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Religious Education and the Secular State PDF Print E-mail

Tim Jensen
University of Odense, Denmark

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

I am a scholar of religion, the history of religions and comparative religion, with a special interest in contemporary religion and religion in the public and political sphere. It is as a scholar and a politically engaged agnostic and humanist in favor of human rights and democracy in general, that I participate in this conference

One of the first questions I want to address in this paper is the question of the relationship between the right to freedom of religion vis-a-vis the right to freedom of speech and conscience.

The working definition, or theory of religion that I hold, construes religion as a cultural, historical and social construct, serving several purposes and functions for the individual, the collective, the social body and the body politic. Religious systems of thought and practices mainly differ from other human and social systems in that they (as a rule) postulate and refer to trans-empirical, non-falsifiable, and non-verifiable entities. The reference to a trans-empirical power function to legitimize the religious system in the eyes of the adherents and non-adherents, and it serves to define it in relation to other systems. But can a modern secular and enlightened society, and a legal system built on reason and the separation of state and religion, use this postulate to give religion and freedom of religion a special, elevated and privileged status and position vis-a-vis general human rights? Is freedom of religion not just one form of freedom of speech, or freedom of conscience?

It is an historical fact that all the so-called secular states have grown out of a predominantly Christian and mono-religious framework. One may argue that the very concepts of (the separation) of the religious and the secular, state and religion, owe Christianity a great deal. However, I think that it is high time for the so-called secular states to quit the past privileging of religion, in the West of course, Christianity. In order to develop respect for religious freedom we have to develop an understanding of religion that does not privilege religion, that does not privilege one religion (the dominant, mostly Christian), and to do so we have to secularize the so-called secular states to a degree that no one ever dreamed about, when the notion of the secular state was created.

The next issue I want to address is the issue of religious education and the secular state, and, more specifically, religious education in the so-called secular states of Europe. In Europe you find a category of nation states that have totally banned religious education from the public school system.

In France, with the exception of Alsace-Lorraine, where you find a confessional religious education run by the Evangelical church, is probably the best example, but several post-Communist states aspire to the same. In this category, religious education is totally privatized and/or in the hands of the parents and the respective religious communities, subject to their will and resources.

In these states, consequently, religious education is solely confessional, and equal to religious instruction in the parent’s own religion. The principles of religious freedom, and the rights of the parents in relation to religious education, are no doubt respected here. But I do not think that this state of affairs really complies with the interest of a truly secular, enlightened society and state (and I do not think that it is conducive to furthering the freedom of religion.) I shall have more to say about this in a moment.

Next, we find another cluster of countries, another category. It is composed of those states that have a state-secured religious education in public schools. Disregarding the legal specifics, for instance the guarantees given in the constitution and special adjunct clauses to the laws on religious freedom or in specific educational acts, this category can be divided into two highly different sub-categories, a) and b).

In a) we find those countries that provide for a confessional religious education, guaranteed and legitimized by the state, but run and practiced by the religions (mainly the dominant Christian confessions) who also make up the syllabus, sometimes in cooperation with the state or other school authorities.

This is the case in Germany, with the exception of some Bundeslander, in Finland, Austria, Belgium, and Poland. For the most part, the religious education offered and guaranteed by the state is optional, and oftentimes an alternative subject, called ethics or philosophy, is offered to those who, in the name of freedom of religion, opt out. Religious education here, as in the first category, then is predominantly religious instruction in the majority religion, or church of the state. Teaching about other religions may be included, especially on the secondary levels of the school, but the teaching about the other religions tends to be from the point of view of the dominant religion. The teachers may be professional teachers with or without a special and close relation with the church, but they may also be clergymen or teachers appointed by, and educated by, the church. As a special case one may mention the so-called European schools run by the EEC. Here the secular school authorities (that is the EEC) pay the salaries of the religious education teachers who are, however, appointed by the various religions and churches and who conduct a confessional kind of religious education.

Sub-category b) is indeed quite different from a). In this category, we find those states that have a non-confessional religious education, guaranteed and run by the secular state, for instance, and placed in the hands of the Ministry of Education and the local school authorities, who make up the syllabuses, and educate and appoint the teachers. Such a non-confessional religious education is what we find in England, Wales, and Scotland, as well as in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. In many of these countries, however, the subject in the primary school is optional and/or an alternative is offered. This is so in spite of the fact that the subject is in principle a non-confessional teaching about religion.

Within the group of countries mentioned here (England, Wales, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) there are, however, many variations and differences too. One of the major differences can be found in the difference between the English way of doing things and the Danish one. In England, the state and local school authorities have involved the religious communities in drawing up national standards for syllabuses and, with the system of the so-called “SACRES,” mentioned earlier this morning also, the religions are guaranteed influence on the content of the religious education in school.

