Rise of Atheism to be Taught in British Religious Studies Classes

In new religious studies classes in the UK, the topics on the syllabus are keeping up with the times:

Students studying a new GCSE Religious Studies course will learn about Druidism, Rastafarianism and the “rise of atheism”.

The new course, Religion and Belief in Today’s World, will be piloted in 2009 by the Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR) exam board. It has been denounced as popularist by critics.

The “groundbreaking” new syllabus largely excludes the Bible and other religious texts.

Religious attitudes towards medical and sexual ethics, including areas such as same-sex relationships and cloning, will be covered.

The influence of the British Humanist Association, the group behind the recent atheist bus advertisements, and the novels of Philip Pullman will be included.

Critics says the new courses are just appealing to popularity.

Anastasia de Waal, of the think-tank Civitas, said: “We seem to be so desperate to make things relevant — to pander to popularity — that our kids aren’t being taught the underlying knowledge they need to succeed in the world. We are doing a huge disservice to our young people.

What underlying knowledge would they be missing? I’m not sure.

Isn’t this what students should be learning in general religious education classes?

What’s going to help you more? Learning about Christianity in depth or getting a broad sense about what people are talking about all around the world when it comes to religion? And let’s face it: Percentage-wise, people are talking less about Jesus and more about atheism. It’s certainly true in America.

While we’re at it, we should be learning more about the Koran, too.

The British Humanist Association is obviously thrilled about this inclusion:

Andrew Copson, Director of Education at the BHA, said it is important that students will be given the chance to study alternative belief systems alongside established religions.

He commented: ‘Non-religious beliefs such as Humanism and non-religious organisations like the British Humanist Association and the International Humanist and Ethical Union are significant features in the landscape of belief today.’

Now, when will we ever see a class like this in the United States…?

(via The Freethinker)


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • P

    If the nod to atheism is just an appeal to popularity, then why should creationism be taught in schools in the US? Granted, different groups at work here, but shoot, nothing’s more popular than that there Bible fer teachin ya nawlidje!

  • David D.G.

    Now, when will we ever see a class like this in the United States…?

    Probably not until a certain nonexistent unpleasant afterworld freezes over.

    ~David D.G.

  • Curtis

    A course called “Religion and Belief in Today’s World” that excludes the Bible and the Koran seems inane to me. Perhaps atheism deserve some mention in the UK but Druidism and Rastafarianism are bit players.

    It might make sense to study how one new religion grows in the modern world but if you are teaching about religion, teach about the major religions. It’s like teaching chemistry and ignoring hydrogen, oxygen and carbon.

  • NeuroLover

    From what I got, they’re not excluding the Bible and Koran from the class. Why would you assume that? It would indeed be crazy to ignore the biggest players, but also including mention of significant minorities doesn’t imply that at all. To teach chemistry with only H, O, and C while ignoring Xe would also be ridiculous.

    Also, the phrase “in Today’s World” is in the title of the class. Shouldn’t it be “pander[ing] to popularity” pretty much by definition?

  • Curtis

    The post says:
    The “groundbreaking” new syllabus largely excludes the Bible and other religious texts.
    This is absurd. In today’s world, Christianity and Islam are the big hitters. I have no problem with other classes teaching about every minor religion but the general class needs to include the major ones.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Excellent, the story of Charles Bradlaugh deserves to be told.

    In 1880 Bradlaugh, campaigning as a radical, was elected to the House of Commons. For more than five years, however, he was denied his seat because he asked to be allowed to affirm rather than to take the religious oath of Parliament. During that period he was reelected three times and later offered to take the oath but was forbidden to do so until finally, in January 1886, permission was granted and he was seated.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    If the nod to atheism is just an appeal to popularity, then why should creationism be taught in schools in the US? Granted, different groups at work here, but shoot, nothing’s more popular than that there Bible fer teachin ya nawlidje!

    The difference is clear. The history of atheism is being taught in a religious studies class. If the history of creationism were taught in a religious studies class, I would have no argument. Instead, proponents of creationism want it taught as real science in science classes.

