Why Humanism should be represented on SACREs and ASCs

Humanism is a belief system concerned with morality and values

Humanism is the belief that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. Humanists make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values. We seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves. Humanists do not believe in gods or an afterlife or the supernatural, but do respect knowledge based on empirical evidence. Humanists think that we should try to make the only life we know as fulfilled and happy for everyone as we can, so we take responsibility for our own actions and work with others for the common good. Humanism is an ethical tradition that has developed over thousands of years, in Eastern as well as Western civilisations. It shares with religions an interest in the ultimate questions – about the origin and purpose of life and the Universe, the basis for morality, and those aspects of life, sometimes called the “spiritual”, that transcend the mundane.

Humanists represent a substantial group in the community [1], including many school pupils [2] who are not religious and whose ethical beliefs and traditions are humanistic, even though most will not be members of Humanists UK and may not even have heard of Humanism. A MORI poll commissioned by Humanists UK in 1996 found that 57% of people in Britain do not believe that God exists. Not all non-believers are humanist in their outlook (because they may not have considered the ethical implications of life without religion), but many will be. Humanism has a consequentialist, situation-based approach to ethics. But humanist values are not relativist or subjective, as humanists do believe in underlying universal moral principles; nor are they materialist in the colloquial sense of ‘consumerist’, though Humanism is materialist in the sense that it celebrates and values the material and physical universe (as opposed to the metaphysical).

At a Religious Education Council meeting in May 2005, the Archbishop of Canterbury replied to a question: “… Do I distinguish between atheism and humanism? Yes I do. Atheism is the denial of an active, personal …divine presence, independent of the universe. That’s a position which can be held for a variety of reasons, within a variety of philosophies, ranging from the sort of AJ Ayer philosophical position to a counter-ideology like Marxism. Humanism, I regard as a much wider word. Which while it assumes that you can’t talk with confidence or authority about the divine, is more interested in the innate capacities of human beings to make meaning and to sustain meaning together.”

About Humanists UK

Humanists UK is a focus for these beliefs and is the biggest humanist organisation in Britain (with over 10,000 members and many thousands more supporters and members of local affiliated groups). It began life in 1896 as the Ethical Union and was a founder member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Humanists UK is a registered charity, and has no party political affiliations. It provides advice and secular funerals, weddings and baby-namings to the general public. It is widely recognised as representing a considered, rational, non-religious perspective on current issues and is consulted by government bodies, quangos and professional organisations, including the DCSF, Home Office, Foreign Office, Department of Health, DTI, QCA, BMA, and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission. Humanists UK is often asked to represent the viewpoint of non-believers by the media. There is also a Parliamentary Humanist Group.

Humanists UK is active in education, particularly values education and RE: it was a founder member of the Values Education Council in 1995, and participates actively in the Religious Education Council (REC). It was also active in the Standing Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Education (SCIFDE), and co-founded the Social Morality Council (Norham Foundation). Humanists UK is deeply concerned with the positive moral and spiritual development of all young people, and has participated in discussion and conferences on “spiritual development” in schools. It publishes resources for schools on religious, moral and social issues. Humanists UK is frequently invited to serve on working parties concerned with reviewing and improving RE, and was represented on the steering group convened by the DfES to work on the national framework for RE, published by the QCA in October 2004, and on the 2008-9 steering group considering guidance on RE to replace the out-dated Circular 1/94.

Humanists on SACREs

Humanists currently participate in the work of over 60 SACREs in a wide range of authorities of all political persuasions, from large cities such as Leicester and Leeds to counties such as Hampshire, Essex and Suffolk, and London boroughs such as Westminster, Wandsworth, Hounslow, Camden and Merton. Some are full members, most are co-opted, a few attend as observers, and there are usually several humanists in the course of applying to SACREs. Some represent local humanist groups, while others have been nominated by Humanists UK . Some SACREs  have also requested humanists to assist their Agreed Syllabus Conferences and working parties, or to represent them at the National Association of SACREs, where a humanist also served on the Executive Committee. Humanist representatives have been elected as Chairs or Vice-Chairs of SACREs including Hounslow, Brent, Camden and York.  Some of our representatives have served on SACREs for over 25 years. Humanists on SACREs meet once a year to share ideas and experiences.

Why invite humanist participation?

Clause 11(i) (A) of the Education Reform Act 1988 states that the principal function of a SACRE is, “to advise the authority upon … religious worship and religious education.” Humanists have an essential role to play in such advice, and in helping to ensure that the beliefs and values of pupils and parents who are not religious are included in RE. Inclusiveness is an important principle underpinning good RE, which usually sees itself today as concerned with a range of responses to ultimate questions and ethical issues, as well as offering pupils the opportunity to reflect on their own beliefs and values and to learn about those of others. Many agreed syllabuses already include non-theistic responses such as those of Buddhism and Humanism – as do the RE Syllabus for Independent Schools and the 2004 non-statutory National Framework for RE (QCA) both of which recommend the study of Humanism. The Church of England has expressed support for teaching about Humanism in RE: “RE needs to take account of the variety of answers to these questions… [including] other faith ones and humanist ones.” (Canon John Hall, TES, 11/7/03 ).

