British Humanist Association. Challenging RE. Ofsted, spiritualism, environmentalism and The Great Global Warming Swindle, Channel 4 TV.

British Humanist Association
                  Challenging RE
                  First published in Resource, Autumn 2001
                  by Marilyn Mason, education officer, BHA
                  There seem to me to be two major challenges for RE today. One
                  is to meet the needs of all pupils in the classroom, including
                  those who are not religious. The other to address criticisms
                  of the quality of RE from well-informed sources such as
                  Barbara Wintersgill. I am going to propose some modest
                  changes, and some more radical ones, that might challenge some
                  current RE practice and initiate a debate about the content of
                  When I talk to teachers and trainee teachers they recognise my
                  description of the disaffected adolescent at the back of the
                  classroom who, if he or she speaks at all, questions the
                  relevance and value of RE: "What’s it to me – I don’t believe
                  any of this?" This high recognition factor is hardly
                  surprising, given the figures for non-belief amongst young
                  people today: in a 1994 survey of 13,000 13-15 year olds, 61%
                  declared themselves to be atheist or agnostic [ 1 ]. Can RE
                  ever be more than a "spectator sport", as the Chair of one
                  SACRE described it to me, for these non-religious children? Is
                  RE bound to produce metaphysically perplexed citizens like the
                  elderly woman who, after listening intently to a public talk
                  on Humanism, came up to the speaker with evident relief to
                  say: "Now I know what I believe!" I certainly meet a few
                  sixth-formers like this when I speak in schools, students who
                  had never before encountered in school a reflection of their
                  own beliefs.
                  The problems that atheist, agnostic and humanist children
                  sometimes have, despite their large numbers in most
                  classrooms, are partially caused by the fact that they are
                  less likely than other children to label themselves
                  confidently, and by the fact that they are invisible (though
                  not necessarily silent). They do not wear distinctive
                  clothing, and have no particular requirements regarding diet
                  or religious observances. Many of them have quite firm
                  atheistic views – they are by no means all vaguely religious,
                  the occasional participants in religion or the adherents of
                  "invisible religions’ described in Linda Rudge’s article "I am
                  nothing" – Does it Matter? [ 2 ]But most non-religious parents
                  do not exercise their legal right to withdraw their children
                  from RE and collective worship, because they value the "good
                  bits" – the understanding of other beliefs and traditions
                  imparted in RE, the shared human values and school ethos and
                  culture celebrated in school assemblies – and they do not want
                  their child singled out as a dissenter. Many humanists are
                  sufficiently tolerant to wish their children to be exposed to
                  many life stances (including their own) before choosing for
                  themselves. They would welcome an RE where their beliefs were
                  not marginalised, belittled or patronised.
                  Young atheists appear to be slightly less coherent in their
                  beliefs and slightly more anti-social in their attitudes than
                  young theists. For example, though 61% say they do not believe
                  in God, only 19% of the same sample deny believing that "Jesus
                  Christ is the Son of God" [ 3 ]. On questions of right and
                  wrong, young atheists tend to be more liberal, and sometimes,
                  more relativist and morally confused; for example 13% of
                  atheists and 7% of agnostics saw nothing wrong in shoplifting,
                  as against 6% of theists and 3% of regular church-goers [ 4 ].
                  This can make gloomy reading for the non-religious (though I
                  personally find it reassuring that so few young people overall
                  have really poor moral values), and can confirm the worst
                  fears of religious reactionaries: "No religion, no morality",
                  as an erstwhile Minister of Education put it. Figures like
                  these are often used to demand more religion in schools,
                  though humanists would argue that it is the overly close
                  connection between religious and moral education in our
                  schools over the past century that has contributed to some
                  non-religious students’ disengagement from morality: "the baby
                  has gone out with the bathwater."
                  Some young non-believers come from families that have
                  identified themselves as humanist and formulated a humanist
                  philosophy, possibly, but not necessarily, with the help of a
                  humanist organisation such as the British Humanist
                  Association. These young humanists have usually been brought
                  up to be more morally secure that the average atheist, but
                  their values are rarely explicitly acknowledged in school.
                  Adult humanists have often had to work out a worldview for
                  themselves in isolation, unaware that their hard-won concepts
                  are common amongst moral philosophers [ 5 ], humanists and the
                  more liberal Christians [ 6 ]. If RE is supposed to help
                  pupils towards a sense of identity and a formulation of their
                  own life stance, it should not ignore such a large section of
                  the population. RE should encourage everyone to live "examined
                  lives", lives of integrity and coherence.