In Denmark, on the contrary, such a procedure has never been tried nor proposed. It may be because Denmark is not yet a highly multireligious country, but it also has to do with the fact that the separation of church and school is thought to function in this matter. School is one thing and religion is another. In school, you teach, and in church, you preach, and you shouldn’t mix the two.

Yet, one may of course argue that the separation of the two is more an ideal than a reality. The committees, set up to draw up a syllabus, are normally composed of teachers. That is, people belonging to the secular sphere, but naturally most of them are (in one way or the other) deeply influenced by the dominant major religion and they may very well be said to favor this, indirectly or directly.

My question now is, which of the existing arrangements is most fit for a secular, multireligious state? Which is the best way to promote a secular state and the kind of religious freedom we are here to discuss today?

To choose the admittedly very secular French model is, in my opinion, equal to accepting that religious education can only be religious and confessional. This is simply not true. Besides (and even the French seem to recognize this) that this kind of “solution” runs contrary to essential interests of the secular state. It prevents the citizens from acquiring knowledge about huge parts of the cultural and national history, and from understanding many aspects of important works of art and literature. It neglects the importance of a non-confessional religious education in creating a better basis for tolerant and peaceful interaction and communication in a multireligious state and world. Further, it is (and this is very important to me) sin absolute contrast, whatever the French may think, to central ideas of the Enlightenment, not the least those ideas about the power and importance of knowledge, and the citizen as a responsible individual endowed with knowledge and a critical faculty.

The second solution, in which the state guarantees religious education but leaves it to the majority religion to teach and educate teachers, is, with all due respect, in my opinion no solution at all either. In my view, it simply cannot be the obligation of the secular state to help the majority religion (mostly some kind of state church) in its missionary efforts. Besides, notions and definitions of Christianity as the only true religion are so pervasive in secular states today, that they actually threaten their status as secular states, and threaten to make freedom of religion and religious pluralism a lofty ideal downtrodden by contrary practices. Religious education must be a job solely for parents, the religious communities and the churches. Of course, one may argue that the secular state can choose to leave it to all the religious communities to teach religious education and, perhaps, even see to it that they all have equal opportunities to do so. That, in my opinion, would of course be in line with the principles of religious freedom, including the respect for the parents’ right to choose the kind of religious education.

Some also argue that only a teacher who knows one religion from the inside, and firmly believes in the postulated, absolute claims of that religion can demonstrate and explain the difficulties of respecting the absolute claims of other religions. According to this argument, true tolerance, true respect and true understanding of religions can only be found and practiced by believers. This is not the place to enter that discussion in detail. I shall, however, say as much as this (in case this point of view holds good,) it would prevent us from knowledge and transmission of knowledge in many areas, in the natural, as well as human sciences. The argument simply does not hold. Art critics and art historians do not have to be artists to write about art and the history of art. Nor do veterinarians have to turn into cows to know how to diagnose a cow’s disease and prescribe the medicine needed to cure it.

In the end, I have to dismiss the above-mentioned way of doing things as insufficient and not conducive to the fostering of enlightened citizens in a multireligious and secular state. Only the English and the Danish models will do. Both are based upon the historical and actual fact of religion, and the plurality of religions, and both conceive of religious education as a task for the secular state. Both recognize the importance of critical and balanced information and knowledge about religions past and present; and both of them display a specific understanding of the secular state as a value system that provides a larger framework for other value systems, including religious ones.

If I am forced to choose between the English and the Danish models, I have to say that I prefer the Danish one. Why? Because it seems to me that the idea of having representatives from the religious communities participating in drawing up syllabuses runs contrary to the ideals and interests of the secular state, and, besides, I find it extremely problematic to operate with “representatives,” who, for instance, represent Christianity, Islam etc. Also, the Danish model as implemented at the level of the gymnasium (high school), is superior to the English in that the teachers are all educated at the departments for the comparative study of religion. Also, the subject is construed in a way that opens up for a critical, analytical approach to religion, as well as to the many theories of religion and approaches to religion, which can be found within the religions as well as within the science of religion. The subject is, so to speak, critical to religions but also self-critical. The notions of religion as well as the approaches to religion are made into a central subject matter, and so is the notion of the secular. The provision of factual information about the multitude of past and present religions, and about the fact that the so-called truth is not one but many
is what is needed in today’s world.

Freedom of religion in a multireligious secular society can be furthered by a conscious effort to teach the future generations that religion is a human construct. A secular religious education based upon the scientific comparative study of religion may be a powerful instrument to further respect for the very foundations of religious freedom as one kind of freedom of speech and conscience. As more and more cases involving notions and definitions of religion find their ways into the courtrooms of Europe, an obligatory subject dealing with religions and the very notion of religion may be helpful. It may help the coming generation of lawyers, judges and politicians acknowledge that the right to define religion in a normative way is not a right that can be owned by one religion, not the least the traditional and dominant majority-religion.

E-mail: t.jensen @ filos.sdu.dk