When I was at school, not that long ago, Religious Education could quite easily have been labelled Christian Education. I really can’t remember learning much at all about other faiths. Ask me who The Prophet Mohammed was during my formative years and I doubt I could have given a coherent answer. These days things have moved on considerably. As my kids have passed through school, at various times they have come home telling me they are going to be learning all about Diwali, Ramadan, Hanukkah or remarkably even Christmas. In these days of multiculturalism and pluralism I guess it was inevitable that sooner or later humanists and atheists were going to attempt to muscle their way into the party too.
Back at the start of this month, three families took pushy parenting to a whole new level by launching a judicial review – with the help of the British Humanist Association – against the Government’s decision to omit humanism in the Religious Studies GCSE curriculum. On Thursday Mr Justice Warby ruled in their favour finding that Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary had made “an error of law” in February by leaving “non-religious world views” out of the new GCSE. The BHA described it as a ‘stunning victory’ although the judge did clarify that: “It is not of itself unlawful to permit an RS GCSE to be created which is wholly devoted to the study of religion.” The overriding issue for Mr Warby was rather that schools would interpret this omission to imply that they could leave non-religious views out of the curriculum, therefore: “The assertion thus represents a breach of the duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner.”
As is the case with this sort of outcome, it would seem inevitable that in the fullness of time Religious Studies will have to be renamed Mostly Religious Studies with a Few Extra Worldviews or some other convoluted title and reconfigured accordingly. The BHA do have the results of the last census on their side in that 25 per cent described themselves as having no religion, but how long before a few of this country’s 176,000 Jedis decide they want representation too? Education can’t simply be about popularity. The BHA has complained that the views of a large section of society is being ignored, but if we applied that to say English Literature, then surely Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey ought to be featuring on the GCSE curriculum too?
To be honest, I don’t really see a problem with humanism being taught in schools. If the BHA thinks that getting it onto the curriculum will benefit their cause then they are most likely mistaken. If you ask how many children are left bemused by or entirely put off religion at school, it’s probably a considerable number. Without any empirical evidence to go on, we only have to look to the levels of religious illiteracy in this country to see that religious education in our schools is barely fit for purpose. Ofsted think so and a report published this week from Goldsmiths, University of London found that religious education in schools is outdated and in need of a total overhaul. Learning about festivals and symbolism or traditions is not going to prepare our young people to deal with the complex religious landscape that increasingly impacts all of our lives. I may have had a limited grasp of most major religions when I left school, but the level of understanding for your average school leaver won’t be much better even now.
Humanism and atheism also have the disadvantage of mostly being negative: no God, no afterlife, no spirituality, no religious texts, no point to our existence at all. That’s not exactly going to make for an exciting set of lessons. Even allowing for our schools’ inability to present belief and faith in an engaging way, it’s all going to look pretty dull and dry compared to the rich tapestry of faith found in established religions. A few quotes from celebrities telling us to stay happy and be nice to others aren’t going to be enough.
Also humanism sits much more comfortably in the category of philosophy rather than religion, but seeing as the BHA is determined to cross over the line then students will have to go beyond pondering the nature of our existence and ask another question that is applied to all religions, namely how do humanists live out their beliefs? Turning to the obvious sources of the BHA and National Secular Society’s websites, the most immediate answer is campaigning to remove religion from the public square without offering up much in the way of a positive contribution to making our world a better place. Having the NSS criticise the Church of England’s upset at its Lord’s Prayer cinema ban as ‘a slick, albeit disingenuous, piece of marketing,’ where ‘it has manufactured a bogus ‘victimisation’ narrative’, is a typically cynical example of the subject matter RS students can look forward to discussing in future.
So bring it on and good luck to the teachers who have to attempt to add non-religion to the religious curriculum in a meaningful way. We owe it to our children to bring them up in a way that they are able to approach faith or the lack of it with open and enquiring minds. Humanism definitely has a place within the spectrum of subjects taught in schools, but at the same time you can’t help but think that the Department for Education had good reasons to avoid attempting to place the estranged sibling that is humanism alongside the family of faiths covered in Religious Studies at GCSE.