Philosophy-Based Ethics in Australia: An Alternative to Religious Education

                                                                                                   Snapshot:  In 2011, government schools in New South Wales, Australia began offering philosophy based ethics courses as an alternative to courses in religious education. This case probes the ensuing debate and surveys the diversity of ethical claims made by supporters and detractors of both religious classes and philsophy based ethics classes.


Case Description: Since 1866, all state schools in New South Wales (NSW) have been required to offer courses in religious education. However, in 2011, NSW schools introduced philosophy based ethics classes as an alternative to these courses in religious education. Controversy ensued. Detractors of the religious education courses accuse them of indoctrination, discouraging students in processes of critical thought. Conversely, detractors of philosophy based ethics class accuse them of encouraging moral relativism. Some families choose to opt their children out of both the religious education classes and the ethics classes. Among this group of parents, some are concerned that the religious education doesn’t reflect the views of their particular faith, while the ethics classes are too atheistic. This case, Special Religious Education vs. Philosophy Based Ethics in Australian Primary Schools, explores the competing claims of supporters of religious education and supporters of philosophy based ethics, as well as those unhappy with both options. How should state schools teach ethics and moral reasoning? How should they approach the relationship between religiously and secularly grounded ethics, especially in light of diversity in religious belief?

Additional Resources:

  • At this website - Is there still room for God in the classroom? (Insight) - you can view a Australian television program that examines the Special Religious Education controversy. This program has a live audience and discussion format, where stakeholders from all sides of the debate share their views. 
  • In a book chapter in A Companion to Atheism and Philosophy (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell), Jennifer Bleazby - the case author - provides a philosophical analysis of the case and examines arguments for and against the teaching of religion, atheism and philosophy based ethics in schools. If you would like a copy of this chapter you contact the author at:
  • This article - Special Religious Education: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - outlines the debate surrounding Special Religious Education in Australian schools. It was written by Cathy Byrne, who conducted her PhD research on the topic at Macquarie University's Centre for Research on Social Inclusion. Cathy Byrne's book Religion in Secular Education is another excellent resource. 
  • In this article in the Journal of Student Engagement, Conor West analyzes Special Religious Education and the philosophy based ethics classes in NSW government schools, with a focus on spirituality.


  • The controversy around religious instruction exists beyond NSW. This article provides explores the controversy across the country. 
  • On the Australian Broadcast Corporation website, you can view a summary and transcript of a television program about  the debate over Special Religious Education, which aired on Australian television in 2010. You can also view the program free online at YouTube: