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Eight common misunderstandings about non-religious people and their worldviews

In this guest blog, Rudi Eliott Lockhart – a humanist who from 2015-2020 was Chief Executive of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales – writes about common misconceptions he has encountered about non-religious people and humanism within the world of Religious Education (RE).

Over half of people in Britain are non-religious but what this actually means is often seriously misunderstood. Legal rulings have made clear that non-religious worldviews should be included within RE in schools, on an equal footing to the major religions. When this actually happens, it can be very good, but sadly it’s far from being the case in all schools. This is such a shame as there are many unhelpful misconceptions that are widely held about non-religious worldviews and non-religious people that good RE would help to address. I spent five years working in the world of RE. Here are eight of the most common misunderstandings that I came across.

1. Being non-religious is just a ‘lack’ of religion.

‘Often people think about the non-religious only in terms of what they’re not, rather than as having a fully fleshed out worldview that stands on its own. Sometimes people see non-religious worldviews as only having relevance as critiques of religions.

At its worst, people can see being non-religious as having a ‘lack’ of religion, as if there’s an absence in their lives that would otherwise be filled by religion. Quite apart from anything else, this feels pretty offensive. Sociologists of religion often talk about religion in terms of belief, behaviour, and belonging. It’s really no different with non-religious people: they too have beliefs (opinions and convictions), ways of behaving, and ways of belonging, for which they draw on non-religious sources rather than religious ones.

The situation isn’t helped by language: talking about ‘non-religious’ people defines the category by not being religious. That’s why humanist can be such a useful term as it can refer positively to what a humanist is, rather than what they’re not. But of course, not all non-religious people are necessarily humanists. Whatever terms we use, the important point is that non-religious worldviews are meaningful in themselves.’

2. ‘Non-religious people are against religion.’

‘Not being part of something doesn’t mean you’re against it. Being non-religious doesn’t mean being against religion anymore than being a member of one religion necessarily means being against a different one!

Just as there can be good interfaith work between religious groups, there can be plenty of positive work between religious and non-religious people and groups. Some non-religious people may criticise some things that are done in the name of religion, but even that doesn’t mean being against religion. You can, for example, be against bishops having automatic seats in the House of Lords without being against Christianity. Similarly, you can be non-religious without being against religion.

Indeed, you can argue strongly that a secular state is the best for protecting the rights of people of all religious (and non-religious) backgrounds.’

3. ‘Non-religious people lack a moral core.’

‘Some people still seem to think that morality must necessarily be rooted in religion and that therefore for someone to be non-religious means they have no sense of right or wrong. This is, I hope, not as widely held a misconception as others on this list, but I have come across it. It is really important that people learn about the different ways that people have worked out how they ought to behave: sometimes using religion and sometimes not. People can be motivated to do good things without religion, and sometimes can be motivated to do bad things by their religion. It’s wrong, and rather prejudiced, to see either those who are religious or non-religious as inherently ‘better’ people.’

4. ‘Being non-religious means you can’t teach RE.’

‘RE teachers have to put up with a lot of misconceptions about their subject. Some people think it’s about making people more religious or that it’s all about training people to be chaplains and vicars. Many people assume that RE teachers are necessarily going to be religious themselves, or that being religious is an advantage as you’ll understand the subject better.

Now it’s true that in some schools with a religious character there can be a requirement to belong to a certain religion to be an RE teacher, but this isn’t the case for most schools, and there are a large number of non-religious RE teachers in classrooms across the country.

Some people are shocked by this and ask how can someone teach about religion if they’re not religious themselves, but this is as daft as saying you can’t teach French if you’re not yourself French. Sometimes being an insider to what you teach can be an advantage, but sometimes it can be an advantage to be an outsider. (In fact, you could argue it’s even dafter, given that good RE should include teaching about non-religious worldviews).

We are all positioned somewhere, whether religious or not. What matters is that we recognise this and see how it affects the way we engage with the subject. What’s more, since RE covers the whole range of religions, all RE teachers will be outsiders to much of the content of what they are teaching. And that’s fine!’

5. ‘You can’t study non-religious worldviews because they don’t have rituals or sacred texts.’

‘There have been arguments about the teaching of non-religious worldviews in RE for decades and some (but by no means all) religious organisations have opposed including them. One of the beliefs underpinning this is that non-religious worldviews just don’t have the rituals or sacred texts to make it possible to study them in the same way that you can with religions. This is part of a bigger problem.

