Religious Instruction in State Schools: Germany v. France

September 2008 – Paris

The European Institute for Religious Sciences (IESR) hosted fifty professional religion teachers and administrators from the German K-12 school system and an equal number from France, at a conference in Paris, France, on September 26, 2008. Opening speeches pointed out that as Europe moves towards broader acceptance of religious plurality the question of the teaching of religion in schools must be reconsidered. Wolfram Weisse, professor at the University of Hamburg, heads REDCO, a four-year EU-funded research project on the impact of religious education in state schools in European countries. Europe’s goal is to pursue affirmative and respectful support for religious pluralism. From his introductory speech to the end of the event, the central question, not always explicitly mentioned, was how to teach Germany’s constitutionally mandated confessional religion classes when Muslims and “other irreducible religious minorities” make up a sizable proportion of the student body. Germany’s old division of territory between dominant strains of Christianity is no longer helpful in finding the answer for today’s situation. In each German Land the same challenge has to be confronted, whether the state itself or a confession was charged with developing the curriculum, providing teacher training, or finally supplying teachers to stand in the classroom.

The conclusion was that the reality of today’s Europe means that affirmative and respectful pluralism has to be taught and practiced in the state schools. The question is how to do it. French presenters saw themselves as ahead of the curve in recognizing and acting on the reality of religious plurality. Régis Debray identified September 11, 2001, as the alarm bell awakening France to the urgency of facing the religious plurality of its population. This shock marked the end of France’s bi-polar (Catholic v. anti-Catholic) identity. Debray, who led the French educational response in 2002, outlined the rationale for introducing religion into the national curriculum without adding a religion class. Rather, knowledge of relevant religious facts is to be included in each subject matter. Teacher initiative and flexibility to deal with classroom realities have become a part of the new approach. The point was not to teach less history and more religion, but to teach more accurate and complete history; not to teach less geography or less language, but to teach these and all other subjects better by including relevant religious realities. Jean-Paul Willaime explained how the European Institute for Religious Sciences (IESR), formed as part of the 2002 changes, was charged with concentrating pertinent religious knowledge in its European Religious Observatory. The IESR uses this knowledge to provide in-service training for teachers and support to curriculum developers in every discipline. The IESR also manages French participation in the REDCO research project.

The second half of the conference program provided vivid demonstrations of what teachers in France are now doing to include plural religious realities in foreign language, geography and history instruction. Particularly striking were presentations by two young secondary school teachers who showed how they had personally designed and carried out teaching segments centered on Islam in history and geography classes. These young teachers were visibly excited about what they were doing, and felt reinforced by student reactions and changes they saw take place in student culture as a consequence of their courses. Their evident enthusiasm about promoting respect and understanding for religious diversity was contagious. French persons in attendance, particularly those who worked in or close to the classroom, were clearly very much caught up the same spirit.

Post-conference discussion with an official of the highly secular Ligue d’enseignement and a high official of the Ministry of Education revealed their positive attitude toward including religious information and a pluralistic religious reference system into the nations schools. For historically excluded religious groups an opportunity is developing to engage in the processes made evident in this meeting in order to include accurate and respectful information in new school curricula under development.