Three Cheers for Atheist Education in British Schools

Three Cheers for Atheist Education in British Schools September 19, 2018

Once again, enlightened Europe is leading the way. This time, it’s the U.K. being sensible:

Religious education in schools needs a major overhaul to reflect an increasingly diverse world and should include the study of atheism, agnosticism and secularism, a two-year investigation has concluded.

The subject should be renamed Religion and Worldviews to equip young people with respect and empathy for different faiths and viewpoints, says the Commission on Religious Education in a report published on Sunday.

Currently, British public schools are required to follow a national curriculum that includes religious education. I have no objection to this, as long as the subject matter is presented in a neutral and even-handed way.

I’ve always believed it’s important for everyone to learn about different religions and philosophies. If you want to be religious, knowing about the spectrum of human belief is essential to making an informed choice, as opposed to blindly following whichever one you happened to be born into. If your faith can only survive by keeping its adherents ignorant of other options, then it deserves to die off. Plus, when it comes to fighting bigotry and promoting empathy and tolerance, it can only help to give people a better understanding of different cultures.

(I’m less pleased about the requirement that British schools include a daily act of “collective worship” which must be “broadly Christian” in character, although I have to grin at the news that most have been flouting it for years. Similarly, I’ve read that so few people want to teach religion that schools can’t find enough qualified teachers – Daily Mail link, so treat with caution, but I think the general point is sound.)

However, the new recommendations are a big step forward. The Commission on Religious Education has proposed that the course be renamed “Religion and Worldviews” and that it should include content on “humanism, secularism, atheism and agnosticism” in addition to major religions from around the world. It’s a welcome and long-overdue change, and Humanists UK agrees.

As you might have predicted, the churches aren’t happy at the prospect of nonbelief getting equal treatment:

But the Catholic Education Service said the report was “not so much an attempt to improve RE as to fundamentally change its character … The quality of religious education is not improved by teaching less religion.”

And the Board of Deputies of British Jews said the report was “fundamentally flawed”. It was undermined by “the dilution of religious education through the inclusion of all worldviews in an already tight teaching timetable,” said vice-president Edwin Shuker. “This might be seen as an attempt by those hostile to faith to push their agenda of undermining rigour in religious education at a time when faith literacy could not be more important.”

I’m not surprised that religious apologists don’t have any good arguments against the change. Nevertheless, I’m impressed by the depths of sophistry they’ll resort to in an attempt to find some reason, any reason to oppose it.

The argument made by the Jewish organization is transparent special pleading. It claims that because there’s a tight timetable… what? Schools should choose some belief systems to teach about and ignore others? That’s like saying there’s a tight timetable for science, so we should teach biology and geology but leave out chemistry and physics. The solution is to teach all topics at the right level of generality, not to make arbitrary choices about what to teach and what to exclude.

It’s even more insulting to say, as both the Jewish and Catholic spokespeople do, that it “undermines rigor” in religious education to include atheism and humanism, or that it dilutes the quality of education. In my experience, atheists and humanists are some of the most rigorous thinkers when it comes to religion. The claim that atheist arguments lack rigor is just religious apologists assuming their own conclusion. It springs from an obstinate refusal to admit that non-theistic worldviews have anything interesting or useful to say.

The lesson to take from this is even these respectable, mainstream faiths fear their children learning about atheism as an option, and yearn for a theocratic state that gives them official preference and support. And there’s a very good reason why they’re afraid. The Guardian story links to an eye-opening article which finds that organized religion in the U.K. is on life support:

The most recent British Social Attitudes survey reveals that the number of Brits who identify as Church of England has more than halved since 2002, falling from 31% to 14%… 52% of people now say they have no religion, compared with 41% in 2002.

…Although religious affiliation has dropped across all age groups, young people are least likely to be religious. 70% of those aged 18-24 say they have no religion. This is an increase from 56% in 2002.

An absolute majority of British people now have no religion, and among the young, it’s a staggering 70% supermajority. Even America’s Generation Z, the least Christian generation in our country’s history, has no numbers to match these.

When the U.K.’s established churches read about these numbers, they must see their own extinction barreling down the tracks. They’ve fared so poorly at passing on their own beliefs that they’re now hoping the state will step in and save them, but that doesn’t seem likely. A resurgence of Islam is somewhat compensating for the decline in Christianity; but over time, more recent immigrants tend to follow the same secularization curve as longer-term residents.

Adding atheism and humanism to religious education courses isn’t a bold or revolutionary move. It merely reflects the reality of demographic changes that are already happening. If anything, you could argue that continuing to teach about religions which are dying out in Europe is an act of charity! America is a generation or so behind, but the trends are in our favor, and we have every reason to expect that we’ll catch up to the rest of the world.

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