Secular Party of Australia

The Secular Party of Australia stands for separation between church and state.

  • Categories

  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • Subscribe

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 59 other followers

  • Follow us!

  • © The Secular Party of Australia Inc., 2011.

Posts Tagged ‘Secular’

Reasons for a secular world

Posted by Secular on January 1, 2013

Happy New Year to all our followers, and welcome to 2013!!

And to kick things off, this poignant piece, “Reason’s greetings”, by the Outspoken Wookie Hilton T., tired of reading in the news of more and more “acts perpetrated because of religious hatred and intolerance”.

Posted in External publications | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Submission for the Inquiry into the Definition of Charity

Posted by Secular on December 6, 2011

by Dr John L Perkins

The Government has called for public comment on its Consultation Paper on the definition of charity, This is part of the process for the introduction of a statutory definition of charity that will become applicable across all Commonwealth laws from 1 July 2013. The following is the Secular Party’s contribution to this inquiry.

2 December 2011


Dear Sir or Madam,


We welcome the opportunity to participate in this consultation regarding the definition of charity. Our primary concern in this submission is to address the anomalous position of “the advancement of religion” as a “head of charity”, i.e. as an activity that is, of itself, deemed charitable by definition. We regard this as anachronistic, unwarranted and contradictory to the purpose of the definition.


While we recognise that this particular issue is relevant at Consultation Question 16, we would like to deal with it first, as it affects all our other considerations. We welcome the opportunity to express our views, and note that in times past, certainly throughout most of the time that the “advancement of religion” “head of charity” has been operable, we would not have been able to express the views that we now express, for fear of ostracism at best, or at worst, persecution.


We submit that “the advancement of religion” is neither ipso facto charitable, nor ipso facto a public benefit. We are not of course suggesting that religions cannot be charitable, merely that they are not necessarily so. We argue that the erroneous presumption that religions are automatically charitable introduces so many anomalies that it is far better administratively, equitably, and rationally, that other aspects of the heads of charity are relied on instead to provide an adequate definition.


We submit that the removal of “the advancement of religion” would have many advantages and would not be to the detriment of any group or organisation that is bona fide charitable. Indeed it would be more equitable and thus assist them in their operation . While such a change would be a departure from the past, now is an appropriate time to make the change in Australia.


Historical context


The charitable definition of “the advancement of religion” (i.e. its inclusion in the definition) derives from an ancient time in our British heritage in which “religion” was universally presumed to mean the Christian religion, and when government welfare services as we know them today were unavailable. Society has undergone a mammoth transformation since then. We now have a multiplicity of religions, while the adherence to religion in general is declining. The charitable definition of religion is now outdated.


While other jurisdictions, with a similar British heritage to ours, may seek to persist with the charitable definition, there are good reasons why Australia, in particular, should not do so. Australia was founded on a secular ideal that was deliberately intended to break with the tradition of established religion, which was seen as providing an unwanted source of sectarian conflict.


It was for this reason that the Australian Constitution includes Section 116, which states that the “Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion …”. The other jurisdictions referred to in the Consultation Paper do not have this provision. We should therefore not follow them in this regard. Whether or not the “advancing” of a religion contributes to the “establishing” of one, this provision should not be disregarded.


Public benefit issues


With the growth in religious diversity, it is now the case that the advancement of religion pertains more to a select group of adherents of the religion, rather than the community as a whole. Thus whatever benefits religious activities may confer, they are more private benefits than public benefits. Where charitable activities of religious groups are publicly beneficial, they are capable of being recognised as such, with reference to other aspects of the definition of charity. The religious adherence of a group should not be relevant in determining whether something is charitable.


It is arguable that fostering the advancement of a multiplicity of mutually contradictory religious beliefs may increase division and disharmony in society. It therefore may be more of a cost than a benefit. We note that the advancement of religion may involve the advancement of Christianity, or of Judaism, or of Islam, or indeed any of sect, cult, superstition or religion, even Scientology. The coercive behaviour of cults can cause severe distress, psychological trauma, and can disrupt the lives of families. We do not need to refer to acts of violence in the name of religion or the activities of paedophile priests in order to indicate that the activities of religious people are not always benign. The inclusion of religion as a “head of charity” is thus quite anomalous.


The cost to the community of these activities is not merely a social cost. Given that inclusion in the definition of charity grants to religious groups a large range of subsidies and tax concessions, there is a significant financial cost as well. The removal of such benefits does not in any way compromise anyone’s freedom of religion.


A further highly anomalous situation regarding the seemingly muddled thinking with regard to religion and the public benefit has occurred with the Extension of Charitable Purpose Act 2004. The activities of “closed or contemplative religious orders that offer prayerful intervention for the public” were defined as charitable and being for the public benefit. People are perfectly entitled to engage in such activities if they wish, but there is no justification for regarding this as a charitable purpose for the public good.


Indeed, the available evidence on this matter suggests there is no benefit, even a cost. Clinical trials have been conducted in the United States in which groups suffering from serious illnesses were either prayed for or not. Prayerful intervention was found to make no difference, except in cases where a group knew that prayerful intervention was being undertaken on their behalf by others. The medical outcomes of this group were actually found to be significantly worse. The suggested explanation for this was that the intervention caused psychological damage that adversely affected their recovery.[1]  If “evidence-based policy” is the objective, then “prayerful intervention” is disqualified as being a charitable public benefit.


Evidentiary issues


If we are to continue with the presumption that the advancement of religion is of itself charitable, then we are obliged to come to terms with the issue of what constitutes a religion and on what basis particular organisations are eligible to qualify. It is not satisfactory that the incoming Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) be burdened with this responsibility.


As mentioned in the Appendices to the Consultation paper, in England and Wales, religion involves a belief in a god, “more than one god, or no god”. In Northern Ireland it may include “any analogous philosophical belief”. A similar wording obtains in Scotland. The reliance on such vague definitions in so important a matter cannot be justified. None of these definitions provides a degree of clarity that would appear to justify the inclusion of religion as a charitable motivation. In Ireland, religious privileges are protected, provided the religion does not employ “oppressive psychological manipulation”. Given that all the most popular religions employ a belief in eternal punishment in hell, we would wonder, perhaps, how they might still qualify.


In Australia, the High Court, in the 1983 Scientology case, offered that a religion should comprise a “belief in a Supernatural Being, Thing or Principle”. We can appreciate the generosity of this definition, in that it accommodates a wide range of possibilities. We wonder however, whether the High Court, in its wisdom, has offered a definition that is actually coherent or useful. “Principle” is an abstract noun, which of itself cannot be measured. “Supernatural” is beyond the natural and therefore beyond detection in the natural world. A “supernatural principle”, then, is the intersection of the immeasurable with the undetectable.


We humbly submit that in our view a “supernatural principle” is a nebulous concept, and that it is most unsatisfactory that the laws of Australia should be predicated on such a concept. This is especially the case when billions of dollars in taxpayer funds are expended in the form of subsidies and tax concessions, contingent upon the advancement of such a concept. In our view this is a gross misallocation of scarce financial resources.


Apart from these issues, we feel compelled to point out that none of these definitions of religion in any way imposes the slightest requirement that there be a even a possibility that any of the esteemed beliefs could actually be true. Yet providing evidence regarding the truth of assertions is normally regarded as being an important part of the legal process. In the case of religion, however, this is a seems to be convenient oversight that allows for the presumption that any religion could be true, even though all religions are largely mutually contradictory, thereby precluding the possibility of truth in all but possibly one case.


The perverseness of this logic alone should be sufficient to disqualify religion from the definition of charity. It is time that reason and evidence, as applied to what is measurably beneficial and tangible, should form the basis of the definition of charity. We now turn to the Consultation Questions.


1. Are there any issues with amending the 2003 definition to replace the ‘dominant purpose’ requirement with the requirement that a charity have an exclusively charitable purpose?


We submit that it should be a requirement that a charity should have a purpose that is exclusively charitable. The demarcation difficulties in discriminating between dominant and non-dominant purposes make such a definition untenable. No doubt there are religious groups that express their difficulty in demonstrating a public benefit of their activities. The lack of a public benefit of what is currently deemed charitable will be largely overcome by removing “the advancement of religion” from the definition.


2. Does the decision by the New South Wales Administrative Tribunal provide sufficient clarification on the circumstances when a peak body can be a charity or is further clarification required?


Further clarification is required, in that the activities of the peak body should be in themselves charitable, otherwise there is no guarantee that this is the case. For example a group such as the Australian Christian Lobby may be considered a peak body, representing the views of groups deemed to be charities, but merely representing the views of sectional interests is not of itself charitable.


3. Are any changes required to the Charities Bill 2003 to clarify the meaning of ‘public’ or ‘sufficient section of the general community’?


Current proposals to clarify the meaning may be adequate, provided that religion is removed as a “head of charity”. This would resolve anomalies arising from the fact that even exclusive sects and cults are currently beneficiaries of the definition. “Prayerful intervention” should not be deemed charitable nor excluded from the public benefit test.


4. Are changes to the Charities Bill 2003 necessary to ensure beneficiaries with family ties (such as native title holders) can receive benefits from charities?


We endorse the suggestion that trusts or other entities be set up in these circumstances.


5. Could the term ‘for the public benefit’ be further clarified, for example, by including additional principles outlined in ruling TR 2011/D2 or as contained in the Scottish, Ireland and Northern Ireland definitions or in the guidance material of the Charities Commission of England and Wales?


The term ‘for the public benefit’ should be clarified to ensure that benefits have practical utility. A benefit should be tangible and measurable. Notions such as “spiritual benefit”, that come from a perceived realm of the supernatural, are immeasurable and undetectable, and are susceptible to subjective interpretation and manipulation. They should be excluded from the definition of benefit. Placebos may have a recognised medical benefit, but we do not include them in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.


6. Would the approach taken by England and Wales of relying on the common law and providing guidance on the meaning of public benefit, be preferable on the grounds it provides greater flexibility?


A public benefit should be defined specifically to be of tangible practical utility. It should not be left to common law.


8. What role should the ACNC have in providing assistance to charities in demonstrating this test, and also in ensuring charities demonstrate their continued meeting of this test?


Organisations should be assisted with the provision of standard ACNC forms that that they should complete, showing what benefits of practical utility they provide. The form should include a list of eligible benefits. Organisations should be required to complete an annual statement indicating the extent to which they have provided the relevant benefits.


9. What are the issues for entities established for the advancement of religion or education if the presumption of benefit is overturned?


It is likely that religious entities may have difficulty in establishing that some of their activities provide a public benefit, due to the fact that they do not provide a public benefit. We should all seek to understand that in the 21st century, public expenditures need to be disbursed on a rational basis, and that religious charities must comply with the same requirements as all other charities.


10. Are there any issues with the requirement that the activities of a charity be in furtherance or in aid of its charitable purpose?


There should be a requirement that the activities of a charity be in furtherance or in aid of its charitable purpose. Anomalies in this regard will be largely overcome by removing “the advancement of religion” from the definition of charity.


11. Should the role of activities in determining an entity’s status as a charity be further clarified in the definition?


The role of activities in determining an entity’s status as a charity should be further clarified in the definition. Anomalies in this regard will be largely overcome by removing “the advancement of religion” from the definition of charity.


12. Are there any issues with the suggested changes to the Charities Bill 2003 as outlined above to allow charities to engage in political activities?


It is again the case that removing “the advancement of religion” from the definition of charity will overcome an anomaly in this regard. Political lobbying with regard to education or the alleviation of poverty may be regarded as being consistent with a charitable activity, but political lobbying to further the advancement of religion should not be. We refer to the example of the Australian Christian Lobby, already cited.


13. Are there any issues with prohibiting charities from advocating a political party, or supporting or opposing a candidate for political office?


Political activity undertaken by charities should not be prohibited, provided it is consistent with their charitable purpose. Religious entities are able to participate in any political activity, however such activity should not be regarded as charitable.


14. Is any further clarification required in the definition on the types of legal entity which can be used to operate a charity?


The definition of the types of legal entity that can be used to operate a charity appears adequate, although partnerships could be included.


15. In the light of the Central Bayside decision is the existing definition of ‘government body’ in the Charities Bill 2003 adequate?


It could be clarified that a government body includes local government.


16. Is the list of charitable purposes in the Charities Bill 2003 and the Extension of Charitable Purposes Act 2004 an appropriate list of charitable purposes?


