Reading room > Religious instruction in European schools

1 Sep 2005

The question of whether knowledge of different religious practises in their specific forms is necessary for the survival of our society is currently being discussed in Europe in several contexts.

“If knowledge of Christianity disappears from our society, we will then no longer understand our own culture”. This quote comes from an unsuspected and surprising source, namely from the former French Social Democrat Minister of Education and the Arts, Jack Lang. For him it was an important reason enough to think about how we can stop the threat of religious knowledge disappearing or even reverse this trend altogether. He concluded from his deliberations that in order to avoid this situation, it would be necessary to re-introduce religion as a school subject if the wealth of the French culture was to continue to remain accessible in its various forms of expression for the next generation.

With this, Jack Lang did not just mean the classical confessionally oriented religious instruction which is normal practise in the majority of countries in Europe but, rather, “the science of religion”: knowledge of Christianity as the “central European religion”, its main content and its importance for French and European culture. Accordingly, it also means knowledge of the content and importance of other religions in Europe: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. The thinking behind this conclusion is that knowledge about other religions and encountering its representatives can help to bring about the peaceful co-existence of different religions and defuse any triggers for social conflicts. This is an interesting step in France, which commemorates the centenary of the 1905 law on religion this year, which provided for the strict separation of church and state – and thus also the disappearance of religious instruction from state schools.

An initiative by the European Council’s European High Commissioner of Human Rights, Gil Robles, takes a similar direction. He has organised a series of symposiums on the subject of religious instruction over the past few years. His conclusion is to set up a further training institute for teachers of religion in Strasbourg where practical models for religious instruction are to be developed in order to provide school students with balanced, “objective” knowledge about different religions. At a conference held in Strasbourg on 29 April 2005, representatives of various religions and Non-Governmental Organisations active in the area of human rights, discussed the possibilities of such classes and the conditions for them. Could there also be mixed forms of confessional classes and the teaching of open religious theory? Who could teach such a subject?

This discussion will certainly be continued in the autumn with a draft report on the teaching of religion in Europe prepared by the French member of the European Council, André Schneider. Furthermore, religious instruction in the European schools of the European Union is also the subject of discussion. Confessional religious instruction is presently taught in different languages at these schools, established for the children of those working in European Institutions, both at elementary and secondary level. During the course of a planned reform of the elementary school timetable, there is a plan to push religious instruction into the extra-curricular domain, which will mean that instruction will take place during the lunch hour or at the end of the school day. It would then no longer be a proper subject but, rather, a kind of leisure time activity like piano lessons or other hobbies. Can religious instruction really be placed alongside these other activities given its cultural and social importance? The authorities responsible have not yet given an answer to how this plan can be reconciled with the extending of the teaching of values in Europe – they simply state that “nothing has been decided yet”.

Michael Kuhn