HL Deb 17 December 1993 vol 550 cc1497-9

11.12 a.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will include humanism in the religious education syllabus for schools.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government do not determine the content of any locally agreed syllabus for religious education in England and Wales. Each syllabus is agreed locally by a local authority syllabus conference. As humanism is not a religion, there is no requirement that it be represented on a conference or included in an agreed syllabus.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that opinion polls have shown consistently that some 20 per cent. of the adult population has no religious faith? In those circumstances, is it not proper and logical that the subject should be taught to children so that they can see what is involved? On the specific point that the Minister made, we all realise of course that humanism is not a religion, but there is no other appropriate place in the syllabus to put it. Will he comment on that point also?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, guidance on what is meant by religion is taken from the case of Barralet and Others v. Attorney-General in 1980. The advice of our legal officers is that humanism is not a religion and should not therefore be taught as if it were. However, in the context of religious education, a syllabus might deal with non-theistic ways of life such as humanism.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in some schools on the last day of term the final assembly sometimes has difficulty in focusing adequately on God? Does he agree that, were humanism to be included in religious education, it would be difficult on any logical ground to exclude Marxism, fascism, or any other ideology which does not take seriously the transcendent revelation, the spiritual, let alone God?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate focuses on an interesting point. I concur with what he said.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, will the Minister continue not to be beguiled by the strange theological views coming from Durham? Will he bear in mind that this country's heritage is a Christian one, and that we have built our parliamentary democracy upon the Christian interpretation of the value of the individual? Because of Christianity, we know that no person in this realm is unimportant. Will he direct his thoughts more to Guildford than to Durham?

Viscount St Davids

My Lords, it is not for me to remind your Lordships' House that the basis of our laws and legal system, and indeed our culture, lies deep within the Christian tradition.

Baroness David

My Lords, does the Minister agree that within the Act religious education is defined as education and not instruction, and that it should be mainly Christian?

Viscount St Davids

My Lords, I concur entirely with the noble Baroness.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that humanism is a euphemism for atheism, which is in antagonism to all religion, and therefore cannot be part of religious teaching?

Viscount St Davids

My Lords, the answer my noble friend seeks would require from me a personal observation which I am not entitled to make.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, has the Minister noticed that in his annual report the Chief Inspector of Schools has commented upon the need felt by schools for further guidance on spiritual and moral education? Do the Government believe that that should reflect the reality that Britain is now a multi-faith society?

Viscount St Davids

My Lords, a range of national model syllabuses is being developed by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and will be issued for consultation in the new year. It would not be appropriate for me to comment upon their content before then.

Lord St John of Fawsley

My Lords, will my noble friend not allow himself to be led astray by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, and, I am afraid, other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Renton, on this question of humanism? Will he strike a blow today, at Christmastide, against this monstrous hijacking by agnostics of the word "humanism"? Will he remind the noble Lord that in the English tradition the great humanists—Erasmus, More and Colet—were all Christian believers? Is it not much better to describe humanism as inhumanism, and call a spade a spade?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, again, I have to reply to my noble friend that he is requiring from me a personal observation which I am not permitted to make.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I listened with care to the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy. My noble friend Lord Dormand is still a friend of mine, and I have the greatest respect and admiration for him and for what he tries to do in the House and outside (in fact some of my best friends are so-called humanists). But I believe that the Question is irrelevant and out of order. It represents a contradiction to me and to millions of other citizens who do not understand the relationship in this context of humanism and religion. Humanism is not a religion. It is not accepted as a religion. Perhaps some other place in the syllabus could be found to discuss it, but it should not be in the religious syllabus.

Viscount St Davids

My Lords, the intellectual integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, is well known in your Lordships' House. I should certainly incur your Lordships' displeasure were I to call into question his beliefs or his reasons for holding them.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, if there is a worry about indicating to people what humanism is all about, should it not be studied as part of the history syllabus as development of thought, in particular during the Renaissance period? As has been said by many noble Lords, it is of no relevance to religious education.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the noble Baroness made a valuable point.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, if only 20 per cent. of people declare themselves to be non-religious, or to be humanist, a large number of people are not practising their faith. Is it not the case, therefore, that possibly a majority of people in this country cannot today be described as being religious? Is it not proper that some place should be provided in which moral necessities outside the necessity of belonging in any faith can be taught to children? That is what my noble friend is properly seeking to provide and if it cannot be provided in the way he suggested perhaps it can be provided in another way.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I suggest to the noble Lord that it is for the parents and relations who are involved in humanism to teach it to their children if they see fit.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, is not the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, that if people are not practising their religion there is all the more need for religious education?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, my noble friend is correct.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, of course I expected your Lordships' overwhelming support in answer to my Question! I return to the Minister's answer about the provision of local religious education syllabuses. In view of what he said, is it acceptable that, if representations are made at a local level, they may be included in any local RE syllabus?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education has received representations from the British Humanist Association. Its views will be fully taken into account before a final decision is taken on the text of the circular to be issued in the new year.

Lord Elton

My Lords, given the support in your Lordships' House for religious education to be taught in schools, will my noble friend recommend to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education steps to strengthen the training of teachers of religious education?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I shall certainly report the views of my noble friend to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

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