Religious education in Europe

Following on from threads on Calpundit and Crooked Timber, and given that Europe seems to be at the centre of the debate over religious education in schools at present, what with the French headscarf debate and the proposals to add atheism, agnosticism and humanism to RE in British schools, I thought it would be interesting to get a picture of how the teaching of religion is handled in education systems across Europe.

Below the fold of this post, I’ve given my experiences of religious education at school in Britain and what I understand to be the present position. What I’d like is for our commenters and other contributors to add their experiences or knowledge in the comments box and we’ll see what sort of cross-continental picture we come up with. I’ll admit to being quite ignorant of the position outside Britain (though I know some of the system in France and Ireland) and hopefully we can all enlighten ourselves!

Firstly, my position is slightly different from most other Britons as Worcestershire, where I grew up, has a three-tier school system rather than the two-tier system used in most of the rest of the country. We attended primary, sometimes called ‘first’, school from 5 to 9 (years 1-4 in the current nomenclature), middle school from 9 to 13 (years 5-8) and then high school from 13 to 16-18, depending on when you chose to leave (years 9-11 or 13) as opposed to the more common system of primary from 5 to 11 and secondary from 11 to 16 or 18.

At my first two schools (primary and middle), religious education was pretty much limited to school assemblies (the daily act of supposedly ‘collective worship’ enshrined in law) which rarely went beyond the singing of a hymn or two and the occasional talk on a moral theme. My middle school was, and still is, a Church of England school but even then, religion was not a major part of the curriculum which was probably because the local vicar, whose responsibility it was, was the sort of person who felt he should lead by example rather than theology. Indeed, any time he came in for a class was usually welcomed by us children as it would normally be a fun example. This may be surprising to regular readers of my blog, but I was actually a member of a youth group he ran at the local church.

High School was a different matter, mainly because I went to the local Catholic school, though that was mianly because my eldest brother had had a bad time at the C of E school I was meant to go to, and my parents didn’t wish me or my other brother to go there, rather than for any religious reasons. Religious education was a much larger part of the curriculum here, though not to the extremes the Catholic school caricature often depicts. There was a school priest (shared with other Catholic schools in the area) and a chapel within the school, but only one of the teachers was a nun, and she had been a teacher before becoming a nun. However, unlike my friends at other schools, we were required to take Religious Education to GCSE (16 year old) level and school assemblies had a much more religious flavour than there had been at my previous schools. We were also expected to attend Mass (though not fully participate if we were not Catholic) at school on certain feast days and the like (approximately monthly, IIRC) – the school did relax this requirement slightly during my time there, and during my final two years non-Catholics were not required to attend at all, which did cause some resentment from my Catholic friends who had to attend no matter how non-practising they might have been outside school hours.

Of course, this was almost fifteen years ago, and the situation has changed since then. Schools that were nominally C of E back then now have a more religious character to them, and in many areas are regarded as good schools to get into. However, while religion is required to be taught in British schools, from my experience there was usually, even in a Catholic school, a ‘wall of spearation’ between the religious and secular parts of education. The only time I can recall an overtly Catholic tinge to any class outside RE was one Geography class, taught by a teacher who was a pretty devout Catholic. The syllabus required us to learn about world population and the methods taken to control it. What it didn’t cover, but our teacher informed us, was which methods were deemed sinful by the Pope. This, though, was the same teacher who informed us in an assembly that ‘heavy petting with your girlfriend or boyfriend makes you no better than a copulating dog in the street’, so perhaps the surprise is that he managed to leave it to the one lesson.

And on that note, I shall open the floor to everyone else.

13 thoughts on “Religious education in Europe

  1. Here in Germany RE in the state schools is compulsory. Which sort one gets depends on whether one is RC or Lutheran (‘Evangelical’, technically; a few local churches are reformed rather than Lutheran). If you don’t want to take RC or L religion, you take ‘ethics’ instead.

    One attains legal majority far earlier in religious than in other matters. Once you’re twelve, your parents can’t make you change your religion if you don’t consent. Once you’re 14, you’re on your own: if you were registered as a Lutheran or RC, you may officially leave the church (which requires a public declaration); whatever you are, you can stop being it and become something else or nothing at all, and your parents no longer have any legal say in the matter. If you decide to be nothing at all, though, you’ll still be doing ethics (in lieu of your former RE); you can’t gain an exxtra free hour by leaving the church.

  2. Mrs T.,

    I’m not sure but I think in Brandenburg ethics (LER, Lebensgestaltung-Ethik-Religion) is compulsory and classic RE is only an additional subject (added to usual school time, therefore “highly attractive”). However, it is said that even LER is intended to give pupils an idea of the transcendent nature of religion.

    I think this is the main point of discussion in recent years – the contrast of religious education with a spiritual focus to religious education with a historical, comparative focus. From my personal experience as a protestent pupil in a RC denominational private school, I think it is fair to say that RE as a subject in my school would have posed no threat even to the most ardent muslims.

    Actually, there were several muslims, notably the adopted son of the deputy headmaster. As denominational schools are not obliged to offer ethics as an alternative, Muslims were allowed to chose between the Catholic and Proetestant courses. Most chose the latter, as did those who decided to leave the Church as outlined above.

    Everything spiritual was voluntary and add-on, like early or late services, scripture readings and interpretation classes. That is, except for some services on Catholic holidays that were compulsory for Catholics but not others.

  3. Hi Tobias,

    yes, I remember hearing about some sort of kerfuffle in the ‘zone’ over religious education in the aftermath of unification. Can’t say I paid it much attention, other than to note that the FDP came out in favour of RE (which prompted me to write them a very indigant letter; they wrote back that one of their functionaries in the East was a clergyman, so it was all right, or something. With ‘liberals’ like these, why does Germany need a CSU?)

    Meanwhile, here in the Freedom-Loving part of Germany, RE is very much as you say, a sort of lowest-common-denominator affair. My son might hear the word ‘Luther’ a bit more often than the word ‘pope’, but he won’t hear either very much, as most of RE (on the RC side too, as I understand it) consists of ‘We should all be, err, nice to one another because it’s, emm, nicer that way’.

  4. Mrs. T.,

    I’ve had an issue with Guido Westerwelle over his public support for fingerprints in IDs and the reply I received from his office also sheds some light on the true meaning of “professional” in “professional politics”…

    There’s one additional element of RE I forgot to mention above: In denominational schools, which constitute roughly 10% of all German secondary schools, because of the people who teach it, protestant as well as Catholicm, “RE” often provides a forum for discussion about some real-life issues. When I was publisher of the pupil’s magazine back in the early 1990s we weren’t allowed to sell an issue about sex education on the school’s property because we had obtained a free condom from the Federal Agency for Health Education. Even a deal with the headmaster to limit the sale of copies with an attached condom to pupils of age 14 on didn’t help. Of course, the scandal was great for our circulation, but the point I want to make is that all RE teachers with the exception of one old man came got together and organised an ‘ecomenic’ debate about Sex, AIDS, love and honesty that took place during the RE time.

    I suppose much of this comes down to the people, teachers, management, and pupils. But to me, RE always was a subject that proved to me that religion does indeed have something meaningful to add to our school’s curriculum as long as it is run in an appropriate way. And in my opinion, and experience, it usually is. More often than not, teachers for RE are chosen as “trusted teachers” by the pupils in the annual school elections. And they probably have a reason.

  5. I’ve lived my entire life in the Netherlands and received all my RE at dutch schools.

    The schools in the Netherlands are divided in two groups: Public and Special. With the latter being a euphemism for schools based on a Religion, a Teaching or a Philosophy (of teaching). As I understand it Public schools are required to teach an even curriculum whereas Special schools have more freedom for an emphasis. This is especially pronounced in Primary schools, which owing to their generally smaller size, can afford a little more sectarianism.

    I grew up in a 1400 people strong village in the south of the Netherlands. Inhabitants were mainly Catholic, but most of them little or non-practicing (more so when I got older). The one and only primary school in the village was nominally RC (special thus). However they were open to everybody. I attended this school from 1985 till 1992. RE consisted of being read (early years) and reading (later years) from the Bible once a week or so. Usually this was done in the forlorn hours at the beginning or the end of the day when attention spans were shortest. The local Priest would visit the school in relation with the First Holy Communion and the ‘Coming of Age’((?) ‘Heilig Vormsel’). Furthermore it was quite a normal thing to help in services and mass as an acolyte. In relation to the Old Testament, some attention was given to Judaism. I can’t recall any other religions being mentioned in anything more than a cursory way.

