrastructure, including the railways. Some Chinese brought with them their now-preferred drug of relaxation, opium. As long as they consumed it themselves, no-one cared. But when girls and men ‘of respectable family’ started to join in, laws were required to keep them away. Obviously a major concern here was not the drug itself – since laudanum is effectively identical – but the disturbing possibility of drug-affected ‘girls of respectable families’ having half-Chinese children.

Such racist concerns were also prominent in the criminalization of Cannabis. This was associated in the US with the Mexican workers, who, like the Chinese with opium, used it as their preferred chill-out drug after a hard day’s work building America on a minuscule wage. As with the chinese, the Mexicans were caught up in a wider commercial dispute, this time about whether hemp would become a major cash crop in the US. A lack of scientific evidence did not prevent the widespread use of shrill, ludicrous condemnations of cannabis, the ‘Killer Drug’. the raves of the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, are amusing today – but our current drug policies are the direct descendant of his way of thinking.

By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.

Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.

There is, of course, no link between cannabis and violence, unlike the case of alcohol and some other illegal drugs such as PCPs.

The period when drugs were coming under legislative control was also the period of the notorious prohibition era, which in the US lasted from 1919 to 1933. The moralistic effort to control alcoholism by making alcohol illegal was a drastic failure. There’s a wide range of contemporary comments and statistics available on this page. In addition to having little or no long-term effect on alcohol consumption, it promoted the formation of organized crime, and a widespread disrespect for the government.

The link between drugs and music is an important one, and moved into the mainstream in the 60s. That was the time when pro-drug messages, endorsed by progressive intellectuals like Timothy Leary, became an intrinsic and overt part of pop music. And along with it, the much more widespread adoption of drugs among young people, no longer defined by their race, but by the antipathy to straight society. Enter the hippys.

From the sixties, while illicit drugs were subject to an ever-stricter legislative environment, the international drug trade really took off. What had changed was the culture, which now presented a romanticized view of drugs as a source of creativity and an exotic, physical pleasure that the straight world was afraid of. This view of drugs is, of course, as distorted as the earlier straight view. Drugs may have helped some creative artists, but they sure destroyed a lot, too. The pleasures of drug use soon enough turn out to be limited, and ultimately boring. The increase in drug use was not because of a liberalization of policy, but because of broader cultural shifts, which flourished despite – and no doubt to some extent, because of – the broader social and legal opposition.

With changing social attitudes, there have been widespread calls for a revision in approaches to drug policy. These calls have spread from the radicals, so that now, for example, several national leaders and prominent intellectuals in South America have called for a complete rethink of our policies on drugs.

Many countries have moved towards a greater liberalization of drug laws, including Australia, the US, Portugal, and most famously, the Netherlands. The Dutch experience is often referred to as an example of what happens when drugs are legalized, although technically the policy is of tolerance rather than legalization. So what happens when you set up ‘coffee shops’ where people can use cannabis in a de facto legal setting? Here’s some data from Wikipedia:

In the Netherlands 9.5% of young adults (aged 15–34) consume soft drugs once a month, comparable to the level of Finland (8%), Latvia (9,7%) and Norway (9.6%) and less than in the UK (13.8%), Germany (11,9%), Czech Republic (19,3%), Denmark (13,3%), Spain (18.8%), France (16,7%), Slovakia (14,7%) and Italy (20,9%) but higher than in Bulgaria (4,4%), Sweden (4,8%), Poland (5,3%) or Greece (3,2%). The monthly prevalence of drugs other than cannabis among young people (15-24) was 4% in 2004, that was above the average (3%) of 15 compared countries in EU. However, seemingly few transcend to becoming problem drug users (0.30%), well below the average (0.52%) of the same compared countries. The reported number of deaths linked to the use of drugs in the Netherlands, as a proportion of the entire population, is together with Poland, France, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic the lowest of the EU.

So the Dutch experience does not support the idea that making drugs available will inevitably lead to major increases of use. There are still issues, and the situation is under constant scrutiny. There are concerns over the increase in ‘skunk’, a super-strong form of cannabis. But, it should be noted, this arises because the Dutch government has not legalized the supply side of the trade, but prefers to turn a blind eye. If the production and supply of drugs were legalized, then it would be possible to control the strength of drugs to a much greater degree, as is done with alcohol.