The list is not appropriate, primarily because it includes “the advancement of religion”. The inclusion of this item is anachronistic, it describes an activity that may be, but is not inherently charitable, and its inclusion causes numerous anomalies, such as we have highlighted throughout this submission. The genuinely charitable activities of religious entities are adequately accounted for under other items in the list.


We also oppose the inclusion of “the advancement of culture” in this list, as it would introduce another range of definitional and public benefit anomalies similar to those caused by “the advancement of religion”. While we may sympathise with the aim, there are a range of intractable issues, such as what constitutes culture, which cultures are eligible, who benefits, and how benefits are measured.


17. If not, what other charitable purposes have strong public recognition as charitable which would improve clarity if listed?


We do not see an advantage in significantly broadening the definition of charity. We consider “any other purpose that is beneficial to the community” is a sufficient “catch all” item. Some guidance could be provided by the ACNC. It should be up to the entity to demonstrate a community benefit.


18. What changes are required to the Charities Bill 2003 and other Commonwealth, State and Territory laws to achieve a harmonised definition of charity?

A statutory definition of charity for Commonwealth purposes should provide the basis of a harmonised definition for all levels of government.


19. What are the current problems and limitations with ADRFs?


Anomalies regarding the timely disbursement of funds from Australian Disaster Relief Funds may be assisted by clarifying disaster relief as a charitable purpose.


20. Are there any other transitional issues with enacting a statutory definition of charity?


The removal of “the advancement of religion” from the definition of charity will cause some transitional issues for existing entities that are not bona fide charities, and we propose that they be given sufficient time to adjust and reorganise their affairs.


We understand that what we propose in this submission will not be welcomed by those whose role and privileges in society may be questioned by it. However what we propose is forward looking, in the public interest and for the public benefit. Ethical principles such as compassion, honesty, freedom and justice are independent of any religion. The tradition of granting undue status to “the advancement of religion” is one that is hallowed by time but not by reason.


We appreciate the opportunity to forward our views and trust that they will be evaluated on their merits, and will not be in any way discounted on the basis of the type of organisation that we represent.


Yours sincerely,


John L Perkins



Secular Party of Australia.

The Secular Party of Australia Inc is an incorporated association, Victorian registration No. A0047890Z

[1] See H. Benson, J. Dusek, J. Sherwood, P. Lam , C. Bethea, W. Carpenter, S. Levitsky, P. Hill, D. Clem, Jr. , M. Jain, “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicentre randomised trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer”, American Heart Journal , Volume 151 , Issue 4 , Pages 934 – 942.

Posted in Government Submissions, Secular | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Census 2011: counting the heads of the faithful

Posted by Secular on August 2, 2011

by Moira Clarke

What is your religion? The census campaign asks you to stop and think about how you respond to that question on August 9th. This article explores why the numbers are debatable and why it matters.

Once every five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducts a national census [1]. Government departments use the data when planning housing, schools, hospitals, aged-care facilities and so on.

Most Australians view the census as one of life’s more benign events, a nuisance at worst. This year, however, the Atheist Foundation of Australia is highlighting that complacency, and has launched a campaign [2] asking us all to consider how we respond to one of the questions on the census form: What is the person’s religion?

We urge all Australians to answer this question honestly. Our goal here is to show that the data on religion in recent censuses is almost certainly inaccurate, and as such becomes illegitimate ammunition for right-wing religious lobbyists who, in turn, influence religious politicians. We will demonstrate that the net effect of religious incursions into the public domain is detrimental to a free society. If any Australian government made a commitment to the secular spirit of our Constitution [3] and refused to kowtow to powerful religious organisations, the question would be rendered obsolete. Therefore, we view the campaign as a step towards the abolition of this question on our census forms.

The political scene in Australia has undergone a significant shift over the last two decades. Once, party discipline was considered sacrosanct, and politicians were expected to leave their religious affiliations at home. All that changed during the Howard era. Dr Marion Maddox, a leading analyst on Australian politics and religion, has shown that John Howard borrowed certain campaign strategies utilised by the American religious right, thus gaining a greater percentage of the Catholic vote than previously enjoyed by the Coalition [4]. The Lyons group was also established during this era. Both major parties have since been courting the so-called Pentecostals, and it is no longer considered controversial that senior government ministers, Labor or Liberal, attend Hillsong services or speak at ACL conventions [5].

