Comment: The government's censorship of Humanism must be challenged in court

A child cannot begin to make sense of religion without at least some study of its alternatives
A child cannot begin to make sense of religion without at least some study of its alternatives

By Andrew Copson

Last week, three parents and their children took the government to court. They asked a judge to affirm that in refusing to allow for the detailed study of non-religious beliefs in the new Religious Studies GCSE, the government improperly marginalised those beliefs, discriminated against those who hold them, and, as a result, failed to treat them equal to their religious fellow-citizens.

This challenge has been a long time coming, but it was inevitable. Last year, the Department for Education published its draft subject content for the reformed Religious Studies GCSE. The content, which is the foundation on which the exam boards must base their specifications and papers, dictates that students must study two religions in depth, providing an annex outlining what should be covered for each.

What it did not do, in defiance of professional and public opinion, was allow for the similar in depth study of a non-religious worldview, such a Humanism, alongside a religion. Almost 90% of respondents to the DfE's consultation on the subject content supported its inclusion.


Last year, a letter signed by 113 leading RE academics, consultants, teachers, philosophers, and children's authors was sent to schools minister Nick Gibb, expressing similar support. And a further letter, signed by 28 religious leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, made the same call. The Religious Education Council for England and Wales also supported it, as did the National Association of Teachers of RE.

The decision wasn't just disappointing to parents, professionals, and all those who care about rigorous education of beliefs in English schools, it was also a shock. Unbelievably, DfE previously asked the BHA to produce an annex on Humanism for the GCSE, which, in conjunction with RE experts, teachers, and academics, we did. The result was a treatment of humanism comfortably as rigorous as the annexes for the religions which had already been produced.

We had no reason to think it wouldn't end up included. And yet, here we are.

This is a country which, according to the last census, is home to over three and half times more non-religious people than of all the non-Christian religions put together. Or, depending on the poll, more non-religious young people than all the religions, including Christianity, combined.

I'm not suggesting the study of religion and belief should only be justified by or tied to their relative prominence in society, but it does seem appropriate, and the case law bears this out, to maintain at least a modicum of proportionality. 

The long history of non-religious and humanist contribution to society in the UK should not be ignored. One wonders how students could possibly understand the cultural traditions and religious character of this country without reference to the enlightenment, to rationalism, to the struggle for secularism or the erosion of religious privilege and control, of which 'non-believers' were, and continue to be, so integral a part.

Put simply, one cannot begin to make sense of religion without at least some study of its alternatives.

Despite this, the Department for Education stated its reasoning for relegating the beliefs of such a large section of the country as follows:

"As these are qualifications in Religious Studies, it is right that the content primarily focuses on developing students' understanding of different religious beliefs."

If we are to judge the value and efficacy of a subject, then we must surely look beyond its name and measure it against the purposes we set out for it. RE, at its best, gives children the opportunity to understand other people's beliefs and to develop their own. To grapple with life's big questions and properly consider morality, existence, truth, and purpose. To respect our differences while also recognising how much we share. To promote 'British Values' and to contribute, perhaps above all, to an inclusive, tolerant, and cohesive society, the achievement of which has ostensibly been placed at the very heart of government ambition by David Cameron in his recent speeches.

Clearly, all of this points just as strongly towards including non-religious world views as it does to including religious ones. Regrettably, this has been ignored by the government and the consequence is clear: a subject which is academically less rigorous, demographically less relevant, and socially less useful.

It's disappointing we have had to turn to the courts to change this, but in the absence of the government doing so, it is the only option we have. 

Andrew Copson is the chief executive of the British Humanist Association. The hearing was held in the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday 10 November. Mr Justice Warby presided over the case and is expected to issue his judgement in the next few weeks.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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