Confessional education can take multiple paths


Visiting professor Hans-Georg Ziebertz problematized in his lecture both confessional and non-confessional RE.

The heading of professor Ziebertz’ lecture on December 12th was “How can Religious Education be confessional in the face of pluralism? The German case in comparative perspective.”

Religious Education (RE) in Germany is, unlike Swedish RE, confessional. German pupils are educated in different groups, according to their respective religious affiliation. The education deals primarily with the pupil’s own religion, but also with the other religions. According to the curricula, all children should get acquainted with all the major religions.

There was an increasing tendency in Germany until the late 1990’s to think about a more neutral RE, Hans-Georg Ziebertz told in his lecture. But since 2001 that changed when politicians stated that the best way to handle growing religious diversity was to include the major religions, rather than to exclude them from schools. Decision makers also granted the right for Muslim pupils to have education in their own religion, like Lutherans and Catholics already had. At the same time, the decision gave schools and society a chance to influence what interpretation of Islam young people got to meet.

Germany is not the only example of confessional Religious Education. Confessional RE is common in many other countries, actually in about three fourths of the European countries.

But, as Hans-Georg Ziebertz noted in his lecture, confessional education is not a homogenous concept. It should rather be problematized. While in some countries confessional RE means catechism, it can also, as in Germany, focus on cultivation and understanding of both the own religion and the other religions. Disciplines of reference are both theology and pedagogy.

Another difference between countries is who is responsible for the teaching of RE: a priest or imam, or a teacher. Finally, different countries also give different space to other religions than the dominant one.

Sweden upholds, like the United Kingdom and some other Nordic countries, the principle of non-confessional RE. But the concept of non-confessional education can be problematized too, Hans-Georg Ziebertz stated. For instance, what does neutrality mean and is this concept really free of normativity and ideology? Does the world view and personality of the teacher affect the mode of education? It can also be questioned whether a teacher can or should keep the same distance to all religions? Can “religious literacy”, i.e. an understanding of the codes and language of a religion, be developed by looking at religions only from the outside without?  According to professor Ziebertz the question how religion should be taught is in discussion in many European countries.

Theoretically, the cleavage between German confessional RE, and Swedish non-confessional RE may seem huge. But in real life, research on the views of teachers and students on religion suggest no such a big cleavage between the countries. As professor Ziebertz showed in his lecture, statistic evidence show that Swedes and Germans have a similar view on how their own religion relates to other religions. For instance, only a few Swedes and Germans consider their own religion superior to other religions. In contrary students from both countries agree that religions should be valued equally.

Hans-Georg Ziebertz is a professor for practical theology and religious education in Würzburg. He spends this semester and the first haft of next semester at Uppsala Religion and Society Research Centre. 

News from 2013