  • llewelly

    The “groundbreaking” new syllabus largely excludes the Bible and other religious texts.

    Er. How exactly do they plan on covering Rasta without the KJV?

  • student

    The Kentucky college that I attend has a class this semester called “History of Atheism and Atheist Thought.”

  • David D.G.

    The “groundbreaking” new syllabus largely excludes the Bible and other religious texts.

    I agree, something seems amiss here. Discussing “religion and belief in today’s world” without recourse to the works on which those religions are based? That’s a bit like trying to discuss modern literature by studying only the movies derived from it.

    Maybe the point is to focus on how various faiths (and nonfaiths) are actually practiced, as opposed to what their respective holy books prescribe. But even so, without looking at those books to note the contrasts (and the similarities) between them and modern practice, one is left with a serious lack of grounding.

    Of course, in the U.K., college students will have had religious instruction for years upon years in regular primary and secondary school, so perhaps a college course takes it as given that the groundwork is already laid, leaving them free to go farther afield on the subject. I hope that’s the case here.

    ~David D.G.

  • Indigo

    I’ve always felt awkward about teaching the Bible in schools. The issue is that I consider it absolutely essential to a Western liberal arts education to know about the Bible. Literally, much of what a person learns in literature and the arts is meaningless without at least a passing knowledge of the old and new testaments (and a basic understanding of ancient Greek myths is helpful too). The problem lies in getting it taught without it being hijacked and used as science, law and history as well.

  • Alex Malecki

    Maybe they should teach the Rise of Secularism, and not the Rise of Atheism.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    Um, presumably they cover the Bible more fully in other classes. If you’re seriously studying religion, you’ll take far more than just this one class. If you’re just taking the class as part of your general requirements, then it’s already a given that you won’t be able to study every subtopic.

  • Lawrence Gough

    just a clarification; GCSEs are the standard exams taken in England and Wales at age 16, so this is not a college level course.

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 3/27/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    I think its commendable that children get the opportunity to learn about alternative belief systems. I am just amused that no one here has objected yet on the basis of their belief being an ‘unbelief system’.

  • Craig

    new syllabus largely excludes the Bible

    Makes no sense. It either excludes it or it doesn’t.

  • http://www.sophiesladder.com Jeff Carter

    This “rise of atheism” reflects the bias toward rational empiricism within Anglo-American culture. The reason you see an increase in rational atheism within these cultures is that is finally trickling down to the masses from the work of Russell and the Logical Positivists in the 1920s. History has shown that it takes time for ideas to make their way down from the intellectual elite.

    However, that it is merely a bias is shown in the existence of continental, and in particular, French philosophy, which, with its emphasis on existentialism and phenomenology, runs counter to rational empiricism. In fact, one sees a resurgence of theological thought in continental and French circles. These ideas will certainly trickle down as well, and eventually have some impact even on American and British culture.

    I have written about this bias on my website in such posts as “On the Outsider Test of Faith” and “Greek Truth Denies Real Truth”.

  • CommiusRex

    Actually, this doesn’t sound like much of a change. I didn’t study RE for GCSE (it is an optional subject after age 14), but the RE classes I did have in my first 3 years of secondary school covered all the major faiths (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddishm, Sikhism) and talked a bit about non-belief. The point of RE (as taught in secular UK schools) is to study religion and belief in general, rather than specifics. It is not focussed on Christianity (or any other faith) in particular.

    Also, David D.G. mentions years of ‘religious instruction’ at primary and secondary school. Nope. Doesn’t happen. Not unless you’re at a religiously run (or part-run) school. In theory, there’s supposed to be a “daily act of worship, broadly Christian in nature” in UK schools. However, this simply does not happen at the vast majority of schools in the UK (and nor should it). As an atheist from the age of about 10 or 11, I never once encountered a daily act of worship, broadly Christian or otherwise, at my (secular, state) school.