The fate of religious education

The fate of religious education

Second perhaps to Antarctica, Europe is arguably one of the world’s most secular continents. However, the continent is home to several countries in which churches still oversee the education of 80-90% of their students. Can these institutions survive the evolving sentiment? More importantly, do they want to?

The role of religion in European schools is evolving. A rising number of students and parents alike are becoming increasingly disinterested and even weary of religious education courses.[1]Thus far this trend has been primarily observed in nations whose school systems are predominantly secular, such as Norway[2], Iceland[3], the United Kingdom[4], and Germany[5]. However, there are still several countries in Europe, namely Ireland[6], Spain[7] and Cyprus[8], whose school systems are heavily controlled by local churches. Are these nations seeing a similar trend with their required religious instruction and services? If they are, how are church leaders responding?

Parental concerns
First, regardless of the country, it is clear one trend is universal – parents do not want their children to be subjects of evangelism or treated differently from their peers for not adhering to a particular belief. This is true both in school systems that are secular[9] and those that are predominantly controlled by churches.[10] And evident regardless of whether the belief being pushed is a minority[11] or majority[12] [13]point of view.

Teacher or pastor? 
Despite this concern, a large majority of students from the school systems that are controlled by churches still participate in theological classes and religious services.[14] For example, 90% of Ireland’s students attend Catholic schools.[15] Students cannot be forced to attend religious classes or services,[16] but they are still offered and highly encouraged. Like a growing number of parents, not all teachers and administrators support this practice. Some non-Catholic teachers and administrators are starting to speak out as they feel that their obligation to teach these courses puts them in a pastoral-type position they are neither qualified for or comfortable with being in.[17]

Frustrated leaders
Beyond teachers and parents, it is quite evident the churches leading these schools are also affected by this evolving sentiment. Church officials and religion teachers alike are becoming frustrated with students and their families’ declining interest in the theological component of their education system. In Ireland, the decision to move preparing children for communion from the schools to local parishes was welcomed by church leaders as they feared the event had drifted away from its true sacramental significance.[18] Further, as seen in Cyprus, religious leaders and teachers are becoming increasingly short-tempered with the public’s growing criticism of how and what they teach.[19] Despite this near consensus that the current approach is problematic, church leaders disagree on the best way to move forward. For example, Spain’s Catholic leadership is reportedly open to the church being less involved in the nation’s education system,[20] but the Vatican argues this is a time when Catholic schools ought to take a stronger stance against the subjects they consider heretical.[21]

Needless to say, religiously affiliated schools and church-dominated school systems are by no means immune to the rest of Europe’s weariness for religious education. However, the very things that make these schools unique – being run by theologically focused leaders in predominantly religious nations – are seemingly what will make their response to this evolving sentiment all the more complicated.

Elizabeth Dixon

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[1] Do you have to pray at school?
[2] Sondre Hansmark i Unge Venstre vil avskaffe skole­guds­tjenesten i jula
[3] 45% of Icelanders against religion in schools – Iceland Monitor
[4] Fears GCSE religious studies becoming ‘niche’ subject – The Irish News
[5] Germania, l’ora di religione? Soltanto con docenti di tutte le fedi
[6] Catholic church’s dominance of education continues to slide
[7] Celáa y Argüello buscan puntos de acuerdo para no hacer encallar el pacto educativo
[8] Children’s rights watchdog defends student’s criticism of religious education[9] L’instituteur qui faisait étudier la Bible n’est toujours pas réintégré
[10] Mother welcomes ruling over school discrimination
[11] Orthodox school with good education threatened with deregistration over LGBT
[12] Children’s rights watchdog defends student’s criticism of religious education
[13] Court Says Greek Schools Not Obliged to Teach Religious Conscience
[14] Celáa y Argüello buscan puntos de acuerdo para no hacer encallar el pacto educativo
[15] Catholic church’s dominance of education continues to slide
[16] Schools have ‘no legal basis’ to force students to attend religion classes
[17] Teaching sacraments at school: ‘I was a hypocrite through need’
[18] ‘New approach’ in preparing children for Communion
[19] School religion teachers say did not censor student who criticised them
[20] Calvo y Omella acuerdan una agenda de trabajo para negociar la fiscalidad de la Iglesia, las inmatriculaciones o la reforma educativa
[21] Vatikan warnt vor Gender-Ideologie