Why Should You Include Humanism In RE?
After all, it’s not a religion…
First published in Resource, Summer 1999
Marilyn Mason, BHA Education Officer
Few humanists today would see Humanism as a religion, or even as a matter of faith, even though historically its European and American associations and organisations developed out of the more liberal elements of the Christian religion, the deists who were probably also the ancestors of the Sea of Faith group. Though the word itself did not gain its contemporary meaning until the twentieth century, Humanism has always existed, in a private and unorganised way, as a reaction against religious belief. It gathered strength in the nineteenth century as part of the post-Darwinian intellectual revolution, and is now essentially a rationalist, materialist, secular, ethical movement – to many the opposite of a religion and, as such, having no place within Religious Education.
The legal definition of religion as requiring faith in a supreme being and the practice of worship in relation to that deity [ 1 ] seems to rule out Humanism (and indeed some forms of Buddhism). Most humanists see Humanism as an alternative philosophy of life, based firmly on the here and now and offering naturalistic answers to metaphysical questions about the meaning and purpose of life, without recourse to the elements common to most religions, for example a deity, worship and prayer, belief in a soul which survives death, moral rules given by deities or prophets, sacred texts or dogma. For humanists the purpose of life is to live the only life one has to the full and to be happy, and it is up to individuals to give their lives meaning. An important aspect of that meaning, and of the humanist understanding of what makes people happy, lies in humanist values: “Happiness is the only good…the time to be happy is now and the way to be happy is to make others so,” wrote Robert Ingersoll [ 2 ], a prominent American humanist in the nineteenth century, summing up the beliefs and experience of most humanists. Many people who would not call themselves humanists, indeed who have never heard of humanism, including many school students, probably believe something like this.
Can RE be relevant to the non-religious?
The experience of many RE teachers seems to be of declining interest in the subject as pupilsprogress through the school system. RE teachers are well aware that many of their older students, if not actively hostile to religion, are more or less indifferent to it [ 3 ], and resent “wasting time” on it. The parts of RE that seem most obviously relevant to students – discussions about ethical problems – seem to be the least “religious” and could just as easily take place in PSHE education or Citizenship lessons.
Of course, young people may not be the best judges of what is relevant. They do not yet have access to the whole of their culture and they cannot predict what they may need or find interesting in their adult lives. Even children growing up in the most homogeneous communities will move and live in a multi-cultural world and will need to know something about what their neighbours believe. Religion is a fascinating and widespread sociological and psychological phenomenon. “What people believe is an important aspect of reality whether or not what they believe is true,” writes Ninian Smart [ 4 ], and RE introduces children to that aspect of reality. Educated people should know about beliefs they do not share for the sake of inter-cultural understanding, tolerance and respect. Whilst some humanists are hostile to religion, they are not hostile to education about religions, or, preferably, about beliefs.
Young people should be exposed to religious and other belief systems so that they can make informed and thoughtful choices of life stance. But in order to do so, they should critically engage with a wide range of world views and ideologies, secular and political, cultish and superstitious, as well as the full gamut of traditional religious perspectives. If students are to “give an informed and considered response to religious and moral issues” and “reflect on what might be learnt from religion in the light of one’s own beliefs and experience” (QCA Model RE syllabuses, 1994) [ 5 ], then surely they must analyse and discuss more than just the tenets and practices of the “six major faiths”: students’ beliefs and experience will also include astrology, spiritualism, religious cults, reincarnation, moral relativism, cynicism, racism, nationalism, atheism, agnosticism and humanism. Some of these are sensitive areas, and reluctance on the part of RE teachers to tackle the weirder beliefs of their students is understandable.
But moral relativism and superstition must be tackled as well as discussed if they are not to pervade our society, and school would seem a good place to begin. Humanism offers an antidote to both, and has the appeal of common sense for many, offering a moral foundation that children from non-religious backgrounds can identify with, one that many students would see as a reasonable basis for a good life. Adults in the next century in the more affluent parts of the world will surely face even more choices than we have, both material and moral, and there will be more tensions between short-term individual freedoms to choose, consume, fulfil oneself, and long-term communal wellbeing. They will need very clear values if they are to solve some of the social and environmental problems that they will inherit from us. When religion becomes confused with moral values, and religious tolerance shades into moral relativism, as often happens in RE and in wider society, it is not surprising that people are morally muddled and ill-equipped to make important ethical decisions.
