I wish I could translate laïcité into German…

My daughter’s school broke the law yesterday. I don’t mind too much, though, as the law in question is stupid and ought to be abolished.

Under German law, religious education is mandatory in state schools. (Sort of, anyway; these days one can opt to learn about “ethics” instead, and some of the godless Eastern states are more lenient than that.) There are two separate RE classes, one for each of the two main denominations in Germany: the Roman Catholic Church and the EKD, or German Evangelical Church. (“Evangelical” does not mean what it does in the English-speaking world, but is merely a synonym for “protestant”. The EKD is mostly Lutheran, with some local churches and congregations in the Reformed tradition.) Of my daughter’s class, a large number signed on for protestant RE, while very few wanted the catholic equivalent. So the school is faced with one hugely overcrowded classroom and another almost empty of pupils. Given the state of Hesse’s finances, hiring an additional teacher is not on the cards. To rectify the numerical imbalance between denominations, then, the school management simply took a bunch of children from the protestant class and stuck them into the catholic class. They did ask the children if they wouldn’t mind switching. Under German law, unfortunately, children younger than 14 don’t get to make that choice; parents do. (That’s not the part of the law I wish abolished, obviously. But if the requirement for RE were itself abolished, as I very earnestly wish, the part about parental choice would be moot.)

Now, if my daughter wants to take RE (and she does), I don’t object to her taking it. But I’d feel a bit odd about her getting the RC version because, well, she’s not catholic. If she must have RE, then at least from a perspective that is, as it were, a little closer to home. If the situation were reversed, I think most catholic parents would feel the same way. And they’d be right.

But I’d sooner my daughter had no RE at all, regardless of the denomination teaching it. I don’t mind her learning about religion; far from it. It would be great for the school to teach children about all the major world religions, from a neutral and comparative perspective. And to be fair, a good portion of both catholic and protestant RE in Germany is exactly that. But there is also, unavoidably, an element of indoctrination with the dogmas of the church in question. To my mind, there is simply no place for denominational indoctrination in a school run by a secular state.

The funny thing is that the school obviously thinks the same thing. To its management, the particular RE class a child is sent to is much of a muchness. If there are too many schoolchildren of one denomination and not enough of the other, just shift a sufficient number of the first into the second category. It clearly is a matter of indifference which denomination does the teaching. Now, this might indicate that the school management are very advanced oecumenicists. I think it likelier, however, that they regard RE — of whatever sort — as a somewhat annoying dictate of the state, of no inherent importance of its own, and want nothing more than to manage teaching loads without friction.

I’m sympathetic to that. But, if this is how professional educators regard RE, why on earth is it still being taught? That a cabal of elderly clerics from the two de facto state churches needs to feel it still has some control over society is not sufficient reason. By all means, teach about religion; an education that ignored it would be incomplete. Comparing world religions is an important part of social studies. The story of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches is of obvious importance to an understanding of German history and culture. And you can’t really know German literature if you haven’t read Luther’s bible, as fundamental to German as the KJV is to English. Teach these things separately, in the various lessons to which they pertain; or put them all together in some sort of comparative, non-denominational RE for all I care. But leave the doctrinal instruction to those parents for whom it is important. It’s simply none of the state’s business.

26 thoughts on “I wish I could translate laïcité into German…

  1. You can rest assured that it’ll be abolished as soon as there’s a growing number of classes in muslim religious education and a questionable teacher squeezes through the controls.

    As there’s a secular alternative, the majority doesn’t care and nobody wants to alienate the minority that does care. So it stays law until there’s a reason to strike it a majority cares about.

  2. Oliver,

    I have no doubt that, forced to choose betwen keeping RC/protestant RE in the schools and letting Muslims schoolchildren have their own version, most Germans would abandon RE in a heartbeat. Thing is, though, there is SFAIK no state-mandated Muslim RE. And I don’t think there ever will be unless the Bundesverfassungsgericht says the constitution requires it, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    Which is, BTW, another thing I dislike about the German system: the various religions are not treated equally. RE is either RC or EKD. If you belong to another Christian denomination, or are a Jew, or a Muslim, you don’t have to attend; but you won’t get your own sort of RE. If a non-confessional state — which Germany claims to be — requires that RC and protestant doctrine be taught in state schools, there is no principled ground on which it can refuse also to teach the doctrines of any religion represented in the body of schoolchildren, be that Judaism, Islam or for that matter Scientology. If Germans don’t want the wee ones spending classroom time on the cans, though, there is a legitimate way to prevent it: abolish state teaching of religion altogether.

