How religion can be taught in a ‘neutral’ way
Irish schools introducing the new ‘religions and ethics’ course can learn from the Berlin experience
Denominational schools in Berlin can teach religious education through their own faith, as well as an ethics course, but they cannot skip the latter. Photograph: Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty
Reform of religious education in Irish schools has been talked about for decades but meaningful change has been slow to materialise.
At primary level, Religious Education (RE) takes the form of faith formation with different religious patrons offering separate programmes in accordance with their beliefs. Plans are advanced for a new subject – Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics – that teaches children about all faiths and none but its introduction is meeting residence, on the one hand from teachers who are concerned about curriculum overload and, on the other, from sections of the Catholic Church who object to “neutrality” in the religious realm.
Germany provides an example of what might be done, having long ago introduced ethics as a core part of the curriculum. Ten years ago, Berlin’s federal government made ethics obligatory in “middle school” (seventh to 10th class). It was partly a response to the “honour killing” of young Turkish women in 2005, an atrocity which led to calls for greater dialogue within and between religions.
Denominational schools in Berlin can teach RE through their own faith, as well as the ethics course, but they cannot skip the latter. Humanist schools must similarly teach ethics but they can also offer atheistic programmes in which “they teach there is no god”, explains Prof Michael Bongardt of the University of Siegen, who has been responsible for developing the teacher-training programme in ethics over the past decade.
While there was some opposition initially from religious groups to the mandatory nature of the course, Berlin’s churches and mosques have come to see it as an aid in the battle against both sectarian preachers and atheistic hostility towards religions.
For those in Ireland who fear such a course would undermine faith, Prof Bongardt says it’s important to explain what it means to conduct lessons in a “neutral” way:
“Neutral does not mean everyone in the class, including the teacher, has to forget his or her own conviction and standpoint of faith. Neutral means the teacher is obliged to show his or her opinions but is also open to other opinions, and has to teach the pupils how it is possible to have your own opinion, and to tolerate, accept and value other opinions.”
How do Berlin’s ethics teachers deal with potential conflicts between children of different faith backgrounds?
“It’s important in these lessons to give an insight into your own religious background, and to explain your opinion about marriage, death, finality, or other things. In this way, knowledge about religions comes from the pupils.
“The Muslim pupils tell the Christian pupils: ‘We do it in this way, how do you do it?’ So it’s very important the teachers know the different religious systems to moderate these discussions.”
Would the teacher try to lead a conversation to a conclusion or leave it open-ended?
“Here we have to distinguish between different questions. You have a lot of opinions about behaviours that are legal and allowed, and it’s a very important goal of ethics to say: In the framework of the law, is plurality possible?
“It’s very important to accept this plurality, to accept the freedom of everybody to decide how he or she wants to live, and wants to shape his or her life. That is one goal of these lessons; the other goal is to show that plurality needs rules. It needs the rule to discuss and hear the other reasons.”
Have the authorities encountered opposition from conservative believers? Some Catholic educationalists argue that you can’t teach about religion in a neutral way.
“There are different answers to this. First, there is a broad spread of opinion in the Catholic Church and other churches that it’s not possible to have any ethics without religion. This opinion, in my view, is wrong. It’s possible to have a secular ethic.
“Second, I agree that religious education in the stronger sense is only possible within one religion. I cannot become a Catholic believer outside of the Catholic Church and its education. But it’s wrong to say that the Catholic faith, for example, is the only right faith and all other people are stupid or evil because they don’t accept the Catholic faith.
“In a pluralistic society – and all our societies today are plural or pluralistic – it must be possible to accept that other people have other beliefs, and therefore we need another ground for our common life than a ground of ‘one religion’. It cannot be that all people in society have to be Muslims or Catholics, or so on.”
A more subtle objection is that introducing an ethics course undermines what religious teachers are saying by putting different faiths on the same level.
“It undermines a special form of faith indeed. It undermines the conviction that my faith is the only possible and right faith. This opinion, or conviction, is undermined by the idea of a plural society.
“I think it’s very important to learn that it’s possible to live in my faith according to my faith and convictions, and to accept – or at least to tolerate – there are other people who live according to other rules. I agree it’s very difficult for many believers to accept this distinction.”
* Prof Michael Bongardt is delivering a lecture at Trinity College Dublin on “Different Models of Teaching Religion – ‘Faith-based’, Neutral, Comparative?” on November 22nd, 6pm-8pm. For more details see: www.tcd.ie/Religions_Theology/
Ask a sage:
Q. Where should I send my child if I want her to share my beliefs: A Catholic school or Educate Together?
Ernst Bloch replies: “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.”