Why Philip Pullman wants to teach children about atheism

For the first time, pupils are to be taught about atheism as part of religious studies in a course devised by two of the UK's leading children's writers. Caroline Haydon reports

What are religious studies for? Is it our job to teach children to believe, or to teach them about all beliefs including those that don't involve a god? It may be that not many religious teachers believe the former, but outside the profession passions run high, with everyone holding a particular view depending where they sit on the spectrum of belief or unbelief.

For the past couple of years a remarkably peaceful truce has held as a range of groups from all points on that spectrum signed up to the first national framework for religious education. But as more faith schools open up in the state sector, and arguments over religion and the science curriculum gather pace, will it hold?

Atheists and humanists have not featured prominently in public discussions over the years. Now, however, following the trend for well-known atheists such as Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins to put their cases on television, two authors celebrated for their work for children, Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen, have produced a course on atheism for schools. It is the first time pupils have had a programme to teach them about it.

Called simply Why Atheism?, the DVD for 11-year-olds and older features "disbelieving" students talking openly about the reasons they don't believe in God, and a former Christian, Muslim, Jehovah's Witness and Hindu explaining why they rejected their religion. A Belfast journalist also details life in a community divided by religion, and humanist celebrants are shown conducting funeral, wedding and baby-naming celebrations.

It has caused ripples that betray some deep feelings over the issue of religion in schools, and whether atheism should be taught in religious studies at all.

It's certainly not an acceptable part of religious studies according to the Muslim Council of Britain. Tahir Alam, chair of the Council's education committee, says: "Of course it is indirectly discussed whether God exists or not, and as part of that discussion it's going to come up anyway. But creating space in the curriculum under the heading of atheism is not something we support. It isn't a religion and it shouldn't have that sort of space made for it".

The Muslim Council is a signatory to the framework, the non-statutory National Guidelines for RE produced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It mentions humanism, though not atheism, as a "secular philosophy" recommended for study.

Atheism is a sticking point, too, for the Network Of Sikh Organisations, whose director Dr Indarjit Singh says that RE provides one of the last remaining spaces for religion in an irreligious world, and should be left for those who have a firmly defined belief system. "Atheism is a negation of belief, so can't be taught in the same way as other belief systems", he says. "Humanism varies from individual to individual but is different in that it does define a set of beliefs, and children should be made aware of it in the same way as they should be made aware of other faiths, in order to avoid prejudice".

Atheists, if not humanists, would beg to differ. So are the guidelines a successful attempt to coordinate diametrically opposing points of view, or a cobbled-together treaty that might fall apart under future strain? RE, after all, has an unusual position in our schools. It is compulsory, but not actually part of the national curriculum. Parents are free, under a law dating back to 1870, to withdraw their children from lessons. What is taught is largely locally determined, with no fewer than 151 slightly different syllabuses in operation - hence the need for guidelines. But if it were to become part of the national curriculum, what should it incorporate?

Pullman has been at the centre of this sort of controversy before. The writer's His Dark Materials trilogy, with its dark depictions of Church hierarchies, whipped up a storm in conservative Christian circles. But anyone who saw the stage translation of the books knows his appeal to teenagers.

As the plays progressed, the average age of audiences at the National Theatre crashed to unprecedented levels, with hoodies and trainers replacing Barbours and sensible shoes. Theatregoers were even treated one memorable night to the sight of the Archbishop of Canterbury debating religion with youngsters in the interval.

The Church of England maintains this engagement with atheist dissenters, saying it has no protectionist views and is happy to look at a range of reactions to belief. Famously, the Archbishop of Canterbury engaged in public debate with Pullman about His Dark Materials. A spirit of debate also informs the DVD course, which both authors stress is about argument, not instruction. It features Michael Rosen actively engaged in discussion himself, with Catholic sixth-formers keen to hold their own. It's a debate which is all the more moving because Rosen raises the issue of how to manage crises in your life with or without God, and talks about how he tried to cope with the death of his own 19-year old son, from meningitis. The discussion, he believes, was valuable. "I quite like the idea that we did have common ground - we could agree for instance on ideas like "do as you would be done by", he says. "We could still talk to each other".

Pullman, too, thinks the course is important because of the opportunity it provides to stimulate classroom discussion, but also because it might hone critical faculties in other areas of the curriculum, notably science. With the argument over whether "intelligent design" is in fact creationism in disguise looking set to take off over here as it has in the USA, he sees it as important to "expose all kinds of philosophies and religions to argument, and to young people, and young people to argument."

He says: "What I fear and deplore in the 'faith school' camp is their desire to close argument down and put some things beyond question or debate. It's vital to get clear in young minds what is a faith position and what is not - so that, for instance, they won't be taken in by religious people claiming that science is a faith position no different in kind from Christianity. Science is not a matter of faith, and too many people are being allowed to get away with claiming that it is, and that my 'belief' in evolution is a thing of the same kind as their 'belief' in miracles. What we need in schools, really, is basic philosophy."

RE is not a subject on the decline. Despite Ofsted comments about shortages of specialist teachers, it's been judged to be most successful at post-16 level, with A-level entries up nearly 17 per cent last year, the largest rise of any subject. Not all modules have enjoyed the same rise in popularity, though, according to Lat Blaylock, the editor of REtoday, who says the recent rises at AS and A2 level have been overwhelmingly in the study of philosophy of religion and ethics, rather than religious texts or traditions.

That might explain why one local authority adviser thought Why Atheism? a helpful resource in an area where there are few materials. With a lot more teachers thinking about how they should teach secular life-stances, now that they are mentioned in the guidelines, it will fill a gap.

If attempts are ever made to transform religious education - very much changed from the old religious knowledge or religious instruction - into a national curriculum subject, there should be some very lively discussions indeed.

'Why Atheism?' is produced by Team Video at £44.65 ( www.team-video.co.uk)

What the pupils say...

Religion:

It makes it "them and us", doesn't it? And once you can see yourself as separate from another person it's easier to inflict cruelty on them. Look at the British Empire. It was very much the tribesmen, they had their gods, while we were "civilised Christians". And once you've got that, almost a way of believing that you're better than somebody because you believe in the right god and they believe in the wrong god, it's easier to justify your actions against them.

Often powerful leaders use it as part of their way of getting into government or as a way of fighting their war, saying that you can kill but only for a just cause, and then they make that just cause their cause. So I think a lot of people can use it as a weapon for power and money.

Marriage:

I've always wanted to get married in church because I think the vows are really nice and I believe that marriage should be for life and I like the Christian view on that, so I'd probably get married in a church, but then I'd feel a bit awkward because I know deep down that I don't really believe in God, so I'd have a bit of a dilemma. It would depend what my partner believed. If he wanted to go along with it, fine.

Faith schools:

I think they're a bad idea because they really narrow people's points of view. I think it's better if it's a multi-faith school or a no-faith school where you just learn about other religions and you can do what you want or what you feel is right, while still having the interaction with others who have different views.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Senior Research Fellow in Water and Resilient communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: Our team of leading academic...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistants...

Teaching Assistants in Peterborough

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: Teaching assistants required ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker