Keeping faith without God

4th March 2005 at 00:00
The new national framework for RE recommends the teaching of humanism and non-religious world views. Terence Copley looks at the background and classroom implications.

Ever since there was a row in Bath in 1970 about including humanism in the RE syllabus, the debate has rumbled on. Should religious education include non-religious perspectives on life? Or, as opponents have argued, would this constitute anti-religious education?

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority missed a real opportunity by not adopting one simple attainment target for RE in the recent national framework: engaging with religions and other life stances. This target would have presented a view of the child as an active participant ("engaging with") and, via the concept of "other life stances", would have embraced in RE the wide spiritualities and also the secular alternatives that exist outside institutional religions. But when humanism does feature in RE, how should it be presented? Humanists are no more monochrome in their beliefs and values than the spectrum present in any religion. It can also be confusing when history books talk about the "Christian humanists" of the Renaissance.

Nowadays, we identify humanists as secular - people who choose to live without reference to belief in God, the supernatural or other teachings of institutional religions, viewing these teachings as unverifiable or unreasonable.

Humanists fall into three main categories - implicit humanists, probably the majority, who don't belong to any secular humanist organisation but live by humanist values that they may not always articulate. Then there are members of humanist organisations. Some of these, like the British Humanist Association, offer secular rituals for baby naming ceremonies, partnerships, marriages and funerals. The BHA supports open-ended RE in schools, of "shared values assemblies", but not collective worship. It's willing to enter into dialogue with religious believers.

The National Secular Society represents a smaller element within secular humanism. Its members attack and ridicule religious belief. They also target what they consider to be the remaining privileges of religious institutions in western society and religious repression as they see it practised in other societies.

The NSS constitutes evangelical atheistic humanism, which holds exclusively to the rightness of its own position and seeks to win people over. Like religious organisations, the NSS promotes itself - currently with a rather splendid Heroes of Atheism set of mugs and tea towels. The BHA and the NSS attack the existence of faith schools, although they do not criticise the implicit secular values of community schools.

How can this complex picture of secular humanist identity be transposed into the RE classroom? In key stages 3 and 4, secular humanism can be taught in two ways. One is to present a humanist critique of religious material being studied in class, so that students are constantly aware that there are two sides - at least - to the "big questions" in life. This practice is widespread in RE already.

Another is to present a unit of work on secular humanism itself - in which case it is important to present a religious critique of this, so as to ensure a level playing field matching the secular critique of religious material.

It is vital not to present secular humanists merely in a negative light, as people who reject religion. They should be presented as believers. In a universe devoid of God, they believe humankind depends on its own resources and has to make responsible moral choices and promote human welfare. As one humanist puts it: "The miracle is here and now. It is the miracle of nature."

Humanism, like religion, is about commitment - in the case of humanists to make the best use of one's life and to make the world a better place to live in. It is not a creed for no-hopers, as some religious critics suggest, but rather a creed about a particular hope in humankind.

Teaching a religion often begins with the life of the founder. This isn't easy with humanism, where there is no single person or point in history that can be cited. One humanist expert, Barbara Smoker, looks back to Protagoras, Democritus, aspects of Aristotle, Epicurus and, more recently, Bertrand Russell.

Just as religions are sometimes presented via their heroes, humanism has its gallery of saints and martyrs and some of these can be suitable subjects. Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91), Annie Besant (1847-1933) and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot, 1819-80) offer examples for older students from the Victorian birth of institutional humanism in the UK.

Plenty in all this for student web search and library research. Key humanist concepts can also be explored. They make for good classroom discussion: rationalism, "freethinking", utilitarianism (humanist views of morality). A BHA postcard carries the text "Happiness is the only good... the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so."

This maxim and others like it open up humanist values in a very accessible way for classroom debate.

Terence Copley is professor of religious education at Exeter University

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