Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has called for students to be given the option of studying humanism alongside other world religions in new religious education courses.
Dr Williams has written to ministers urging them to reverse a decision to leave humanism out of the specification for the new religious studies GCSE, as well from AS- and A-level qualifications.
The GCSE, due to be introduced from 2016, will require pupils to study two faiths from among: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism.
While humanism was originally due to be included in the list, with content for the new qualifications drawn up by the British Humanist Association (BHA) at the request of the Department for Education, it was subsequently dropped.
Now Dr Williams has joined 27 other religious leaders in writing to schools minister Nick Gibb asking him to reconsider and reinstate humanism in the list of major world faiths.
“Such a change would not compel anyone to systematically study non-religious world views or make it possible to do so for the whole of a qualification, but it would allow young people to study a more representative sample of major world views that are common in Britain today,” the letter says.
Including humanism would also reflect how the subject is taught in many schools, and the idea has been backed by the RE Council of England and Wales and the National Association of Teachers of RE, the letter adds.
In additions to Dr Williams, the letter was signed by former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries as well as members of other Christian denominations and Jewish and Sikh leaders.
Andrew Copson, BHA chief executive, said the decision to exclude humanism would “make a joke of the idea that religious studies will be accessible to every child.”
He added: “It is completely inexplicable to us why the government would take this arbitrary and counter-educational decision."
A Department for Education spokesperson said GCSE students could still study humanism as part of the 50 per cent of the course devoted to philosophy and ethics.
It wasn't true that there was a ban on studying humanism and if schools wanted to teach it they could, the spokesperson added.
Religious studies: pupils must study two faiths for new GCSE – 7 November 2014
Children in non-faith academies most likely to miss out on RE, study finds – 29 November 2013