                  Including the non-religious
                  Including the non-religious in RE is not the same as
                  converting them to a religious view of the world. They may
                  come to understand something of it, but probably always as
                  outsiders. Young humanists, and young agnostics and atheists
                  too, dislike collective worship [ 7 ], often on moral grounds,
                  feeling that it would be hypocritical to join in and seeing it
                  as an attempt to indoctrinate, but they find much of RE
                  interesting. It could be so much more interesting and
                  challenging, not just for them but for all pupils.
                  Somehow RE must draw in the ethics and life stances of the
                  non-religious, or cede this area to Citizenship. The new
                  non-statutory guidance on RE from QCA [ 8 ] in Spring 2000
                  offered some encouragement towards inclusion of humanist ideas
                  in RE and I hope that teachers and SACREs will assimilate and
                  make use of its open-minded and inclusive approach, for
                  example the inclusion of non-religious views and the idea that
                  pupils should "learn to understand and respect different
                  religions, beliefs, values and traditions (including ethical
                  life stances)". The national expectations in RE contain some
                  usefully inclusive descriptions of levels of attainment. Many
                  of the more inclusive statements appear under AT2, Learning
                  from religion, and doubtless reflect much current good
                  practice. Even if SACREs do not adopt some or all of these
                  guidelines, the new levels of attainment will influence
                  practice, as will increasingly inclusive GCSE criteria and
                  syllabuses. Without having to rewrite syllabuses and schemes
                  of work, there is much that can be done do in the classroom to
                  include non-religious pupils. Often all that is required is a
                  note in the margin or a few changes, of emphasis or language,
                  to make lessons and tasks more inclusive. For example, words
                  such as "belief", "life stance", "worldview", "philosophy" or
                  "ethical tradition" include more pupils than "religion" or
                  "faith", and "reflection" can include pupils who feel excluded
                  by "prayer".
                  Rising to the Ofsted challenge
                  If modest changes would make RE more relevant and less
                  alienating to the non-religious, there are other, more radical
                  changes that could make RE a genuinely exciting and
                  challenging subject for everyone. Pruning some traditional
                  content would enable healthy new growth to flourish, and some
                  hard questions about content need to be addressed. How much of
                  other people’s beliefs do we really need to know in order to
                  understand and live sensitively with our neighbours? Not as
                  much as many SACREs and ASCs imagine, probably. How much of
                  what is taught in RE contributes to inter-faith respect, and
                  how much instead encourages the idea that other communities
                  are really rather strange, with their "peculiar" clothes and
                  taboos and customs? Too much, possibly. And how are "the
                  silent majority" to "reflect on, analyse, and evaluate their
                  beliefs, values and practice" [ 9 ] when they have no place in
                  the syllabus? SACREs need to consider whether the current
                  content of most agreed syllabuses can indeed deliver the aims.

                  Barbara Wintersgill suggested that controversy, a range of
                  sources of evidence, the opportunity to evaluate, to make
                  decisions, to analyse, organise and synthesise material for
                  themselves, all make tasks more challenging.
                  One step in the right direction would be to throw away the
                  simplistic descriptions of the six major faiths found in
                  school text books. How many, for example, examine the
                  interesting phenomenon, often described by pupils whose
                  families originate from the Indian sub-continent, that the
                  religious and cultural practices of immigrants to Britain have
                  ossified while "back home" they have moved on? How rigorous
                  and truthful is the detailed but rather static portrayal of
                  religions in RE?
                  RE’s preoccupation with a simplistic view of living religions
                  has also stopped it looking at the intriguing subject of dead
                  religions. The history, origins and variety of religions would
                  be a rich study indeed, with plenty of opportunity for
                  critical evaluation (much less of a minefield, in fact, to
                  evaluate and criticise a dead religion than a living one) and
                  for comparative study. If you want to give your pupils an
                  overview of religion, where better to start than in the
                  (pre-)history of humanity’s need for ritual, for ways of
                  dealing with death and suffering, for explanations of the way
                  things are. That religions have been major providers for these
                  needs explains their similarities and their endurance, and the
                  ways they have evolved when faced with alternatives or rivals.
                  Festivals and rites of passage offer one way into this
                  fascinating topic. (They also offer an opportunity to examine
                  secular and humanist ceremonies, something of relevance to
                  many pupils.)
                  A rigorous examination of the words "spiritual" and
                  "spirituality" is long overdue, and not just in RE. What would
                  pupils regard as spiritual? How else might one describe this
                  dimension of life? Is this something that the non-religious
                  can share, or can they share the concept but not the words?
