Thursday, July 31, 2008

Australian abstinence-only controversy: separation of church and state

The abstinence-only sex education (AOSE) movement was started under the early Reagan administration after prompting by the newly-energized Christian right, and expanded as different churches created curricula, most notably the Southern Baptist Conference's True Love Waits program in the early 1990s. AOSE has never, as far as I'm aware, been promoted in a purely secular context, but secular curricula have been written by organizations which are either religious or run by evangelical Christians. The curriculum I'm most aware of is the Catholic church's Pure Love program, which has both secular and religious versions of their virginity pledge.

Apparently, the same is true in Australia --- a pro-abstinence (though not abstinence-only, it sounds like) curriculum originally written by Presbyterian and Baptist churches is taught in some schools, and a member of Parliament is protesting that because the curriculum is more conservative than the beliefs of most Australians (80% of whom approve of abortion choice) and violates requirements that school instruction be secular.

I'm sympathetic to that position, but to play devil's advocate for a moment: is there any such thing as a secular sex ed curriculum? For every sex ed curriculum, there's some religion which would agree with it as their own view. Even a curriculum which says, "Some people believe abstinence before marriage and others believe in saving sex for a relationship with someone you love, but you should make your own decision." is the position of some religion, I would guess UCC and UU have a statement like that in their curricula, for instance.

Something that I would like to see is a source reader with excerpts of essays from a range of religious perspectives: mainline, evangelical, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism. It's a bit meta, but that's what public education is: you learn the positions of religions X, Y and Z on sex, without much discussion about how it applies to life. To prevent it from being too meta, there could be an assignment where adolescents discuss the material with their parents and find out what their parents believe. That's the closest thing you can get to a truly secular curriculum, in my opinion.

It's also much more sophisticated than the standard sex ed books which are written at a middle school grade level even for what's taught in high school. I'm sure that a college level reader like this must exist, though cursory look I haven't found one.

If there were one, what should be in it?

- The theology of the body essays
- Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits's 1976 essay on sexual ethics (in _Essential Essays on Judaism_)
- If it will go into abortion: selections from the Talmud and Maimonides on when abortion is justified. If I recall correctly there are similar in the (Muslim) hadiths, and they reach similar conclusions.

What is the most prominent evangelical writings on sexual decision making? I'm only aware of the popular ones (Lauren Winner, Josh Harris, John Townsend, Doug Rosenau and Michael Wilson).

Other recommendations? Anything good in First Things published lately? What are the leading Muslim essays on the subject? Anything by Eastern Orthodox figures?

What are the more left-wing intellectual essays on sexual ethics? Most of the ones I'm aware of, even by e.g., R Eugene Borowitz the preeminent philosopher in Reform Judaism, are relatively conservative, which makes sense because what leads someone to write on a topic is disagreeing with the prevalent practice in the culture.

To be continued . . .

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