Michael Reiss and John White: Atheism needs to be studied in schools

Those who determine the curricula that are taught in state schools insist on
knowledge of all sorts of particular facts and approaches to understanding
in different subjects. But they do not require any awareness of this
revolution in belief, arguably the most dramatic since the origin of Islam.
True, the non-statutory RE curriculum now allows for teaching about
humanism, but ? unlike Christianity and other major world faiths ? leaves it
optional, and on a par with Zoroastrianism.

Where else might you expect to find an informed and systematic introduction to
and examination of atheism and agnosticism? In the science curriculum? In
history? English? Citizenship? Your search will be fruitless. There is no
curriculum pigeonhole for an idea as big as this one.

However, before we decide where to teach about atheism and agnosticism ? and
it might be that the issue is addressed in a number of subjects, rather as
such cross-curricular issues as climate change and ethics are ? we first
need agreement that students should learn about them.

Indeed, we suspect that initial reactions to our proposals will include
rejection of them from those who feel that the last thing they want is
humanism on the curriculum. They wouldn’t want children to be indoctrinated
in unbelief. But it’s not a question of getting children to become
non-religious; rather of getting them to understand and discuss this major
intellectual revolution. RE has, thankfully, abandoned its position of
proselytisation. What goes for Christianity and other world faiths on the
curriculum should hold for humanism too.

Perhaps it is time here for us to disclose our own positions. One of us is an
atheist and a member of the British Humanist Association. The other is a
priest in the Church of England. But both of us are also academics at the
Institute of Education, University of London, and it is our interest in how
school education can be made more engaging, more relevant and more suitable
for the 21st century that leads us to our common view on this matter.

What kinds of learning might be required? Young people should think about
whether they live in a divine world or a godless one. This points to
discussing the standard arguments for and against the existence of God and
such questions as the likelihood of life after death. But they also need to
discuss whether human lives can have any meaning or point outside a
religious framework. And whether people can live a morally good life that is
not dependent on religious belief. Historical perspectives are also
important, especially the impact of non-religious ideas on intellectual and
artistic life over the last 250 years.

Most of this would find its place in the secondary curriculum. But a start
could be made with older primary children. Given some guidance, one would
expect most young children of, say, nine or 10 years of age, to be
intellectually mature enough to think about how the world came about and why
we should be good. Of course, sensitivity and respect are required when
teaching about such matters. One does not want children to be given the
impression that they are going to hell because they espouse atheism or that
they are intellectually second rate because they accept the divine
inspiration of scripture.

Our argument is part of a broader one about schooling. The school curriculum
is not only to do with the workings of volcanoes, the use of the future
tense in French, calculations about triangles and the causes of the First
World War. Educators and curriculum planners should look up from such
comparative minutiae, important as these are in the right place. They should
raise their eyes if not to heaven, at least to a more global picture of what
education should be about. An understanding of non-religion, like an
understanding of religion, is a vital part of this.

The writers teach at the Institute of Education in London

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