These changes, together with the privatisation of government services, have given religious bodies the opportunity to successfully tender as preferred service providers in areas such as employment, and to expand their influence in education and health [6] [4]. Add this to the fact that over $40 billion of government funding is distributed based on census data [7], and the encroachment of the churches into public service has less of a charitable feel about it.

Meanwhile, past census data show that the religious allegiance of the Australian peoople has headed in the opposite direction, to the extent that 18.7% marked ‘No religion’ in the 2006 census, significant when compared to the 12.9% figure of the 1991 census.

Furthermore, the religious block is almost certainly over-represented. Children constitute a skewing factor. There is also the likelihood of those surveyed to tick a box for sentimental or cultural reasons [3] [8], aggravated by the fact that the ‘No religion’ option appears last. The question itself is misleading [9]. Phrase it differently and the numbers change dramatically, as the Humanist Society of Scotland discovered after commissioning a comparability study on the matter [10]. I refer the reader to an Australian telephone poll conducted in February of this year [11]. Only 49% of respondents agreed that, ‘Religion is an important part of everyday life,’ as opposed to 46% who disagreed. Despite religion’s alleged importance, only 25% agreed that, ‘I regularly go to my place of worship.’ Only 37% agreed that, ‘I believe a percentage of everyone’s income should go to charity,’ which makes one wonder at the government’s eagerness to throw millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money at religious events [12]. Most telling of all, a clear 98% agreed that, ‘Religion is a personal choice and should not be imposed on others.’

So even as Australians shake off the shackles of religious authoritarianism, those in authority, on both sides of the ever-weakening bipartisan wall, lean more heavily towards the conservative right, and are increasingly determined to impose so-called ‘Christian values’ [13] on the populace [14]. One could well ask, what has happened to democracy?

So what are the consequences of allowing the minority Christian right to dictate to the government on any moral issue that does not feature as election bait? A few examples are listed below.

  • NSCP — The controversial and unconstitutional National Schools Chaplaincy Program, introduced by the Howard government, has received additional financial support from the current Gillard government [15]. This, despite a damning submission from the Australian Psychological Society [16] and a more recent and equally negative report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman [17].

  • Religious instruction in public schools – Despite minority opposition, ethics classes have now been introduced in New South Wales as an alternative for children whose parents choose to opt out of Special Religious Education (a similar program was proposed for Victoria, but rejected). Although these pose no threat to religious instruction, the religious right continues to fight back, with Fred Nile holding O’Farrell’s government to ransom [18]. Since when do a handful of religious fundamentalists have the power to deprive public school children of education?

  • Creationism taught in public schools in Queensland — Biblical mythology has been introduced into ‘history’ lessons under the category of ‘controversies’ [19].

  • The diversion of public funding from public to often wealthy private schools — The High Court ruling in the 1981 case for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) [20] has made the situation explicit: Section 116 of our Constitution will be interpreted according to the will of one sector of our community [12].

  • Climate change denialism — Any belief system involving literal interpretation of the Bible will by its very nature maintain a collision course with science and evidence-based reasoning [21].

  • GLBT rights — National polls show that 60% of Australians support same-sex marriage [22]. Nevertheless, the Gillard government not only blocks same-sex couples from marrying in Australia, but also seeks to prevent them from obtaining marriage licenses oversees. The Vatican, meanwhile, has set itself in opposition to GLBT rights at the United Nations [23].

  • Anti-discrimination – Most states allow exemptions for religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws [24]. This has led to unfair treatment of students and teachers at faith schools [25], and even at the level of taxpayer-funded service provision.

  • Censorship – People have been sent to jail over censorship in Australia [26].

  • Voluntary euthanasia – Repeated attempts to pass state reforms on voluntary euthanasia have so far failed, despite an overwhelming 85% of public support [27] [28].

  • Religious meddling in scientific and medical concerns such as stem cell research [29] — Cardinal George Pell, for example, threatened to deny communion to Catholic politicians should they vote in favour of embryonic research, despite the profound medical benefits that this field promises [30].

  • Last but not least: right of choice – Both fundamentalist Christian groups and conservative churches lobby hard against abortion, with the result that women’s rights are severely restricted in most states/territories except Victoria and the ACT [31]. There are similar issues with the provision of the drug RU-486 [32].