    This goes much farther than just RE, of course. I detest Scientology as much as anybody does. But it is inconsistent for the German government to persecute it (that’s a bit too strong; let’s say: mildly inconvenience it) at the same time it privileges the two main Christian churches. For purposes of my argument it is irrelevant that I may belong to one of the privileged groups, or that I may genuinely dislike one of the nonprivileged groups; the state should not privilege any religion over another, and should not privilege religion-in-general over lack-of-religion.

  3. The list of official religions is long and by no means limited to two churches:


    Why they don’t establish their own religious education in schools, I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say they shirk the cost. Actually you could form, say, the “German Union of Atheists” and send teachers into the schools.

    The current talks between the government and islamic representatives aim to treat islam equally. This will backfire.

    There is of course a practical reason the big religions are favored by the state. It controls them. You can’t credible bite the hand that feeds you.

  4. Some thoughts on the topic from the Swedish perspective:

    In Sweden, RE is part of the Social Studies curriculum and focused on teaching students about world religions. All students have to attend, and the only real reported problems are about occasional Muslim parents complaining that their children should not be ‘exposed’ to other faiths (especially Judaism seems controversial). So, from this perspective I find obligatory RE in schools to be a good way to break down fundamentalist attitudes.

    Private schools (although all with public funding, of course) can have a religious ‘theme’ (eg Christian, Jewish or Muslim) but still have to adhere to the state curriculum on RE which mandates that all religions be presented. Here there have been problems with some schools (typically Muslim ones) not following this requirement. Though this problem is as much about the overall quality of the school and its teachers.

    Finally, at the end of each school year there is a shortlived but heated public discussion about whether public schools should be allowed to hold their end of year ceremonies in churches, which has long been the tradition in Sweden. These usually include singing a combination of summer songs and more children oriented psalms and a speech by either a priest or the principal (though nothing religious).

    Some public schools with large (or vocal) minorities (again, typically Muslim) have opted to hold the ceremonies in other locations, such as the school gymnasium. Some hard core secular parents also oppose church ceremonies. In the end the politicians realize they have little to gain from taking a stand and left it to the schools to decide.

  5. Back in the day, when Germany had the kind of presidential arrangement that still exists in France or USA, the secularization happened because of Bismarck.


    Nowadays, power is much more distributed and any change to the status quo would have to be against the collective Christian Democrats outrage. I’m not even sure whether the federal govt. has any power to intervene in these traditionally grown affairs anymore. The end of ‘confessional RE’ would make an excellent cause for the political left however, and that side has been making nice gains lately too.

  6. My wife teaches ethics – among other courses – at a Gesamtschule in Germany. This is what should replace the outdated set-up of religious instruction. Every student is required to take it, so no exceptions for being of one religion or the other. They take a hard look at life sometimes, but it gets them out of themselves and talking about bigger issues like no other. One day an alcoholic talked with them about his life and how he first destroyed it and built it back up again. Another time they went down to the central train station to a mission which takes in the homeless to talk to the people who run and use it.

  7. Oriana, what are you doing here? Racists are not welcome at afoe. Please do not post here again. If I find you or your co-bloggers posting here, I will ban you. No, on second thought, I’m off to ban you right now.

  8. Note: I have deleted the comment from “Oriana” (presumably a pseudonym referring to the vicious but thankfully now dead Ms Fallaci) of the “Gates of Vienna” blog. I would ask that Oriana and her comrades stay off our pages. There are many websites, I’m sure, that would be happy to have correspondence from them: Michelle Malkin in the USA, for example, and I don’t doubt there are le Penist blogs in France and neonazi blogs in Germany where “Oriana” and her comrades would feel at home. Not here, though; we’re democrats.

  9. Sorry you feel that way, Rupert. Close the door on your way out, would you? And learn to spell.

  10. We are demoncrats, you write, then proceed to immediately ban someone just becasue she or he writes something you disagree with?
    Also I found your choice of words about Ms. Fallaci, rather offensive. You obviously have never read Ms. Fallaci ‘s books and you seem to be a very confused person.
    I would therefore appreciate if you could remove the comments you made.
    Thank you and best regards

  11. Brilliant rejoinder, Tilton. Your 2 readers will be amused, I’m sure.

    You are an adult, correct? I have my doubts as you have: banned a user for what they’ve said, deleted their post as if their words will harm us, celebrated the death of an individual who’s literary achievements far outpace your own.