    Secondary school I attended in a nearby city of several hunderd thousand. Again predominantly catholic. I went to a catholic school (‘Onze Lieve Vrouwe Lyceum’) there from 1992 till 1999. RE was obligatory from first till fifth class IIRC. It was neither obligatory nor optional in the last year. But secularisation had already progressed quite a bit when I got there. Actually it wasn’t even called Religious Education. It looses a lot in translation but it was called something like ‘Contemplation of Life’ (‘Levensbeschouwing’). The first year dealt with religion on a more structural and systematic level (internal/personal vs. external/social side of religion, symbols, writings, etc.) and an introduction was given to some of the major religions (as in: ‘these exist:…’). The second and third year were mostly devoted to giving a closer insight into, as far as I can recall, Christianity (RC, Protestantism, Orthodox), Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism as well as Hedonism/Epicurianism, Eudemonianism (sp?, Humanism, Agnosticism, Atheism, New Age and Animism. (Noteably absent were such things as Taoism, Shintoism and Confucianism, I mean _Animism_ for the love of Jhwh.) The fourth and fifth year were basically spend analysing religious, ethical or otherwise philosophical questions in regard to one or more of the previously mentioned ‘religions’. Also these later years even more ‘exotic’ things such as Liberalism, Marxism and Social-Darwinism entered the fray.

    The classes though obligatory had very little weight in determining whether one passed or failed a year and were thus not very hard and not very active. Seeing the background of most of the pupils and teachers (either catholic or secular with a judeo-christian heritage) the baggage with which most people came to class did make it a somewhat lob-sided learning experience. It is hard to have a constructive discussion about Jainism when 9 out of 10 in the class hadn’t even heard about it before. However the aim was to give a balanced course and I think in general it wasn’t alltogether unsuccessful.

  6. I went to an English grammar school in the ’60s. We were told that our LEA had called in the local clergy (possibly just the local protestant clergy) and had worked out an Agreed Syllabus for RE (agreement presumably gained by omission). Our school, being kindasorta a state school was bound by the 1944 act, but being kindasorta independent wasn’t bound by the Agreed Syllabus. As a symbol of its freedom, the school had renamed RE Divinity. I don’t remember much, forty years on, of the material which replaced the inanities of the Agreed Syllabus, but one year (third form, maybe?), we cantered through the Higher Criticism: the various strands of the Pentateuch (J, E, P, . . .), the two Isaiahs, the relationships of the Gospels (and Q) and maybe other stuff I’ve forgotten about.

    The way it was taught wasn’t particularly deep: here’s a story from the Jahwist, here’s the corresponding Elohist version; repeat ad lib; note the consistency of the differences. We had simply to listen. Nothing rode on the class. There would be no exam.

    Looking back, given that under the Butler act the school had to do something, this was probably a good thing to do. It had some intellectual content. Indeed, working it out was one of the triumphs of 19th century scholarship. And it’s hard to know where else one might have learnt about it.

  7. Despite our caricature as a hyper-religious country, my experience of RE in Ireland has been pretty lax.

    In primary school Religion was obligatory – depending on the teacher it might be an hour a week or half an hour every day. It was taken a bit more seriously in first class – when we’re about seven – and sixth class – when we were twelve, as those years saw us being prepared for our First Confession and First Holy Communion and for our Confirmation, respectively. Religion for us consisted of very basic Catholicism; we knew Bible stories and the basics of the sacraments, but little more.

    Secondary school religion classes were a joke. In a fairly liberal Catholic school run by Marist Brothers, we had three forty-minute classes a week. Aside from occasional visits from the local chaplain, who was more interested in Gaelic football than religion, we basically did well-meaning agnosticism rather than religion of any sort.

    I suppose our Religious Education consisted of a general class on Christianity, but considering that I remember spending ages on Ghandi, it must have been a bit broader than that.

    Everything I learned in secondary school about other faiths and anything concrete I learned about my own I learned in History class, or in English too.