How do religious bodies find the clout to do this, given Australia’s increasing secularism? Clearly, mainstream churches have had centuries to amass formidable organisational infrastructure, wealth and ready-made political influence. Despite poor church attendance, they can function as business concerns in their own right. Popular disenchantment scarcely matters, as demonstrated by the behaviour of an out-of-touch Vatican, unable to comprehend or cope with the enormity of the entrenched abuse of children and others in its care. Meanwhile, the Pentecostal churches owe their success to clever marketing tactics and their ability to extract cash from their gullible but transient followers.

The situation isn’t helped by religion’s tax-exempt status in this country. The Secular Party of Australia has estimated that the costs to the taxpayer in government concessions and tax exemptions are approximately $31 billion annually. Businesses and properties owned by religious organisations continue to avoid tax. Religious bodies are not financially accountable to the public, and are not obliged to file tax returns [3].

Even if the cashed-up churches no longer need their congregations, they no doubt realise that the status quo cannot be maintained forever, and so will do anything to regain the power that once they held. They know, too, who their real enemy is — not Catholic, not Protestant, nor Jew, nor Muslim – there is a new enemy, the previously complacent secular component of society [14], now willing and able to spotlight the problems inherent in religion itself.

Should we answer that question on August 9th? Clearly we should, and for those of us who do not consider worship of one or more gods to be an important part of our lives, we should state unambiguously that we are not religious. By doing so, we will send a message to our government that while we defend freedom of religion, we also demand the right of freedom from religion. We will know we have succeeded when that question is finally removed from our census forms, signalling that the influence of the supernatural has finally been removed from the public sphere.


  1. ABS Census Home,

  2. No religion census campaign, .

  3. Max Wallace, The purple economy: supernatural charities, tax and the state. Australian National Secular Association (ANSA), 2007.

  4. John Warhurst, Religion in 21st Century Australian National Politics,

  5. Scott Stephens, Australian politics doesn’t need a Christian lobby,, ABC.

  6. Andrew Jakubowicz, Religion and Australian Cultural Diversity,

  7. Paul Lowe interviewed by ABC, Making sense of the census,, ABC.

  8. Dick Gross, The Godless Numbers Game,, Sydney Morning Herald.

  9. Blog by David, Continuity of ambiguity,

  10. Humanist Society of Scotland, YouGov poll shows flaw in Census question on religion,

  11. Roy Morgan poll February 2011,

  12. Max Wallace, The whale in the bay of Australian politics,, Online Opinion.

  13. Brian for, Australian Christian Values Checklist – 2007 NSW State Election,

  14. Chrys Stevenson for Sunshine Coast Atheists, We Didn’t Start the Fire,


  16. Australian Psychological Society’s submission on the NSCP,

  17. Maralyn Parker, God help us, and our children, if chaplaincy problems ignored,

  18. Sean Nicholls, O’Farrell bows to Nile over ethics,, Sydney Morning Herald.

  19. Carly Hennessy, Creationism to be taught in Queensland classrooms,, Herald Sun.

  20. Max Wallace, Is There a Separation of Church and State in Australia and New Zealand?,, Australian Humanist.

  21. Bronny for, The Thousand Year Itch,

  22. 3 in 4 Australians believe Same-Sex Marriage Will Happen. Mum Asks Gillard ‘Not to Delay’ in New TV Campaign,, PFLAG.

  23. Dr. Joseph M. Palacios, Vatican opposing gay rights at the UN claiming the Church is the victim,, Secular Europe Campaign.

  24. Anti-discrimination Exemptions for Religious Organizations,, Australian Sangha Association.

  25. Religious Exemption to Discrimination Law is Utterly Obscene,, The Antitheist Daily.

  26. Fiona Patten, Classification And Internet Censorship As An Election Issue,, Gizmodo.

  27. Media release: Voluntary euthanasia leader slams plans for NSW rally,

  28. Ian Wood, Christian lobby versus Christian compassio,, PerthNow.

  29. Religion, stem cell research and capitalism,

  30. Alexandra Smith and Linda Morris, Minister says Pell as bad as that ‘boofhead Hilaly’,, Sydney Morning Herald.

  31. Leslie Cannold, Abortion law reform is still unfinished business,, Sydney Morning Herald.

  32. Kate Gleeson, It’s Legal, So Why Is RU486 So Hard To Get?,, New Matilda.

© The Secular Party of Australia Inc., 2011. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author and from the Secular Party of Australia is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and to this blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Census, Secular | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Teaching our kids ethics, not dogma

