submitted to the Religious Education Review in June 2004.
Humanists advocate a genuinely inclusive school system in which all pupils are
educated together, not separately according to the beliefs of their parents. We
believe that the rights and entitlements of both the religious and the
non-religious can be respected within community schools. Our education policies
arise out of humanist principles and our concern for the common good and social
cohesion, as well as our awareness of the needs and rights of non-religious
people and those of minority faith groups, which are currently ignored.
Humanists believe that in a pluralist society we should learn about each
other's beliefs, including humanist ones. The reformed religious education that
we are striving for would be called Belief and Values Education, or Philosophy,
or (as in Scotland) Religious and Moral Education / Religious, Moral and
Philosophical Studies, and would be characterised by inclusiveness,
impartiality, objectivity, fairness, balance and relevance.
would like to see:
- A broader study of belief systems,
including the principal non-religious life stance, Humanism.
- More on the social and historical
context of belief systems, and on how they are related, what they share,
and where they differ.
- Concentration in depth on the core
values, doctrines and cultural practices of religions and worldviews.
- Omission of unnecessary 'insider'
detail. The syllabus should be based on a realistic assessment of how much
an outsider needs to know and understand about other people's beliefs.
Detailed religious instruction for insiders belongs in voluntary
faith-based classes, in or out of school, not in the main curriculum.
- Less reliance on faith communities when
drawing up the syllabus and more on educationalists and teachers.
- More and better qualified RE teachers,
able to recognise and teach about the full range of beliefs in their
classes, and to address philosophical and ethical issues with knowledge
- This open and inclusive subject could
take its place in the National Curriculum, as an entitlement for all
pupils, though not necessarily as a compulsory core subject up to Key
Stage 5. If it were genuinely educational (as opposed to confessional),
impartial, fair and balanced, there would no longer be any need for the
right to be excused on grounds of conscience from RE, though if this were
to be retained, it should be transferred to the young person concerned in
Key Stage 4 (KS4) - that is, at approximately 14.
Equality in Religious Education
RE at its very best is an open-minded and inclusive search for answers to the
kinds of questions that all human beings, whatever their beliefs, ask about
life and death, and about values, purpose and meaning. At its worst, RE
either conveys the idea that religious answers to these questions are the
only ones worth considering and thus fails (perhaps unintentionally) to meet
the needs of non-religious pupils and conflicts with the values of humanist
families, or it is exhaustively devoted to studying the minutiae of religious
practice, which is dull for almost everyone. RE often claims to help
"pupils develop their sense of identity and belonging" (QCA guidance,
2000), but for the non-religious, RE can be alienating - all about things
which one does not practise oneself and which may be of little interest. RE
should be relevant to the whole pupil population.
There are many ways in which badly taught or badly planned RE can exclude
humanist and other non-religious pupils. For example:
- By assuming that all
pupils belong to a religion or believe in an after-life, or that the
existence of God is a given fact.
- By patronising,
belittling or trying to convert non-religious pupils.
- By confusing
"moral" and "religious", and omitting non-religious
ethical perspectives on moral issues.
- By using language or
tasks that exclude, e g that involve making up prayers or giving advice
to "a close friend of your own religion".
- By confusing story or
myth with historic or scientific fact.
- By omitting humanist
ceremonies when teaching about rites of passage - so that pupils remain
ignorant of ceremonies for the non-religious.
- By omitting humanist
perspectives on the fundamental questions of life, such as death or the
purpose of life, so that non-religious pupils get no help in formulating
their own beliefs and values and leave school thinking that they are
What can be done
to make RE more inclusive?
The self-esteem and spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of
non-religious pupils is helped by good practice, such as the use of inclusive
language (e g "belief" or "life stance" or "world
view" or "philosophy" or "ethical tradition" instead
of "religion" or "faith") and by prefacing statements about
religions or gods with "some people believe…" (rather than implying
that they are true, or saying: "we believe…"). Humanist perspectives
(or "other ethical life stances" or "non-religious ethical
philosophies") can often be included when focusing on shared human
experience or the themes typical of RE. For example: humanists too celebrate
special events (such as birthdays, weddings and anniversaries) by sharing
special food and wearing nice clothes; they share the need for ritual to mark
rites of passage; they too have moral concerns about how food is produced, and
how wealth is distributed; they value books and the knowledge they pass on;
they understand the significance of symbol and story, and the importance of water,
light and dark, pattern, and change, in our lives. Humanists have much to say
about "ultimate questions" and contemporary moral issues.
The following topics that regularly come up in RE teaching can easily include
humanist perspectives and experience. The briefings referred to are short
explanatory accounts which can be used by teachers and older pupils and are
available from the British Humanist Association (www.humanism.org.uk).
- arguments about the existence of God : See BHA briefings Does God Exist and Miracles and Faith Healing - a sceptical
- artefacts : Humanists tend to
value human artefacts that contribute to our understanding of the world
around us, and human creations (e g medicine, art, literature, music) that
contribute to our well-being and pleasure in the world
- awe and wonder : are felt by many
humanists at our growing understanding of the universe, and its size and
complexity, and at the richness and beauty of the natural world, human
ingenuity and creativity
- creation stories : It is not only
humanists who accept the scientific theories about the beginning of the
Universe and the evolution of life on earth. For Key Stages 1-2, see BHA
worksheet How the Earth Began .
- death and the afterlife : See BHA briefing Death and Other Big Questions
- morality and moral issues : See BHA briefings on
ethics and ethical issues, and the Humanist Philosophers' Group What is Humanism ? (BHA, 2002).
- our shared humanity : Humanists are very
aware of how similar we all are, despite superficial differences. Many
experiences and emotions are shared by everyone, regardless of worldview;
religions have something to say about them mainly because these
experiences are so common.
- people : There are figures in history who
exemplified humanist ideals in their lives and who are widely respected by
humanists. See BHA briefing Humanists working for a better world
- prayer : Humanists do not pray, because they
do not think there is anyone to pray to, but they do think and reflect,
and they do have hopes, feelings, fears and anxieties that they express to
- rites of passage : There are
non-religious ceremonies available for atheists, agnostics, humanists and
those who, for one reason or another, cannot participate in religious
ceremonies or would prefer an alternative. See BHA worksheet on Celebrations and Ceremonies .
- science and religion : Humanists favour
science and scientific method in this perennial debate. See BHA briefings,
including: " Nature "; Death and Other Big Questions ; Environmental Issues ; Miracles and Faith Healing - a sceptical
perspective ; Embryo Research , Genetic Engineering and Research .
- symbols : The symbol of the
"happy human" is widely used in humanist organisations. See BHA
worksheet on The Happy Human for Key Stage 2
- texts : Humanists do not have sacred or
obligatory texts, but many humanists respect and value books as
storehouses of human knowledge, ideas and creativity.
The Belfast Humanist Group (www.humanists.net/belfast) acknowledges the
help of the British Humanist Association in formulating this statement of