Selling Humanism

I have recently joined a small group developing teaching materials on Humanism for Religious and Moral Education (RME) teachers in Scottish schools. I had my first meeting with the group of fellow Humanists from the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS) last Sunday as we discussed how to go about this. An immediate sensation is that we are, of course, re-inventing a wheel that has been developed over many decades by Humanist around the world. But perhaps we have something distinctive to “sell”.

Our starting proposition is that we must be positive. Statements about the follies of religious belief will not do in this context. So much material takes clear anti-religious lines, and this will fail immediately. It will fail in part because it will never be accepted in a subject where it is unanimously agreed that the first principle of teaching is to not attack the positions of others. It will fail also by not persuading either teachers or scholars on the virtues of humanism as an alternative life stance.

The first step is to write guidance for teachers on what humanism is, and what its positions are in relation to religionists. This is in part an exercise in pointing out distinctive moral positions. But it is also in part to point out commonalities. We have to state the obvious about the virtues of all morality positions concerning justice, integrity, compassion and like positions. Humanists agree with religionists on a great deal.

But then we have the distinctive issues of no religionism regarding  things like equality and human rights, the source of virtue, and the authorship of guiding principles of morality. Take equality. Nearly all humanists will, surely, support equalities that across race, gender, age, dis/ability and, yes, religion. But then we also have the equalities of sexualities, an area where most humanists will agree though some, as I noted in a previous entry, demur. In this regard, humanism is distinctive from most adherents of virtually every religion, where there tends to be equivocation at best in regard to the official positions of churches and religion regarding the “acceptability” of homosexuality and other sexualities. The source of virtue makes humanism even more distinctive. It is not a supernatural source, but a something within ourselves and our societies. Similarly with authorship; humanists look to human self-authorship of moral principles.

So, our group started last Sunday to develop agreed principles upon which to start the writing of teachers’ guidance. Undoubtedly, this exercise will be to some extent reinventing the wheel, but in one respect we have to be original. We have to fit in with the structural arrangements of the RME curriculum of Scottish education, using the same developmental stages, and looking to forge objectives for scholars to obtain at each level. This is where the guidance of specialists in the education system is paramount, and we have assistance on our group in this regard.

The end result must be useful to teachers if it is to hit the chalk face (to use a very old fashioned expression). They are the gatekeepers, and whilst they have to meet certain objectives in regard to introducing scholars to the range of religious and non-belief positions around the world, the teaching suggestions offered to them by humanists must be palatable and non-combative. It is a positive position that humanism must be seen to be offering if it is to get into the classroom.

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