How to teach religion in today’s classroom

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How to teach religion in today’s classroom

Religious Education (RE) in schools has been a battlefield between the state, religious communities, and civil society for ages. Our analyst Han Chang analyses the public debate and argues that both the religious and the secular approach need to face the challenge of coping with diversity in and through religious education.

Today, the majority of European countries have some form of Religious Education (RE)[1] in schools.[2] The most widespread model is confessional RE, which is usually guaranteed for all religions and/or denominations that have met certain requirements.[3] However, this approach has been criticised frequently, with the main criticism being that religions belong in the private sphere[4] and confessional RE is neither inclusive nor science-based.[5]

The goal for advocates for and against (confessional) RE seems to be similar: a dialogue-oriented, scientific approach to religions. It should include all religions and worldviews and enable students to deal with religions respectfully and critically in society.[6] But on how exactly to achieve this, opinions tend to differ sharply.

The fear of indoctrination
In many public discussions on RE in Europe, attention is often given to the legitimation of confessional RE, at the expense of the pedagogical and scientific approaches. A distinction is often made between ‘confessional RE’ and ‘science-based lessons in religions’.[7] Nevertheless, in countries[8] in which RE is a regular school subject, both confessional and non-confessional RE must meet the quality standards that are set for general education.[9] Let us take Germany as an example. The participation of religious communities only serves the purpose of ensuring that RE is given properly and that pupils are enabled to understand and participate in the religious life of the respective religious community.[10] The national curriculum for RE in the UK and Finland is also written in cooperation with state authorities and religious communities.[11]

Moreover, the content of confessional RE also varies from country to country. In many schools across the UK, a critical approach to religions is practised in confessional RE,[12] whereas confessional RE in Croatia is often criticised for being rather ‘congregation-oriented’ than integral.[13] Non-religious views are also considered in RE in many faith schools in the UK and Germany.[14] What is noteworthy is that non-confessional RE and ‘Ethics’ as an alternative for RE have been provided for years in many European countries.[15] [16]

Challenges for alternatives for RE
The main argument for the abolition of (confessional) RE is to develop an inclusive subject in different religions and worldviews and to create ‘a safe space’ for students to express their views openly.[17] Whereas some argue for a non-confessional RE, some wish to endorse lessons in Ethics[18] instead of RE. Nevertheless, the current practice of non-confessional and non-religious approach is proven to be no guarantee to achieve these educational goals of RE.[19]

Firstly, the lack of qualified teachers and a clear scope of teachings is one of the challenges of this approach.[20] For example, both an all-embracing RE and confessional RE have been offered by the German federal state of Brandenburg since 1996. There has been criticism among students, saying the teaching lacks professional profile and provides only little knowledge.[21]

Secondly, the all-embracing approach does not ensure an objective and inclusive teaching. The supposedly neutral non-confessional RE in Norway was criticised for favouring Christianity and not allowing equal access to other religions by the European Human Rights Court,[22] while non-confessional RE in Sweden has come under fire because it is given with a strong atheist attitude, as some critics say.[23] The same criticisms apply to lessons in Ethics. A survey on the integrative worldview education in Finnish schools also indicates the challenges of including a variety of different worldviews among students. As teachers noted, the secular ethics classroom represented a largely homogenous and secular group of students. A wider scope is still needed to create an integrative education.[24]

Fostering religious plurality through religious education: A challenge for all
Remarkably, both people for and against (confessional) RE use the freedom of religion and increasing religious plurality in society as an argument for their respective approach. While some see teachings about religions from the outside as a universal remedy, others argue that a non-confessional or non-religious approach would lead to relativism and reductionism. What needs to be ensured is the freedom of religion, not from religion. For this reason, insider perspectives need to be included to understand different religions.[25]

As we have seen, there is no evidence to suggest that the inclusive feature is necessarily a characteristic only of the non-confessional or non-religious approach to religions, although it is clearly emphasised among advocates as a strength of these subjects. Since both approaches are proven to be no silver bullet, there are more and more voices saying that the question of how to teach religion cannot be answered in any general way.[26] Whether confessional or non-confessional, religious or non-religious, both sides need to face the challenge of teaching religion in a multireligious and multicultural context.[27]

This article was written by Han Chang and reflects her personal analysis and opinion, rather than those of EARS.

