Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A response to Reverend Patrick G Burke

In a letter to the editor published in The Irish Times on 11 August 2015 Reverend Patrick G Burke asserts, in response to a letter from Dr Sabina Brennan, that a secular school system would expound a "particular world view". I strongly disagree with Rev Burke on this point, but perhaps this is only due to a difference in our understanding of the word "secular". My understanding is that Dr Brennan is supporting a school system that is identical to the current system in almost every way, but without the teaching of supernatural concepts as fact, and without the rituals surrounding these supernatural ideas. This is not substituting one world view with another; it's simply removing the religious world view from the curriculum. Outside school hours, parents remain perfectly free to indoctrinate their children into whatever world view they want.

The question may be asked - what activities will fill the class time that had been taken up with religious lessons and activities? And, without teaching a religious or any alternative worldview as the gospel truth, how will our children develop their values? Well, as a volunteer with New South Wales Primary Ethics, I have been involved in the delivery of a secular philosophical ethics program to Australian children aged from Junior Infants to 6th class. This ethics program most certainly does not espouse any world view - in fact one of the main aims of the program is to encourage children to think for themselves, and to not believe what anyone tells them simply because that person is in a position of authority - this includes relatives, celebrities, religious leaders, and even the Ethics teacher! By presenting realistic, age-appropriate scenarios and using the Socratic method to explore differing personal views in a respectful way, I have seen how a secular philosophical ethics program encourages children to question and develop their own set of unique values using critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning skills. I can highly recommend such a secular philosophical ethics program for Irish school children.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"What is required is a better heart and a new spirit"

The two major Australian political parties have recently declared bipartisan support for military action against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. The leaders of these two parties also share the view that military action alone will not address the root causes of the sort of thinking that leads to atrocities like those currently being perpetrated by IS and its followers.
These views were presented succinctly in a piece on the ABC TV program "Insiders" on 5 October:
Bill Shorten: Ultimately you cannot drain the swamp of all terrorism by the use of military force or aeroplanes alone.
Tony Abbott: In the end what is required is a better heart and a new spirit.
But what else can we do? How can we encourage "a better heart and a new spirit"?
We first need to understand what motivates IS activists. On ABC Radio's AM program on 7 October, Adjunct Professor Bob Bowker from the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies stated:
I am not at all sure that we know enough about what are the motives of the rank and file of the organisation.

I think we can probably accept that at the leadership level it has a certain vision and is quite disciplined in applying that vision, but whether the shock troops, as it were, are there for doctrinal reasons or for the prospect of plunder or jihadist tourism - the all sorts of things that we see happening among Westerners being attracted to the cause, we just don't know.
Whatever the motives for supporting IS, we can be sure that these motives are not arrived at through logical thought processes or rational, evidence-based reasoning.
One of the best ways to address this issue once and for all is to give our children the critical thinking skills that will help them decide for themselves - using evidence, logic and reason - what is right and what is wrong. And with these skills correctly applied, they will never grow up believing that it is right to behead another person in cold blood.
If only there was a way we could include critical thinking skills in our national school curriculum ...
Well, lucky for us there is already a solution.
New South Wales primary schools have, since 2012, been offering an Ethics program developed and run by NSW Primary Ethics. From their website:
By learning to think about ethical matters together and through the give-and-take of reasoned argument, students will learn properly to consider other people’s points of view and to be sincere, reasonable and respectful in dealing with their differences and disagreements.
It is now time for those federal politicians responsible for education - including Christopher Pyne and Kate Ellis - to step forward with the same unity shown by their leaders, and do their part to eliminate the scourge that produces groups like Islamic State, by developing and funding a national Ethics Education program.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A reply to Peter James

Peter James is the CEO of Scripture Union Queensland and the spokesperson for the National School Chaplaincy Association. An opinion piece from Peter James appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser on 26 June, which was full of poor arguments and downright untruths in support of the National School Chaplaincy Program.
This is my response to some of the statements made by Peter James in his article.

Schools should allow, and be respectful of, all views.


Schools should allow and be respectful of all people.

Schools should not allow or be respectful of the view that (for example) it's acceptable to discriminate against any person on the basis of accent, gender, skin colour or sexual orientation.

When it comes to matters of fact, schools should only teach things that are undeniably true (e.g. evolution) or things that are still the subject of genuine scientific research and debate (e.g. the origins of the universe), and are not obliged to "teach" every ridiculous claim that was ever made throughout history.

We do not need students to have a particular view imposed on them, but neither do we need students told their religious view is “crap’’, ‘‘snake oil’’, ‘’humbuggery’’ or ‘‘bunkum’’.


However, adults like Peter James do need to be told, for example, that intelligent design and creationism are "crap", that the promise of life after death is "snake oil",  that intercessory prayer is "humbuggery" and that the claim "Jesus loves you" is bunkum. As Daniel Dennett says, "There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion."

Children, on the other hand, need to be taught critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning skills, rather than being taught to accept ideas from an authority figure on faith alone. By equiping students with such skills, they will come to their own conclusions when presented with the ridiculous ideas that Scripture Union Queensland (and their counterparts in other states) would have kids believe.

Quite aside from questions of anti-discrimination and religious vilification, if a school system is hostile to students’ religious views it fails to achieve our national educational goals.


Religious organisations are NOT being discriminated against or vilified by being denied the opportunity to preach discrimination and vilification to children in publicly funded secular schools. This is a ridiculously na├»ve argument, which is surprising from a former lawyer like Peter James, since by this argument it follows that any crackpot cult can claim "discrimination" if they aren't given free and unsupervised access to children in all public schools. This claim of victimisation has been formulated in a tweet from philosopher Justin Schieber (@justinsweh) as: "My right to swing my religious fist is being crushed by those demanding I not contact their face.".

And the scrapping of the Chaplaincy Program does NOT mean that the school system is hostile to students' religious views. I have never seen any indication that public schools care one way or the other what supernatural beliefs their students hold, and outside of school hours parents are always free to indoctrinate their children with whatever whacky ideas they choose. In fact public schools go further than they should in facilitating indoctrination during school hours through Scripture and Special Religious Instruction, when these "classes" should be consigned to the historical scrapheap.

And I thought that school chaplaincy wasn't about religion anyway - it's about "pastoral care", isn't it? So where does religious vilification come into it?

School chaplains ... help students ... develop positive self-image, confidence and resilience ... and support students and the school community in times of grief and loss, when some of the big questions of life arise for them.

So do all teachers and parents. But for those students who need specialised, professional support, there is no evidence that minimally qualified religious chaplains are able to give anywhere near the level of support that qualified psychologists and welfare workers can provide. The implication in this statement from Peter James is insulting to the people who genuinely care about child welfare and who dedicate their careers to this work.

It is entirely voluntary, requires appropriate parental consents ...


I never got a note from my school asking for my consent for the chaplain at our school to talk to my children, and I'm not aware of any parent that has. Peter James may be thinking of Scripture or SRI classes, which (at our school) also do not require consent - they require parents to "opt-out" their children - but at least there is that option.

In 2012, a 30-month longitudinal study of school chaplaincy by the Research Centre for Vulnerable Children and Families at the University of Western Australia found that the role of school chaplains is overwhelmingly valued by school principals, teachers, parents, students, psychologists and professional associations.

And in May 2014, an Essential poll found that only 5% of those surveyed supported the Government's policy of funding only religious chaplains.

So while school chaplains are now funded through to the end of 2014 with no regulation, guidelines or government oversight, really worthwhile student programs like NSW Primary Ethics continue to grow quietly - without any financial support from the government - through the hard work of thousands of unpaid volunteers who want a better future for all children.