Posted by Secular on July 4, 2011

by Ian Bryce

Secular groups in NSW have finally won the right to provide classes on ethics to schoolchildren, as an alternative to SRE (Special Religious Education). Secular Party Vice President, Ian Bryce, gives us the background on the program and writes about his personal experiences as a volunteer instructor.

The teaching of ethics in NSW primary schools is now well underway with involvement from the Secular Party, and is shaping up as a major turning point in making Australian public education secular.

For many decades, public primary schools in most states have had one period per week designated for Special Religious Education (SRE). As I understand it, this slot has been available only to organized religions, which are defined as having a supernatural belief – thus defeating efforts by humanist societies and others in various states to provide secular ethical training. Pupils opted out of SRE by their parents are kept idle for the period, on the grounds that any meaningful learning would discriminate against those in scripture class!

Enter the St James Ethics Centre (SJEC), which was established in 1989 by the St James Parish of the Anglican Church in NSW, to their great credit. SJEC remains funded but fully independent of the Church, receiving donations from sponsors including Macquarie Bank. Armed with curriculum material developed by Dr Philip Cam of UNSW (University of New South Wales), SJEC director Simon Longstaff and other lobbyists (after trying since 2002) persuaded the then NSW Labor government to allow a trial, involving ethics classes in 10 schools for 10 weeks during 2010.

However, Liberal opposition leader Barry O’Farrell initially said that when elected he would stop the classes.

The public debate at the time was very lively. The powerful Christian lobby argued that the ethics curriculum had not been properly scrutinized. My favourite was a response in the Herald in the following vein: Perhaps the Christians should introduce their own scenarios into SRE. A troubled schoolgirl approaches the Department of Community Services, claiming she was made pregnant by a ghost. Should they believe her? Discuss.

The trial was independently evaluated, and found to have very strong community support:

This was confirmed by public submissions, which included 530 in favour of the trial and 15 against. O’Farrell did a backflip and dropped his promise to stop the classes.

So legislation was passed, breaking the monopoly of religions on the SRE timeslot. This means that any public school able to obtain a teacher can now offer the subject alongside religious instruction (typically Anglican and Catholic). Parents can opt their children out of SRE and choose ethics as an alternative. SJEC spun off Primary Ethics (PE) to organize it and to accredit teachers.

Quite a number of SPA members and supporters have volunteered. Three were accepted and trained, and are now part way through the year. The education includes group discussion of typical scenarios, as may be seen on the PE website. Aimed at 10-year-olds, it is applied ethics, not theory – perhaps that would come should secondary classes eventuate.

With guidance, the children’s responses crystallize into universal moral rules, such as “tell the truth”, “do not steal” and “be fair to your friends”. They recognize shades of grey, and that sometimes two rules come into conflict. As I picture it, PE is designed to bring out the ethical behaviour built into all children by genes and memes, whereas in SRE classes some holy book and deity are invoked as the source of morality.

Unfortunately, Premier O’Farrell now owes some favours to Fred Nile of the Christian Democrats who is dead set against the ethics teaching, so the battle might not be over yet. Teachers closely follow the approved curriculum in order to minimize any objections by the religious lobby.

Meanwhile, demand for ethics classes is very strong and greatly exceeds supply. If you think you could be a teacher or co-ordinator, and can be available for an hour every week, I strongly encourage you to seek more information at No theoretical knowledge is required, just normal human values and a desire to shape the next generation.

Ian Bryce is an aerospace engineer and university lecturer. He has worked in space communications and with launch vehicles in Russia. He has been with Australian Skeptics for 30 years and is their Chief Investigator, specialising in bogus technical devices including free energy generators and sonic pool cleaners.

Ian is the Vice President of the Secular Party of Australia.

© The Secular Party of Australia Inc., 2011. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author and from the Secular Party of Australia is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and to this blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Education, Ethics Classes | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »