Teach children about Humanism – but not as a key part of religious studies GCSE

Should Humanism be a core part of the syllabus? aga7ta/www.shutterstock.com

Three parents are suing the government for failing in its “duty of neutrality and impartiality” in relation to religions and beliefs. The case, heard by the High Court on November 10, cites the European Convention on Human Rights, and the judgement is expected in the next few weeks.

The case, supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA), relates to a document setting out the content of the Religious Studies GCSE published in February 2015, which will be taught in schools for the first time in September 2016.

The parents, and through them the BHA, are challenging the priority given to religious views over non-religious views in the content of course. There is a circularity about their argument which is symptomatic of a wider confusion about the aims and character of religious education.

Not one of six key religions

Some have argued that religious education has lost much of its religious content and meaning in attempts to tailor itself to a variety of agenda – educational, social and political. In secondary school religious education, there has been a trend towards the displacement of the study of religions by ethical, philosophical and societal questions.

At a time when religion is increasingly prominent in public consciousness and policy, it appears our education system has taken away the structures and networks of religious understanding from religious education, just as we need them to find our way around. Sociologist of religion, Grace Davie, has repeatedly commented on the fact that just as religion has re-entered the public sphere and demands a response, we are losing the knowledge and language to debate it.

A more inclusive curriculum? mwfearnley/flickr, CC BY

The course document published in February aims to address this with a return to more systematic learning about religion. It requires in-depth study of two faiths with (a minimum) of 25% curriculum time spent on each. Students can choose two out of six faiths, with Humanism excluded. Annexes at the end of the document set out the desired content for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism under the headings: beliefs and teachings, practices, sources of wisdom and authority, forms of expression and ways of life.

The other 50% of curriculum time is to be used either for “textual approaches” or “the approach of religious, philosophical and ethical studies in the modern world”, or a combination of the two. The BHA submitted its own annex in the hope that Humanism would join the “big six” religions as another option.

Don’t do Humanism an injustice

The Department of Education’s decision not to include this annex is the basis of the grievance; but is nevertheless a wise one. The annexes are designed to serve the in-depth studies of religion. To give schools the option to choose Christianity and Humanism and no non-Christian religious tradition for in-depth study would leave a serious gap in young people’s learning in this globalised age and religiously plural society.

To try to fit Humanism into the same pattern of study as the religions is to do it an injustice.

Reading the proposed annex shows how Humanism is distorted by squeezing it into the framework of the four themes. By the BHA’s own admission, non-religious people are not compelled by their beliefs to engage in any sort of formal practice or observance.

Under the heading “sources of wisdom and authority”, the annex claims that there are no “sacred” texts and calls for the critical examination of all texts and traditions. This suggests a lack of material for the kind of study the religious studies subject content requires. This is to be expected because, as the annex states, Humanism’s method for discovering truth is reason, evidence, and scientific investigation.

Other, more natural homes

Those keen to promote religious education and its relevance sometimes forget it is just one part of the whole school curriculum. Taken together, the subjects of the curriculum introduce students to different ways of knowing, different approaches to truth – aesthetic, mathematical, scientific, religious. These are not necessarily contradictory, however humanists reject the religious and rely above all on the scientific.

Religious studies is not a natural home for Humanist ideas of method and meaning, but they are well served by the priority given to science in schools. The BHA have been keen to guard the purity of the scientific method by campaigning against reference to non-scientific ideas such as belief in divine creation or intelligent design within the subject. They have not shown the same concern about the purity of religious method in Religious Studies.

Yet I am not convinced of the need to eliminate from any discipline all reference to that which it is not. In the same way, to have some awareness of non-religious positions and arguments might help to clarify what constitutes “the religious” in the subject religious studies.

I am glad that, although Humanism is not an option for detailed study, the new GCSE subject content does require that students develop “knowledge and understanding of religions and non-religious beliefs, such as atheism and humanism”. It gives some guidance on how this might be included within the approach of religious, philosophical and ethical studies in the modern world. For example, it suggests that students learn: “how those with religious and non-religious beliefs respond to critiques of their beliefs”. I cannot predict what the judgement on the legal challenge will be, but as an educationalist I think this provision is enough.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.