Issues in RE
RE varies a lot, from Local Education Authority (LEA) to LEA, and from teacher to teacher (with non-specialists often the least sensitive to the problems of non-religious pupils). At its very best, it 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 – and humanist perspectives are included when relevant (as they often are).
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, merely “a spectator sport”, as one SACRE Chair put it – all about things which one does not practise oneself and which may be of little interest. RE should be relevant to the 61% of teenagers who consider themselves to be atheist or agnostic.
There are many ways in which badly taught or 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 afterlife, or that the existence of God is a given fact;
- patronising, belittling or trying to convert non-religious pupils;
- confusing “moral” and “religious”, and omitting non-religious ethical perspectives on moral issues;
- using language or tasks that exclude, e g that involve making up prayers or giving advice to “a close friend of your own religion”;
- confusing story or myth with historic or scientific fact;
- omitting humanist ceremonies when teaching about rites of passage – so that pupils remain ignorant of ceremonies for the non-religious;
- 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 “nothing”.
Puils inclined toward humanism, or old enough to call themselves humanists already, and who happen to have explicitly humanist parents, often get enough support in the free development of their world view and moral values from their families, limiting the damage than can be caused by exclusory and presumptuous RE. Such pupils with less family support, for example whose parents are not themselves very interested in such matters and don’t profess a cohesive “world view” themselves, may find little support anywhere, and may grow to think that not only religion, but morality too, is of no personal significance.
(Collective worship in schools compounds the above problems, and causes some of its own. For example, whether to join in or not poses problems for the conscientious humanist, and, in some schools, a refusal to pretend to pray meets with reprimands.)
Humanist experiences of RE
“My own eight year old child understands that his teacher is a Christian and so has different beliefs to him. I always wonder how he decides which bits of information she offers him he will accept as fact, and which he will dismiss as Christian belief. How is he to know that the laws of chemistry and physics (as taught in primary school) are ‘true’ whilst the information in the bible is – well – a mixed bag of fiction, mistranslation, wishful thinking and ancient history?” (Humanist parent of eight-year-old)
“I think it’s quite interesting to learn what other people believe, but humanism is never mentioned.” (12-year-old humanist)
“My son has a disparaging approach to RE, although he has been taught by us to respect other people’s beliefs. When faced with the frequently naive approach of non-specialist teachers he is inclined to laugh at the silliness…He has thought deeply about life, death and ethical views, but concepts of the sacred and spirituality are, as yet, meaningless to him.” (Humanist parent)
“Coming from a home where religion played no part at all, I found it quite worrying to discover through school prayers & RI that there was apparently this whole realm of existence of major importance but quite incoherent and in some ways repellent, that I knew nothing of. Being, I suppose, even then of a rational temperament I isolated my disquiet and carried on as before until I finally sorted things out much later, but I imagine that for many children it could be quite upsetting even with the somewhat changed modern practices.” (Humanist educated in 40s and 50s)
What can be done to make RE more inclusive?
Much of what follows is based on existing good practice in RE. Like all pupils, humanists should learn about the beliefs of others in our society and world, but they need to see their beliefs respected too. 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 syllabuses can easily include humanist perspectives and experience. Many of them also feature in the national framework for RE (QCA, 2004) – seeHumanism in the national framework. Some worksheets linked below – fromwww.humanismforschools.org.uk/humanist-perspective.php – include an indication of their intended Key Stage. Teachers are very welcome to contact the BHA for assistance.
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
These feelings may be felt by humanists at our growing understanding of the universe, at its size and complexity, and at the richness and beauty of the natural world, human ingenuity and creativity. They may even view supernatural entities and “higher realms” – not as an embellishment of – but as a kind ofdistraction from the awe and wonder of the real world.
It is not only humanists who accept the scientific theories about the beginning of the Universe and the evolution of life on earth.
See How the Earth Began (PDF, KS1-2).
Death and the afterlife
See Death and Other Big Questions (PDF, KS3+)
Morality and moral issues
See Thinking about ethics (PDF, KS3+) and a range of other worksheets on social and moral issues for Key Stage 3+ at humanismforschools.org.uk’s Humanist Perspectives.
Also see the Humanist Philosophers’ Group What is Humanism? (BHA, 2002).
Our shared humanity
Humanists are very aware of human similarities and the evolutionary realisation that we are all a part of “the human family”. 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.
There are figures in history who exemplified humanist ideals in their lives and who are widely respected by humanists.
See Humanists working for a better world (PDF, KS3+).
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 themselves, and to others, or in creative work.
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 Celebrations and Ceremonies (PDF, KS3+).
Science and religion
Humanists favour science and scientific method in this perennial debate. Many think that the “conflict” between science and religion is real – and who can blame them, given the space this debate takes up! Humanists tend to think of science as illuminating, rather than destroying mystery, and believe that scientific knowledge brings untold advancement – and great responsibility – to humankind.
See Nature; Death and Other Big Questions; Environmental Issues; Miracles and Faith Healing; Embryo Research; Genetic research and engineering (all PDF, KS3+).
The symbol of the “happy human” is widely used in humanist organisations.
See The Happy Human (PDF, KS1-2).
Humanists do not have sacred or obligatory texts, but many humanists respect and value books as storehouses of human knowledge, ideas and creativity.
The BHA can also assist with finding speakers for schools. Email for more information.
 (Survey of 13,000 13-15 year olds by Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay, Trinity College, Carmarthen, Teenage Religion and Values, Gracewing, 1995).