Rite&Reason: Why we should teach religion in school

Religions as bearers of possible truth are contributors to the search for truth

In the past 20 years, the place of religion in the public sphere has been discussed from multiple angles. On the continent, French, Italian and German philosophers from widely differing approaches have written books on God. Globally, the two key future themes of the 21 st century, it has been said, will be “water” and “religion.”

Since antiquity, religious traditions have shaped individual and collective self-understandings, cultures of knowledge and the realm of politics. Given their role at the most fundamental level of culture, of co-creating conceptions of what it is to be human, how should they be approached and taught today?

Recent debates in philosophy and theology, politics and education highlight several aspects. What constellations led to their powerful intellectual and motivating roles? What practical conclusions are to be drawn from the modern right to religious freedom? And from what perspective should they be taught as part of the school curriculum?

What conditions allowed the great world religions and philosophies to develop in just a few centuries, the sixth to fourth century BC, as Karl Jaspers’s newly debated thesis of an “Axial Age” asks? And what factors were relevant for specific religions to spark cultural transformations, such as the turn to monotheism?


Which translations had to be worked out to mediate between understandings of life, community, nature and law as different as those of Athens and Jerusalem, Alexandria and Rome, Constantinople and Baghdad?

If the legal right to freedom of religion and the neutrality of the state are two sides of the same coin, then both an “over-secularising” and a “radical orthodox” stance are problematic, as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas concludes. For him, religions are not “a priori irrational” and, as long as they continue to feature among the plural sources of value formation, societies are “post-secular”.

The state in its neutrality towards world views needs the competence and willingness of secular and religious fellow-citizens to “translate” their core intuitions to each other. This is only possible, as theologians have reminded Habermas, because religions have their own internal link to human reason.

The shorthand label appearing in policy documents, “faith-based”, is thus misleading. How can the ability to articulate and comprehend diverse heritages, for Habermas a prerequisite for a vibrant public sphere, be fostered?

Across Europe we find diverse models for the provision and the format of Religious Education in schools. This variety – even within the same country, as between the Länder in Germany – in itself is an exciting laboratory of the future, as are the major differences between education systems in general.

New policy proposals should be based on comparative studies.

A major insight from hermeneutics as the critical philosophical theory of understanding is that one's own starting point needs to be reflected. If there is no pure objective platform available for inquiries into human self-understandings, and if they are all in need of justification through discourses marked by "conflicts of interpretation", as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur showed already in the 1960s, what practical conclusions should be drawn?

Religions as bearers of possible truth are contributors to the search for truth, as well as objects for analysis from other disciplines. Exploring the transformations of a religious tradition from the inside, as theology does, can identify sources for renewal and for mutual understanding.

If religions are not to be seed beds of indoctrination, but seeds for universal values, society and the state need to give them space for critical reflection and discuss appropriate models of education.

Religions can then contribute their resources of motivation and contemporary insight to the future course of pluralist democracies marked by the dynamics of rationalisation and differentiation, science and technology: in dialogue with other cultural and political traditions, each of them “driven and invigorated by the unkept promises of their own histories of foundation”(Ricoeur).

Prof Maureen Junker-Kenny is head of the department of religions and theology at Trinity College Dublin. Two autumn lecture series there explore questions raised above: Religions in Public: Great Speeches (which began on Monday, from 6-8pm) and Religions as Part of Education (from Tuesday, October 4th, from 6-8 pm). Inquiries to 01-896 1297. Details at tcd.ie/Religions_Theology/