“Unless secularism’s role in the development of human rights and freedom is well understood, theocrats will be well placed to erode them”. These are the words of the Chief Executive of the National Secular Society (NSS) in the UK, Stephen Evans. He was writing in an article for the Autumn Bulletin of the NSS. The article was called, “We must teach the young how they benefit from secularism”.
The article was a basic introduction to a new initiative of the NSS – the provision of a range of teaching resources for schools under the banner of “Exploring Secularism”. The rational for this initiative is the NSS’s belief that secularism is worth celebrating. This is so because, “Its principles under-pin liberal societies and the political institutions which have been built to protect individual human rights to freedom of thought, speech and expression”.
The implicit assumption in this view is that religious dogma and authority subjugates human reason. Secularism endeavours to liberate human reason from these shackles and, it is proposed, in the process enables human material and health benefits to flourish. Religion is bondage; secularism is freedom. In the view of Stephen Evans, and with reference to schools in England and Wales, “It is bizarre, therefore, that something so significant rarely features in the school curriculum”.
As I read Stephen Evans’ article, I reflected on the content of the religious studies curriculum that I was involved in teaching when I was the Head of Religious Studies (RS) at a Northampton comprehensive school. The teaching of the RS curriculum was as broad as the system at the time would permit, including a substantial proportion of curriculum content and time being devoted to the teaching of both secular and religious philosophy and ethics. This was particularly the case at senior school level.
However, the syllabi for the RS, Philosophy and Ethics courses at the school never involved a specific course on “Secularism”. With hindsight, this situation was regrettable. The RS department of the school would have been the most appropriate location for space to be made for a genuine approach to the topics that Secularism would introduce to the syllabus – and the staff of that department would have been more than adequate for the task of teaching the subject.
It is the view of many involved with both Religious Education (RE) and Secularism in the UK that the approach to RE is outdated and that a new approach is overdue. The latter would mean that RE is broadened out or make substantial way for what the NSS describes as “A new broader civic education that encompasses citizenship and human rights”.
Such an approach would obviously include the exploration of the diverse range of worldviews, practices and beliefs, that currently are studied in RE (otherwise Religious Studies) courses. However, in addition to the role that religious ideas play in people’s lives and in society, would be added the respective role that secularism should play. Secularism has a specific role to play in that exploration.
The NSS article of Stephen Evans strongly suggests that, as emerging citizens of 21st century societies, “pupils should have an awareness of the importance of secular principles”. Amongst other things, this would include the separation of religion and the state, and the way in which secularist principles impact their lives.
Secularist principles should not be taken for granted and it is necessary that steps are taken to ensure that secularism is not misunderstood or wilfully maligned. Again, Stephen Evans is instructive when he states that, “It is not unknown for those eager to impose their religious faith on others have groundlessly portrayed secularism as a threat to religious freedom, promulgating misconceptions – routinely equating it with state-enforced atheism and even totalitarianism”.
A focused role on the educational curriculum would enable students to better understand and appreciate Secularism, as well as counteract the false views its opponents promote. Though it is a bit late for me to make use of the Exploring Secularism resources, it is obvious to me that the package will serve a valuable purpose as a teaching aid – and it is free!
My wife and me recently spend two enjoyable weeks touring Scotland by car. The focus for this visit was primarily the north-east of the country, using Inverness and Aberdeen as bases. With a current membership of the Scottish Heritage, much of our time was spent visiting the many and varied properties that the trust manages.
A considerable number of these properties were self-entitled as “castles”. Many of them were grand homes that had been extended to become even grander, and safer. We spent many hours listening to guided commentaries on the history of the properties.
Amongst other things, we learned that many of the grand homes and castles, a number of which were located within extensive estates and quite stunning locations, were either built or had been extended by royal personages, aristocracy, wealthy merchants and various other citizens who had accumulated their wealth from successful dealings in war and, more especially and, for me, surprisingly, the slave trade.
Prior to this visit, I was aware that warfare was almost a routine past-time amongst the Scottish clans. However, the association of the country of my birth with the slave trade was something of a shock to my system. This timely visit served its purpose.