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.