The New Humanism


Humanism in a Religious Education Curriculum

Paul Chiariello

The Debate in the United Kingdom.

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by Paul Chiariello

"Humanists, atheists and those that identify with no religion can be acknowledged as still having a grounding in ethics

It is true the UK has a smaller population of church-goers than the US, but that doesn't mean the country lacks its own debates over how religion should play out in society. As always, education is a focus of many of these discussions. Since the Education Reform Act of 1988, two prominent debates have revolved around mandatory public worship which must be of "broadly Christian nature" in its character as well as Religious Education (RE) courses that teach, but don't preach, the major religions subscribed to in the country. Additionally, the British Humanist Association and others are fighting to keep Creationism out of the classroom and counter the growth of 'Faith Schools', or Free Schools, similar to US Charter Schools, that have an openly 'religious character'.

While all of the issues above are being hotly debated, RE courses have recently taken an interesting turn. Earlier this year in Blackburn, the Darwen Borough Council in Lancashire added Humanism to the curriculum to represent the large and growing population of those with 'no faith'.

Without fail there has been a host of complaints and attempts to stop the introduction of Humanism (often read: 'atheism') into the classroom. Below are a few quotations gathered from The Sun, Daily Mail and Express, popular British news sources:

Lesley Williams, whose 13-year-old attends Witton Park Business and Enterprise College: "It is wrong. I can understand children being taught about other faiths but being told God doesn't exist is not right."
Councillor Salim Mulla, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques: "We believe it is important to have faith values whether that is Christian, Islamic or any other religion. The values are very, very important. I don't think the non-God aspect should be introduced into the curriculum. I don't think it is right. People are born into faiths and are brought up in that faith and that's how it should stay. The non-faith beliefs send a wrong message to the children and confuse them."
A local Catholic priest Father Michael Lavin: "I think that four years old is too young to be learning about atheism, at that age they hardly know what Christianity is…. It is difficult to get youngsters to understand theology and spiritual concepts. Children tend to struggle when you are making the first Holy Communion."

It is hard to respond to all of the misinformed biases above, so instead, in this article, I would like to focus on just a few key points in retort.

First, as many of the above critics are religious, I would like to point out that if you really believe your religion is the revealed Truth from God and He works in your and others' hearts personally, then you don't have much to fear from teaching people about other points of view. Humanism, however, doesn't have that luxury to fall back on. If the Humanist world view is correct, then for any of its values to effectively be represented it needs to be taught alongside other religions in such a forum—if you agree with the premise of such a forum that is. For Humanists there is no omnipotent Deity who makes sure we learn or are exposed to whatever it is He wants us to do or be.

But this isn't the case for the Christian or Muslim, who believe in revealed truth, or revelation. The addition of another competing worldview should make no difference if you are already allowing so many similarly flawed religions. Humanism is equally as 'wrong'.

In fact, given only these initial points, it should be expected that the religious devotee would encourage their kids to learn more about Humanism, for only then they could see how flawed it is in comparison.

Second, Humanism should be taught simply to represent the beliefs of a major proportion of the society. For the Blackburn case, this was actually the motivating rationale. The 2011 census reported 10,000 residents in the district marked 'None' under their religion, and the number seems to be growing.

'None' is the second largest "religious" census category in the UK, according to the 2001 British census (and others, including myself, imagine 'Not Stated' contains many so-called None's too). Christians were tallied at over 42 million, 'None' over 9.1 million, 'Not Stated' at nearly 4.3 million, Muslims almost 1.6 million, Hindus around 560,000 and the remaining population not too unevenly spread between Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and 'Other.'

Clearly a large minority of the British population's worldview is not represented by RE classes which leave Humanism out. If the purpose of the class is to teach people about the variety that exists in that society, to have your own views represented in such classes and to engage in a historical and academic survey of relevant religions, then a large and arguably valuable piece of the puzzle for contemporary England is unaccounted for as long as Humanism is not taught.

Third, it is important for the broader community that people are exposed to Humanism. In a recent UK Office of Standards in Education survey of the RE curriculum it was concluded that schools which maintained quality RE classes played a role in community cohesion and in developing in students an understanding and respect of others' beliefs and cultures . When the beliefs of so many of the school system's students are left out, then we can conclude that they are in part left out of this community building as well.

It is a fact that there is a large and growing population of Humanists. However, it is still the case that there are many negative assumptions about the non-religious. The numbers can be seen most clearly in the US. Here, while many Christians claim that they are an oppressed majority, atheists remain well at the bottom of the bucket in many polls.

