In its final report, published today, the Commission on Religious Education has recommended that the subject of Religious Education in England be renamed to Religion and Worldviews, and be reformed to ensure full inclusion of humanism. The Commission also recommends that a national entitlement (the text of which is included in the report) to the subject be introduced in place of existing legal requirements. Humanists UK has welcomed both recommendations, which are strongly in line with its own position of many decades’ standing.
The report recommends:
- ‘The name of the subject should be changed to Religion and Worldviews’.
- ‘The National Entitlement to the study of Religion and Worldviews should become statutory for all publicly funded schools’ – which, for maintained schools, should ‘replace the requirement… to follow their locally agreed syllabus.’ Agreed Syllabus Conferences will no longer be required.
- For faith schools, ‘a requirement should be introduced to provide Religion and Worldviews in accordance with the National Entitlement; in addition to any faith-based education.
- The National Entitlement states ‘Programmes of study must reflect the complex, diverse and plural nature of worldviews. They may draw from… non-religious worldviews and concepts including Humanism…’ The National Entitlement should be supported by ‘Non-statutory programmes of study for each of Key Stages 1–4… developed at a national level, at a similar level of detail as those for History and Geography in the National Curriculum.’
- Standing Advisory Councils on RE should be replaced by Local Advisory Networks for Religion and Worldviews, with the composition of the groups within it changed to, amongst other things, make clear humanists should be included, and remove the privileged place for the CofE.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘These recommendations are a once in a generation opportunity to save the academically serious teaching of religious and non-religious worldviews in our schools. If the nettle is not grasped, decline will continue and the subject will sink into irrelevance at a time when the need for knowledge and understanding in this field is more acute than ever. We need the new national entitlement for all children that this report recommends, we need the inclusion of the full breadth of religions and humanism that it endorses, and we need to proceed with the urgency that it calls for.’
Commenting specifically on the recommendation that humanism be included in the national entitlement, Mr Copson added, ‘Aside from the academic importance of this breadth, it is the case that over a quarter of the population have humanist beliefs and values and more people self-identify as non-religious and humanist than Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or any of the non-Christian religions. It is vital that young people – over 75% of whom are not religious – learn about an approach to life which may assist their personal development. It is also vital that pupils with religious beliefs learn about the beliefs and values of their non-religious fellow citizens, and vice versa. We look forward to a new national settlement that will realise these necessities.’
Alongside its general welcome, Humanists UK has sounded one note of caution for the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations, calling for greater conceptual clarity about the way ‘non-religious worldviews’ are treated. Mr Copson continued, ‘The identification of atheism, agnosticism, and secularism as non-religious worldviews is disappointing conceptual confusion that we would have hoped the Commission would avoid. All three should of course be studied in the subject in detail, but they are not worldviews. Atheism and agnosticism are simple positions on the existence or otherwise of gods, and they are no more non-religious worldviews than theism is a religion. Secularism is (depending on the academic field) either a political philosophy that can be held by religious and non-religious alike or a sociological description of a certain social approach associated with modernity. EIther way, it is not a non-religious worldview in that way that humanism or nihilism are.’
Examples of non-religious worldviews other than humanism might include nihilism, (some variants of) confucianism, and (the philosophical aspects of) Marxism. However, none of these are particularly commonly held in the UK today. Many individuals hold less clearly defined spiritual beliefs, although many such worldviews are better classified as religious in nature. The only clearly defined and common non-religious worldview in the UK is humanism.
Sometimes in the media the term ‘atheist’ is used in ways that imply that other beliefs – beliefs that are more properly described as humanist – flow from it. This reflects the fact that polling shows most self-identified atheists in this country are humanists and the default assumption is that an atheist will therefore hold a variety of other beliefs which resemble humanism. However, this is not necessarily so – someone can be an atheist whilst also practicing a religion. There are varieties of Buddhism that are atheistic but not humanist. Nihilism and (the philosophical aspects of) Marxism are also atheistic but not humanist. There is no formal definition of atheism that takes it to mean something more like humanism; any such usage is inaccurate and, in our view, unhelpful.
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7324 3072.
Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work around religious education: https://humanists.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/religious-education/
About Humanists UK
At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.
Humanists UK has a long history of work in education, children’s rights and equality, with expertise in the ‘religion or belief’ strand. We provide materials and advice to parents, governors, students, teachers and academics, and school speakers, through our website Understanding Humanism.
We have been involved in policy development around RE for over 60 years. We are a founding member of the RE Council for England and Wales, and our Chief Executive is the Treasurer. This century, Humanists UK has also been represented on the steering groups of every major national initiative focused on reform of RE in England and Wales.
Our support for RE is also reflected by the fact that many standing advisory councils on RE and agreed syllabus conferences have had humanist representatives (in some cases for decades), including as Chairs and Vice-Chairs. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of humanists who are on SACREs, as documents such as the 2010 RE guidance and 2013 national framework have referred to teaching about humanism. As a result the vast majority of locally agreed syllabuses include humanism to some extent, and many do so to a high level of depth.