Alison McCulloch: Spreading the message

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Secularists are a bit suspicious when the people running school religious programmes insist they're not evangelising, they're just teaching "values".

And it's not necessarily because we don't believe them - though there's usually some of that.

It's also because implicit in that claim is the idea that God, in particular the Christian God, is where all those "values" come from.

That sentiment has certainly been expressed in some of the debate over the Cool Bananas programme running in most of the primary schools in the Tauranga area, with a few letter writers making plain their belief that moral values come from the Bible. And anyway, even if you don't accept values are God-given, does it really matter where we tell kids they come from, so long as they know right from wrong?

Actually it matters a lot, which is why the argument that religious groups are "just teaching values" isn't very comforting. Way back, well before the birth of Christianity, there was a lot of discussion of values. The Greek philosophers were masters of the topic, and it was Plato who came up with the really hard question about their relationship to god.

It's been explained in a lot of ways, but I like how Otago University professor Jim Flynn puts it in his book Fate and Philosophy: "Do we accept a god's laws because they are good, or simply because they are a god's?"

If we accept them because they're good, then that means they're good independent of that god; if we accept them because some god says they're good, are we really teaching values, or something closer to obedience?

Flynn thinks humans decide what's good independent of what any god has to say. Why? Because to accept a god's ethics, we first have to judge that god to be benevolent, "but that shows I have already made up my mind about what is good".

None of which means Christian value aren't values worth teaching. Many certainly are. Although the current debate over marriage equality has exposed the varied uses to which they can be put. Which is another problem with the argument that values come from the Bible. A quick look at the news on any given day (particularly letters to the editor) shows just how much everyone picks and chooses which bits they think are the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The Cool Bananas charitable trust has been around since 1998, and makes clear in its deed that its goals are "to provide education in the Christian way of life" and "to promote Christian values". It's a popular programme and co-ordinators Grant and Karena Vincent are clearly motivated by a desire to help kids. They have built the programme up from a few volunteers to eight staff, and told me they have been encouraged by all the support they have received since the debate over religion in schools erupted a couple of months ago.

I don't mean to be rude about my fellow secularists at this point, but let's face it people, we're just not as organised as they are, which I suppose is why it's called "organised" religion.

Where are the groups champing at the bit to teach Critical Thinking 101 or Intro to Philosophy in the classroom?

I posed that question to the Secular Education Network's Facebook group and a lively discussion followed.

No one knew of a secular group offering "values" programmes, although there was doubt about whether such a programme would even be allowed in under the so-called Nelson System - that clause in the law that allows religious instruction so long as the school is "closed".

And, as one member wrote: "I thought we already had secular individuals who taught values as per the national curriculum. They are called teachers."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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