Religious tolerance endangered by ethics trials?

  (05 June 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Moore College theology lecturer Michael Jensen (son of Archbishop Peter – in case the Moore College reference doesn’t place him well enough) has been continuing the campaign by conservative Christians against ethics classes in NSW State Schools.


The trial of ethics classes, he says, is diminishing the role for Special Religious Education and therefore endangering religious tolerance:


[I]f the option for SRE is diluted, or even removed, religious people will continue to withdraw their children from government schools and seek to educate their children in religious schools where they will only interact with children of their own faith.


Jensen goes on to claim that


Government schools are a unique opportunity for our society to inculcate our values of diversity, tolerance and friendship across cultural and religious divides. SRE facilitates these objectives wonderfully well.


Could this be true? Would ethics classes spell the end of SRE? And does SRE thus enhance religious tolerance?


Jensen could be right on the first question, if enough parents opt to send their children to the ethics classes instead of RE. (And if they do, then that’s what they want for their children, even if it’s not what the churches want. Who should have the greater say?) SRE might wither away for lack of patronage… though it sounds unlikely. There’s no proposal to remove it. And, unlike the case of the ethics trials, there are no wealthy, highly-organized groups campaigning to get rid of it.


So would the fervent faithful then take their children to faith-based schools, depriving them of interaction with children of other faiths and none? These will be the church/mosque/synagogue-attending families whose kids already get extended sessions of instruction, worship and socialising with their faith community in the evenings or at weekends. Would half an hour of (often poorly-organised) SRE really make that much difference? If so, surely these families will already have jumped ship.


On the second question: the actual SRE classes, if anything, are working against tolerance of religious diversity. The largely conservative-evangelical material commonly used (much of it emanating from Sydney Anglicanism) is not exactly big on affirming other religious points of view. The Bible, meaning a conservative Christian interpretation of it, is right, and that’s that. It’s hard to see how RE lessons – as opposed to secular ethics classes – can be promoting religious tolerance.


Jensen’s curious argument is another indication of how desperate the churches are in an increasingly secular era to retain their historical privileges.




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