Why Humanism is included in ‘Religious Education’ (‘RE’)

Humanism has been studied in RE for about fifty years. In its report RE, Attainment and National Curriculum (1991), the Religious Education Council set out the standard case for inclusion:

  • 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. 

A 2013 survey found that more people consider RE to have been the ‘least beneficial subject’ than any other. It is vital that RE stays relevant to our population if it is to maintain its place within the curriculum. Pupils in all types of school should have the opportunity to consider philosophical and fundamental questions, and in an open society we should learn about each other’s beliefs. There should be a subject on the curriculum which helps young people to form and explore their own beliefs and develop an understanding of the beliefs and values different from their own; enriches pupils’ knowledge of the religious and humanist heritage of humanity and so supports other subjects such as History, English Literature, Art, Music, and Geography; and allows pupils to engage with serious ethical and philosophical questions in a way that develops important skills of critical thinking, reasoning and inquiry.

All the usual contemporary justifications for the subject of Religious Education in the school curriculum – its contribution to social cohesion and mutual understanding, its presentation of a range of answers to questions of meaning and purpose, its role in educating about the history and present culture of humanity, and its role in the search for personal identity and values – can only be served by including humanist perspectives and non-religious students.

Surveys consistently show that a high proportion of young people are not religious; for example, the 2011 Census found 31% of 0-19 year olds having no religion, with a further 8% not stated; the 2003 Citizenship Survey found 46% of 11-15 year olds not having a religion (44% were Christian); while a 2004 Department for Education report found 65% of 12-19 year olds are not religious; and the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey records 65% of 18-24 year olds as not belonging to any religion. For RE to remain relevant as a subject, it is vital that it is as relevant to these young people as it is to their religious peers.

Finally, the inclusion of non-religious worldviews in the curriculum alongside religious beliefs reflects consistent recommendations in international agreements such as the ODIHR-OSCE’s Toledo Guiding Principles on teaching about religions and beliefs in public schools (2007), the Final Document of the International Consultative Conference on School Education in Relation to Freedom of Religion or Belief, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination (2001), and the Council of Europe’s Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the dimension of religions and non-religious convictions within intercultural education (2008). Such inclusion was specifically recommended in the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief’s 2008 report on the UK.

Humanists’ work in RE

Humanists UK is a founding member of the RE Council for England and Wales (REC), and for many years there has been a humanist on the Board of the REC. Humanists UK is also strongly supportive of the role schools play in furthering pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Humanists UK helped to develop Ofsted’s 2004 guidance on this matter, and endorses the definition of spiritual development that they use. Humanists UK has been part of most government and quango initiatives on RE in the last couple of decades.

Many SACREs have had humanist representatives for many decades, including as Chairs and Vice-Chairs of both SACREs and ASCs. Recent years have seen a large rise in the number of humanists who are on SACREs: about 90% of English SACREs now have a humanist or are in the process of admitting one. The contribution of humanists to RE is enormous.

Successive government views on Humanism in RE

In 1994 the then (Conservative) Secretary of State for Education wrote to Humanists UK: ‘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,’ and ‘…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.’ This inclusion of Humanism can be seen in all more recent national Government publications on RE. For example, in England:

