The Education Acts in England and Scotland (1945 & 1946) established that all children and young people at school should take ‘religious education’ and begin each day with some kind of act of ‘religious observance’. Although the Acts are now sometimes observed ‘more in the breach’ – anecdotal evidence suggests – this is still the case officially across the UK today.
There has always been a minority view since 1945 that ‘religion’ is not an appropriate subject to study at school in a ‘secular’ age. More recently however the content of RE curricula has changed in response to concerns about its ‘confessional’ character and people are accustomed to the idea that the content of RE now relates to a neutral treatment of ‘world religions’ rather than to the inculcation of a particular set of teachings, beliefs or practices. Now another point of contention seems to have emerged. A group composed of parents and young people supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA) is going to court to challenge the government’s most recent revised curriculum for Religious Studies in England and Wales at GCSE level.
One argument appears to be that such a limited description of ‘world religions’ (typically in recent years only six recognized ‘major world religions’ are studied in the UK context) gives the impression that within the school curriculum, issues of truth and morality are predominantly if not exclusively addressed here and that ‘non-religious world views’ are somehow discriminated against as inferior. This view is understandable given the ways in which we use the terms ‘religion’, ‘non-religious’ and ‘the secular’ and this is something that a group of scholars associated with the term ‘critical religion’ have been working on in recent years. They have come up with the idea that this language does not simply describe several equitable positions or entities existing in the world that – as seems to be the demand in this case – should all have their place in terms of educational policy making and the curriculum. Tim Fitzgerald of Stirling University has argued for example that
‘…religion is a power category that, in dialectical interplay with other power categories such as ‘politics’, ‘science’ or ‘nature’, constructs a world and our own apprehensions according to the interests of private property, and the various beliefs, institutions and practices that have come into the world to protect private property.’
The BHA and the parents and young people they are supporting in this case may thus be justified in their concern about the associations of ‘religion’ with notions of truth, conscience and morality that are arguably still significantly informed in policy contexts by a privileged view of its meaning as explored by Fitzgerald for example. By excluding humanism from the context of ‘religion’ in the curriculum, the BHA might quite reasonably argue they are thus being excluded from a point of privileged moral and ethical reference in British society. At the same time, we could say that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘the religious’ continue to act in British society to describe a sphere of influence that is subordinate. Its proper concerns are determined by their distinction from ‘the secular’ within an essentially hierarchical binary. The sphere of ‘religion’ is viewed as contributing to a legitimate if subsidiary and largely privatized social and cultural richness or diversity, but there is little doubt in the present ideological context within British society that power in the public realm lies with values and institutions that are generally identified as ‘secular.’
In consequence the appellants seem at once justified and unjustified in their case. Humanism does seem as worthy of study as, for example, Christianity or any other of the ‘six major religions’. On the other hand, it is difficult to know what is to be achieved by trying to establish humanism as an equivalent to the other ‘world religions’ or even in terms of the synonymous ‘world view’ whilst the RE curriculum continues systematically to exclude any discussion of the fascinating and not very neutral, normative concerns of contemporary society currently elevated in contrast as ‘secular’.
In other words whilst there seems to be an issue here about discrimination and the equitable recognition of diversity, there is perhaps an even more profound issue about the entire discursive language of religion/non-religion/secularity that in policy terms has already powerfully limited the possible differences of truth, conscience and morality with which young people can be encouraged to engage in school RE curricula, revised or otherwise.