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