Ethics vs Religion?

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.

3 thoughts on “Ethics vs Religion?

  • Reply Julian Galea 12th February 2014 at 11:03 am

    Though noble in scope, I feel that collectively, we are horribly under-prepared to introduce such an idea into our educational system.

    Though Catholic doctrine as taught in ‘religious knowledge’ classes holds similar views on many objective values shared by other beliefs, these values are taught in an instructional, authoritative way.
    The formation of an objective ethical stance, particularly in a young mind, requires a platform that encourages asking questions, exploring topics and participatory group discussions. To quell the natural inquisitive nature of young children’s minds with the intent of delivering a rigid, cookie-cutter syllabus is to fail at the very idea of encouraging critical ethical thinking.
    How are we to encourage such participation, if at all possible, in a system that focuses solely on top-down instruction?
    Also, such a subject will be engaging students on a dimension entirely different to that of academic subjects such as mathematics and history. To have an inappropriate or outdated syllabus in such a subject is not only academically detrimental, but can have a negative influence on a child’s worldview.

    At this point, we seem to have more questions than answers. With the next scholastic year approaching, no amount of serious public debate on the matter could seem excessive.

  • Reply Ramon Casha 15th February 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Actually the curriculum does not say anything about the Catholic faith at all, except in some units on comparative religion. If the teaching of religion comes across as more legalistic than this new subject it is only by comparison. Who knows, maybe the introduction of Ethics triggers a bit of competitive feeling in the teachers of religion, leading them to seek better ways in which religion is taught.

    I don’t think that faith-based communities deserve any special mention beyond that afforded to non-faith-based organisations, of which there are of course many.

  • Reply CJohn Zammit 15th February 2014 at 7:11 pm

    It would make more sense if this type of subject were left to post-secondary studies.

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