                  Here again would be the chance for some real analysis, for
                  critical research (into "spirituality" in the media or "new
                  age spirituality"), and for active and demanding work
                  organising material.
                  The political aspects of religion would also offer a good
                  controversial topic, with plenty of tough questions to
                  discuss. Should states be involved in religion or is it a
                  purely private matter? How easy is it to live as an atheist in
                  a religious state or as a religious believer in a secular
                  state? How far should religious and non-religious people
                  impose their ideas and values on each other? Why do religious
                  groups come into conflict with each other so often? How can
                  people with very different worldviews coexist peacefully?
                  RE’s preoccupation with the "six major faiths" prevents it
                  from exploring the new religious movements that are, for many,
                  more attractive options. A study of these, too, would offer
                  opportunities for critical evaluation and research, for
                  controversy and analysis of contemporary opinions and sources
                  (such as newspaper features and religious advertising). RE
                  should also examine and evaluate other ethical worldviews such
                  as Humanism, Environmentalism and Anti-Capitalism. There are
                  many "-isms" today that offer to their adherents similar
                  satisfactions to those offered by religion: a sense of
                  community and purpose and a set of beliefs and values on which
                  to base one’s life. To pretend, as RE sometimes does, by
                  implication at least, that environmentalism and concerns about
                  global capitalism and world poverty belong exclusively to the
                  religions, is a distortion of the truth, and one that does
                  little for the self-esteem of the non-religious. To pretend,
                  as RE sometimes does, aided and abetted by public figures like
                  Prince Charles, that the only alternative to a religious
                  foundation for life is mindless and selfish consumption, that
                  if you don’t worship God you must worship football or
                  shopping, is simply untrue and offensive. The altruism of the
                  "silent majority" should not be stifled by being patronised or
                  side-lined by RE.
                  On the other hand, it may be that the Citizenship teacher, or
                  the RE teacher with a Citizenship hat on, is the best person
                  to teach the shared human values that are supposed to underpin
                  Citizenship and the National Curriculum. Many humanists would
                  welcome this – they feel that they and their children have
                  been let down by the moral confusion and moral relativism that
                  is common in RE, and that taking ethics out of RE would be a
                  sensible move. Perhaps a subject called Religious Education
                  can never fully include the non-religious (the BHA has always
                  favoured Religion and Beliefs, or Belief Education). RE
                  teachers might throw up their hands in horror, but much that
                  is genuinely interesting would still be still be left to them
                  in the distinctively religious values and ideas that
                  contribute to the diversity of the religious traditions; these
                  would be supported and complemented by what pupils were
                  learning about their duties, rights and responsibilities in
                  Citizenship. RE teachers would be specialists in the study of
                  religion and major contributors to pupils’ understanding of
                  and "respect for different national, religious and ethnic
                  identities" [ 10 ]. Their specialist subject would no longer
                  be diluted by topics that more properly belong in PSHE or
                  Citizenship, and handing over ethics to a new group of
                  specialists would create space for some new and challenging
                  topics and assignments.
                  There is also much to be said for introducing Philosophy as an
                  alternative to RE. At Sixth Form level, it would have the
                  advantage of novelty after years of compulsory RE, and might
                  be better regarded. It could be introduced even earlier, and
                  need not be as difficult and intimidating as many assume it
                  is. Some European states have always included Philosophy in
                  the school curriculum, and there have been some interesting
                  and inspiring experiments in teaching Philosophy to quite
                  young children, notably the work of Matthew Lipman [ 11 ]in
                  the United States. Philosophy is by its very nature inclusive:
                  everyone engages in some kind of philosophical thinking, even
                  if unaware of it, and philosophical thinking can be sharpened
                  and developed if thinkers are made more aware of what they are
                  doing. It is also inclusive in the sense that philosophers
                  think about just about anything that can be thought about:
                  religion and belief in God, ethics, politics, personal
                  identity and consciousness, knowledge, truth, proof and
                  evidence. It is a pity that our student are deprived of the
                  opportunity to learn what the greatest thinkers of past ages
                  have thought about these and other issues, unless they are
                  part of the tiny minority who opt to study Philosophy at A
                  Level or university. A philosophically literate population,
                  trained to think critically (a skill that many subjects claim
                  but few deliver) would surely not embrace fundamentalism or
                  superstition or mindless pleasure seeking.
                  1 Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay,
                  Trinity College Carmarthen, Teenage Religion and Values ,
                  Chapter 11, Gracewing, 1995
                  2 Linda Rudge " I am nothing" – Does it Matter? A Critique of
                  Current Religious Education Policy and Practice in England on
                  Behalf of the Silent Majority , BJRE 20:3, Summer 1998
                  3 Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay,
                  Trinity College Carmarthen, Teenage Religion and Values ,
                  Chapter 11, Gracewing, 1995
                  4 Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay,
                  Trinity College Carmarthen, Teenage Religion and Values ,
                  Chapter 8, Gracewing, 1995
                  5 See, for example, Mary Warnock’s An Intelligent Person’s
                  Guide to Ethics (Duckworth, 1998) which contains an excellent
                  chapter on moral education.
                  6 See, for example, Bishop Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality
                  (Canongate, 1999)
                  7 Asked whether they liked school assemblies, 355 pupils aged
                  5-16 said Yes and 928 said No. 30 said they did not go to
                  assemblies. 1250 thought young people should be able to choose
                  whether to attend or not, 261 thought not. Priscilla Alderson
                  Civil Rights in Schools , 1999.
                  8 The booklet on RE guidance 2000 (ref no: QCA/00/576) costs
                  £3 from QCA Publications, PO Box 99, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10
                  6SN, tel: 01787 884444, or can be downloaded from QCA website:
                  9 Non-statutory guidance on RE (QCA, 2000), The importance of
                  religious education.
                  10 National Curriculum: Citizenship (QCA 1999), The importance
                  of citizenship
                  11 See Matthew Lipman: Thinking in Education (Cambridge
                  University Press, 1991


About luckyme0

My First family, second marriage, bringing up my 18-year-old twins, boy, and girl. I am a third generation Humanist, who has some old handwritten information and notes; collected over many years. Someone may find the articles interesting, or helpful. They could bring back a little ‘reality’, after being ‘shocked’ and ‘brainwashed’, by some malicious group, or institution (REBT Therapy). People should know better, than to do this, to our very young, and the ‘obviously’ vulnerable! Go to easily accessible, non-superstitious knowledge that is not charlatanism! The blog has given me an incentive to order my thoughts, learn, and read up again, after a few non-thinking years of (very silly) imagination and passion. Why not, get your own key to a ‘door’, customise it to suit you, and it can be, all of your very own! Don’t believe, or be led by someone else’s; inherited, stupid, and a very likely (past, and not of today’s) ‘totally preposterous reality’s’. Only some interest in the ‘really big questions’, keeps life above the level of a farce, and very little else! KEEP THINKING! Some of the posts may need some correcting. Interests: REBT Counselling, Atheism, Secularism, Humanism, Psychology, Reading, Popular Science, School Ethos, Philosophy, History, Family, Parenting, Psychology, Horse Riding, Sailing, Rescue Boat Driver, Skiing (Teppichswinger), TV Documentaries, Motorbike Cross Country Riding, Volunteer Sports Stewarding, Writing, Primitive Man, Pre-history, Social Anthropology, British Humanist Association, BHA, Meaning of Life, The Big Questions, Where am I, What am I, Why am I, Hippie Love, Knowledge, Education, Globalisation. Favorite quote: “The world belongs to those who, at least to some degree, have figured it out.” Carl Sagan, ‘The Demon Haunted World’, ‘Contact’, and other famous books DVD ‘Cosmos’. The warning of another and horrendous, “Age of Superstition”. “Isn’t there something deeply absurd in the presumption that children ought to inherit beliefs from their parents. It can be deeply damaging, even lethally divisive. A ‘them’, with an ‘against us’, mentality” – Professor Richard Dawkins. “The will to believe is stronger than mere reason in the vast majority of people” – Dr J.Brown, Army Psychologist of the 1960′s. Humans will believe in almost anything, in fact, they seek it! Why? “98% of us, trained to be just good consumers, let’s train our children to be the 2% who have their very own creativity and discernment”; quote by a famous surreal artist. “The lack of reason brings forth monsters”. “Global interconnectedness is lethal against mass religion, nationalism, racism, and other destructive memeplexes. Let us connect everybody they hate it in restrictive regimes”; from the ‘meme learning group’, Richard Brodie’s book, ‘Virus Of The Mind’ (Richard Brodie a designer for ‘Microsoft Word’). Following on, J.Bronowski, and ‘The Ascent Of Man’ TV series, and a book with the last DVD in this series, ‘The Long Childhood’ being especially revealing. ‘Prehistory’ and the ‘Making of the Human Mind’ by Colin Renfrew, with P.Wilson’s, ‘The Domestication of the Human Species’, and Nigel Spivey’s, TV series and book, ‘How Art Made The World’, offers some further explanations. Latest reading: Jared Diamond
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