Against Worldviews

This is a response to the concept of Religion and Worldviews in the Final Report of the Commission on RE and, to a lesser extent, the essays in the first half of Reforming RE
What is a worldview?

According to the CoRE report a worldview is:

a person’s way of understanding, experiencing, and responding to the world. It can be described as a philosophy of life or an approach to life. This includes how a person understands the nature of reality and their own place in the world.

(CoRE Report, p.4)

If that feels like a woolly description I don’t think you’re alone in feeling that. For me the term worldview and its description feels dated, as though I’m reading about it in some well-meaning 1980s attempt to make the curriculum more inclusive. Ultimately acknowledging that worldviews exists, that “everyone has a worldview” and that worldviews are rarely perfect reflections of religious doctrine or political ideology is, to me, obvious and unremarkable. I don’t see in that definition a pressing need to replace our systematic study of religious beliefs with a study of worldviews.

What about institutional, rather than individual, worldviews?

The report does provide an alternative to this individualistic worldview when it describes an “institutional worldview” as “organised worldviews shared among particular groups and sometimes embedded in institutions” (p.4). So, religions? Well, yes but also that definition does extend itself to the much-discussed ‘non-religious worldviews’. In the CoRE report those are listed as “Humanism, Atheism and Secularism”. I think that is a mistake, I would find it very difficult to lay out systematic beliefs behind atheism and secularism – they are one-dimensional worldviews which have little to offer adherents beyond a simplistic, negative view of religion and I certainly don’t think I could lay out any beliefs shared by atheists or secularists beyond ones related to religion and its place in society.

How about Humanism?

Humanism is different and is, by far and away, the most-cited and widely taught non-religious worldview. That’s not the liberal humanism of the Renaissance but the philosophy of life put forward by the British Humanist Association since 1967. British Humanism has an organised structure with a professed membership, they have a decent enough claim to shared beliefs beyond atheism but at 85,000 members they fall way behind Buddhism (261,000) as much smaller than the ‘big six’ religions in the UK.

They have definitely made an effort to be considered for inclusion in RE curricula for the last few decades, going as far as taking legal action to ensure inclusion on SACREs. I’m sure many RE teachers are familiar with the efforts made by HUK (formerly BHA) to create and disseminate resources. More power to them, I have certainly written and taught a scheme of work (available on this very blog) which looks at Humanism and don’t begrudge any faith organisation that wants to produce quality resources for free.

That said if, as Mark Chater suggests in Reforming RE we are to rid RE of the influence of the influence of faith organisations then surely we must resist the same move to influence non-religious worldviews by an organisation that represents only 0.3% of all non-religious people in the UK. It seems they are far from above the “unseemly and self-interested competition for space in the classroom” (p.70) that Chater describes.

What other non-religious, institutional worldviews could be studied?

That leaves me with a big question then: aside from Humanism with it’s representation of 0.3% of non-religious people what other non-religious worldviews warrant inclusion to make up for the fact that Worldviews is now contrasted alongside Religion as half of our subject’s name?

It’s a good thing Reforming RE has a chapter devoted to this very question by Luke Donnellan. Except that the chapter, entitled “What does it mean to teach about non-religious worldviews” talks only of Humanism once it has dismissed atheism and secularism as possible systematic worldviews. Okay, how about the CoRE report? “Humanism, existentialism and Confucianism are examples of suitable non-religious worldviews […] while nationalism, global capitalism and Communism are examples of worldviews which would not be included” (p.75). I am pretty unconvinced that a study of existentialism or Confucianism would help students to understand the worldviews of the 99.7% of non-religious people not covered by Humanism. This could perhaps be an argument for improved PHSE or citizenship but I am yet to feel like it’s a coherent argument for a fundamental reform of RE.

Where does this leave us?

At this point I really have to put my head in my hands and feel a sense of despair. I really hope that the grand reform to RE which the report is supposed to herald doesn’t just look like one half-term of Humanism in Year 8 and a change of name.

I do not see a fundamental difference between religious education and “religious worldviews” – that is partly because of how ill-defined and woolly “worldviews” is but more importantly it is because I don’t really think a lot of work and thought that’s gone into knowledge-rich, culture-rich, ambitious and academic RE by the likes of Mary Myatt, Andy Lewis, Robert Orme, Dawn Cox and Christine Counsell is reflected in, or benefited by, Worldviews.

It is difficult to tell whether Worldviews is a well-intentioned throwback to the 1980s that lacks any real meaning because of RE’s need to avoid conflict, confrontation and difficult decisions or whether Worldviews is a Trojan Horse through which the study of religion in schools can be diluted and then dismantled in favour of an entirely secular new subject. The report gives the first impression, the first half of Reforming RE gives me the second.

