Students deserve the option of secular ethics, educators say

Neil Levy, professor of philosophy at Macquarie University told The Educator that ethics classes provide students with context and deep thought about life’s big questions.

The professor added that schools having scripture classes rather than ethics courses suggests that the answers to ethical questions can only be found in the Bible.

Levy’s comments come after a group of 60 educators wrote to NSW Premier, Mike Baird, slamming his Government’s plan to remove information about the availability of ethics classes on school enrolment forms.

The letter, drafted by Macquarie University PhD postgraduates, Sacha Molitoriz, and Leigh Dayton, warned that the change was “just wrong” and discourages children from studying ethics.
Under the plan, the option for parents to select ethics class as an opt-out alternative to "special religious education" would be removed. Parents would instead be asked to nominate the religion of their child.

The move has prompted some to accuse the premier of making a deal with Christian Democrat MP, Reverend Fred Nile, a fierce critic of ethics classes, who in 2011 argued that they were based on a philosophy linked to Nazism and Communism.

Earlier this month, Nile said that “no ethics were taught in the ethics classes” and called the course a “philosophical discussion group”.

Levy said ethics classes and the Bible should not be viewed as mutually exclusive and that religious affiliation should not be a prerequisite to teach ethics.

“I certainly don't want to suggest that ethics can't be effectively taught by Christians –or by Jews, or Muslims – or that an ethics class taught by religious people can't be just as good as one taught by someone without a religious affiliation,” Levy said.

“I think it is important to combat the view, promulgated by Fred Nile, that ethics has a religious foundation or that one needs to be a believer, or worse, an adherent of a particular religion to be ethical.

“We know that's just not true; there's plenty of data from sociology that shows that atheists are at least as moral as believers.” 

Levy said Niles’ view that secular ethics was not ethics at all was “deeply unethical”.

“It teaches disrespect for others. I think most thoughtful Christians would agree, moreover, that ethics requires deep thought,” Levy said.

“A problem with having scripture classes rather than ethics courses is that it suggests that the answers to ethical questions can simply be found in the Bible.”

Pointing to changing attitudes about same sex relationships, Levy said if there are Christian answers to ethical questions, they are not simply found in the Bible.

“They require deep thought, which is ethical thought as much as it is theological thought,” Levy said.

“Christians can't do without ethics, and good Christian thinkers know this: they don't replace ethics with the Bible; they read the Bible from a point of view that is informed by ethics.”