To end this little survey, I would return to the caution I expressed at the start. We can’t draw any straightforward conclusions from history, because the present is different. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the driving force in making drugs widespread and problematic is not because of their mere availability, but because of other political, economic, and cultural forces. This means that the effect of legalizing drugs will be different in different times and places. Crucially, the determining factor will be the manner it is legalized, not the sheer fact of the legalization.

While the story of the Prohibition on alcohol cannot be straightforwardly extrapolated to the current global drugs situation, it does hold some lessons for us. The rise in organized crime is not merely parallel to the current dominance of the drug lords, but is a direct causal process: after alcohol was legalized, the crime lords turned to other drugs for their profits. More subtly, the prohibition undermined confidence in government, a theme that is essential to understanding the near-universal embrace of drugs by the counter-culture in the 60s.

If changing cultural circumstances are the critical factor in drug use, then there is some hope. Such circumstances are not fixed or arbitrary, but can be understood and to some extent influenced. By working with the forces of history, by seeing that drugs and intoxicants are part of us, part of the story of who we are and where we are going, we can move towards a society that does not repress drugs, but moves beyond them. And that is the story of Western Buddhism.

Thai/Lao monastic education

Here’s a review of Justin Thomas McDaniel’s Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words, a study of monastic education in northern Thailand and Laos. The book looks fascinating, but even from the review you can get a sense of the nuanced, changing, and variable situation in monastery education throughout these regions. Unfortunately the review doesn’t give any indication as to what is actually in the manuscripts discussed, apart from the fact that some of them draw on the Dhammapada. But it does shed a little more light on the evolving shape of Thai/Lao Buddhism in the colonial era, dispelling the anti-historical illusion of a consistent, standardized, constant form of “Thai Buddhism” which has been the same way “since the beginning”.

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.

The Moral Life of Babies

Here’s a fascinating article in the New York Times, which describes research that examine the extent of a babies’ innate moral sensibility.

It seems that even very young infants are instinctively able to tell ‘good’ from ‘bad’, a fact which is difficult to explain from a biological point of view. The traditional perspective has it that children are acculturated to learn morality as they grow.

Some researchers have been tempted to ascribe this innate moral sense to “the voice of God within our souls.” From a Buddhist point of view, of course, we would prefer to think in terms of rebirth.

Regardless of the reason why, the practical outcome of this is that people are, before culture, primed with at least the basics of a moral sensibility. This falls short of a truly mature ethics, as babies, for example, are still not impartial in the sense required by higher ethical discernment. (But then, who is?)

This reminds me of the Socratic belief that we have all learned everything in countless past lives, and so what we call ‘learning’ is in fact merely ‘remembering’. If children have an innate sense of morality, then it would seem that the most useful form of education would be that which ‘draws out’ (to use the literal meaning of ‘educate’) knowledge that is already innate.

This issue has recently become the focus of intense debate in Sydney, with the recent proposal to trial teaching ethics in schools to children who choose not to go to ‘scripture’ classes. The basic method of the ethics class is to present the children with a bunch of ethical dilemmas, and discuss them.

The Sydney Anglicans, as always foremost in reaction, have come out strongly against this, insisting that they be involved in the process, while the Catholics have been more muted.

(For those of you not familiar with the Sydney religious scene, the local Anglican church is one of the extreme conservative wings of the international Anglican communion, and is separate from the rest of Australia’s Anglicans, who are generally quite progressive.)

Jensen & co. seem to be outraged that secular ethics should be taught in Australian Government schools – teaching secular ethics in a secular institution! What will they think of next.

Underlying this is the basic question of moral authority. The Western philosophical tradition, starting with Socrates, sees ones own inner voice as the prime source of truth, while the Church sees morality as descending from on high, and mediated by itself.

The time has long passed when secular institutions looked to Christianity for its values. Our children need to learn ethics, not from any self-appointed ‘authority’, but by learning to listen to their own voice of conscience, to dialogue with others, to accept different points of view, and to found ethics on a shared humanity, not adherence to any religious dogma.