    I would suggest you be the one to shut the door on your way out. You have your own, tedious blog to return to. Many writers are here at AFOE, in case you didn’t notice.

  12. Il Mango,

    yes, I banned a contributor to the Gates of Vienna website after s/he posted here to promote that racist site. I banned him/her, just as I would ban a Le Penist or Klansman who posted here in promotion of their own versions of racism. I won’t let racists use afoe to advertise their racism.

    And there is nothing undemocratic about that. This a private website. What’s more, I am not the state, nor am I preventing the writers of GoV from publishing. Learn what censorship means before you complain about it.

    And no, I will not delete my comment about Fallaci. You found those words offensive? I find Fallaci’s words offensive. It’s a big world, so we can all find something to offend us.


    whatever you say, dear.

    an individual who’s literary achievements

    And keep plugging away at the English language. With enough work, you’ll master it one day.

  13. Yes, The end of ‘confessional RE’ would make an excellent cause for the political left however, and that side has been making nice gains lately too.

  14. Buongiorno Ms. Tilton.
    actually, your’e the one who should brush up on your english. You don’t say “I banned a contributor to the Gates of Vienna ” but ” I banned a contributor from the Gates of Vienna”
    In any case, I do not think the blog Gates of Vienna is racist. Islam is a religion. Not a race. And there is absolutely nothing wrong about denouncing the hypocrisy, the violence, the lies of this religion.
    As for you, your reply confirms once more, that you are a very bitter, confused and extremely ignorant person.
    I will leave you now amongst your friends so that you can continue this extremely “elevated” debate.
    P.S. By the way has anyone told you your name sounds very cheesy?

  15. Ciao il Mango,

    your English is much better than my Italian, but still, I believe, you are a native Italian-speaker. So take it from me that you’re incorrect about the “to”/”from” thing. Both alternatives you cite are grammatically correct, but “to” is in this instance preferable to “from”, I’d say, because the sentence with “from” is ambiguous. (It could be read to mean something that I have neither the power nor the desire to do.)

    You’re entitled to your opinion about Islam. So are the bloggers at GoV. What they’re not entitled to do is use the comments to one of my posts on afoe to advertise a website that I find offensive. That’s what got “Oriana’s” comment deleted. I don’t delete comments from people I merely disagree with — your comments, for example, go untouched. I don’t even delete trolls, which is why Rupert’s words are still here. But, sorry, if somebody wants to promote GoV, they need to find a more appropriate website to do it on: Malkin or LGF or Stormfront, something along those lines.

    You might very well be right that I am bitter, confused and ignorant. I would point only that the debate in this post — I canot claim it is very elevated — is nothing at all to do with Islam.

    On a more positive note, you are actually the first person to make that “cheese” joke. I had been wondering when this would eventually happen.

  16. (this is Tobias, logged in as admin)…

    >It’s simply none of the state’s business.

    Well, yeah – but you do realize that any attempt to abolish RE would become a major!!! culture clash inside, predominantly, the CDU? I doubt their leadership has any interest in repeating the constituency experiments the SPD is currently conducting on the other end of the democratic spectrum. It’s a self-defeating proposition from an electoral point of view.

    If they’re breaking the law, why not complain to the supervising body? They would have to hire another teacher, in my opinion, even if it were only for your daughter.

  17. Hi Tobias,

    you’re right; I don’t think this can happen any time soon, and for the very reason you cite. In fact, I’d expect help on this issue from the churches themselves before I would from the CDU. I can’t imagine the RC and EKD churches wanting to abandon their privileged position, but there are some among their number who have complained about the CDU using that “C” on false pretences. There is a very strong Christian argument for disestablishment, and it’s heartening to see some Christians make it. For most in the Union, by contrast, religion is not particularly important as religion (I leave out the truly devout members like Beckstein; I am talking about the majority, who are solidly Erastian). Rather, it is a useful national/cultural marker of identity. I could imagine a theoretical pastor or even bishop saying, “You know, religious instruction should come from the parents and from the church, not from a state school”. I couldn’t see a Union politician saying that, though.

