Looks like we might be making a bit of progress in attempts to establish a genuine secular education system in New Zealand.
There are reports that “secular education advocates have had a win in their fight against the Bible in Schools programme.”
The Secular Education Network has been asking for months for removal of sectarian religious instruction classes from public schools. They have now been given access to guidelines the Ministry of education may suggest to resolve the problem.
Network spokesman David Hines said schools would be encouraged to end religious instruction during class time.
“And instead have it at lunch, or after school. Parents would also have to give written permission before they could get put in these classes. They are suggested guidelines. But these are both problem areas, so it’s good that they’re addressing those,” he said.
Apparently the suggested guidelines would also make it clear religious instruction is not part of the New Zealand Curriculum and would discourage religious observances in school assemblies. The Ministry will also consider how to raise awareness about the difference between religious instruction and religious education.
So this is progress. Religious instruction will be relegated to an out-of-school-hours activity like sport. Hopefully, there will also be changes to make this an opt-in choice and not the current opt-out system where parents requests are often ignored.
I agree with the Secular Education Network that there is a place for religious education (and education of other belief systems) in schools but this is very different to religious instruction which is a form of dogmatic brainwashing.
Clearly this is an ongoing process of negotiation by of the Education Ministry with concerned parents and schools. I just hope this progress is confirmed and there is no backsliding.
The last chapter in this book is titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told?” And the rest of the book lays the groundwork for that story. It outlines the scientific approach, based on evidence and reason. Validated against reality.
As a child Phil Torres “was often told that the Bible is not merely a good or even a great story, but that it’s the greatest story ever told.” As an adult his education lead him to conclude that science’s story “is simply better than the Bible’s.”
So that last chapter is “science’s story of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.” The question mark is there because it is the author’s suggestion and his version of the story. Different writers may present different details, but the story itself certainly is great.
From evangelical to atheist
Phil Torres was raised in an evangelical household. He says:
“I was born and raised in an evangelical household. For years as a child, I slept crowded to one side of the bed to leave room for Jesus to sleep next to me. You could say that I took the Bible seriously; I was a true born-again believer. I think my departure from religion was inevitable (although not always desired). The more questions I asked about the intellectual foundations of Christianity, the less trustworthy its doctrines and dogmas seemed; the more I queried religious authorities about how they knew what they claimed to know, the more foolish they looked.”
In this book Torres carefully explains why he abandoned those “beliefs – both terrifying and wonderful – that I once held so dear to my heart and soul.” He does so very clearly. His language is economical and mostly accessible. While there are some inevitable technical words used in his discussion of philosophy they are kept to a minimum. The chapters are short – usually expressed as a question. For example: “What is Evidence?,” What is Evolution?,”What is Science?” and “Is Religion Good for People and Society?” And at about 180 pages plus notes, the book itself is relatively short – especially for this subject.
All this makes the book ideal for the younger person, or the person relatively new to the subject. For someone who wants a clear and accurate overview of the arguments, and not a detailed discussion of intricate problems in theology or philosophy.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, there are a couple of chapters on robots and cognitive enhancement which probably represent particular interests of the author, rather than presenting any essential arguments for science and atheism. Inevitably they are also more speculative but make up only a small part of the book. I guess we can allow an author such foibles – particularly as he has done such a good job of presenting the essential material.
Singles – a new genre?
One effect of the increasing presence of digital books in the market has been the arrival of a new genre – the short but complete book providing an introductory overview to its subject. Amazon markets these as “Singles” and some publishers are encouraging authors, especially new authors, into this format. I am sure that the short, clear overview presentation of “singles,” and their generally lower price, appeals to many readers. And I think it is probably one of the most attractive ways of introducing readers to unfamiliar subjects.
I see A Crisis of Faith belonging to this “singles” genre. Its introductory nature, the clear and economical writing and its relative shortness will appeal to the younger reader and to those looking for a clearly written overview and not a detailed exposition of abstract debates.
There has been a raging debate locally about the religious instruction classes in New Zealand public schools. I commented before that the Churches Education Commission, who run this programme, are hiding behind the provision of values teaching in the school curriculum (see Human values are secular).
This is somewhat opportunist because it promotes the idea that religion is required to teach morality (“you can’t be good without God”) and that their activity accords with the secular curriculum. It also ignores the fact that values is already taught in the normal classes.
