On secular education

Stevie Modern

At its annual general meeting in May this year, the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS) voted in support of volunteer ethics teachers entering public schools and teaching ethics programs to students as a secular alternative in religious education. The motion was put to the meeting by the New South Wales Society with the support of the Humanist Society of Victoria. The motion was opposed by the Queensland, Western Australian and South Australian Societies.

Here is why the motion is a grave mistake, and why Western Australia moved its own motion against it.

What is wrong with volunteer ethics teaching

The motion as put by New South Wales stated, “That CAHS supports ethics education in schools both in the Religious Instruction (RI) timeslot and in
the core curriculum.”

In its supporting rationale, the meeting was asked to agree to an ideal, to quote: “Ideally, we would like to see the elimination of Religious Instruction (RI) altogether,” an ideal which we as Humanists share. However, the motion not only abandons this ideal, but capitulates? in whatever form ? to a future in which our children are to be divided and segregated according to the religious faiths of their parents. It leaves, and in fact reinforces, the idea that religious groups should be allowed entry and division in the learning environment.

On offer is the fruit of a so-called compromise: ethics smuggled undercover as just another belief system to share equal place among the irrational beliefs of powerful majorities. But, ethics is a whole branch of philosophy, not a belief. So while religious groups can proselytise with internal consistency, it would fall to ethics volunteers to cover “ethics” ? from Plato to Popper, Heraclitus to Heidegger, and hope that a digest version of Sophie’s World would be absorbed by students in a limited timeslot.

This idea represents acceptance of religious lobbyists’ arguments that secular, neutral education is somehow value-free. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real opportunities for ethics teaching lie throughout the core curriculum. What more ethical stance could supplant the basis of mathematics: one and one will always equal two, A is A no matter your wish or whim that it was otherwise? What more ethical belief can demonstrate better than through a science-class telescope that patient objective sense can unlock old mysteries, that the universe is knowable to rational inquiry? What better ethics can be offered than through literature, where children can discover exemplars like Atticus Finch?1

Indeed, the idea that ethics volunteers are filling a moral vacuum devalues the moral values our public teachers imbue in students every day. You can read about these in the National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools (2005). In it, you will see that our national curriculum does not share multiple stances on, for example, bullying, honesty, tolerance and multicultural inclusion.2 In fact, the document speaks to the very humanist ethic underlying our secular school system.

Human rights activist Geoffrey Robertson was awarded Australian Humanist of the Year for 2014. This is a year, when the Federal government is more intent than ever to increase the scope of religious chaplaincy, that Humanist societies should demand in his honour a public sphere for our children’s education free from pressure-group warfare, one based on our constitutional right, and our children’s right, to a secular public space [with?] Ethics taught as part of our core curriculum and by trained qualified staff.

To do otherwise is to ignore the poison of “Humble Faith”, the strychnine fed to our children, and hope that the fresh fruit or vegetable of volunteer-driven Ethics will serve as an adequate antidote. Religious education shares no rational place in teachers’ efforts to raise ethically responsible citizens. In any competition between food and poison, poison once ingested will win.

It is not a “grey” issue, or compromise, to accede that Ethics in our schools should share billing with preachers and theocrats: it’s a prescription and roadmap for failure. Australia’s children have been promised a proper education with accountable, trained teachers in an open environment for all. Humanists should support that promise and not accede to religion in our schools.

We seek this accountability so that children are educated on various ethical and religious stances in a non-sectarian environment. As Geoffrey Robertson writes in Dreaming Too Loud, those who speak of delivering “moral values to our school children neglect to ask, Whose values?”

We shouldn’t neglect this question. We’ve read the news reports. Children are being told by motivated volunteers their little gay friends will die in Hell, that abstinence rather than sexual education is the only morally effective means of preventing disease, and so on. If we are asked to devalue state education with motivated volunteers, ask “whose motivations?” We know from the web sites of participant organisations that their designs are the recruitment and conversion of innocent children. In a recent letter to sponsors, Access Ministries states children will be subject to “ravages and devastation” without its “Christian Ministry”. 3

We understand the desire to ameliorate the social evils of religious indoctrination in our schools. We do understand, though, that we will never be rid of it the moment we accede to the idea that any pressure group should have entrée to the impressionable minds of our children, and worse, that we should somehow join them in the practice.

Why do our education departments place an emphasis on qualified teachers in the subjects of mathematics, science, literature? Have school inspectors oversee them? Why a curriculum at all? It is because we know that teaching is a highly complex process, designed to ensure children’s acquisition and accommodation of knowledge is handled by those with actual knowledge about child development.

At a time when literacy and numeracy levels, and competency in languages which do build and bind our common community, are falling in Australia relative to other countries globally, teachers need more than ever each valuable hour in the curriculum to ensure our children have the best chance of an educational future. Our children deserve no less than professional experts, people who are passionate about education and who are trained in education. Good education is too important to leave to people with ulterior motives.

Yes, we indeed look like we have an ulterior motive when we say, “Look at them! Give us a chance along with the misogynists and faith-mongers, who
are intent on short-circuiting the rational cognitive development of our children. Give us our own chance to teach our different ‘belief system’, that whole-branch-of-philosophy called Ethics.”

Finally, our children should be allowed the privilege to be children; not atheist children, not Muslim children, Wiccan children, nor Jewish children, and certainly not in a community school. They should be simply children, developing their brains before their beliefs.

Inclusion, socially and economically, was a guiding principle behind the establishment of public education in Australia. That is Humanist values in action. It is the very reason why public education should remain secular.

Competition between volunteer pressure groups is not best practice, and in front of children, not ethical.


1. Atticus Finch is a character in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

2. Dept of Education, Science and Training (2005) National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools: p.4.

3. Access Ministries (2014), “Please help protect Christian ministry in schools”.

From: http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=908832989258909;res=IELHSS