I have a great deal more to say about the early chapters of Reforming RE and I will tackle that in a later post. For now I will continue to call myself a teacher of RE, I will resist any attempts made to replace RE with Religion and Worldviews or even Worldviews and I will continue to feel disappointed and angry about the fudge that Worldviews has become. The comments are open.


Image is Magdalen from the Cherwell by Robert Tavener

17 thoughts on “Against Worldviews

Add yours

  1. Thanks for taking the time to piece together your thoughts.

    I haven’t read the book you cite but have read the report. Ultimately, this is the continuation of a debate in our community that continues to burn without much sign of it ending soon.

    The appropriateness of the term ‘Religion and Worldviews’ is unimportant for me at this stage. What is important for me is that the nature of the subject we teach is deeply contested. It is confused. As a community, we are confused. Still. A decade after I entered the profession. This is stating the obvious I’m sure.

    There is little consensus amongst us. It is not they who shout the loudest or who have published the most textbooks that necessarily make the most lucid of thoughts.

    As I see it, the problem with the subject we teach is that we teach it for varying reasons and have different interests and biases. Some of us are religious. Some non-religious. To what extent do we and/or do we need to safeguard against these biases? Again, I’m stating the obvious and I’m aware I’m offering little new here. But this really is a problem. This really is the problem.

    How do we move forward? We have to gain consensus democratically with all stakeholders. We have to think about value and purpose. We have to go back to the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ questions. This means doing things in a new way and inviting intellectual debate. Not going to Twitter to backstab and have ‘private’ conversations about something that maybe happening on ‘Save RE’, not guffawing when somebody in our community mentions the word ‘relevance’. Unless we engage constructively together we will not agree and reach a consensus. Until the space and ways of us doing this are created, it is likely that we will still be having these debates in another ten years time.

    And as we continue to do this, the subject continues to die a long and painful death.


  2. Oh dear, so many misconceptions!
    What a muddle you are in.
    Maybe do some more research into what you are blogging about before spouting off?


  3. Essentially you’re aiming to exclude non-religious views from the subject. Roughly 20-25% of the population has a broadly humanist worldview, whether they identify with that term or not. Given that, it’s essential that all children have a rounded and respectful understanding of the religions and worldviews they will encounter in life, and have the knowledge and capabilities to develop their own thinking. That includes providing non-religious foundations for the consideration of the big questions in life, notably the basis of morality, alongside religious ones.
    As a humanist, I want children from non-religious and religious backgrounds to learn about Christianity, Islam and other faiths, as well as humanism, not least because understanding is an antidote to emnity.
    And as a school speaker, I have had the privilege of responding to invitations from all types of schools, including faith schools. I often speak on panels alongside religious people, which provide an opportunity for adults to model the mutually respectful behaviour that should characterise a peaceful plural society.
    Given that 60% of Brits of parental age do not identify with a religion, to exclude non-religious worldviews from the subject is a recipe for it to disappear into irrelevance. That would be a tragedy.
    The CORE proposals were supported by experts from a wide range of religion and belief backgrounds. It is hard to see why they are so threatening.


    1. Given that in the article I link to the scheme of work I have written on Humanism and that, when I taught in a primary school, I taught probably more Humanism than the vast majority of RE teachers this characterisation of my beliefs is a touch unfair.

      I do not suggest that all faith and belief groups be excluded from the curriculum process, that is the argument of Brine and Chater in the chapter of Reforming RE I reference. Naturally the Humanists would not be exempt from that exclusion.

      My refrain in this is that I want to teach a wider variety of non-religious worldviews but no one who advocates for Worldviews can name any aside from Humanism.

      And Humanism has to partake in the same fight for curriculum space as Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. That is obvious.


  4. In what way does restricting the subject to “religious education” not exclude non-religious worldviews? I may be wrong, but the fact that you are critical of the effort required simply to have humanist reps accepted as constructive members of SACREs suggests hostility towards humanists/atheists/the non-religious. That is, in my view, not helpful in considering how best to develop an important subject in a society in which most people do not have a particular religious worldview or identity, and the large minority who do have such an identity exhibit greater diversity than ever before. Within almost every grouping – including the non-religious – there is complexity and dynamism. This is a historically unprecedented state of affairs.
    Overlaid on that is the decreasing relevance of the current SACRE structure in the light of academisation, and the widespread failure, highlighted by CORE, in providing children with the teaching to which they are entitled.
    I am not an expert, but it seems to me that what CORE has proposed is what may be a one-off opportunity to make the subject fit-for-purpose in this challenging environment.


    1. RE has long been a subject with more fluid disciplinary boundaries than other subjects. Personally I don’t mind calling the subject Religion, Philosophy and Ethics or something similar but I think Worldviews is under-theorised and a national name change was ill-considered.

      I know most Humanists reject this idea but Humanism is comparative to other religious worldviews but I think it fits neatly alongside other religions because it makes claims about God and belief and the mythological even if they are negative claims. I also have no problem with Humanist reps on SACREs and say as much in the blog post, “more power to them”, “I don’t begrudge them” etc.

      If you think that diversity within religious worldviews is a “historically unprecedented state of affairs” then you probably need to speak to a historian of religion. The Protestant church didn’t turn up out of nowhere and neither did the dozens and dozens of denominations that have emerged within it. Every religion has long had internal diversity of views and any RE teacher from the last 40 years could have told you that. The idea that Worldviews is providing a unique insight into this is false. Essentialism vs individualism has been an argument within RE since the 40s at least.

      I’m in favour of a national curriculum which would include Humanism to be taught in all schools including academies.

      There is nothing in the ill-defined and under-theorised concept of Worldviews that could not be covered under the much more established and pre-existing discipline of RE. If your argument is that you want schools to teach Humanism I would say that’s an argument you’ve already won. Humanism is now more widely taught than ever before, pretty remarkable for an organisation with 85,000 members given that there are 137,000 Jehovah Witnesses in the UK and 190,000 Mormons and they very rarely get taught as discrete beliefs.


      1. Personally I’m not too fussed about the precise terminology, provided it is inclusive. “Religious Education” is not. “Religion and Worldviews” seems to do the job as well as anything else. Humanism is not a religion, as it does not feature belief in a god or ‘unseen order’, or the associated rituals and practices (or any institutional power over those who share a broadly humanist worldview). Equally, the questions it addresses are shared by most religions, and in some cases, so are the answers.
        What I meant in terms of diversity was not the multiple varieties of Christianity, which have indeed featured in the UK since the Reformation, but the fact that 5% of Brits (so around 10% of those who identify with any religion) now identify as Muslims (including at least 1in 8 Londoners), with large numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jews – each of which has its own diversity, dynamism and complexity – and they sit alongside a non-religious majority which is also diverse and dynamic. That is unprecedented.
        My particular interest in this subject is that it has a potentially important role in helping make that complex and diverse society work peacefully and respectfully. To do that, it must be fit-for-purpose in modern society, and be seen to be interesting and relevant.


      2. I don’t think it’s fair to the thousands of RE teachers across Britain to say that RE is not inclusive. I’ve explained how I have been inclusive of Humanism in my RE teaching and that’s not unusual. A national curriculum would enshrine Humanism in the curriculum in a way that a name change wouldn’t so that’s what you should be agitating for. I do not believe that non-religious students have nothing to gain from learning about religion or vice versa.

        We’re not going to agree on whether Humanism is a religious worldview or not so I don’t really have anything further to say there.

        I just used Christianity as an example, look in any textbook for those faiths published recently and you’ll see diversity represented, especially look at the Examining Religion and Belief series from NATRE which is heavily focused on diversity, dynamism and complexity. RE does those things already, it could do them better but Worldviews is not a helpful tool in that because it doesn’t provide clarity or a framework for actual teaching.

        At the end of the day there’s not an RE teacher out there who doesn’t want RE to be interesting, relevant and fit-for-purpose. Clearly we fundamentally disagree about how that will happen but at least we can debate it in good faith.


      3. 1. Inclusiveness – I did not malign RE teachers. Those I have met have been excellent, and – perhaps by definition, as I tend to meet are those who cover humanism – many indeed treat the subject in an inclusive way. My point was that calling the subject “Religious Education” is exclusive. You may not agree but, believe me, for non-religious people, it is. It’s an anachronism which signals “this subject is not about people like you”.
        2.Diversity: my point was that the current and future diversity in the British religion and belief landscape is historically unprecedented. You countered by talking about diversity within Christianity, and then said that was just an example, and that diversity is reflected in existing teaching materials. But the key point is that, unlike at any time in the past, we have diversity of faiths themselves, as well as diversity within faiths, as well as a majority of no faith, and diversity within that too. That is what is historically unprecedented.
        And yet the main subject that addresses this aspect of life is in danger of becoming a poorly-supported irrelevance. CORE analysed the problem and proposed a solution to re-boot to address it. The name change was one element of that.
        I don’t understand the reference to “good faith”.


