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The increasing role of religion in state schools in German-speaking countries endangers secularism

Image from Spiegel Online

With schools in more German-speaking countries moving to teach religion, as well as religious interest groups applying pressure for the increased importance of religion, especially Christianity, in public schools, there is an increased pressure on the separation of church and state.

In general Europe can be considered a fairly tolerant region regarding the freedom of religion and the freedom to have no religion. Most people in Europe are free to follow whatever religion they wish, or none.

However, it is not quite as simple as that, especially for atheists, as each religion takes advantage of its freedom, and seeks to ensure its own place in society, for example through a presence in public schools.

People’s rights to religious belief are taken seriously in Europe. In some cases, great lengths are taken to ensure religious freedom, and also that religion remains an important part of children’s lives.

A previous Atheist Alliance International story highlighted the influence of religion in German schools, how students are expected to study religion unless written permission is given to study ethics instead, and in particular how the Islamic faith may soon be expected to be taught in all schools in Hesse with at least eight Islamic children. [1]

Part of the reasoning behind this is to encourage tolerance and fight against religious extremism by making religion part of the main stream and taught under state influenced guidelines.

Stephan Elmar describes the case of a primary school in Osnabrück Germany, which has been specifically set up to foster and strengthen the religious identities of Christian, Muslim and Jewish children. [2] In this school, religion is not confined to set classes on religious studies, but rather plays a role in the entire day, and so religious observances such as prayer times and holy days are fully supported by the school, as are religious dietary restrictions. Such attempts to promote tolerance can be seen as positive, but things do not always go smoothly. Such schools receive significant criticism from locals, and tolerance or acceptance of atheism is not considered as important for these schools as their own religious agendas.

Despite general policies in the region regarding the separation of church and state, there are those who campaign to ensure Christianity’s place in society and in schools in the region.

Bishop Norbert Brunner of Switzerland said the duty of government and schools is to “realise to the fullest potential the moral, intellectual and physical assets of the student, and prepare him for his job as a man and a Christian.” [3] While the opinion of Brunner does not reflect the official position of the Swiss government, public schools in Austria, Germany and Switzerland continue to have a strong Christian bias, and although atheists can be excused from religious instruction at the request of their parents, atheists remain a minority, and the religious needs of the Christian majority are well catered for.

Brunner's opinions are not unique, and there are often attempts by religious groups to further increase the importance of religion, especially Christianity, in schools, such as the recent resolution by the Swiss Evangelical Alliance that “Christian Principles be part of the school curriculum.” [4] This resolution, based on a set of postulates regarding religion and education, would have ensured that religion not only has a place in schools, but that Christianity must have priority and that religious teaching be focused on belief and religious identity. The resolution, voted on separately by the Swiss Cantons, failed to get the required two-thirds majority to pass, with some of those opposing the resolution noting its unfairness to other religions and to agnostics and atheists. [5]

From the point of view of atheists and agnostics, the situation in Europe is certainly better than those countries with an official state religion, and especially those where critics of religion can be persecuted or even executed. At least in Europe you can ask for your children to be excluded from religious teachings in schools. Nevertheless, even in the secular West, there is still a strong Christian bias in schools and resistance to further secularisation and the protection of children from religious influences. Secularism is strong, but must be constantly defended against those who would change its principles.

[1] AAI (2012) “Islamic religious education in German State Hesse soon to be mandatory”
[2] Stephan Elmar (2012) “Ich glaube, also lerne ich”, Spiegel Online (in German)
[3] (2012) “Ein Bischof im Wallis: Wie Gott in Frankreich“ (in German)
[4] Swiss Evangelical Alliance (2012) “Eight postulates to Syllabus 21” (in German)
[5] Peter Schmid (2012) „Wissen über die christlichen Wurzeln vermitteln“ (in German)