By David Harrison
A guide to atheism is to be sent to every secondary school in England and Wales in a move reminiscent of Michael Gove’s decision to give a copy of the King James Bible to all schools.
The book, called The Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for Living a Good Life without God, is being sent to school libraries today (29 April) by the British Humanist Association (BHA).
The distribution of the book comes following the education secretary’s decision to send the King James Bible to every primary and secondary in England to mark its 400th anniversary in 2011.
But experts in Christian education claimed that sending out the book was an "overreaction" and that the humanists seemed to be "behaving a bit like a persecuted minority" in doing so.
The move also follows Prime Minister David Cameron’s claim earlier this month that Britain is “a Christian country”.
The BHA says the guide, funded by donations, will “ensure that young people have access to resources that enable them to come to their own decisions about their values and beliefs”.
The book was written by Alom Shaha, a science teacher at a comprehensive school in London.
Shaha, who is also a writer and film-maker, tells the story of his upbringing in a Bangladeshi Muslim community in southeast London and how his education and experiences led him to question the beliefs he learned from his parents, priests, or teachers.
Andrew Copson, the BHA’s chief executive, said that the book would help young people to “think critically” about the world around them,” adding that the book showed that it was “possible to live a compassionate, fulfilling, and meaningful life without God or religion”.
Sara Passmore, the BHA’s head of education, said that having the book in schools would give a better balance to the information available to pupils. “Nationally, most young people have non-religious beliefs and values. However, in a large number of schools, pupils only have access to a number of religious perspectives on life’s bigger questions.
“Alom’s book will help schools to be places where pupils can encounter the broad range of religious and non-religious worldviews in modern Britain.”
But Trevor Cooling, professor of Christian education at Canterbury Christ Church University, said: “The humanists seem to be behaving a bit like a persecuted minority. Children should be exposed to many and varied ideas, but this book seems to be an overreaction.
“The evidence suggests that most children’s understanding of science is already largely atheistic. The BHA itself says that most children have non-religious beliefs, so why do they feel it is so important to send out this book?
“The status of a handbook written by a science teacher from London cannot be compared with that of a sacred Christian text and it cannot in any way be said to be offering balance."
Gove sent the King James Bible to all schools to commemorate its anniversary and help pupils “access Britain’s cultural heritage”.
Prime Minister David Cameron supported the scheme, but insisted that it was privately funded after it emerged that the project would cost an estimated £375,000.
Gove described the King James Bible as “a thing of beauty, and…an incredibly important historical artefact. It has helped shape and define the English language and is one of the keystones of our shared culture. And it is a work that has had international significance," he said.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, hoped it would “inspire teachers to teach about the impact of the King James Bible, although there is no requirement on them to do so".
The move was criticised by non-religious charities, with the National Secular Society (NSS) calling on the government to provide books that are in much shorter supply than the Bible.