  5. I haven’t read the new book, but did read the original CoRE report.

    My understanding was that the change in name and focus represented a move towards the academic (secular, non-confessional) study of religion as a category, and worldviews as particular expressions.

    So, instead of uncritically accepting that there are things called religions and here are the most popular ones, the subject would address that religion is a term used by people to draw a line around different things for different purposes.

    It can then also explore lived examples of religious and non-religious worldviews – depending on how we’re defining and using the category of ‘religion’ our labels for ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ might include different phenomena – this would be a good teaching point – how religious is humanism, and whose definition of religion are we using to make that assessment?

    From this you could also discuss the very large portion of the population who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ and discuss both contextualised examples of their worldviews, and how these individuals and groups might relate to the category of religion (either by rejecting it or claiming it).

    As I said, I haven’t read the new book, so I’m basing this on the CoRE materials, but I think the proposed changes are moving in the right direction.


    1. We are educated people who are able to have a discussion about this broader category of religion because we have benefited from religious (and historical, sociological etc) education. Primary and secondary schooling is about laying a groundwork of foundational knowledge to enable these bigger questions to be asked. Then, if students want to have these discussions about what religion actually is as a category they can study A Level sociology, or even GCSE sociology.

      I can’t stand in front of a class with a question like “how religious is Humanism?” if I haven’t taught six lessons previously on the foundational beliefs of Humanism. I can’t ask “whose definition of religion are we using?” without them having a rich, interwoven schema of ‘religion’ already – something that comes about best through a systematic then comparative study of different religions.

      It’s really easy to think about what you want RE to be from the viewpoint of an educated adult but much harder to imagine how you get there from Year 1 to Year 13.


  6. Thank you Adam for your interesting blog. May I briefly suggest a couple of points on which I feel you may be accidentally misrepresenting my position in ‘Reforming RE’?

    1. On My critique of the ‘unseemly competition … for curriculum space’, I am critical of all belief groups, including H-UK, for participating in the jostling. They should all step back from syllabus writing. Not just the religions; all of the belief groups.

    2. In saying that the book under-theorises ‘Worldviews’, have you overlooked Chapter 6? You might not agree with its contents, but it’s there that readers will find a way of shaping Worldviews, first as an idea worthy of study, and next as a manageable, rigorous curriculum entity.

    And finally, one point on which I feel you have been less than fair. You write with a slight but noticeable sneer about the 1980s and my desire to be inclusive. As someone who taught in the 1980s, and remembers how non-inclusive they were, I like inclusivity and think it a very important value. But that’s not what drives the argument for change in the book. The main drivers are RE’s confused rationale, its unmanageably broad range of content, and its lack of public consent. Those three factors, for me, spell urgent change.

    Best wishes,


  7. I was a member of the Commission on RE and would like to endorse the view that just teaching half a term of Humanism and changing the name would be a complete and utter waste of the enormous amount of time and commitment that went into our report.

    We knew, of course, that Worldviews is a complex and contested term. So is religion. We also believed that work has to begin on unpacking these terms and the other key concepts – secularity and spirituality – that we said form the over-arching categories of our subject area. I was reluctant to include examples of other Worldviews because then there is the danger of just adding a few more ‘isms’ to what is already taught and to try to fit them into existing structures. Nothing could be further from our vision for the future.

    These overarching categories are central to our vision in which we ask RE professionals to change their perspective to one where they look at the ‘whole’ – religion and non-religion in the context of secularity, recognising the spiritual dimension of human experience – and not just the constituent parts that are the world’s main religions along with Humanism. The key concepts will permeate all teaching and provide the overall structure of the whole religion and worldviews curriculum. This is an analogous process to the one we worked through in the 1970s and 1980s when RE transformed itself, slowly at first, after Working Paper 36, and then radically to create something quite new and much more relevant.

    But that is no longer working. There are plenty of statistics to demonstrate that, despite the outstanding commitment and practice of teachers, in the country as a whole RE is at risk. The very name of the popular FaceBook site – Save RE – is a small indicator of that.

    We knew our work would take years to come to fruition but, I’m pleased to say, work is already underway. Some primary teacher educators, for example, have followed up our Recommendation Six and that work is now available from Culham St Gabriel’s. Work led by the RE Council is progressing on Worldviews as a concept.

    The future will include some systematic study of religions but I do not see that – or giving primacy to belief – as the way forward if we are to help our pupils make sense of religion, belief and life in the twenty-first century. I have spoken at 13 conferences since we published our final report: I have been delighted by many responses and troubled by others. This is work in progress and, although I accept that the report has its shortcomings, I firmly believe that the vision we set out has the power to transform our subject for the better.

    Liked by 1 person

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