The non-statutory National Framework for RE (QCA, 2004) says, in “About religious education in the curriculum” (p12):

“Many pupils come from religious backgrounds but others have no attachment to religious beliefs and practices. Therefore, to ensure that all pupils’ voices are heard and that the RE curriculum is broad and balanced, it is recommended that there should be opportunities for all pupils to study … secular philosophies such as humanism.”

“A secular world view, where appropriate” is included under Religions and beliefs in each Breadth of study section in the National Framework, and there are references throughout to “beliefs” as well as to religions. In the light of this guidance, a local humanist can usefully advise where Humanism would be appropriate in the local syllabus.

The view of the Department for Education and Skills (now DCSF)

The constructive contribution of humanists to RE has been acknowledged many times, for example in a letter from the then Secretary of State’s office to the former Humanists UK President, the late Sir Hermann Bondi FRS, with the words, “Let me assure you that we fully appreciate the role which Humanists UK in particular has played in the development of RE in this country’.” A letter from the Department to Sir Hermann in 1994 confirmed that “it is perfectly possible for RE to include teaching about non-theistic ways of life, such as humanism, and the moral values associated with them.”

Charles Clarke, when he was Secretary of State for Education, acknowledged the valuable work of humanists in RE and invited Humanists UK to participate in the working party (2003-4) on the non-statutory national framework for RE.

There has been support for including Humanism in RE  from a range of other sources over the years. For example, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales in its report RE, Attainment and National Curriculum (1991), the REC argued for the inclusion of humanist ideas:

“-   RE should be open to all pupils regardless of their beliefs.
–   If RE is ‘open’ it is necessary for pupils to learn that there are many who do not believe or practise a theistic or religious world-view. Indeed if pupils did not learn this, it could be said they were victims of indoctrination.
– Humanism and other non-theistic beliefs have their own views about religion and these ought to be part of a pupil’s RE.
– Humanist thinking has influenced the RE and PSE curriculum, particularly in the exploration of the term ‘spiritual’.
– Many pupils come from non-religious backgrounds and probably share some of the views humanists express.
– The RE Council has benefited since its foundation from the active membership of Humanists UK in its ranks.”

This report followed a similar statement in the RE Council’s Handbook for SACREs, ASCs and Schools (1989), indicating that one generally accepted aim of RE would be, “To encourage knowledge and understanding of religions and similar world views.” Humanism can be seen as “a similar world view” worth learning about, and was acknowledged as such in the National Framework for RE (QCA, 2004).

The legal position

SACREs have the power to co-opt (Circular 1/94, para 103 (10/94, para 102 in Wales ), and most humanist representatives sit as co-opted members of their SACREs. A number of SACREs have chosen to appoint a humanist representative as a full member of Group A or Group D. Agreed Syllabus Conferences do not have the power to co-opt. However, an ASC may “receive advice or comment from outside groups or individuals”. The then DFEE stated, in a letter to Humanists UK in March 1992, that although ASCs cannot co-opt, this does not mean that “other persons cannot, on invitation, attend such ASCs and participate in the proceedings, provided they do not vote.” Humanists in A or D groups can participate in ASCs, and a number of other humanist representatives have participated in work on agreed syllabuses.

LEAs and SACREs should also be aware of the impact of the Human Rights Act (HRA) on their practices and policies. Section 3 of the HRA requires that legislation previous to the HRA be interpreted to meet its requirements; so that, for example, references to “religion” should be interpreted to mean “religion and belief”. Thus a case could be made for humanists to be full members of Committee A (which includes “other religions”).

Humanists UK is pressing for more humanists to sit on SACREs as full (voting) members and considers anything less to be discrimination against humanists on grounds of “religion and belief” (Human Rights Act 1998). We await the replacement of Circular 1/94, but, in the meantime, remind SACREs that the circular is guidance only and does not have the status of law. The appointment of a humanist as a full member of a SACRE has never been legally challenged.

In the absence of a humanist representative, SACREs, advisers and ASCs are welcome to consult Humanists UK on syllabus and other matters.

See also

Understanding Humanism contains more information on this subject and resources for teachers.
Issues in RE


[1] Only about 21% of the adult population are members of any church or other religion (Social Trends, 1996) , and fewer still attend worship regularly (7.4% of adults in England for all denominations according to Religious Trends 2002). At 15.5% the non-religious formed the second largest “faith” group in the 2001 census. SACREs can search for local data at http://neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk/

[2] 65% of young people are not religious, according to Young People in Britain: The Attitudes and Experiences of 12-19 Year Olds, a 2004 research report for the DfES (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RR564.pdf ). A survey in 1994 by the Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay (Trinity College Carmarthen) on teenagers’ values and religion found that 61% were atheist or agnostic. British Social Attitudes , Nov 2000, found that two thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds did not belong to a religion, compared with only a quarter of those aged over 65.

Last updated May 09


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