Nicky Morgan has thus far made arguably fewer dramatic (and unpopular) decisions in her role as Education Secretary than her ill-famed predecessor, but that is perhaps set to change. Mrs Morgan has recently put herself in an uncomfortable position regarding the curriculum of the RS GCSE, after stating that non-religious views should not be granted “equal air time” as the UK is a “principally Christian country.” The fact that Christianity is at an unprecedented level of decline in UK, as non-religious views are becoming an increasingly dominant mind-set, seems to have been overlooked.
Surely the Education Minister denying the importance of teaching the astonishing rise of secularism within religious education is just as contradictory, as say, the Minister for Equality voting against same-sex marriage?
Ah, but of course. Mrs Morgan had already set a precedent for questionably contradictory decisions regardless of her Ministerial role long before this current debacle.
I have been observing the religious education saga surrounding my local MP-turned-Tory-Superstar with interest over the past year. February 2015 saw the start of it, with the announcement of major changes in the RS GCSE subject content. The proposed course was to be “more academically rigorous” with focused study on two faiths from the choice of Buddhism, Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.
No surprises so far. Though this seems to be familiar territory in terms of religious education, when details of the new course were first published, 28 religious leaders, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, urged the government to rethink the curriculum to include greater study of non-religious beliefs. Though the Department of Education argued that the second half of the course was devoted to philosophy and ethics which could include the study of humanism, the debate continued.
Fast-forward to November, and Humanists praised a High Court ruling which determined that Morgan’s changes to the RS curriculum failed to convey the “pluralistic” nature of religion in the UK. Supported by the British Humanist Association, the three families who had raised the issue argued that the school curriculum on religion had a duty to include major non-religious world-views on an ‘equal footing.’ Though not compelled to change the teaching of the GCSE, the ruling ensured that religious education syllabuses would have to include non-religious views.
the ruling ensured that religious education syllabuses would have to include non-religious views
However just the other week, Mrs. Morgan has apparently side-stepped the ruling by publishing a set of new guidelines that insist that schools must teach that Britain is a Christian country, and are fully entitled to prioritise religious views over atheism. Declaring that the November ruling will have “no impact” on the plans for the new curriculum, the guidance insisted on there being “no obligation on any school to cover the teaching of non-religious world views in Key Stage 4 specifically.” The wider obligations to cover non-religious views, it states, are to be met at the school’s discretion.
Quoted in The Telegraph, a source close to Mrs Morgan said: “Nicky has had enough of campaign groups using the Courts to try and force the teaching of atheism and humanism to kids against parent’s wishes. That’s why she’s taking a stand to protect the right of schools to prioritise the teaching of Christianity and other major religions.”
The hypocrisy is painfully obvious.
While on the outset, this entire debacle seems a little embarrassing and contradictory on Mrs Morgan’s part (when the ex-Archbishop is saying you’re being ‘too religious’, you know you’ve gone a bit far), it engages a number of major issues. Namely, the role of faith schools, schools in general and their freedom within the confines of a national curriculum, and perhaps most importantly the position of Christianity in the UK today.
Mrs. Morgan speaks with the ill-advised confidence that Britain is a majority Christian country. Most, I imagine, would agree with this assertion, as Britain has always been considered, traditionally, Christian. Since our old favourite Henry needed a way to get rid of Catherine of Aragon, the Church of England has been the dominant domination. But, although held up as a certain common knowledge, the face of British attitudes towards religion today have in fact never been less certain, and in many respects that’s perhaps self-evident as well. In the wake of the largest Christian holiday, the commercialisation of Christmas has never been more apparent. Britain has embraced the Black Friday Sales, and more than ever the Christian message is being lost behind the religiously ambiguous ‘Happy Holidays’ cards.
Throughout this saga, not once has the DfE mentioned the increasing secularisation of British society. Many have pointed to Mrs Morgan’s failure to acknowledge the publication of a major two year report entitled ‘The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life.’ Chaired by the former High Court Baroness Butler-Sloss, and with contributions from Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu representatives as well as theological experts, the report concluded that Britain was no longer a predominantly Christian country. Through extensive research it reveals that currently only two in five identify as Christian, and the proportion who do not follow a religion at all has risen from a third in 1983 to almost half in 2014. The commission’s overall conclusion called for public life in the UK to be less centred around Christianity. All this however, is apparently null and void in the face of what Mrs Morgan calls the “creeping ratchet effect” of humanism that is set to takeover religious education.
When faced with this evidence and Nicky Morgan’s latest guidance, a number of glaringly obvious contradictions arise. The most evident of which being that while Mrs Morgan has commendably embraced the multi-faith realities of modern Britain by including major world religions such as Buddhism, she is apparently unwilling to educate British children with an accurate representation of our religious society. In comparison to 180,000 Buddhists registered in the 2011 Census, the majority of the population who identify as non-religious do not deserve ‘equal air time’. Really Mrs. Morgan, if you’re going to offer a balanced perspective on all religions, you have to look at the majority opinion of no-religion too.
I appreciate that the argument might be raised that religious education should be reserved for practicing religions, and that other philosophies can be covered in PSHCE or whatever other forgettable acronym has been decided upon most recently. However, in the face of increasing secularism, non-religious views such as humanism are rising to take equal precedent and value as religious beliefs. Rather than passed off as a brief subtopic under ‘Ethics and Philosophy’, non-religious belief, not necessarily under the title of ‘Humanism’, has a long and valuable history. There have been dissenters, heretic and apostates throughout history, and non-religious ideology has been explored by many great thinkers from Marx to Bentham, Socrates to Erasmus. While non-religious belief may not be united under a common text, it remains just as valid for human philosophy and existential questions, and just as inextricably linked to world religions as it at odds to them.
Finally, this debate has raised again the idea that perhaps we should take the French route and remove religious education from the curriculum entirely. It would certainly remove the need for this argument, but I’d consider it to also remove a key part of education as well. Religion is a fundamental element of human nature and history. While there’s no doubt that religion, and particularly Christianity within Britain, is becoming less important, religious education remains so, if not more important now than ever before.
Yes, a balanced religious education should be taught in schools. And yes, in light of its growing significance the history and philosophy of non-religious views are just as worthy of an equal standing on the curriculum. Perhaps an unbiased lesson in General Politics while we’re at it might be a good idea too, so that the next generation can be well-informed enough to vote someone other than Morgan in.