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Does humanism have a place in religious education?

Does humanism have a place in religious education?

Richard Branson might seem an unlikely figure to provide significant insights on religion, community cohesion and education, but recently something he said did just that.

Locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with BSkyB, Branson reportedly said. ‘It is a businessman’s job to try to dominate.’

This set me thinking. Branson was using what I shall call the market share model. In a world where diversity is the norm, where we live and breathe competition and where we find ourselves head-to-head with opponents, the rule is that we should each seek to dominate.

In this environment, the aim is to eradicate the opposition’s influence. Naturally, being British and democratic, we are gracious in victory and magnanimous in defeat, but the reality is that the loser goes to the wall. And that doesn’t tend to stimulate cooperative relationships.

Religious Education (RE) in schools in England and Wales is controlled by Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs). Every local authority has one. Originally devised as a mechanism for making Christian denominations cooperate, they now comprise representatives from at least six different religions. They are rare examples of cooperative, multifaith ventures.

For many years the British Humanist Association (BHA) has been knocking on SACREs’ doors seeking representation on the grounds that RE that is true to the nature of modern Britain should cover humanism as the main alternative to religion. So far they have been refused and do not have a clear legal right to representation. Their lack of success is probably down to minimal enthusiasm for their cause from the religions. Operating according to the ‘market share’, religious groups doubt the wisdom of making concessions to humanists.

But is this model the best way to manage interfaith relationships, even given that they are competing for people’s loyalty to their understanding of the truth?

It seems to me that Jesus commends an alternative model. Offered all the kingdoms of world when tempted in the wilderness, he did not opt for the dominance this promised.  Taunted to come down from the cross and crush those who were killing him, he remained true to another way.

Jesus’ life, and his death, suggest to us in the most vivid terms that the market share approach is not the right way to cultivate the relationships that make life worth living, for building the community cohesion that we so keenly crave today. Accordingly, I have concluded that it is right to support the humanist campaign and to eschew the perceived competitive advantage in keeping humanists off SACREs.

However, I have a question.  Have humanists themselves moved on from the market share model? It is certainly the model used by the eminent atheist Richard Dawkins, whose energies in recent years have been invested in persuading the British population that religion is a dangerous virus.

The evidence is ambiguous. The BHA contribution to interfaith bodies like the RE Council and the work of their Education Officers have been impressive. That noted, BHA rhetoric still betrays market share tendencies. Two examples illustrate this.

The Chief Executive of the BHA has made much of a MORI poll that supposedly reveals that 36 per cent of the UK population are humanists at heart, even though they may never have heard of humanism. On the basis of this market share, she argues that government ought to implement secular policies which marginalise the influence of the religions.

Second, humanists continue to claim a superior position in arguing that they are people of rationality alone, unlike the religious who are people of ‘faith’. They want to have equal status with religions when it comes to representation on SACRE but not when it comes to the perceived intellectual value of their commitments.

The market share model will not deliver community cohesion. Somehow faith communities have to be persuaded that other models are more appropriate. The humanists have an opportunity to lead the way but that may require a fundamental re-orientation in familiar patterns of thinking. It will certainly mean conceding they too are people of faith. I wonder?

Trevor Cooling works as part of the team at The Stapleford Centre in Nottingham

Trevor Cooling

Trevor Cooling

Professor Trevor Cooling is Professor Emeritus of Christian Education at Canterbury Christ Church University UK, and Chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC). Previously, Trevor worked as a secondary school teacher in biology and religious education, a university theology lecturer, a diocesan adviser and CEO of a Christian Education charity.

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Posted 10 August 2011


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