The video below gives some idea of how values can be taught as part of a secular curriculum – its worth comparing this with the bible story mythology used by the Churches Education Commission (I provided some examples of their curriculum in Human values are secular).
The classes shown in the video were developed by the St James Ethics Centre in Australia. They were trialed as an alternative to the Scripture Instruction classes in a number of public schools in New South Wales. The trial was so successful a larger programme now operates and is provided by Primary Ethics Limited, a public company founded by the St James Ethics Centre. It is effectively operating in a similar manner to the Churches Education Commission here (school “closed” during lessons, voluntary teachers, etc) – except it does not yet have charitable tax exemption in the way that the church’s programme does. (It won’t be able to get it on grounds of advancing religion).
I am not suggesting this set-up as an alternative for New Zealand – partly because I can imagine that when a school is closed to provide separate Christian and secular classes (and logically Hindu, Muslim, etc., classes) the divisions created could cause playground trouble. In fact all children should participate together in a programme exploring human ethics, whatever their religion. Dividing children up according to sectarian interests would only impose moral instruction, which treats children as puppets to be indoctrinated, rather than training them to become morally autonomous.
If the current values component of New Zealand’s curriculum is done well I imagine classes would be similar to that shown in the video.
Below I have extracted some topics from the curriculum offered to children in NSW. Have a look and compare that with the mythology imposed on children by the Churches Education Commission in New Zealand’s religious instruction classes.
Kindergarten (Stage E1)
Asking good questions
Time for thinking
Taking turns – speaking and listening
Thinking together about questions that matter
Finding answers to different kinds of questions. Children will begin to distinguish ethical from other kinds of questions and learn how to disagree respectfully.
Putting it all together: ethical inquiry
Discussion topic: Being left out
Giving and asking for reasons
When should/do we give reasons? Giving reasons to our teachers, parents, friends, brothers or sisters
Needs of animals
What do animals need in order to live good lives?
Distinguishing social conventions from morals
Examples: Pushing in, staring, table manners, please and thank you.
Why do people have friends? How do we know if someone is our friend? What makes a good friend?
Discussing what is fair in a variety of situations familiar to Kindergarten students.
Telling a secret
A discussion around what secrets are and when it’s OK to share them and why.
Why do we have rules?
Do rules apply to everyone? What if there were no rules? Classroom/school-based examples.
Should we tell on people who do the wrong thing?
A discussion of what ‘doing the wrong thing’ means and asking the questions:
Should we always tell?
Should we never tell?
Should we sometimes tell?
How can we work it out?
Caring for the environment
Is it always OK to swing on the branches of a tree? Or to collect shells from the beach? Or catch tadpoles in the creek/small crabs/ insects…?
How do we decide what’s OK to do?
Year 6 (Stage 3.2)
A fair society?
Students will use The Outsiders story to consider issues of fairness in society.
Should Human Rights be extended to other animals?
Human rights: where do rights come from and how are they justified? What obligations do they impose on governments and individuals? To what extent, if any, should human rights be extended to other living creatures?
Are our futures and fates fixed? Does what we do today have any effect on what happens in the future?
Beliefs, Opinions, Tolerance and Respect
What does it mean to respect another person’s beliefs or opinions? Should we always respect the beliefs of others? To what extent should we be tolerant of moral difference?
To what extent can we be held morally responsible for our actions? What might it mean for society if it turned out that even our conscious decisions were determined in advance?
Drugs in Sport
Performance enhancing drugs are banned in all sports. Students will discuss the concept of unfair advantage and whether the taking of performance enhancing drugs is morally wrong.
Appeal to Authority – Revisited
To what extent do we still appeal unquestioningly to authorities in our everyday lives? What are the consequences of thinking and acting for one’s self? Students will look at examples of groups that have refused to follow blindly.
The value of nature and the environment.
Does nature have intrinsic value? Is the environment worthy of moral consideration just because it exists? Or does it have value only because it meets human needs?
Can war ever be just?
What is wrong with war? Is it ever right to go to war? Students will examine the issue of pacifism and non-violence (e.g., Ghandi) and discuss if there is a moral way to conduct war.
An ethical life
Consideration of our moral responsibility to others. To what extent do we have a responsibility to continue examining and discussing ethical issues once we leave Primary Ethics classes? Should we always stand up for our beliefs?