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[1] In this article, Religious Education (RE) is referred to as a regular subject in schools and religious education in lowercase as the general religious education.

[2] We will collect all insights on RE in Europe in our dossier, to be published in June 2021.

[3] Filipović, A. T. (2011). Der Religionsunterricht in öffentlichen Schulen in Europa. Modelle und Entwicklungen als Indikatoren für die gesellschaftliche Bedeutung des Glaubens und die Anfrage an Theologie und Kirche. Nova prisutnost: časopis za intelektualna i duhovna pitanja, 9(1), 137-152.

[4] Rothgangel, M., Jackson, R., Jäggle, M., & Skeie, G.. Preface: Religious Education at Schools in Europe. In: Rothgangel, M., Jackson, R., Jäggle, M., & Skeie, G. (Eds.). Religious education at schools in Europe. V&R unipress, 2014.

[5] Ethikunterricht: Kirchen raus aus den Schulen | ZEIT ONLINE

[6] Schulischer Religionsunterricht im Kontext religiöser und weltanschaulicher Pluralität | APuZ

[7] Rolf Schieder. Kontroversen um das religiöse Gedächtnis in der Schule. In: Matthia Koenig, Jean-Paul Willaime(Hg.). Religionskontroversen in Frankreich und Deutschland. Hamburg: HIS, 2008.

[8] Such as Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden.

[9] Schulwesen | bpb

[10] Rolf Schieder. Kontroversen um das religiöse Gedächtnis in der Schule. In: Matthia Koenig, Jean-Paul Willaime(Hg.). Religionskontroversen in Frankreich und Deutschland. Hamburg: HIS, 2008.

[11] But faith schools and academies in the UK can set their own syllabus. The national curriculum: Other compulsory subjects; Religious Education in Finland 

[12] Easton, C. E. (2019). Religious Education – reform, not abolition: A reply to Matthew Clayton and David Stephens. Theory and Research in Education, 17(1), 100–111. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878519831675

[13] Filipović, A. T. (2011). Der Religionsunterricht in öffentlichen Schulen in Europa. Modelle und Entwicklungen als Indikatoren für die gesellschaftliche Bedeutung des Glaubens und die Anfrage an Theologie und Kirche. Nova prisutnost: časopis za intelektualna i duhovna pitanja, 9(1), 137-152.

[14] Easton, C. E. (2019). Religious Education – reform, not abolition: A reply to Matthew Clayton and David Stephens. Theory and Research in Education, 17(1), 100–111. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878519831675

[15] For example Austria, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Spain, Croatia and Serbia.

[16] Filipović, A. T. (2011). Der Religionsunterricht in öffentlichen Schulen in Europa. Modelle und Entwicklungen als Indikatoren für die gesellschaftliche Bedeutung des Glaubens und die Anfrage an Theologie und Kirche. Nova prisutnost: časopis za intelektualna i duhovna pitanja, 9(1), 137-152.

[17] Religious Studies and Nonconfessional RE: Countering the Debates; (PDF) Secular ethics education as an alternative to religious education – Finnish teachers’ views

[18] This alternative may be termed differently in different countries. Some define it as “civic education”, while some others call it “philosophies”.

[19] (PDF) Secular ethics education as an alternative to religious education – Finnish teachers’ views

[20] Filipović, A. T. (2011). Der Religionsunterricht in öffentlichen Schulen in Europa. Modelle und Entwicklungen als Indikatoren für die gesellschaftliche Bedeutung des Glaubens und die Anfrage an Theologie und Kirche. Nova prisutnost: časopis za intelektualna i duhovna pitanja, 9(1), 137-152

[21] Rolf Schieder. Religious Education in Germany: Civilizing Religions in Public Schools. In: Jödicke, Ansgar, ed. Religious education politics, the state, and society. Würzburg: Ergon, 2013.

[22] Norge: Kristendomsfag overtræder menneskerettigheder 

[23] Religionsundervisningen får hård kritik

[24] (PDF) Secular ethics education as an alternative to religious education – Finnish teachers’ views

[25] Schulischer Religionsunterricht im Kontext religiöser und weltanschaulicher Pluralität | APuZ

[26] Easton, C. E. (2019). Religious Education – reform, not abolition: A reply to Matthew Clayton and David Stephens. Theory and Research in Education, 17(1), 100–111. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878519831675

[27] (PDF) Religion and Education in Europe: Developments, Contexts and Debates