Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Humanism and the proposed revisions to A level Religious Studies

When I first read the complaint by the British Humanist Association that Humanism had been left out of the proposed revised subject content for A level RS, I felt immediate sympathy for their position, for it seemed obvious that Humanism deserved to be studied alongside other religious traditions.  I am still of that opinion, and feel that humanism can indeed to set alongside the traditional religions and should have its origins, beliefs and moral claims open to equal scrutiny. 

But is all lost if it is not included? On reflection I’m not so sure, and wonder whether the proposed revisions may actually do a general humanist viewpoint a favour.

If by ‘religion’ we mean a set of beliefs, attitudes, values and ethics reflecting an understand of the place of humankind within the overall scheme of things, then Humanism can indeed be studied as a religion.  It offers a clear set of values, an emphasis on moral responsibility and an approach to matters of belief that reflects rationalist and philosophical traditions going back to Ancient Greece.  But…. and it is a major but… I believe there are two reasons why it may be best, from a humanist point of view, to accept the proposal on offer and not simply allow itself to be one of the possible religions, to be selected or ignored depending on the religious tradition of the school, the inclinations and qualifications of the teaching staff or the availability of teaching materials.

1) Without naming it, humanism is already built into the subject content; indeed it is given a privileged place. In order for RS to be an academically rigorous subject, it is to be studied taking – in the words of the proposal – an ‘enquiring, critical and reflective approach’. What does that imply? Not least that the beliefs presented by traditional religions should be open to rational examination and critical evaluation.  And the same will apply to the moral and social aspects of religion. In other words, a broadly humanist and rationalist perspective is – in some respects - the norm by which the religions are to be assessed.   There are limitations here, of course, since my view is that (as generally presented) the Humanist tradition often fails to do justice to the cultural and psychological depths explored by religion, and tends to take an almost na├»ve approach to the possibility of human improvement and the benefits of rationality.  So I am not claiming that humanism gives all the tools needed for the assessment of religion. But, in practical terms, when you consider the issues generally studied in the philosophy of religion, the value of a rational and critical evaluation – of the sort that humanism approves – is an essential requirement of academic study.

2) Sadly, many criticisms of religion, made in the name of humanism, or from a secular perspective, fail to grasp more than a caricature of religion belief.  This is not to say that religion is necessarily right in its claims, but that – to offer a serious critique – one must at least understand them and the historical contexts in which they were framed.  Hence, a more detailed study of the actual claims of religious traditions, studied with the ‘humanist’ academic approach of rational analysis and evaluation, may actually enhance the standing of the humanist position. 

It is my personal opinion that the crucial issue is whether or not one’s view of life includes a supernatural element.  Early Buddhism, Zen, some forms of Hinduism and some interpretations of Christianity approach religion from an entirely natural point of view. Within this frame, religion is a feature of the creative, imaginative and existentially enquiring aspect of humankind; it gives birth to emotionally engaging ritual, music and art; it weaves stories that help people to engage with one another and with their cultural history.   That is a perspective with which humanist and other rationalist thinkers often fail to engage, waylaid by their zeal to be rid of supernatural beliefs that few thinking members of religions would take literally anyway.

I would hope that – even if it is not available to be studied as a separate tradition – the contribution of Humanism can be a positive one, promoting the rational examination of beliefs and values, and at the same time recognizing the non-rational elements that pervade human experience, both within religions and within secular, non-religious culture.  And that contribution might be all the more effective if embodied in the academic and critical approach, rather than allowing Humanism to be presented as no more than one option alongside others.

So, although my preferred option would still be for Humanism to be available as a separate alongside the six traditional religions, if only to flag up its importance – especially at GCSE, where there needs to be ‘critiques of religion and of non-religious belief’ – I am far from convinced that its inclusion as an A level option would necessarily represent its best contribution in educational terms.  And I hasten to add that I approach this issue from a secular and educational perspective, not from that of any of the existing religions; in my view Humanism should not be relegated to an option – it should be the norm of critical study.