Inclusive religious education

In the UK, all schools must teach religious education (RE). Historically, the subject has involved the study of Christianity, more recently other major world religions were included, and today it should include teaching about humanism. It tends to be the space in the curriculum where moral and ethical questions are explored.

Unlike for most subjects, there is no national curriculum for RE. Instead, each of the around 170 local authorities in the UK sets its own locally agreed syllabus. This can mean young people in different parts of the country end up receiving wildly different RE, the content of which often depends on the views of dominant individuals or religious groups who play a role within local syllabus setting conferences. The situation is complicated further by the fact that new academy and free schools are not required to follow the local syllabus, and, as we have already heard, faith schools are able to set their own RE curriculum that fits the religious ethos of the school.

Some non-religious people oppose the teaching of RE and think it has no place in schools. However, many humanists do not wish to see an end to the subject. As the space in the curriculum that supports young people to develop their own individual beliefs and values, and allows them to learn about the beliefs and values of others, many humanists believe the subject plays an essential role in education. It has the potential to support understanding, tolerance, and empathy for diverse approaches to life, and to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to play a positive role in society. Many humanists actively engage with the RE community, and Humanists UK is one of the founding members of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales.

What humanists typically want, however, is that the subject be made fit for purpose in a modern, plural society. Humanists UK campaign for a more inclusive RE that allows young people the opportunity to learn about humanism as an example of a non-religious worldview (as well as the major religions). Just as it is essential to learn about some of the diverse religious worldviews, it is equally important that young people have the opportunity about non-religious people’s approaches to life.

Humanists believe RE should not be presented from the standpoint of a single faith (as is still the case in many schools), but, as the law makes clear, it should be should be objective, critical, and pluralistic. It should encourage young people to think for themselves. Humanist perspectives, as well as religious perspectives, should be included on the moral questions explored in RE. Children’s rights to freedom of belief requires the freedom to form those beliefs and that requires a broad and balanced education about religious and non-religious worldviews. Many humanists feel the name of the subject should also be made more inclusive and that the curriculum should be set nationally by independent RE experts.

In 2015, several non-religious parents challenged the UK government over the fact that the new Religious Studies GCSE (the main age-16 school examination) included the option to study content from a choice of seven different religions but no option to study humanism. They won their case in the High Court, and the judgement ruled that the curriculum needed to treat religious and non-religious worldviews with ‘equal respect’. However, the complications of religious education syllabus setting mean that, what is now clear under the law, has still not filtered down into practice in many schools.

For humanists, religious education remains in an unacceptable condition in many schools around the UK. However, progress has been made in some schools in recent years. Support for many of Humanists UK’s education policy aims were included in the 2018 Commission on RE report, including a proposed change of the name of the subject to Religion and Worldviews. Today many RE teachers are working hard to make the humanist vision for a critical, objective, and pluralistic RE a reality. In the next step we’ll meet one humanist RE teacher and hear about what motivates him to do the work he does.

Question: What should be included in young people’s education about religious and non-religious worldviews?

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Humanist Lives

Humanists UK