I think such discussion topics would be a very useful part of values classes – and I am sure the kids would enjoy the discussion.
I was in no hurry to read this book – Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. It got such bad reviews. And I really wasn’t impressed by Alain de Botton’s contribution to public debate – on TV and in the media. However, an atheist friend recommended the book and, although I don’t think she had finished reading it, she was impressed with the book’s arguments. Or at least the problems the author identified for atheists living in a secular society.
So, out of a sense of responsibility I purchased and read it.
My conclusion – a waste of money and time!
I don’t intend this to be a review of the book. For that I recommend reading Martin S Pribble’s thoughtful review (Religion For Atheists). As an aside, I followed Martin’s reading of this book via his Twitter comments. First time I have come across a Twitter book review! I think it sort of works – at least when the reader gets emotional about what he or she is reading.
Sufficient to say that de Botton sets up straw men – an idealised, perfect religion (mostly Christianity) and a deficient, sterile, secular society. His only objection to religion appears to be their supernatural stories. So his answer to the worlds’ problems is to ditch supernaturalism but adopt the remaining institutions, buildings, funding structures, social relationships, moral messages, music and art of religion (particularly Christianity). As is! Artificially.
My atheist friend often comments on the need in our secular society to develop institutions which provide for the social needs of people. Their desire for community and charity. So I can see why she was, at least initially, attracted to this book. It’s just that I can’t see how de Botton’s utopia (religion with all its trappings except its gods) provides this, or is even possible.
Personally I agree that modern society needs to provide more in the way of institutions, ceremony and even buildings which appeal to our desire for community and significance. But that is not unique to modern society – it has always been the case – especially as the old institutions often did not fulfil these promises, or were even quite evil.
The point is that the most appropriate ceremonies, institutions and culture for these purposes are the ones that are built by the existing society, not artificially transplanted into it. And we are building such institutions, ceremonies, etc., in our modern, pluralist, secular society.
Religion needs secularism – and can learn from it
Why should we artificially transplant something from a religion (after removing its supernatural content) when we can do better? Consider modern ceremonies like weddings and funerals in this country. They have become a lot more secular – even where they are performed in a Church. We seem to have welcomed with open arms the secular concept of remembering and celebrating the life of a deceased person in our funerals. Friends and family give their stories and feelings. New Zealand funerals today are far more satisfying than those in the old days which simply had the religious purpose of sending the person of into the “afterlife.”
The church has noticed and adopted many of the features of secular funerals and other ceremonies. Incorporated them into their own ceremonies.
There are many other examples. The point is that – yes, we do need more and better institutions and ceremonies which contribute to our human need for community and friendship. We do need more buildings, art and ethical commentary appealing to those needs. It’s a matter of more of what we are doing well, not artificially transplanting from old and moribund institutions and ideologies. And its a matter of creating these new institutions and culture in a way that is inclusive – not the exclusiveness “them vs us” of the religious approaches.
So, my recommendation is that you should give this book a miss, unless you feel a responsibility to read it like I did. At least I will now be able to discuss the book and my reactions intelligently when I next see my atheist friend.
Daniel Dennett calls it the “last big fib.*” The claim that religion and human morality are intimately entwined – that you can’t be good without god. That does seem to be a widely held misconception, or should I say widely promoted.
The New Zealand educational curriculum provides for values education. And in public schools by law the education must be secular. But these (the teaching of values and secular education) are threatened by the legal provision which allows religious (Christian) groups to come into public schools and provide religious instruction. The “trick” is that schools are legally “closed” during that time – and parents can “opt-out” their children (if they know what is going on).
I think that is bad enough but some groups, and schools, pull another trick. They tie in values and religion so that the intruding religious group provides the curriculum requirement for values education – or justifies their intrusion this way.
On the one hand children are taught a very biased form of values and in practice these groups are more interest in converts and talking about “Jesus” than they are in values). On the other, those children who are opted out miss even that form of values education.
A newly formed New Zealand group, the Secular Education Network, is attempting to publicise and change this situation. If the issue interests you or you wish to participate in this work go and have a look at their website at http://reason.org.nz/.
Here’s an excellent, and short, video highlighting the problem in Auckland.
