European Union Schools
There are so-called “European Schools”, based on intergovernmental treaties within the framework of the European Union. These schools are mainly intended for officials of the European Union institutions.
In these schools religious instruction is given as a regular subject within the school curriculum. The contents of the instruction are decided by the respective churches or religious communities. This religious instruction is therefore a confessional instruction in content.
An adequate judgment that evaluates the multitude of systems must take into account: diversity of history and religious affiliation, constitutional configuration and expectations of the population. A key question will be that concerning religious freedom, guaranteed in the constitutions of all these countries. Furthermore, all these countries are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. The art. 2 of the first Additional Protocol to that convention guarantees the right to education and the right of parents to ensure an education according to their own religious and ideological convictions.
Religious freedom pushes for religious education within the public school system: the state obliges young people to attend school. The state thus assumes the competence to decide how to spend the time of its citizens. Therefore, it must ensure that there is also adequate time to satisfy the religious needs of citizens in favor of it.
Basic Approaches to Religious Education
The multitude of systems is enhanced by the fact that differences can even be found within Member States. France knows a special picture in the three eastern departments of Alsace-Lorraine very similar to the German system. Germany, on the other hand, knows exceptions to the general system in some of its regions, such as Bremen and Berlin, and negligible changes in the new Lander after the 1999 unification. The United Kingdom, again, recognizes different positions in England and in Scotland. Despite the variety of all these different systems, we can see three basic approaches to religious education.
The first approach – we can call it separatist – excludes religious education from public schools. It is seen as something alien to the state, completely left to the discretion of the parents.
The second approach sees religious education as a task of public schools, organizing the subject as a confessional education that respects the identity of churches and religious communities as well as state neutrality. We can define this orientation as a cooperative approach.
The third approach provides religious instruction in public schools as a normal teaching on different religions which informs students about the variety and various teachings of the major religions. We can call this orientation the integrationist approach.
The third approach, rather than religious instruction, can be called teaching “about” religions. It is a teaching that concerns religious knowledge rather than religion. It gives a broad overview of the different ideas and traditions, leaving the pupil the choice of what he deems best for himself. Thus follows a special understanding of state neutrality with respect to different values and religious ideas. In fact, this approach to religious education often prevails in countries with a tradition of state church: England, Denmark, Sweden, but not in Greece and Finland. In other systems, knowledge of different religions is taught throughout the general curriculum, in history, language, philosophy or other classes.
The first approach leaves religious education completely out of public school. Historically, it was often wanted to belittle religion and its influence, to fight against the Churches.
Today, countries that prefer this system, especially France, are in favor of allowing adequate time for pupils to be systematically instructed in their church teaching. Therefore, in primary school in France, Wednesdays are free to give pupils the opportunity to attend religious instruction from their church.
The second approach is oriented towards religious denominational education in public schools given by the various churches. It prevails in Finland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria. Rather it is often seen as opposed to state neutrality and identifies state and church or, at least, favors one or more specific churches. This can happen, but it shouldn’t. In the European Union the state is only obliged to make religious education adequately possible and to ensure that no one is forced against his will to take these courses. If this is guaranteed, the cooperative approach is an exact expression of the separation between church and state.
This can be illustrated by the example of the general system in Germany. Many say that this system is a strict consequence of the idea of separation between church and state. Public education is based on the idea that the state is obliged to educate the new generations. This is done with the aim of integrating the population, keeping it together, unifying the pluralist society or sometimes the antagonistic society. Education is a process that involves the whole personality of a young human being and its development.
Forming an Integrated Personality
Education is not just about sharing facts or specific technical skills. Education means forming an integrated personality in a culture. This holistic understanding of education includes and includes religion as well. Forming a personality also means giving the means to open up the field of ideas and beliefs. The religious side of a personality cannot be formed by comparing a boy or girl with different ideas and leaving the decision entirely to him or her. Forming a personality in religious life means carrying a collection of deeply rooted truths and beliefs. Religion means relying on certain truths.
This can be compared to a language. You do not teach Spanish to a Spanish child in Spain – his native language – by showing him all the different major languages of the world in order to enable the child one day to choose from among them the one that fits most of his or her beliefs. Spanish is taught. Otherwise the child will never be able to speak at all.
This is a dilemma for the neutral state. The neutral state cannot perfect religious truth, but it must be open to different religious ideas. Being responsible – alongside the parents – in the formation of the personality of a young person, on the other hand, the State also has the responsibility of the religious aspect of this personality. To reject religion completely, relegating it to evenings or Sundays, ignoring the drive for truth, would discriminate against religion. This would constitute a contradiction in affirming the neutrality of the state. Furthermore, rejecting religion would mean failing in the task of forming the overall personality of the pupil.