  • The 2004 National Framework says ‘To ensure that all pupils’ voices are heard and the religious education curriculum is broad and balanced, it is recommended that there are opportunities for all pupils to study… secular philosophies such as humanism.’ And during key stages 1-3, it is recommended that pupils study ‘a secular world view, where appropriate’.
  • The 2007 key stage 3 programme of study makes the same recommendation, defining a secular world view as ‘secular philosophies such as Humanism.’ The key stage 4 programme of study says that pupils should have ‘opportunities to study a range of philosophical and ethical issues that are of relevance to young people’s experience or aspirations and that make reference to some religious and philosophical traditions.’ ‘Religious and philosophical traditions’ is defined as including ‘Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and secular philosophies such as Humanism.’
  • The (abandoned) 2010 primary programme of learning states ‘To ensure that all children’s voices are heard, it is recommended that there are opportunities to study other religious traditions such as the Baha’i faith, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism, and secular world views, such as humanism’, adding, ‘Over the primary phase as a whole, children should draw on both religious and non-religious world views.’
  • The 2010 non-statutory guidance includes several references to Humanism. In addition, in all these documents, RE is defined as important because ‘It develops children’s knowledge and understanding of religions and beliefs, including Christianity, other principal religions, other religious traditions and other world views’ (or something equivalent). The 2010 primary programme of learning adds that ‘The phrase ‘religions and beliefs’ should be taken to include religious and secular world views, and their associated practices.’
  • The 2013 religious education curriculum framework, produced by the Religious Education Council for England and Wales and endorsed by the Government, contains 100 references to teaching about non-religious worldviews – putting Humanism on an equal footing with teaching about religions. The document says that ‘The phrase ‘religions and worldviews’ is used in this document to refer to Christianity, other principal religions represented in Britain, smaller religious communities and non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. The phrase is meant to be inclusive’. It also says ‘The curriculum for RE aims to ensure that all pupils: A. Know about and understand a range of religions and worldviews; B. Express ideas and insights about the nature, significance and impact of religions and worldviews; C. Gain and deploy the skills needed to engage seriously with religions and worldviews’.
  • The 2013 Independent School Standards require that independent schools, Academies and Free Schools ‘encourage pupils to respect the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.’ Until November 2014, departmental advice recommended that schools meet this standard by using ‘teaching resources from a wide variety of sources to help pupils understand a range of faiths, and beliefs such as atheism and humanism.’
  • The first aim of the 2015 GCSE religious studies subject content is that ‘GCSE specifications in religious studies should: develop students’ knowledge and understanding of religions and non-religious beliefs, such as atheism and humanism’. In terms of the programme of study, ‘all specifications must require students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the fact that: religious traditions in Great Britain are diverse and include… non-religious beliefs, such as atheism and humanism’.

The last major survey of the extent to which Humanism is included in English locally agreed syllabuses was carried out in 2007. This found that 62 of 80 syllabuses include Humanism. The level of inclusion of Humanism in syllabuses today is higher. The latest RE Subject Framework therefore represents no revolution, only an extension of a decades-long trend.

In Wales:

  • Amongst other references to non-religious and philosophical perspectives, the 2002 National exemplar framework for religious education  for 3 to 19-year-olds in Wales emphasises that learners ‘plan investigations by gathering and utilising a range of religious and non-religious sources and use these to evaluate and justify their personal responses.’ Additionally ‘Religious education contributes to Wales, Europe and the World by raising challenging questions from religious and non-religious perspectives’. It also encourages ‘in-depth investigations of religion and religious/non-religious ideas evident in [learners’] locality in Wales.’
  • Amongst other references, the 2009 document Religious education Guidance for 14 to 19-year-olds explains ‘Pupils should be given opportunities to investigate fundamental questions from a variety of informed religious and non-religious sources to evaluate a range of possibilities and begin to draw reasoned conclusions based on the evidence gathered’.
  • 2011’s Religious education Guidance for Key Stages 2 and 3: Key messages for planning learning and teaching emphasises that pupils should ‘engage with fundamental questions to investigate interpretations of meaning and the purpose of existence as raised by religious and non-religious people alike.’ In addition, ‘In religious education, learners will have opportunities to plan investigations by gathering and utilising a range of religious and non-religious sources and use these to evaluate and justify their personal responses’.
  • The 2011 Exemplifying learner profiles at Key Stages 2 and 3 in religious education: Additional guidance also emphasises the importance of learning about non-religious beliefs, and cites a number of examples.

Postscript on ‘worldviews’

As long ago as in its 1989 Handbook for SACREs, ASCs and Schools, the REC stated that one generally accepted aim of RE would be, ‘To encourage knowledge and understanding of religions and similar world views.’ Even then this usage was no novelty and there has been a general acceptance among RE teachers and specialists for over fifty years that an RE that does not pay some attention to non-religious worldviews is incomplete. The RE Subject Framework uses the word ‘worldviews’ because all the alternative terms: ‘beliefs’, ‘non-religious beliefs’ or ‘secular philosophies’ are ambiguous and easily misunderstood. The Framework has a footnote explaining that ‘The phrase ‘religions and worldviews’ is used to refer to Christianity, other principal religions represented in Britain, smaller religious communities and non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. The phrase is meant to be inclusive.’ This very clearly delimits what is meant by the phrase.

It was used in the Secretary of State in his forward to the Framework: ‘All children need to acquire core knowledge and understanding of the beliefs and practices of the religions and worldviews which not only shape their history and culture but which guide their own development… This RE curriculum framework… has the endorsement of a very wide range of professional organisations and bodies representing faiths and other worldviews. I hope the document will be useful to all those seeking to provide RE of the highest quality for young people in our schools.’