Thursday, 20 January 2011

Humanism in Education

Having been an atheist pretty much from the day I read the last page of the Bible (something I was made to do at Girl's Brigade), I certainly identify pretty strongly with the Humanist organisation (British Humanist Association). In the last few years, I've attended three humanist funerals - two of my grandparents and my aunt. In each case, a humanist celebration had been requested by the deceased as they all felt that the religious overtones of a "normal" funeral would be completely inappropriate for a person who has lived their life without religion. Each and every one of those services (if that's the right word) were lovely - personal, friendly, amusing (on purpose in some cases, not so much in others!) but above all, very fitting. I'm a huge supporter of the BHA and will certainly be requesting a humanist celebrant for my funeral.

So I was interested to see a recent press release which appeared via my Facebook feed from them. There is apparently a review coming up of the national curriculum and the BHA has called for RE to be added to the national curriculum. Two things sprang to my mind: 1) I assumed it was already on the national curriculum and 2) why on earth would the humanist association be in favour of religion being taught in schools?

The article can be found HERE and having read it, I can understand their thinking. I have long believed that if RE is to be taught at all in schools, it should cover each and every religion and should include agnosticism, atheism and, of course, humanism. No school should be allowed to concentrate on any one religion any more than another - the basics of each world religion should be taught so that kids have a basic understanding of all of them and can then, should they so choose, decide which one they will follow (or none, of course).

I was also unaware that it is still the law that state schools must have "compulsory collective worship" on a daily basis (yes, that would be "assembly" to most of us). How antiquated! Surely, I thought, in this day and age, where most schools have pupils belonging to a multitude of cultures and religions, it would be almost impossible to have "collective worship". The logical thing would be for assembly to be precisely that - one opportunity for everyone in the school to be together in a large hall, there could be some kind of motivational talk or an excerpt from a book or a poem read out, followed by the obligatory announcements (what time choir practice starts, whether the school won the footie match against its biggest rival yesterday, etc) and that would be that.

Anyway, back to the national curriculum. Having read it, agreed with it but then thought about it again, I started to wonder if in fact the BHA might not have shot itself in the foot. I have a sneaking suspicion that they might partially get their way - RE might become part of the national curriculum but be limited to the kids actually being taught about religion - not about non-religion. To my mind, that would almost be worse than the current system. If you give kids an overview of all the many religions that exist, but fail to equally cover the non-religious aspects, some kids might believe that it's almost obligatory to have a religion - that there is no other option. That belief would sadly be reinforced if their parents were religious - those children certainly wouldn't be receiving the message at home that you don't have to have a religion - it should be incumbent upon schools to ensure that that choice is made clear.

The other thing that struck me was the likelihood that in these overly PC days, the government would probably still feel obliged to allow parents to refuse to let their kids take part in the RE lessons, national curriculum or not. I remember that in my school class between the ages of 5 and 12, there was a boy whose family were Jehovah's Witnesses (note that I did not say that he was one as I don't believe that at the age of 5 he can possibly have decided what, if any, religion he wanted to follow). He was not allowed to come to assembly, did not attend RE classes and was not allowed to join in the annual decorating of the classroom with paper chains and snowflakes for Christmas. Yes, I understand that none of those things were part of his family's religion but they made the poor boy a complete outcast, especially at certain times of the year.

So I agree in principle with the idea of RE becoming part of the national curriculum but with conditions - it should teach every religion along with non-religion, and attendance at the classes should be obligatory no matter what religion the child (or their family) follow.