Should atheism be included in Religious Education?

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I've been delighted to find that The Young Atheist's Handbook is being used in schools by teachers like Laura Cooper who wrote to tell me:

"I recently read your book, The Young Atheists Handbook, and would just like to say as a teacher of Religious Studies how useful I have found it. It is exactly the kind of book I have been looking for to use with my students, in order to help them to develop a more nuanced understand of Atheism.
 
I myself am currently completing a masters degree in Education and decided to focus my final research report on the issue of including atheism in Religious Education. I do appreciate how busy you are but I wondered if perhaps I could ask you to respond to some of the questions I have been asking other teachers during my research to gain your perspective on this topic? I have included the questions below:
(1) How do you think atheism should be handled within Religious Education?
(2) What do you see are the benefits of including atheism in Religious Education?
(3) How would you respond to somebody who said that including atheism in Religious Education is illogical?
(4) At what point during their secondary education should students be introduced to Atheist beliefs in Religious Education?
 
Many thanks again for writing such an insightful book - I am already lending my copy out to a number of my GCSE students and have recommended it to my head of department."

Laura has kindly said I can share her email and my response to it here. So, here are my answers to Laura's questions:

(1) How do you think atheism should be handled within Religious Education? I think atheism should definitely be included as part of the material covered in any religious education course. As for how it should be "handled", well, I hope that it would be handled in the same way that I would like the other topics in RE to be taught - in a way that provides students with information, equips them with the tools to critically examine that information, and allows them to arrive at their own conclusions.

(2) What do you see are the benefits of including atheism in Religious Education? The biggest benefit, in my view, of including atheism in RE, indeed of having RE lessons at all, is that it lets students know that people have different ways of looking at and making sense of the world. If taught properly, I'd hope that RE lessons foster understanding and empathy in students for people who are different to them. There are lots of children who come from non-religious families or who may have arrived at the conclusion that there is no god for themselves so it is just as important that religious students develop an understanding of non-religious beliefs, as well as those of other religions, if we are to genuinely promote mutual understanding amongst young people.

(3) How would you respond to somebody who said that including atheism in Religious Education is illogical? I think I've pretty much answered that question in the responses above. But I should perhaps add that atheism is a valid response to the "big questions" that religions attempt to answer and if Religious Education is supposed to teach students about how those questions have been answered, it would be illogical to not include atheism as part of an RE course.

(4) At what point during their secondary education should students be introduced to Atheist beliefs in Religious Education? Year 7. I can think of no reason why discussion of atheism should be delayed. 

I've answered Laura's questions about atheism but the British Humanist Association do a much better job of explaining why non-religious beliefs should be included in RE courses. I fully agree with their belief that "all pupils in all types of schools should have the opportunity to consider philosophical and fundamental questions, and that in an open society we should learn about each other's beliefs, including non-religious beliefs such as Humanism". The BHA are campaigning to make RE an "inclusive, impartial, objective, fair, balanced and relevant subject allowing pupils to explore a variety of religious and non-religoius worldviews...[including] the historical and social contexts of the emergence and development of religions and beliefs". 

As well as the campaign to ensure Humanism is included in school RE courses, the BHA is raising money to send a copy of The Young Atheist's Handbook to every secondary school in England and Wales. Please donate if you can.  

3 Comments

I suppose the most important point to make when comparing atheism to any religion is that it is not an ideology with a set of beliefs attached but just a conviction that there is no such thing as a supernatural being or spirit within the human body.

Humanism offers such an ideology but even that is poorly defined and allows humanists to take varying stances on the big issues of the day - e.g. abortion.

Atheism and humanism do not, therefore, fit very well into any sort of belief matrix that might be used to distinguish different 'religious' beliefs.

I went to a Catholic School and so had compulsory Religious Education from yr7 to Yr13. Even though there was a section of my GCSE called Social and Moral Topics (which we abbreviated to S&M without an inkling of it's double meaning) we did not cover any other viewpoints religious or otherwise.

I think it's important that RS is a part of the curriculum that all school children should study in compulsory education and all aspects be covered not just the main Abrahamic religions. Only through education and exposure to different viewpoints can people make a true informed choice on their particular philosophy.

Alom (and Laura!)

Some good questions and some interesting answers. As an atheist and humanist, I feel strongly that we need to do better at giving the non-theist point of view in many situations, not just in RE. Otherwise it's very easy to take for granted that all people have a religious faith, which then makes kids feel even more isolated if they don't believe.

I'd be interested in students' views about what should be included in RE lessons - and how their opinions as expressed in front of classmates might differ from an anonymous questionnaire. I know that my son has felt excluded from RE lessons as his (lack of) faith has not been described as a valid view.

I would also like to see RE lessons make explicit the distinction between moral and ethical choices, and those made on religious grounds. This would not only emphasize that religion is not needed to be moral, but also make clear that just because individuals or faiths object to something, that doesn't necessarily mean society should be guided by that.

It would, for instance, be very interesting to look for correlations between religious faith, or age, with the votes of MPs on moral issues. (As well as whether there's any link between religious views and their expenses claims!)

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