Pupils to learn about Druids, Moonies and Rastafarians for new religious studies GCSE

London, UK - Pupils will learn about the rituals and teachings of Druids, Moonies and Rastafarians in a new religious studies GCSE, it emerged today.

Atheism and humanism will also feature strongly - the first time the topics have formed a major part of a GCSE religion syllabus.

Pupils taking the new course, being trialled in schools from September by the OCR exam board, will spend relatively little time learning about the Bible and other holy texts.

As part of a section covering the rise of minority religious sects and movements, teenagers can make an in-depth study of the Unification Church, whose members are often known as Moonies after Korean-born founder Sun Myung Moon.

But it has been branded a cult and dogged by accusations of brainwashing young people and breaking up families.

It is famous for staging mass weddings to marry off members who have only just met.

Pupils are required to choose to study two out of six religious movements as part of a paper worth 25 per cent of the marks.

As well as the Unification Church, they can study the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which believes in the spirituality of nature. Those choosing to study Rastafarianism are invited to consider the influence of Bob Marley in the 1970s.

They can also learn about Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'i, the offshoot of Shi-ite Islam which holds that all religions are valid, and Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual group that seeks enlightenment through physical exercises.

A draft outline of the new GCSE - titled Religion and Belief in Today's World - also covers rap music, Stonehenge, human rights, gender equality, GM crops, multiculturalism in Britain, cloning and the effect of the internet on religion.

In addition, pupils will study the rise of humanism and atheism, including the influence of Marxism.

But critics said religious studies in schools risked descending into a 'multi-faith mish mash' with no religion studied properly.

They also said examiners' attempts to make courses more 'relevant' to children's lives did pupils a 'disservice'.

OCR insisted the new course, which is being piloted as a full or short course GCSE in 50 schools from September, would 'challenge students to think about the role of religion in modern Britain and in the worldwide community'.

A second exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, has already launched a new GCSE in the subject which will require pupils to answer questions on homosexuality, conservation, binge-drinking and drugs in sport.

Religious studies is already among the most popular GCSEs, with 171,000 pupils last year taking a full GCSE in the subject and more than 260,000 taking a short course, worth half a GCSE.

But Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, warned that religious studies now contained so many topics it risked descending into a 'multi-faith mish mash'.

'It's total curriculum overload,' he said.

'I don't think young people can cope with study of religious movements in addition to six world faiths. It is bewildering how they are going to be able to study all these things.

'The problem is the sheer number of topics within RE now. How are teachers going to do all these things and how are children going to comprehend them?

'Teaching about a faith is like teaching a language, it's as complex.'

He added: 'It's outrageous that atheism is included. It is a study of religion, not atheism.'

Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education at the Civitas think-tank, said the drive to make learning 'relevant' meant children were not being taught the knowledge they needed to succeed in the world.

'We are doing a huge disservice to our young people,' she said.

But Professor Liam Gearon, of the University of Plymouth, said OCR's new GCSE was 'intellectually exciting'.

'As well as bringing new understanding to religion in the modern world which students confront daily in newspapers, on television, radio and the Internet, students can make use of this rich diversity of media as evidence and argument in the study of religion - for example, in the study of religion and politics, religion and war, religion and the arts,' he said.

Clara Kenyon, qualifications director at OCR, said: 'This new GCSE pilot allows us take a fresh look at how religious studies is taught. 'The pilot addresses a range of issues relevant to students today, who often see religious issues in the news without necessarily having an understanding of the background.'