Christianity and controversies in Norwegian education

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Christianity and controversies in Norwegian education

Religion as an obligatory subject in education has caused a lot of public debate in Norway. In 2007, the European Human Rights Court even sentenced Norway for breaking human rights because they favoured Christianity in their supposedly neutral religion subject.

This article is part of our series on the role of religion in education across Europe.

Christianity fueling debate in Norwegian school system
In Norway, religious subjects in school used to be confessional and focused on a Lutheran approach to Christianity. In 1993, Norway changed its focus on Christian-based lessons to a more nuanced subject that includes other religions and philosophy due to the country’s religious decline. However, a strong focus on Christianity remained.[1]

Religion as an obligatory subject in school has caused a lot of public debate in Norway, mostly because children used to only be allowed to abstain from the classes under very specific circumstances.[2] In 2007, the European Human Rights Court sentenced Norway for breaking human rights because they favoured Christianity in their supposedly neutral religion subject. Norway was criticised for its strong focus on Christianity and for not allowing equal access to freedom of religion in the classroom.[3] Additionally, Norway was criticised for making the subject of religion obligatory and not allowing parents to withdraw their children, as is the case in e.g. Denmark.[4] Since then, there has been a stronger focus in Norwegian education on religion being more critical and nuanced.[5] The critique also fueled a lot of debate in the other Nordic countries, which subsequently investigated the way in which their own education systems taught religion.[6]

Lack of religious freedom in the Norwegian school system
Today, Norwegian schools focus more on teaching religion from an objective angle and the Norwegian state has changed the religion curriculum in public schools in accordance with the European Human Rights Court’s recommendations. The country also officially separated church and state in 2017, which has potentially impacted its RE structure.[7] Though Norway has multiple Christian faith schools, the country has not allowed a single Muslim faith school to be established. This has been justified by stating that Muslim faith schools would ‘halt’ integration efforts and segregate the Norwegian Muslim community from Norwegian society.[8]

Many critics have argued that this is discriminatory against the Muslim community.[9] However, several other Scandinavian countries have used Norway as an example in opposing Muslim faith schools. For instance, the Danish social democrats used the same integration argument, with reference to Norway, in order to argue against state funding for Muslim schools in Denmark.[10]

Just a Norwegian issue?
Though Norway has had its distinct issues with religion and education, it seems that the issue regarding secularisation and education is a hot and contentious topic in all of the Scandinavian countries. As a consequence, all of these countries have a very different approach to RE. As Scandinavia is generally known as a very secular part of the world – Sweden was for instance named ‘the most secular country in the world’[11] and Norway recently became secular – it seems that the topic of faith schools and the role of Christianity impacts many debates in all three countries.

Christianity is also vital to the more conservative or nationalist rhetoric in Norway,[12] despite the more secular approach to religion, as it is a part of the country’s cultural values and history.[13] Christianity’s influence and impact on cultural and social values cannot be ignored, despite religion’s general decline in Scandinavia. It could be questioned if the controversies concerning Muslim faith schools could be tied into Scandinavian politics, and the right-wing parties’ growing anti-Islam rhetoric. This would suggest that the discussions regarding faith schools are not just a Norwegian issue, but rather a larger issue rooted in Scandinavian culture and history.

Hannah Macaulay

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Our team of analysts conducts research on topics relating to religion and society. In April, May and June 2021, we are focusing on the subject of education. Find out more on the EARS Dashboard.


[1] Hvordan underviser man om religion? (del 2)

[2] Norge: Kristendomsfag overtræder menneskerettigheder

[3] Norge: Kristendomsfag overtræder menneskerettigheder

[4] Norge: Kristendomsfag overtræder menneskerettigheder

[5] Nordisk balancegang om religionsundervisning.

[6] Nordisk balancegang om religionsundervisning

[7] Norway: State and Church Separate After 500 Years

[8] Oslo afviser igen muslimsk skole

[9] Oslo afviser igen muslimsk skole

[10] Eksperter afviser forslag fra S om fjerne tilskud fra muslimske friskole

[11] Sverige er Vestens mest sekulariserede land

[12] Kristenkonservative har ennå stor innflytelse

[13] Kristendom, litteratur og historie er grundlaget for den danske kultur