The history of religious studies, and indeed the definition of what religion itself is, has often assumed Christianity as the norm with other religions defined by the template of Christianity (usually Protestant Christianity) and the ways that they resemble or differ from it. This is why some people assume that religion is synonymous with belief, or faith, even though these terms seem to exclude what you do or who you are. It’s why definitions can get in a tangle such as over when something is a religion and when it’s an ethnicity, as has been the case in discussions of Judaism and Sikhism. So to exclude non-religious worldviews because they don’t neatly resemble definitions based on Christianity is foolish.

Besides, there are many different texts that are important to non-religious people and which might help them to shape and live their lives, even if they are not exactly sacred texts (though we could debate what sacred might mean in a non-religious context…). And there are many forms of ceremonies, rites of passage, and rituals that non-religious people undertake that can certainly be studied from baby showers to funerals and much in between.’

6. ‘Non-religious worldview is too contested and complicated a concept for school children to study.’

‘It’s certainly true that ‘worldview’ is sometimes a contested term. When the Commission on Religious Education published its final report in 2018 including a recommendation to change the name of RE to ‘Religion and Worldviews’ there was a heated debate about the term.

Learning that some people don’t believe in god isn’t more inherently complex than learning about Christianity, for example. Defining non-religious worldviews is not always straightforward, but this isn’t a good reason to exclude them. Indeed, recognising that it’s complicated is a good thing. We should try doing this more with religion. Religion is likewise a contested term. Religion is hard to define. When people use the ‘Ronseal’ argument to exclude non-religious worldviews from RE because ‘the name is on the tin’ they fail to see how slippery the term religion is.

Pupils will develop a much better understanding of both religion and non-religion if they can study both within the same subject and have the time and space to reflect on the complex nature of what they mean.’

7. ‘You don’t need to learn about non-religious worldviews in RE because the rest of the curriculum is non-religious.’

‘Some argue that the school curriculum outside of RE is ‘secular’ and that it’s therefore necessary to have RE carved out as a special place for religion amid all of that secularity, and that you don’t need to study anything non-religious in RE because it will be covered elsewhere.

This is a strange zero sum approach to the curriculum that needlessly pits religion and non-religion against each other and ignores the reality that RE is better when it engages with the greater breadth that proper inclusion of non-religious worldviews leads to.

What’s more, the rest of the curriculum is jam-packed already. Geography, Chemistry, and French, among other subjects, do not in fact consider non-religious perspectives on questions such as what happens after death, how we know what is real, and how we make meaning in our lives. It’s not realistic to expect them to start doing so. Frankly, if non-religious worldviews aren’t covered in RE, they’re not going to get properly covered elsewhere, and the outcome will be a continuation of all of these misunderstandings about the non-religious.’

8. ‘You shouldn’t include non-religious worldviews in RE to try to be more relevant.’

‘Arguments about relevance are common in RE. There is justified criticism of those who chase ‘relevance’ by including content on whatever is in the news, or because it might be more entertaining, at the expense of the pre-planned curriculum that builds coherently. Similarly, relevance is criticised if curriculum content is selected purely on the basis of who the pupils in the room are, rather than on the basis of thought-through curriculum development.  So when the large number of non-religious pupils in most classrooms is pointed out and it is suggested that there ought to be proper non-religious content in RE, some dismiss this as shameless pursuit of relevance at the expense of academic quality.

It is understandable not to want to decide what pupils should learn about purely on the basis of the backgrounds of the pupils in the classroom: it would, for example, be strange to think it only worth studying Judaism if there are Jews in the class.  But it is perverse to think that it is somehow bad to choose content because it is relevant to the wider society that pupils are part of.  Including non-religious worldviews in RE doesn’t just make the subject more relevant to the non-religious pupils in the classroom, it makes it more relevant to every pupil.  It makes it more relevant by better preparing all pupils for the full range of what they’ll encounter when they leave school.  Non-religious worldviews are relevant to the world that we live in, and people need to understand them whether they themselves are religious or not.  They need to understand them so that they won’t make all of the mistakes that I’ve highlighted in this blog.  What’s more, that there are some who are so anxious that non-religious worldviews should not be studied and scrutinised in schools is, in itself, a fascinating thing and probably worth thinking about too.

I loved working in the world of RE. It is a fantastic subject that can be really transformative. Nonetheless, I was forever puzzled at the surprise I encountered all too often when some people (but by no means all) learned that I wasn’t religious myself, particularly if some thought that meant I didn’t belong in the subject.

Good RE does such important work in helping to dispel misrepresentations and misunderstandings of and about religions. It saddens me when some fans of RE don’t extend this to wanting to dispel misrepresentations and misunderstandings of and about non-religious worldviews too. There are many RE teachers doing great work on non-religious worldviews, but as with most things in RE the good stuff is patchy, with many pupils not getting to experience it. There remains much work to be done here, hopefully with collaboration between the religious and non-religious.’

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