What can humanist values offer?
If society becomes increasingly secular, as has been the trend since the 19th century, and religious belief fades away, we will have to ensure that morality is clearly disentangled from faith and that children know that moral behaviour is still worthwhile and rational. Like almost everyone, humanists agree with the core moral values agreed by the SCAA National Forum for Values [ 6 ], which were notably free of religious content or rationale: respect for others and for relationships, awareness of personal responsibility and the need for self development, valuing justice and truth and the natural world, are all humanist values. They are all enduring and widely shared human values which need to be transmitted clearly to the next generation. Where humanists diverge from religious believers is in their explanation of the derivation of moral values.
Humanism offers an explanation of and a rationale for moral behaviour based on human nature and society.
Humanists believe that morality is a human construct which evolved alongside human intelligence, and continues to evolve as human society evolves. It is not god-given, and moral rules can and should develop in response to changes in human knowledge and society. But humanists are not relativists, in that they do believe in absolute moral principles, albeit very general ones based on the consequences for human welfare and happiness: “Do as you would be done by”, the so-called Golden Rule, is an example of a fundamental principle that humanists would subscribe to, in common with most religious believers. They are less committed to absolute rules on the details of moral conduct, where the specific situation, the personal autonomy and desires of all those involved, the consequences, short and long term, all have to be taken into account. For example, in general lying and theft are wrong because their wholesale adoption would diminish general happiness, and they appear to contravene the Golden Rule, but it is possible to envisage specific situations is which the reverse might be true: it would be reasonable and right, because it would result in good consequences, to lie or steal to save a life.
The long history of humanist values, which certainly predate and permeate religious values, is a clue to their derivation in human nature and society. One philosopher [ 7 ] has made a useful distinction between “low morality” and “high morality”. “Low morality” comprises the timeless values shared by those of all faiths and none, indeed by all human beings who live alongside other human beings, and even, in part, by some other gregarious animals. These rules and duties include: looking after the young and other vulnerable people; valuing the truth and respecting promises; fair allocation of power and property according to some recognised system which includes merit; mutual assistance in communal defence and disasters; disapproval and punishment of wrongdoers. “High morality” includes all the cultural and religious accretions to morality which contribute to the diversity of human society and which comprise much of the content of RE.
Societies change, but human nature changes little at grassroots level, where families, friendships, meaningful work, interesting leisure and some kind of community existence, are what make life worthwhile for most of us. When we do not have these things we strive to attain at least some of them, because they make us happier. Humans are essentially social animals and our lives depend on co-operation and care for our kin, especially children who are weak and vulnerable for far longer than those of most animals. Language, empathy, and altruism have evolved because they contribute to survival, welfare and general happiness. This is not to say that what is natural must be good: some human characteristics which are also products of evolution are potentially harmful and need to be controlled; that is why moral codes and laws exist. Reciprocity, perhaps subconscious and often indirect, is an important motivator – we hope that if we behave well towards others they will behave well towards us, and we know that in general we will be better loved and respected. We know, too, that we will feel better if we know we’ve done the right thing. There is some self-interest involved in secular humanist value systems; but perhaps ultimately there is no such thing as completely disinterested virtue, even amongst religious believers.
Recognition of the true reasons for moral behaviour is surely well overdue in our educational system. Religions cannot go on for ever claiming sole ownership of moral values, and if they do it will be to the detriment of society. Appeals to enlightened self-interest and the thoughtful and informed variety of hedonism described above will be more convincing to many students than appeals to authority, religious or secular.
Can humanist values be taught within current RE syllabuses?
