Today, over half the population of the UK (and over 70% of young people) describe themselves as ‘non-religious’. However, space for pupils to explore the beliefs, values, and aspirations of these people has historically been severely limited.

That’s changing, and an ever-increasing number of schools are making their Religious Education provision more inclusive by including non-religious worldviews (it’s not just good practice – it’s also the law).

The most common non-religious worldview in the UK today is humanism, an approach to life that sees the world as a natural place and believes we can lead good, happy, and meaningful lives without the need for religion.

What is Humanism?

The most common label people think of when considering the non-religious is ‘atheist’. However, it’s not always the best word to use. The label only tells you that a person doesn’t believe in a god.

It doesn’t tell you more about that person’s wider worldview. Humanists will be atheists (or agnostic – they’ll accept we can’t know whether there is a god or not). However, a humanist approach to life involves more than this, and it’s important that we don’t just focus on those things that non-religious people might not believe in.

So what is the core information about humanism that students need to know? I’d normally start by presenting pupils with a humanist understanding of human beings.

Where did we come from? What are we? And where are we going? Humanists believe we have natural origins. They believe we have evolved both negative and positive instincts and capacities, and if we put those positive capacities to good use, then we have the potential to lead good and happy lives.

I’d then introduce three core features of a humanist approach to life:

  • A belief that the world is a natural place and science provides the best way to understand it.
  • A belief that we have one life and that we should each have the freedom to find what makes us happy in the here and now, while supporting other people to do the same.
  • A belief that empathy can support us to understand why we should treat others with kindness and respect – we should consider the impact of our actions on other people, animals, and the planet.

I’d also make sure I cover how humanists might live out their lives. Humanists believe that human beings alone are responsible for making the world a better place (help isn’t going to come from outside humanity).

There are many diverse examples of individuals around the world that can be used to illustrate humanist support for freedom, equality, and human rights.

It’s important not to present humanists as anti-religious. There are features of some religions that humanists might disagree with or oppose. However, humanists will typically be secularists – they believe in freedom of religion and belief and that everyone should be treated equally on such grounds.

Stories and ceremony

One of the best ways to approach teaching about humanism is through stories. For a humanist, what is important is not where a story comes from, but whether it can teach us something about life that chimes with our understanding of human nature and wellbeing.

The Two Wolves is a story that is thought to have a native North-American origin. In it a grandmother explains to her granddaughter that there are two wolves fighting inside her: one kind and good, the other angry and cruel.

When asked which wolf will win, she replies, ‘The wolf that you feed.’ The story provides a great way to illustrate the recognition that human beings have naturally evolved both positive and negative instincts and capacities, and the humanist ambition to promote those capacities that support cooperation and happiness, and overcome those that lead to harm.

In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes you could explore why humanists might admire the actions of the young boy who speaks out at the end of the story. He is someone who looks at the evidence, who asks questions about what he is being told, and is brave enough to speak up. 

The Starfish Thrower by Loren Eiseley illustrates a humanist belief in human responsibility and that our actions and choices can make a difference. Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers is a fantastic picture book packed full of humanist messages.

Humanist ceremonies can be another great way to introduce a humanist approach to life. Not all humanists have ceremonies, although they are becoming increasingly popular (there are now more humanist marriages in Scotland than all types of Christian marriages).

A humanist naming ceremony often focuses not on labelling a child as a humanist but on their freedom to decide for themselves what they believe and for others to support them to find their own path in life.

Humanist weddings can illustrate the importance of other people in our lives – it is the connections we make in life that can be the source of meaning and joy for many humanists. 

They can also illustrate the humanist support for diversity and equality (humanists have carried out ceremonies for same-sex couples for decades).

Finally, humanist funerals can illustrate the belief that, although death is the end of our personal existence, something of us can live on in our children, in the memories we leave behind, and the impact our lives have had.

Inclusive RE

Including humanism in RE, then, provides a great way to support students to better understand how many non-religious people tackle life’s big questions and make sense of their lives.

It allows them to develop a fuller picture of today’s landscape of religion and belief, and gives them a deeper and richer knowledge of how to navigate it.

Free resources to support your teaching are available from Understanding Humanism. You can also request a visit from a free trained school speaker who can answer your pupils’ questions.

Luke Donnellan is the director of Understanding Humanism at Humanists UK. He manages their school speakers programme, teacher training and CPD, and the production of educational resources. He’s a former primary teacher and freelance philosophy teacher.