Should the RS GCSE include Humanism?


Yesterday’s Guardian reported about the new Religious Studies GCSE. The story concerns Nicky Morgan, current education secretary, and the content of the new RS GCSE syllabus due to come into effect in September 2016. Specifically, three families – supported by the British Humanist Association – took the government to court because the new RS GCSE syllabus did not include any teaching surrounding Atheism and/or Humanism.

The headline and sub-heading of the article was a little misleading in stating:

Education secretary made ‘error of law’ on new religious studies GCSE – high court

Judge rules in favour of three families who argued Nicky Morgan failed to reflect the pluralistic nature of the UK in curriculum

This implies that the education secretary ‘made an error of law’ by not including any Atheist/Humanist content within the syllabus. It becomes clear later in the article that the content of the GCSE itself was not an issue. Mr Justice Warby stated “it is not of itself unlawful to permit an RS GCSE to be created which is wholly devoted to the study of religion.” The issue was the governmental claim that this new RS syllabus fulfilled “the entirety of the state’s RE [religious education] duties”.

The families were not correct in their assertion that failing to include any Atheistic/Humanistic teaching on an RS syllabus is unlawful. The judge highlighted that an RS syllabus focused solely on religious views was not a problem. The families won the case because the government were claiming Atheistic/Humanistic teaching did not need to be reflected anywhere in the curriculum. That is, not so much in the RS syllabus itself, but at any point in any teaching anywhere in the school.

As an ex-Religious Studies teacher, I have some knowledge of the aims of the subject. My lesson plans were always very rigid (according to government guidelines at the time) and involved two principal learning aims: (1) learning about religion; (2) learning from religion. All lessons, regardless of the topic in view, were aimed towards these two outcomes.

The problem with including Atheism/Humanism on the Religious Studies syllabus is that Atheists/Humanists are always pointed in their claim that they are not a religion. If there is a point that united all Atheists and Humanists it is that they do not consider themselves a religious belief. They argue theirs is a non-belief. Given the aims of learning Religious Education, how can Atheism/Humanism meet these criteria?

Arguing that Atheism/Humanism should be included on an RS syllabus is rather like being angry that French is not taught in a German GCSE. It is a category error. To maintain that Atheism/Humanism is not a religion and yet seek to have it included in a Religious Studies GCSE is a prime example of trying to have one’s cake and eat it. Either Atheism/Humanism is not a religion, and therefore not appropriate for a place on a RS syllabus, or it is a religious position and can legitimately be included. It would be helpful if the BHA could clarify which it is.

Nor can the argument be solely about inclusivity. For years, RS syllabi have focused on the 6 major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism). There has never been inclusion of Jainism, Bahá’iism, Zoroastrianism, Mormonism or any number of other faiths and beliefs. If for no other reason, time simply doesn’t allow inclusion of every belief under the sun. At some level, there must be a selection of what will be studied. The first question any RS syllabus is surely going to ask is this: is this a religion? That inevitably puts all of these minority faiths ahead of Atheism/Humanism.

The issue remains as to whether Atheism/Humanism constitutes religious belief. If it does not, then how can it feasibly be included on a Religious Education GCSE syllabus? If it is a religious belief, then there is scope for its inclusion. Even Mr Justice Warby seemed convinced that there was no legal problem excluding Atheism/Humanism from an RS syllabus. He had no issue with making a Religious Studies syllabus that only focused on religion. It is, indeed, what every other subject happily does. The issue was that government claimed the RS GCSE syllabus – having determined Atheism/Humanism was inappropriately included in this subject – would have met their requirements to reflect modern pluralistic society and beliefs purely by this GCSE. That is patently not true.

Nonetheless, this does not mean Atheism/Humanism ought to be taught on the Religious Studies GCSE. Again, unless it now wants to be reclassified as a religion, it simply doesn’t fit within the subject. If French can be solely taught in French, and the sciences can happily focus on the sciences, then Religious Studies should presumably be able to focus on religion. Of course, if the BHA want to include their non-religion on a Religious Studies GCSE, perhaps they might like to begin talks to bring what they consider the non-science of creationism into the biology classroom? If not, I suggest we keep subjects focused on their intended target.