RE teachers who have moved from LEA to LEA will be familiar with a range of syllabuses, as well as with the QCA models. The guidance in the QCA models permits, rather than prescribes, the teaching of secular values, but many of the stated aims can in fact be best fulfilled by including a humanist perspective [ 8 ]. The careful distinction between “religious” and “moral” found in the QCA guidelines, GCSE syllabuses [ 9 ], and most locally agreed syllabuses [ 10 ] is at least an acknowledgement that they are not one and the same, and should encourage teachers to explore with their pupils some non-religious ethical traditions. Some locally agreed syllabuses include Humanism as the best known example of a secular belief system. Some teachers will therefore be familiar with its beliefs, values and teachings, history and key figures, ceremonies and symbol. Many more teachers will have encountered specifically humanist ideas when teaching older students about ethical issues, where a humanist perspective [ 11 ] can provide the “other responses to moral issues” [ 12 ] and the wider context required by GCSE examiners. Humanist ideas can provide a critique of religious beliefs that teachers and their pupils can usefully examine, as is required, for example, in the Scottish Highers syllabus.
Most will probably have come across humanist ideas less explicitly stated, but there nonetheless, from nursery school upwards. Much good pedagogical practice is humanist in its emphasis on valuing the individual, on fairness and honesty. The ethos of most non-religious schools, expressed in their rules, formal and informal, about toleration, respect, and consideration for others, is essentially humanist. It would be encouraging for the non-religious amongst us, and that includes many children, if the non-religious nature of these values were occasionally made explicit. When there is so much talk of inclusion and self-esteem in the education community, perhaps more thought could be given to the inclusion and self-esteem of non-believers, who are still often marginalised in classrooms or school assemblies, because of the common assumption that all moral values, even those of the non-religious, derive from religion.
Humanists would like teachers, from KS1 upwards, to have the knowledge and the confidence not just to extol and practise shared values, which already happens, but to acknowledge where they come from. They would also like all children to be introduced to Humanism as a respectable and respected life stance from which they could draw support, and to the British Humanist Association as a provider of ceremonies for the non-religious, so that in later life they can avoid the hypocrisy or uneasiness that often accompany ignorance of the alternatives.
Overcoming the problems
Humanism is unlike other marginalised beliefs in that people are often humanists without being aware of it, and so it has a large, if unacknowledged, constituency. But it does share with minority beliefs problems of lack of knowledge and resources. It isn’t explicitly required on many already crowded syllabuses so it doesn’t get taught. Because it’s not on most syllabuses, it doesn’t appear in most of the standard text-books, making it difficult for the hard-pressed teacher to teach about it, even if inclined to. It isn’t taught to trainee teachers, thus perpetuating its exclusion.
What can interested teachers do? They can get in touch with the BHA, which can provide them with speakers and some useful resources, mostly geared towards older secondary students at the moment, though work is in progress on teaching packs for Key Stages 1 – 3. They can also communicate what they need to the BHA and influence our production of materials. Teachers have the power to create a demand with the commercial publishers, who can produce beautifully presented and colourful books, well beyond our resources, particularly important for younger pupils.
The law and the national guidelines permit teaching about Humanism. It would be relevant and interesting to pupils, and the concepts are not difficult. All that is needed is the will and the knowledge to make it practicable in the classroom.
1 The judgement of LJ Dillon in Re South Place Ethical Society, 1980
2 Robert Ingersoll (1833-99) in a lecture: The Gods , quoted in Jim Herrick’s Against the Faith, (Glover & Blair, 1985)
3A 1995 survey on teenagers’ values and religion by the Revd Professor Leslie Francis (Trinity College, Carmarthen) found that 58% claimed to be atheist or agnostic.
4 Ninian Smart: Worldviews (Prentice Hall ,1995 )
5 QCA Model syllabus preambles are in the process of revision, but similar requirements are likely to remain.
6 SCAA National Forum for Values in Education and the Community consultation document, 1996
7Wallace I Matson: The Expiration of Morality, in E F Paul, F D Miller & J Paul (eds): Cultural Pluralism and Moral Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
8Notably “the ability to make reasoned and informed judgements about religious and moral issues” and “reflecting on their own beliefs, values and experiences…” 9 (1994 QCA Model syllabuses: The aims of religious education )
9 GCSE/KS4 Standards of Assessment and the National Criteria for RE (Short Course)
For example, Camden and Hounslow RE syllabuses.
10 Briefings for KS4 and Sixth Formers on commonly discussed moral and religious issues are available from the BHA
11 GCSE/KS4 Standards of Assessment and the National Criteria for RE (Short Course )
12 See Barbara Smoker Humanism (BHA, 1998) for an accessible introduction to humanist history and ideas.