Education for Mutual Understanding? Humanists and the RE Review.
Can believers and non-believers find common ground? In N Ireland we are so used to the perennial squabble between two varieties of Christianity that other forms of disagreement (and reconciliation, we hope) tend to be overlooked. But in the last census more than 280,000 people here declined the Christian label. Some 5,000 were believers in other faiths and philosophies, but the vast majority of non-Christians either left their designation blank or put "None", thereby allying themselves with the atheists, agnostics and Humanists. The overall percentage of non-believers is therefore about 14% of the population, which is near the average for many countries in Europe. We also resemble our European counterparts in that the percentage of non-believers is growing steadily year by year.
Recently a delegation from the Belfast Humanist Group went to meet representatives of the Religious Education Curriculum Review body. The meeting was arranged as part of the consultation process brought about by the Equality requirement of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act (the Good Friday Agreement). Section 75 of the Act requires the Department of Education to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between persons of different religious belief (or differences of gender, race, etc). So the three of us in the Humanist delegation were pursuing the rights of non-believers on that basis.
We had sent in a Statement of Humanist Education Policy in advance and also a detailed Programme of Topics for Study at all the Key Stages. (These can be seen on our web-site at www.humanists.net/belfast). However, the discussion never advanced to a point where these documents could come into play. They will have to be saved for a later stage of the evolution of NI society.
From the outset, it seemed unlikely that the meeting would go smoothly. Everyone knew that it would be extremely difficult to accommodate Humanists within RE as it is currently practised in NI, because it is exclusively Christian and seeks to inculcate Christian beliefs.
Up until now the only provision made for non-Christians has been the right of withdrawal. Parents who do not wish their children to receive Christian indoctrination have the right to withdraw them from RE lessons and from school assemblies. As no alternative provision is specified, this is basically a negative right.
Very few parents exercise the right of withdrawal, certainly not the 14% who might be expected to do so. Why not? Probably because parents do not like to brand their children as 'different'. In my own case, I told my children that RE was not compulsory and that I would request their withdrawal if they wished. Both of them opted to stay with their classmates for Christian RE, though neither of them were believers. Sometimes problems arose, usually when RE teachers stamped on their sceptical, rationalist comments, but even then the right to withdraw did not seem to offer a solution. Most non-Christian parents that I know have had similar experiences.
The right to withdraw is not enough. There is clearly no equality of esteem if the majority religion is given the whole RE curriculum and other outlooks are left with only the right to withdraw. The Review did seem to be based on the hope that something more inclusive could be devised. If the purpose of RE is to cultivate the moral sensibilities of young people and to further the cause of social harmony, then it is necessary to have a curriculum which acknowledges all the main varieties of belief extant in society and accords them all parity of esteem. We hoped that the Review was pointed in that direction.
At first both sides tried to find something positive to say. We Humanists were prompt to point out that we share many of the moral values espoused by Christians and agree that all children should acquire a wide vocabulary of moral terms, through discussion of literary and historical narratives and through reflecting on experience. Even children as young as Key Stage 1, just starting school, have a concept of fairness and can distinguish truth from lies, fibs and yarns, for example. Moral education should therefore seek to deal with progressively more complex moral terms and contentious moral issues in later years.
Do the 'literary and historical narratives' mentioned above include Bible stories? Yes, and they should also include stories from other ancient books, such as the Koran, the Gita, the Iliad and Aesop's Fables. Humanists are happy to include texts from a wide range of cultures and different historical periods.
Having established that some aspects of the proposed new curriculum are acceptable to Humanists, we then complained that just as the current RE curriculum is based on an exclusively Christian foundation and shows no concern for the plurality of beliefs held throughout N Ireland and Europe today, so the new curriculum is cast in the same mould.
In reply the Review body representatives pointed out that the new curriculum includes some study of world religions at KS3 and it also requires teachers to foster a 'sensitivity' towards the beliefs of others. We said that was inadequate. Given the detail in the curriculum where Christian beliefs are concerned, it is far from equal treatment to relegate other beliefs to the status of being objects of some vague, patronising 'sensitivity'. However, the inclusion of two world religions at KS3 was a welcome development, but the reform proposed seemed to us to be arbitrary, isolated and disconnected. Why only two religions? Why only KS3? What about Humanism? A properly constructed programme of education about the full range of beliefs should cover all the Key Stages and all the main beliefs.
Now we came to the nub of the issue. The Review body representatives referred us to the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986 which specifies that RE in controlled schools must be based upon Holy Scriptures. Any RE curriculum which applies to all schools in N Ireland is constrained by that remit. The liberal education that we Humanists were proposing was out of the question since it does not regard the Bible as the sole basis for education about beliefs and values.
So that was it. The token recognition of a plurality of viewpoints and of the need for equality of regard had merely led us on a wild goose chase ending at the brick wall of Holy Scriptures. It will take more than a curriculum review to put right what is so obviously wrong with the version of RE practised in N Ireland. We need to get the law changed so that Religious Education is freed from the tyranny of the majority (ie. the Christians) and restored to its true purpose of education, instead of indoctrination.
The present RE curriculum in NI is simply Christian indoctrination. Children learn Christian doctrines and nothing else. They are taught the traditional stories from the Middle East of a few thousand years ago, stories about holy men performing miraculous deeds and the interventions of the spirit in the sky to help his favourites, etc. From a Humanist point of view these tales are merely Arabic folklore, but they are taught with Authority: the authority of the church, of the ancient texts, of tradition, of the segregated school system and of the teacher. It is not part of the course to encourage children to treat these tales with caution and scepticism. They are not asked to weigh the evidence, to question the sources or to ask about the selection process whereby some tales were accepted into the canon and others rejected. Instead they are taught to obey Authority and to regard the traditional mythology as fact.
Humanists do not share with Christians any of these beliefs in the supernatural. Humanists do share many of the moral values which Christians proclaim, but not the supernatural aspects of Christian doctrine. Tales of gods and goddesses, heavens and hells, angels and demons, are regarded by Humanists as ancient mythologies, which are now obsolete, given the great advances in knowledge and understanding since ancient times.
One of our group said what we all felt: that the whole exercise had been a waste of time of our time and it would have been more candid if the Review body had simply told us at the outset that Humanism is ruled out of bounds by the 1986 Order. The Review body expressed sympathy for that response, but said that they were following procedures and that the exchange of views should be considered a learning experience for both sides.
The Humanist delegation came out of the meeting, shaking their heads in disbelief - as is their wont. What a waste of time! The time spent answering the original questionnaire, devising a Statement of Policy, studying the new curriculum, organising time off work to attend the meeting, etc., had all been time down the drain. That is a serious matter for Humanists because we believe that this one life is all the time we have. There is no other.
But then we started to react more positively. Maybe that 1986 Order is out of date, now that we have more Human Rights legislation and more Equal Rights legislation through the EU. Maybe we can mount a legal challenge of some sort. So now we are looking for someone with Humanist sympathies and some legal know-how. Interested?
(a shorter version of this article appeared in Fortnight magazine, October 2004 - see www.fortnight.org)