Overview:

As the UK's nonreligious population grows, its High Court has found in favor of a humanist involved in an education system legal battle.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A recent High Court judgment recently found in favor of a humanist, and Kent County Council will not appeal the decision. This has been seen as a landmark ruling.

The event might ignite discussions of whether or not humanism should be designated a religion. When looking at the definition for humanism as per the Humanists UK website, There is reference to a dictionary definition that implies it is not a religion:

Rejection of religion in favour of the advancement of humanity by its own efforts.

– Collins Concise Dictionary

Nowhere else on the page is the word religion mentioned. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines religion as:

1a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

2a

(1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural

(2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

b: the state of a religious [person]

  • a nun in her 20th year of religion

3a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

There is no space for humanism to be defined as a religion unless taking into account the third definition, And even then many people would have reasonable issues with the use of the word faith.

The court’s decision concerned the decision of Kent County Council to refuse humanist Steve Bowen’s membership in his local religious education committee. As a result, this will be known as the “Bowen judgment.”

As is standard practice with all county councils, Kent County Council has a Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). This group is responsible for administering the Religious Education (RE) syllabus to schools within the council. Group A, a part of the SACRE, consists of religious representatives, Though not from the Church of England who have the privilege of being in a separate group.

Steve Bowen, who is also Chair of Kent Humanists, said as the claimant:

I’m pleased to have confirmation that my judicial review now stands as case law. I look forward to being invited to become a member of Kent’s SACRE soon, and am personally thrilled that my case may well also play a part in currently excluded humanists across the rest of England being included on their local SACREs.

I really enjoy my current role as a humanist school speaker – it is so important that children living in my home county can learn about all religions and worldviews in an inclusive manner – being able to be part of the committee that oversees their RE syllabus is the next logical step in that endeavour.

RE is the subject where children learn about things pertaining to God and the nonexistence of God as well, learning about religious organizations, traditions, theology, morality, and ethics. Humanism is included as an idea and belief system within this subject.

The refusal to allow Mr Bowen to sit on the group was deemed as discriminatory. Indeed, in his decision, Mr. Justice Constable concluded that it is:

‘clearly discriminatory to exclude someone from SACRE Group A solely by reference to the fact that their belief, whilst appropriate to be included within the agreed syllabus for religious education, is a non-religious, rather than a religious, belief.’

For the purposes of organizing and discussing the RE syllabus, humanists are deemed to be on a par with other religious representatives. However, it is not like the situation in Kent is the norm across the country. Out of the 151 SACREs, some 67 have humanists as members of group A. The ideal would be to have members sitting in every group. The argument often given behind decisions such as those made by Kent County Council is that humanism isn’t a religion. But, Humanists UK have stated regarding the court’s decision That the law requires far more clarity and that this decision has a larger scope:

However Bowen is clear that references to religion in the relevant legislation should be read in a way which would ‘read in’ words extending the scope of possible group A members to include humanists. Reading it in this way is required by the Human Rights Act 1998. The law has now been unambiguously clarified in this area.

Furthermore, the new Bowen judgment restates the Fox judgment, that humanism should be included and given ‘equal respect’ in RE syllabuses. In fact, it is even clearer on this point: those syllabuses failing to be inclusive will leave themselves open to legal challenge.

The news that Kent County Council will not be going to the Court of Appeal means that the name Bowen now joins Fox as a key element of case law upholding the equal respect that must be afforded to humanism in education. It also represents a further instance of the Human Rights Act being used to clarify that humanism should be ‘read in’ to references to religion in other legislation – in this case the Education Act 1996. There may well be further examples in public life where this would apply.

The inclusion of humanists in such groups then go a long way to guaranteeing that teachers will be provided resources and impetus to include humanism in their RE syllabuses. This would give schools a far more balanced RE curriculum and will also have the added benefit of better reflecting society at large.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said about the decision:

In our increasingly non-religious society, the study of humanism is an essential component of a fully inclusive religious education syllabus. Therefore Kent County Council has made a sensible decision not to appeal this judgement. Bowen marks a line in the sand for humanism: from now no local authority in England will be able to attempt to block humanists from joining their SACRE simply because they are a humanist.

So we are confident that Bowen will in time lead to all SACREs in England admitting humanists. But to help them with that, we hope the UK Government will produce clear guidance on the matter.

Decisions like this continue to chip away at the privilege that religions continue to enjoy in modern British society. While the UK is not technically a secular nation, given the growing nonreligious nature of its population, there should be a striving for secular ideals.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

Subscribe
Notify of
47 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments