Human views on ethics and right and wrong are like a river, for it to be healthy, life giving and clean it needs to flow and change and evolve. Religion taken literally is a snapshot of a single societal worldview at a specific time stretched way beyond its time. It is like a stagnant river, it can breed toxins, bacteria and can't sustain life. Killing everything that it comes in contact with.
I recently came across the British Humanist Association (BHA), an umbrella organisation for all humanist groups and movements in the UK. In the ‘About Us’ page on their website, they identify themselves as
“The national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.”
What I wanted to explore in this blog post is one of the campaigns that the BHA is currently running, which is to get humanism included in Religious Education lessons in UK Schools.
I remember back in my school days, RE lessons consisted of being taught about the three major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), and alongside these, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. We were taught the basic rules and tenets of the religions and a very simplified view of the religions’ origins.
Most of the religious education I got that shaped my early ethical and moral views was not in these lessons, but from the community that I was a part of. Looking back at this now, this was a problem, as the ideas and ethics I was subjected to were not given to me in an unbiased, academic context, but instead by parents, religious leaders, community leaders, etc., each having their own agendas and skewing the ideas they were teaching to fit with the specific agenda that they wanted me and other children to follow.
Whether we like it or not, the religious views of parents will always play a huge part in the ethical and moral outlook of their children, and, by extension, so will the views of those people to whom parents allow their children access, such as community and religious leaders. To balance this, we need qualified teachers in our schools to teach the ethics that are found in religions without skewing it to fit an agenda. If children are then faced with a situation at home or within their wider community where questionable ethics are taught in the name of religion, they will have the training and the tools to question and discern whether what they are being taught works to promote co-existence or violence and hatred.
The ethics and moral views that most of the world’s major religions teach have not changed from the time of their creation. The teachings and ideas found in the old and New Testament, in the Koran, etc., are not changeable, as they are supposed to represent the will of God and how he wants humans to conduct their lives on earth. This is why, as society changes and becomes more and more tolerant, religious institutions fall behind. When religious texts condemn things such as homosexuality or blasphemy or apostasy, which may have been a reflection of the attitudes of the time, there is often no room for an evolution of these ideas, as the word of God cannot be altered. This causes the many divisive issues that we see on the news everyday.
Humanism, as I understand it, bases its moral and ethical views on the accumulated knowledge that we as humans have gained over our history. Humanism does not base its views on a divine being and does not claim that these views cannot be changed. The beauty of this is that the views are allowed to constantly evolve as we as humans evolve and develop new ideas and ponder our world and our relationship with other people.
Humanism tells us, we do not know whether a divine being exists that wants us to live our lives a certain way, as we do not have any evidence of this. All we can do is take the best ideals that we have developed over the course of our history and live by those. Humanism teaches that we give charity, not because it means we gain favour with God but because we can spare the charity that we give to make the life of a fellow human better. It teaches that homosexual love is no better or worse than heterosexual love. It teaches that all humans have the right to freedom of expression if it does not encourage violence or bigotry without the fear of being harmed for expressing those views.
The question here becomes, why shouldn’t humanism be taught in schools? If we can teach our children that ethics and morals aren’t just confined to what religions teach, but that they can also look at philosophers, scientists, human rights activists, etc., isn’t this a good thing for the world’s future politicians and business leaders to learn?
School should be about learning, and humanism is, in my opinion, a worthy and extremely valuable worldview to teach our children. I have not heard any reasonable, balanced arguments for why humanism shouldn’t be taught in schools. The religions that people have are usually the religions they are born into; they are seldom given the access to balanced opposing viewpoints or criticisms. Teaching this in schools will give children the ability and the reasoning skills to question the faiths they are born into and decide for themselves if this is what they choose to believe.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA, which I think sums up the spirit of humanism:
“In the context of the universe, human beings are peripheral. The universe was not made for us. To the universe, we mean nothing. But to ourselves and each other we are everything. The real meaning is the one we make for ourselves.”
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!