    But recognising political reality doesn’t mean I can’t wish the Union had too few MdBs to stop a change to the law even if they wanted too.

    As for my daughter, I certainly don’t want to cause trouble for the school’s management. After all, they’re just trying to deal with a vexing problem. I told the school’s director that I could not agree to the school unilaterally reassigning her to another religion, and that was that. (BTW, I don’t think they have the money for another teacher.) My point not so much that the school was breaking the rules to solve its problem (though it was) as that it is ludicrous they should have the problem to begin with.

  18. Mrs. T,

    >Rather, it is a useful national/cultural marker >of identity

    I think part of the problem is that they believe a marker has become necessary as the society has become more heterogeneous. And it would end another constituting element of German corporatism, which would add to the “Germany has been overreformed” feeling very common these days.

    >BTW, I don’t think they have the money for >another teacher.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I think your daughter has a right to being educated in “her religion”, and the state has to provide the education. Definitions of the terms above aside, I cannot see how the ministry would even try to take this to the court, certainly not with the election coming up. I think this may be a case where a simple letter to the secretary of state responsible for this matter might be enough to sort things out. Especially since I don’t think it would cost him any money – aren’t RE teachers paid by the Churches?

  19. I don’t think RE teachers are paid by the churches. And if they are, payment must get complicated, because the same teachers teach other stuff as well, which would obviously be paid for by the state. No, they’re plain old Beamte as far as I can tell; I don’t think the churches play any financial role in state-school RE. I do believe, however, that each of the two churches can veto a teacher’s ability to give RE in its name. (And while I don’t think there should be confessional RE at all, as long as there is, that rule makes a certain kind of sense.)

    On the larger point, I am not at all interested in making life difficult for the school’s director, who is in general a decent enough sort. He runs an unusually good school by Hessian standards, and does his best with limited resources. I’m certainly not going to sic a state secretary on him (especially as a private word sufficed to fix things). And I wouldn’t dream of forcing to him to hire an additional RE teacher even if I could do. There really is very little money. When schoolrooms get painted, it’s by us parents; and we provide the paint too. If he can find the salary for an additional teacher, that’s fantastic; but then let him spend it on something important, like beefing up science instruction or offering Spanish as a additional modern language. If my daughter wants RE, she will just have to take it in an unfortunately overfilled classroom.

  20. I’m confused – since when do state-run schools pay for their teachers themselves? I went to a private school (run by a Catholic order, incidentally, even though I am protestant) and the teachers that were assigned to the school by the ministry were paid by the state, only the others were paid by the school itself. I don’t think schools get a budget to hire teachers themselves, but I might be wrong.

  21. Sorry, Tobias, I wasn’t clear enough. Of course the teachers are paid by the state, not by the school directly. State money for some things is allocated on a school-by-school basis, but I don’t know whether this applies for teachers. Whether the school hasn’t sufficient budgeted fúnds to hire more teachers or whether they simply can’t get the state to assign additional teachers, I don’t know (though the reason would be the same in both cases –short funds).

    I don’t know whether your school had dedicated RE instructors. We don’t, though. The RE instructors are all full-time teachers, but nobody teaches RE full-time. All of them also teach “real” subjects (as does the teacher who covers Ethics, though there is no Ethics course available to the Quinta).

  22. >(though the reason would be the same in both cases –short funds)

    True, but in the latter case the budget constraint would be a) more flexible and b) subject to change due to exercises in electoral math.

    >I don’t know whether your school had dedicated RE instructors.

    I don’t think so, actually, but I do know that a part of the teaching staff was hired in addition to the teachers assigned to the school [ http://theresianum-mainz.de ] by the ministry.

  23. Hi,
    Evangelische Kirche = Lutheran
    Reformierte Kirche = “Calvinist”
    Protistantismus = Protestant

  24. Sorry if I’m late with this, but AFAIK there is no Muslim RE because Islam lacks a central authority that could sign the papers which would ask the state to hold RE classes in school for them.

    The state and some moderate muslims would dearly love to have muslim RE in the state schools with certified teacher instead of out-of-sight out-of-control in some back rooms paid for by Saudi princes, but there you are…

    Don’t know how it is today, but 30 years ago the parents could take their kid out of RE classes. Being taken out was unpopular with the children, though, because RE was storytelling, music and drawing, and the alternative was to sit at the back of another classrooms where probably something boring is being taught.

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