Religious leaders call for Humanism in RS GCSE

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Religious leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries have urged the government to rethink plans to leave humanism out of the new GCSE in religious studies.

Their call comes as humanists fear that the Government is about to announce that the criteria for new GCSEs and A levels will not include humanism. This is in spite of a call last year from over 100 theologians, teachers, and philosophers for the annex on Humanism to be included.

The new qualification in religious studies is due for first teaching in England from 2016, and students can choose options which can include humanism and other non-religious beliefs.

The Department for Education says it worked closely with experts from all the major faith groups to develop the new more academically rigorous qualification which would give students better knowledge and understanding of the diversity of beliefs in modern Britain.

The proposed course will require pupils to study two faiths and aims to develop a stronger understanding of the central role of religion on British culture.

The faiths included in the proposals are Buddhism, Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism.

However, there is concern that there is no option to study a humanist or non-religious world view.

Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), Andrew Copson, said: "A Government decision not to include the annex will make a joke of the idea that Religious Studies will be accessible to every child, undermines the contemporary relevance of the qualification, and reduces the meaningfulness and rigour of the subject.

"It is completely inexplicable to us why the Government would take this arbitrary and counter-educational decision in the face of public opinion and professional support."

Dr Farid Panjwani, Director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education at the Institute of Education,  said:  "I am fully supportive of the demand to add the option to systematically study Humanism in GCSE, AS and A level alongside the existing modules on major world religions.

"Such an inclusion would contribute to promoting intellectual autonomy among students by giving them opportunity to learn about a broader range of ways in which humans have grappled with existential questions."

In a letter signed by the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, as well as academics, teachers and Jewish and Sikh religious leaders, which was sent to the Minister of State for School Reform, Nick Gibb, the authors want "an annex setting out content on humanism to be added alongside existing GCSE annexes on the principal world religions".

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "The proposed new GCSE requires students to have an understanding of the beliefs, teachings and practices of two religions but still allows them to spend up to 50% of the course studying philosophy and ethics; which can include studying humanism and other non-religious beliefs."

Humanism teaches that people should rely on reason, science and empathy towards other people and animals to be good and find fulfilment without the need for a deity or a hope of Heaven.

In its definition, the British Humanist Association (BHA) says: “In the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.”

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