  8. I went to Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland, and we had a lot of RE. It was compulsory as a ‘serious’ subject from the ages of 5 to 16, and then as a kind of ethical dsicussion type thing from 16 to 18. The latter was actually quite low on religious content and quite fun.

    In Primary School the emphasis was very much on straightforward Catholic cathechism, for about 40 minutes every morning, yes every morning. I mean, we did the usual kiddies things like paint pictures and nake up stories as well, it wasn’t all dry and didactic.

    In Secondary school we had 35 minutes of RE every day until age 16. From 14-16, this was heavily focused on bible study and textual criticism for state exams at age 16.

    Then after 16 it was just twice a week and focused on ethical discussions (AIDS, suffering, sex, unemployment, all the usual stuff).

    At the time I did it (1993), there was a seperate syllabus for the state exams at 16 for Catholic and Protestant schools, although even then about 80% was the same. About 3 years after than the churches devised a common curriculum for all schools, although it is still weak on non-Christian religions and does not cover non-religious philosophies at all.

    Most of the pupils at the school didn’t go to church regularly, so it was hardly terribly effective.

  9. I’m not sure but I think in Brandenburg ethics (LER, Lebensgestaltung-Ethik-Religion) is compulsory and classic RE is only an additional subject

    Not surprising when 90% of Brandeburg’s population is not Kirchensanh?ngig.

  10. I’m not sure but I think in Brandenburg ethics (LER, Lebensgestaltung-Ethik-Religion) is compulsory and classic RE is only an additional subject

    Not surprising when 90% of Brandeburg’s population is not Kirchensanh?ngig.

  11. In Belgium, the system is the same for all three linguistic communities. There are community schools (= state schools), provincial schools, municipality schools and ‘free’ schools. The latter are usually Catholic schools, but there are also a few Protestant and Jewish schools. Most free schools are state-supported. In free schools, RE is a compulsory subject. In primary (6-12) and secondary (12-18) education, it is taught two hours a week. It usually depends on the teacher, but as I recall it, it is indeed more about being nice to each other than about the catechism and the Bible. Especially in the higher years, an overview of other world religions and philosophy is given. About 60% of the primary and 75% of the secondary schools are Catholic schools.
    Community schools are set up by the Flemish, French or German-speaking Community. Provinces and municipalities can also set up schools. The former are usually secondary schools or special education schools, where the latter are usually primary schools. In each school, you have to choose between RE and ethics (although, in the municipal primary school that I attended, there was no ethics, because nobody asked for it). If parents ask, they also have to provide RE for the other recognized religions in Belgium: Church of England, Protestant, Judaism and Islam. But I think even in these schools, about half of the people take Catholic RE. So, an overwhelming majority still has Catholic RE at school. But in most cases, esp. in secondary school, I think there is not so much difference between the RE and ethics curricula.

  12. I’ve never commented here before, but I really couldn’t resist…

    I went to a European School. Note the capitalisation: I went to a school that taught the children of people who work for EU institutions. There are a few of these scattered across the EU, with four in and around Brussels. I attended the first one, the European School of Luxembourg, which was set up way back in 1953 for ECSC fonctionnaires. The school has 11 language sections, though I should imagine things will be different at the start of the next academic year.

    The RE took up 1 hour a week (an hour lasting 45 minutes. Don’t ask). The religious education offered differed from language section to language section. The French-speaking section had Catholic and the Greeks had Orthodox, but that’s about all I can remember. In the English-speaking section, we had a choice between Catholic, Protestant, and Ethics. There was also an all-section Jewish class, which in my year had about two people in it.
    I attended the Protestant class, which was taught by the local Anglican priest. Good thing I’m a Scottish Episcopalian, technically. Did you know there’s a C of E diocese covering continetnal Europe?
    Aaanyway, our classes weren’t very serious. Everyone was pretty laid back, and we didn’t get much done in the way of spiritual fulfillment. One or two people joined our class to avoid doing actual work in the Ethics class. We never even found out in what way we differed from the Roman Catholics, apart from getting to ignore the Pope. Which the Catholics did anyway.

  13. …thank you so much to the Germans, I’m doing a presentation on Tuesday 5th about German school’s handling of religious education, with view to the 1/3rd each way split between Catholics, Protestants and Other. Wish me luck!