Including humanism in school RE lessons

The matter of whether humanism should be taught in school Religious Education (RE) lessons has recently cropped up again (see here and here)! RE has long been a controversial subject, especially these days when we see the culture veering more toward secularism. RE is also a subject that has not always fitted comfortably into a curriculum where there are many competing demands and where the guiding principle appears to be utilitarianism and passing exams. There are many (sometimes opposing) angles to consider.

This is one subject where I have long taken a keen interest but given there are so many other things where I can more profitably engage, I haven’t been too involved. But involved and interested I continue to be. I have, for example, contributed to the teaching of RE in schools, for there is something to be said for schools to engage more with the various faith communities and the resources they offer, and my offer to do more to help remains on the table. As a preacher and even as a humble Christian believer, I try to do my bit educating people about religion – my own mainly but others too. I am also a member of the Southend Interfaith Working Group (SIWG) (check out here for details) and one of our areas of interest is to contribute toward the curriculum that will be adopted by local schools, and where we do engage. One of our members happens to be a humanist.

A few years ago, I taught a lesson about Easter to some Year 7 pupils at our local grammar school. There was no doubt that the pupils I taught were bright but what came as a surprise was how ignorant they were of basic Christian teachings that not long ago would have been taken for granted as being known. Besides the importance of the Christian message (and I admit a bias here), it is something that has profoundly influenced our cultural development, and still does, and to not cover some of the basics would in my view be remiss. I also accept that, whatever our views when comes to desirability, we are a multi-cultural society, and some understanding of the main non-Christian religions, is needed. RE needs to be taught properly and go beyond the merely superficial, which sadly is what often happens, adding I might argue, to the subject’s unpopularity.

But what about non-religions, such as humanism? Here I am undecided, even though I have a good deal of respect for my humanist SIWG colleague and understand that there are many in our society that do things for its betterment but who are not motivated by religion. Two reasons against is that it is contradictory to include not religions into a subject called religious education. There is a caveat, of course – a lot of RE teaching these days is about ethics and philosophy and that is not the exclusive domain of religious folk, although I wonder sometimes if we should follow the French example and rename that area of the curriculum to reflect what is actually being taught. My other reservation is that much of our culture today, and this is reflected in that the wider curriculum is humanist based anyway, and what is needed is for schools to consider the alternative a religious view of the world might present.

I have no doubt RE, if taught properly, is an important subject to be taught. The argument for including humanism is that for the curriculum to maintain its integrity, it needs to consider a whole range of views about all that one might deem important, and if that is to be the case the humanist perspective has to be a consideration. What I do feel strongly about, and why I continue to take an interest, is that children should be taught the wide ranging truths about the universe they inhabit, and this isn’t just what we see or what can be derived scientifically but also truths that do not fall into this category like, and here I paraphrase something posed in one of my favourite books (“The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”), “life, the universe, and everything – the ultimate question and answer”.

Sometimes, of course, coming to a view as to what is true and what is important, is going to raise controversy, given the range of views on such matters, but this is when enlightened RE teaching may come into its own. The way I see it, whatever people like Richard Dawkins might say, a universe, void of intelligent design, that merely evolves out of nothing, provides no logical basis for doing / being / thinking anything on such matters, whether for good or evil, and opening up the debate, or at least understanding the various views on offer, has to be a good thing educationally.

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