Humanism has been studied in Religious Education (as it is known in England and Wales) and Religious and Moral Education (as it is known in Scotland) for over fifty years.
In its report A Review of Religious Education in England (2013) the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) noted that teaching:
… should equip pupils with systematic knowledge and understanding of a range of religions and worldviews, enabling them to develop their ideas, values and identities. It should develop in pupils an aptitude for dialogue so that they can participate positively in our society with its diverse religions and worldviews.
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.
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 government’s own non-statutory guidance also highlights the importance of inclusivity:
Pupils should have the opportunity to learn that there are those who do not hold religious beliefs and have their own philosophical perspectives, and subject matter should facilitate integration and promotion of shared values.
Religious Education in English Schools (DfE, 2010)
The inclusion of non-religious worldviews in the curriculum alongside religious beliefs also 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).
Successive government views on Humanism in Religious Education (RE) and Religious and Moral Education (RME):
The 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 Independent School Standards require that independent schools, academies and free schools ‘actively promote 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.
- 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 [the learner’s] 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.
Learning about Humanism helps support the experiences and outcomes in the Curriculum for Excellence for RME:
‘Learning through religious and moral education enables me to:
- learn about and from… other traditions and viewpoints independent of religious belief
- investigate and understand the responses which religious and non-religious views can offer to questions about the nature and meaning of life
- develop respect for others and an understanding of beliefs and practices which are different from my own
- explore and establish values such as wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity and engage in the development of and reflection upon my own moral values
- develop my beliefs, attitudes, values and practices through reflection, discovery and critical evaluation
- develop the skills of reflection, discernment, critical thinking and deciding how to act when making moral decisions
- make a positive difference to the world by putting my beliefs and values into action
- establish a firm foundation for lifelong learning, further learning and adult life.’