Here’s a great video. It’s not short (31 mins) but its well worth watching right through – or downloading and watching later. Even watching several times, the speaker is so eloquent and precise with his language.
In it Scott Clifton gives a thorough critique of the Christian apologetics understanding of morality. He also gives a good outline of secular morality – a rational, objectively-based morality.
Clifton stress morality is important because it determines how we behave and how we interact with others. In the video he sets out to answer four questions:
What do we specifically mean by words like “right,” “wrong,” “moral,” “immoral,” etc.?
Why our definitions are useful and applicable and why they represent how the vast majority of people see these words, whether they realise it or not?
How can we objectively determine what is “right” and what is “wrong” without appealing to personal taste or subjective opinion?
Why we ought to do right and ought not to do wrong?
He answers the first question by defining “right” as that which promotes the health, happiness and well-being of humans. Or minimises unnecessary human pain or suffering. And “wrong” of course is the converse.
Immediately I know many readers will reject his definitions. But if you do, you should hear him out. Watch the video. Listen to his arguments.
I suspect you might find that you do in the end agree. I do.
William Lane Craig went ahead with his “empty chair for Dawkins” stunt in his Oxford appearance. While many of his fans loved the trick, Craig didn’t get off unharmed by his stalking of Richard Dawkins. Obviously some of Craig’s fans are concerned about Dawkins’ reference to Craig’s justification of biblical genocide. So he was forced to confront the issue during question time.
“However, ultimately one question exposed Craig’s alarmingly questionable moral principles: “Dawkins has refused to debate you because (he says) you think genocide could be acceptable in some contexts. Have you ever said anything which warrants this view, and what do you actually think?” He started with the straightforward denial that we expected – “I have not in any way ever said that God commanded, or could command, human genocide”. However, the following ten minute explanation of Numbers 33:50-54 (look it up) did not involve a justification of genocide, merely a justification of the mass displacement of an ethnic group; the kicker at the end was his summary that if this forced displacement did involve killing some Canaanites, well the adults deserved it because they were sinful, and it’s alright because the children went straight to heaven. Seriously?”
“The widespread applause this statement extracted from the audience was possibly more alarming than the statement itself. Somewhere up in the wings a lone voice was shouting “Boo”; the news editor and I stared gormlessly; the rest of the spectators seemed to find this little speech all fine and dandy. I am a religious person, and as a person of faith (not in spite of it) I was morally repulsed by this analysis, and deeply concerned about the intellectual and moral fibre of the believers who found it commendable.”
“The only benefit of the doubt that I can possibly extend to Craig (and I am scraping the barrel) is that under pressure he grasped at the nearest explanation for Biblical injustices which came to mind, and would – hopefully will – qualify his extraordinary comments at some later date. I shan’t hold my breath.”
“However, in a question and answer session near the end of the debate, Craig’s response to the accusation that he approves of Biblical genocide provoked murmurs of disapproval from parts of the audience, and a loud boo from the upper wings.
“There was no racial war here, no command to kill them all,” he initially said, referring to extermination of the Canaanites in the Old Testament, “the command was to drive them out.”
Then Craig said: “But, how could God command that the children be killed, as they are innocent?”
“I would say that God has the right to give and take life as he sees fit. Children die all the time! If you believe in the salvation, as I do, of children, who die, what that meant is that the death of these children meant their salvation. People look at this [genocide] and think life ends at the grave but in fact this was the salvation of these children, who were far better dead…than being raised in this Canaanite culture. “
One attendee, who wished not be named, called Craig’s argument “alarming”: “I’m a Christian who generally agrees with Craig’s ideas but what he said for the last question was simply disturbing. He completely contradicted himself, one minute saying that, effectively, no children were killed in the genocide, only to say later on that it was OK that children died, that it was God’s will, and that they were saved from a debauched culture.”
He added: “I believe in a benevolent God, but that didn’t sound very benevolent at all.”
I suspect Craig will come to regret the way he has approached this problem. He has the habit of inventing explanations for things and sticking to them. even declaring his opponents are dishonest or illogical if they don’t accept his arguments.
But when it comes to strong moral issues like genocide more and more of his fans will come to see these arguments as disingenuous. Especially if he repeats his justifications ad nauseam. A habit of his.
Credit: Photo by Apolgetics 315. Yes the photo is doctored – but not by me.
Last year when I was at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne there was a motley little crew of creationists (3 I think) outside heckling people and demanding that Richard Dawkins debate evolution with them. Just one example of people who try to hitch their cause on to the fame and reputation of others.
And what arrogance. Dawkins was travelling throughout Australia and New Zealand for lectures and other appearances. He arrived as the last speaker at the convention having flown from Auckland where he had lectured the night before. An extremely busy man. And I am sure audiences appreciated his willingness to make these efforts to communicate his love of science and counter the childish rumours some people put out about him.
And even more arrogant – these creationists accused Dawkins of cowardice because he refused to debate them! (Actually he probably didn’t even know they existed).
Debating an empty chair
Recently we have seen a similar arrogance from William Lane Craig. Wishing to boost his audience during his current UK visit Craig demanded Dawkins debate him. Then he promoted a cowardice story and attempts to make a point by debating an empty chair instead. Childish. But also publicity seeking.
Frankly I think Dawkins was perfectly correct to turn down a debate request. So does Sharon Hill who wrote:
“Debates are not about who has the best facts, it’s about who is the best debater – something completely different. And, debates are for the audience. If the audiences comes into the debate, entrenched in their views, they leave loving their champion even more.”
I think Dawkins has hit on a better approach with the public discussions he has promoted. Here two authorities can sit down and have a reasoned discussion, presenting evidence, outlining their differences as well as where they agree. Much better than the public punch-up of the debate format and the bloodletting pronouncements of winners and losers from the fanboys.
Craig’s dark side
I wondered if Dawkins should respond to Craig by offering a public discussion – something Craig has no skills in. But clearly Dawkins’ objections to Craig run deeper than differences over debate formats. He says in a recent article (Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig) that he just wouldn’t share a platform with the man. Because of Craig’s “dark side, and that is putting it kindly.” Craig’s “refusal to “disown the horrific genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament.”
Dawkins quotes extensively and convincingly from Craig to justify his claim (he calls them “revolting words”). Have a look at the article for the details.
However, it strikes me that Craig has now got the debate he wanted – but not on his own terms as he usually insists. Dawkins has called his bluff. Up till now Craig was effectively stalking Dawkins. Harassing him in the hope of getting cheap publicity. Dawkins has basically ignored him
But now Dawkins has laid down a challenge. He has pointed out Craig’s support for some of the worst action and justifications of Christianity and religion.
Inevitably Craig and his many apologist fans, will retaliate. Not in the format they want. Nor on the subject they demanded. But it would be inconceivable for them to ignore the challenge.
So the debate is on. Let’s keep it clean. Dawkins has laid down his criticisms – it’s up to Craig and his supporters to put up their defence, if they can.
They used groups of Christians as subjects in two experiments to test the effect of reading material from their own group (bible) and outgroup (Muslim and atheist) sources on feelings of disgust. This was evaluated by rating responses to a drink before and after copying a passage from these sources.
From the paper’s abstract:
“In Experiment 1, Christian participants showed increased disgust after writing a passage from the Qur’an or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but not a control text. Experiment 2 replicated this effect, and also showed that contact with an ingroup religious belief (Christians copying from the Bible) did not elicit disgust. Moreover, Experiment 2 showed that disgust to rejected beliefs was eliminated when participants were allowed to wash their hands after copying the passage, symbolically restoring spiritual cleanliness. Together, these results provide evidence that contact with rejected religious beliefs elicits disgust by symbolically violating spiritual purity.”
I guess this explains this strange knee-jerk effect I have observed among Christian apologists. Just the mention of the word “Dawkins” in any discussion sends them off at a tangent. The reactions are clearly emotional, and not rational. So it does seem logical that these emotional responses utilise common intuitions or feelings – and disgust is the obvious one.
Now, I don’t suggest this phenomenon is restricted to only Christians, or even just the religious. (Although i suspect religious believers may be more prone to emotions related to purity and disgust). I think we are all prone to react emotionally rather than logically when encountering anything conflicting with our beliefs. So I think the authors are right to conclude that disgust plays a role in the protection of beliefs, especially beliefs which hold moral value.
Perhaps next time I find a Christian apologists getting distracted by Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion during a discussion I should recognise they are suffering from disgust, rather than producing any logical argument. Maybe I should then suggest they go away and wash their hands before continuing our discussion.