In a 1999 Gallup Poll in the US, individuals responded "yes" when asked if they would refuse to vote for a "generally well-qualified person for president" if they were also:

Catholic: 4%
Black: 5%
Jewish: 6%
Baptist: 6%
Woman: 8%
Mormon: 17%
Muslim: 38%
Gay: 37%
Atheist: 48%

In the poll, only 68% of people felt that atheists even could be moral, similar to the inferences made by Councilor Salim Mulla in the quotation above.

While the English population does not have such negative views of atheists and Humanists in general, there is still reason to be alarmed. The UK Ofsted survey also determined that in 94 primary and 89 secondary classes (excluding faith based schools) the quality of RE classes has been deteriorating. The study also found, and has since expressed as a warning, that where RE classes were poorly taught, students were much more likely to be intolerant of others beliefs. Humanism must therefore be taught simply to help create a more tolerant society.

Fourth, I, personally, understand Humanism as a default. In response to Father Lavin's remarks in the introduction: why should your particular religion be taught to these 'intellectually struggling youth'?

The main 'tenet' of Humanism is using reason and experience to make decisions on one's beliefs. Humanism is a worldview more about making informed and justified beliefs than a set of dogmas handed over. All of the other religions in the RE course believe the use of reason and experience is important to some degree. They just tack on spiritual methods, revelation, and God . However, how do you decide which revelation, and who's God to pray to? The very nature of a religion that focuses too much on revelation (or any?) is that beliefs are handed down and then the method for understanding them—reason and experience—is applied.

Unless you want to randomly pick a religion, you can't subscribe to a faith until you first apply reason and experience. Teaching kids that you need to grapple with morality and truth is a prerequisite to teaching any given specific worldview.

Fifth, in response to those commentators who decry the teaching of non-theistic worldviews in school, Buddhism is non-theistic (often atheistic), too. This barely needs commenting on and just proves the ignorance of those who immediately conflate Humanism as nothing more than atheism and then proceed to argue that the latter is inappropriate for RE courses.

If this was acknowledged, then those who argue that "being told that God doesn't exist is not right," and that introducing atheism to children is morally wrong, should also be trying to get Buddhism out of the curriculum. Fortunately it is difficult, especially when compared with the histories of Islam and Christianity, to argue that Buddhism wholly lacks values.

Sixth, it is important to have RE classes in Humanism merely to point out that, besides atheistic Buddhism, Humanism does in fact have a firm grounding in ethics.

Take for instance the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. This was one of, if not the, most important books in popularizing the radical idea of human rights and the illegitimacy of Kings. However, Paine was an outspoken and avid atheist. "Ethics is my Religion," he famously said. How could one with such a worldview so passionately defend one of the grounding moral ideals of Western society? Many apparently never learn enough history to even ask this question. And let's not leave out Kant, Mill, Aristotle and Spinoza (the last an outspoken atheist). All of these theorists relied in no part on God but rather reason and experience, the central 'tenet' of Humanism, in designing ethical frameworks that have lasted centuries and millennia.

The debate that, to date, continues in the UK over whether or not to add Humanism into the Religious Education curriculum stems from a number of unfortunate and incorrect stereotypes. As the population of those that do not belong to any of the classic six religions currently represented in the curriculum grows, these stereotypes will become more important to acknowledge and respond to. Introducing Humanism will not only represent the ideas that many students in the class believe, but also facilitate broader community cohesion and tolerance. Humanists, atheists and those that identify with no religion can be acknowledged as still having a grounding in ethics, similar to Buddhists. And, hopefully, other religions will also benefit from seeing the central role that Humanism gives to the use of reason and experience tin exploring this world together.

Comments (now closed)

Richy Thompson

20 Dec 2011 · 10:51 EST

Thanks for this interesting article. RE in England and Wales is overseen at the local level, by bodies called Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs). There are 173 of these, and humanists are involved in some capacity with about half of them (though are only accepted as full members to about one tenth). It is through work with SACREs that humanism is, ultimately, included in RE curricula, such as in the example of Blackburn with Darwen. It's often not a matter of tackling anti-humanist prejudice but also explaining to people why a subject called "religious education" should also educate about non-religious lifestances such as humanism, and that it is even legal for this to happen. It's slow progress gradually increasing the number of humanists on SACREs, though it is progress being made and hopefully we will have a humanist on all of them in the foreseeable future. Richy Thompson British Humanist Association

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