In January 2014, the Education Ministry unveiled a plan to introduce an ethics-based subject which will cater for 1,411 students who do not follow religion lessons. The Malta Independent reported that this subject will be based on themes such as “honesty, non-violence and respect towards others.”
There are some encouraging signs; the method of assessment is unlikely to be exam based and the subject will give students who do not follow religion lessons an alternative arrangement centred on universal values shared by people of different faiths and no faith. This proposition is still in its initial stages and the technicalities of this subject still need to be ironed out.
According to newspaper reports, this subject will not replace religion lessons in the long run. The introduction of the ethics-based subject should not come at the expense of a review of the current “Religious Knowledge” syllabus.
A quick glance at the syllabus shows that it is unintentionally designed to present the Catholic faith in a legalistic manner without encouraging students to think critically and reconcile faith with reason.
Religion is, at times, taught in an infantile manner without offering a challenging and stimulating environment for students to explore existential questions. We often underestimate the questions and the trials which secondary students are faced with. Rather than help the student make the quantum leap between “knowledge” and “wisdom”, a rigid and legalistic syllabus may lead to cynicism and rejection.
Some reject a faith without understanding the vitality and immediacy of its central message. Others are not exposed to the central message present in all faiths – the golden rule, the distinction between good and evil, and the importance of respecting individual human dignity.
On the latter point, the new subject has to be grounded in an objective universal truth. Without a single referencing point, ethics may risk turning into the sharing of social norms and personal opinions. Ethics is not centred on what one feels ought to be done. Nor is it blind obedience to the law or social norms; feelings are often deceitful, laws can be unjust and social norms can be wrong.
The subject should help students understand their responsibility towards their peers and the society they live in. It cannot be shorn of concepts such as virtue, morality, standards, and the principles of what is right and wrong. The latter are not subjective principles but objective realities.
One must also have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge the contribution that faith communities give to the fields of peace and human rights, environmental conservation, social responsibility, financial and business ethics, and bioethics. This contribution is a testament to their enduring relevance in these areas.
Without delving into principles of dogma and doctrine, students who will opt for this subject must be helped to develop a critical mind to recognise the rich contribution given by both secular and faith-based initiatives as well as the importance of universal values.