Education (Non-Religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill: Bishop of Southwark speaks on importance of religious education in schools

On Friday 3rd February, the House of Lords debated the Education (Non Religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill in its second reading. The bill would introduce provision for “religious worldviews” to replace religious education in some schools. The Bishop of Southwark spoke in the debate, arguing that religious education fills a key place in the curriculum:

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I speak in this debate feeling somewhat like an officer of the Salvation Army commending temperance to a conference of brewers. None the less, while I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, has made some important points introducing this Bill and I am grateful for them, I want to make some general points to gently demonstrate why this proposed measure for RE in schools without a religious character is unnecessary. I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, although my view is somewhat different on this occasion from his wisdom and I have no immediate plans to join the British Humanist Association.

First, I stress the value of what remains of religious education within our schools. While the outcomes of education remain a contested area of debate in society, the purpose of education and what it does to us receives much less attention. Too much is assumed in that regard, and that partly informs this Bill. My belief is that human flourishing happens in body, mind and spirit and that education engages us in each of these aspects, which need to be held together holistically.

Religious inheritance in this country is primarily Christian, although I am not sure that the statistics take account of those who have very strong convictions of other faiths. It has shaped our culture, language and built environment. Even the shape of our present secularism bears the marks of an earlier Christian humanism and the Protestant Reformation. While that is the case, the whole framework of our education system, including that which the Bill calls a “worldview”, is the product of the European enlightenment. Consequently, what the noble Baroness seeks in this Bill in terms of a non-religious worldview is represented and imbedded already across the curriculum, from arts and social sciences to the sciences themselves. It is taught, imbibed and breathed in and out virtually every minute of every school day.

I am not seeking to decry the value of philosophy, not least the maxims of how to live a good life, nor do I demean humanism and the emphasis on individual and societal potential. Some of its greatest exponents were the Christian humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries, such as Pope Nicholas V and Desiderius Erasmus. But the heirs of Spinoza and Rousseau neither understand nor support the role of religion in public life. This is a failure of imagination and spirit, as it is of the intellect. As the Hungarian economist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi demonstrated, no framework of human endeavour or education is value-free—even the scientific method. For him all knowledge is personal and involves a moral commitment. Polanyi insisted that, for example, Copernicus arrived at the earth’s relation to the sun not as a consequence of following a method but via

“the greater intellectual satisfaction he derived from the celestial panorama as seen from the Sun instead of the Earth”.

Religious sensibility acknowledges the spiritual dimension of life in very particular ways. It does so through the inheritance of centuries and the lived experience of the human race. In the three Abrahamic faiths, it rests on claims of historic revelation. This feeding of the whole person is now restricted to a very small part of any programme of education. The Bill risks assaulting its identity by adding explicit principles evident throughout the rest of the educational curriculum. Whether or not this is intentional, it should be resisted.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Brinton (LD): My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, both of whom gave us very thoughtful contributions. The noble Lord articulated that his view is not defensive; I agree. His quoting from Milton’s Areopagitica and noting Milton’s passionate humanism has made my day. The right reverend Prelate believes that this Bill should not be necessary. While I respect his views, my view is that the current arrangements under legislation are not providing our children with a sure footing in understanding religions and worldviews.

I thank my noble friend Lady Burt of Solihull for presenting this Private Member’s Bill, which highlights a problem in the legislation for the teaching of religion and beliefs. The Bill sets out how to ensure the teaching of religion and worldviews in a 21st century which is very different to the early 1990s, when SACREs were set up and were designed to allow for councils to develop RE syllabuses suitable for their local areas. While this is not formally an interest, I was the portfolio holder for education and libraries on Cambridgeshire County Council from 1993 to 1997 and chaired the Cambridgeshire SACRE syllabus writing group at the same time.

The Government’s non-statutory guidance on religious education in English schools 2010 says on page 23 that:

“Pupils should have the opportunity to learn that there are those who do not hold religious beliefs and have their own philosophical perspectives, and subject matter should facilitate integration and promotion of shared values.”

The RE Council, under the headline “Why RE Matters”, sums up well why children need to learn about faith and belief:

“The ability to understand the faith or belief of individuals and communities, and how these may shape their culture and behaviour, is an invaluable asset for children in modern day Britain. Explaining religious and non-religious worldviews in an academic way allows young people to engage with the complexities of belief, avoid stereotyping and contribute to an informed debate.”

That seems right. Education does not restrict or limit the view of a child’s own faith or belief but sets it in the context of their world, which in the early years might be just that of their class, school or local area.

Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab): In a sense—a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—the Bill is not necessary because the argument has already been won, both in principle and in practice: religion is already taught in many schools in the way that is suggested in the Bill. That is the point. It is really bad to have a practice in our schools that is out of line with the legislation; let us bring them into line, through the Bill, as is happening in many schools.

The key to this is that views have been changing since the current structure was created. The suggestion is that religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian, and we have the advantage of the latest figures from the national census: in London, 41% are Christian, 25% have other religions, and 34% have no religion. Those figures come from answering a census question. We know that, in truth, people say that they are Christian out of habit rather than that being what they actually believe. In my own London Borough of Lambeth, 38% of people have no religion. That is reflected, in practice, by what is happening in schools. Let us bring the law in line with what everyone thinks should be happening.

Baroness Barran (Con): My Lords, I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, on securing a Second Reading of her Bill. As we have heard from your Lordships, high-quality religious education is an important part of a rich curriculum and supporting pupils to understanding the value and traditions of Britain and other countries. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark for eloquently making that point about our culture.

While I welcome the noble Baroness’s continued commitment to ensuring that RE remains at the forefront of discussions in this House, I must express reservations about this Bill on behalf of the Government. In doing so, I would like to clarify for your Lordships the Government’s policy on RE and how current provision already addresses, in the main, the Bill’s principal intentions.

The Bill seeks to introduce, as we have heard, an explicit requirement for schools in England, with the exception of voluntary aided schools with a religious character, to teach non-religious worldviews as part of their RE curricula. This is only right. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, there has undoubtedly been a shift in belief over the last decade. The 2021 census showed a 13 percentage-point decrease in the number of people who describe themselves as Christian, and a 12 percentage-point increase in the number who describe themselves as having “no religion”—although I must say that I am rather drawn to the definition given by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, from Sister Christine, of religion being about love, but perhaps that is for another debate.

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