CHILDREN as young as four will be taught about atheism in Blackburn with Darwen schools for the first time.
Education bosses at Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council have overhauled the RE syllabus to ensure non-religious beliefs are taught.
The major shake-up will be introduced from September in each of the 28 primary and secondary community schools in the borough.
Faith schools can also opt to teach the syllabus.
Education chiefs stressed that children will continue to learn about the six major faiths - Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.
But they will also be taught humanism - the belief there is no God or Gods, and that moral values are founded on human nature and experience alone.
According to one of the council’s advisors it will allow children to become ‘citizens in Blackburn and the world’ and instill ‘confidence.’
The overhaul is based on the Leicester’s RE syllabus which was one of the first places in the country to teach about atheism.
‘Blackburn with Darwen: Harmony and Diversity Curriculum’ was developed to recognise that many children in Blackburn with Darwen come from ‘non-religious for life stances’.
Lancashire County Council schools in Hyndburn, Ribble Valley, Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale, do not teach atheism.
Fiona Moss, from RE Today, helped create the new syllabus for Blackburn with Darwen.
She said: “We really must recognise that some people do not believe in God and do not have a religious background.
"We have to make children aware of non-beliefs.
“We want to support children to engage and enthuse them about RE to become good citizens in Blackburn and the world.
“The aim is for them to be confident wherever they settle.”
To create the syllabus the team reviewed the census results in 2001 which revealed that, although the borough has representatives from all of the six major faiths, there were more than 10,000 people who stated they did not follow a religion.
At its launch in Blackburn yesterday, Dot Thomson, Blackburn with Darwen school improvement officer, said: “I would not describe the syllabus as radical but it is disassociated from what went before in Blackburn with Darwen.
“This is the first time we have given respect for non-religious life stances.
“It is an important area. We expect this year’s census to show the diverse faiths and beliefs in the area and we need to reflect this when teaching RE in schools.
“This syllabus is more imaginative and creative.”
Coun Chris Thayne, chair of Blackburn with Darwen Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education, or SACRE, said: “We don’t want the future to be blind.
"We want it to be illuminated. We need understanding without prejudice.”
The syllabus has already been trialled in some of the borough’s schools after work began on the new curriculum in September.
But it has concerned Salim Mulla, chair of Lancashire Council of Mosques, who said: “We believe it is important to have faith values whether that is Christian, Islamic or any other religion.
"The values are very, very important. I don’t think the non-God aspect should be introduced into the curriculum.
“I don’t think it is right. People are born into faiths and are brought up in that faith and that’s how it should stay.
“The non-faith beliefs send a wrong message to the children and confuse them.”
But the move was backed by Lancashire Telegraph columnist Rev Kevin Logan.
He said: "It is quite a change but it is completely right to recognise atheism and humanism.
"They are religions like any others. It is just that people worship man instead of a god.
"I am certainly not worried about Christianity. It can stand against any belief and come out in a good light."
Voluntary-aided CofE schools must use the Diocese’s RE syllabus but the areas voluntary-controlled schools can opt to use Blackburn with Darwen Council’s new syllabus.
A spokeswoman for Blackburn Diocese education department said: “We fully support the use of the Leicester syllabus in Blackburn with Darwen schools.
"It gives a balanced picture of the wide range of faiths and gives pupils a balanced view of beliefs.”