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Thanks, but no thanks - religion in the schools


I’ve been pondering religion and turkeys these days. Turkeys, because Thursday is Thanksgiving and we are hosting an international Thanksgiving celebration. Turkeys, because I can’t fit an American-sized turkey into a European-sized oven. Religion, because on Wednesdays my daughter’s teacher teaches religion. Religion, because I am an American and attitudes towards religion here in Germany baffle me, much like the ovens.

The turkey situation is fairly straightforward; I will adapt and likely overcook two very small chickens instead. Adapting my American attitudes towards religion in the schools is not so straightforward. Maybe we “adapted” by enrolling our child in religion class (see post from 9/23), but I would find maintaining this ruse difficult if we became long-term residents. How is it that education in our Heidelberg public school revolves around Christianity? What do those who adhere to Jewish or Islamic faiths think about the overarching theme? Would atheists and agnostics appreciate time spent studying other subjects?

Casually conversing with friends, I learn that religious instruction in public schools is traditional and the issue merits mostly shrugs. Such an attitude apparently stems from the historical partnership between Church and State to provide education and social services. The German government arranges the infrastructure for collecting taxes and then redistributes the monies to recognized religious organizations –mostly Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish -according to the percentage of the population registered with each group. The religious bodies in turn pay for the administration of the taxing system and expend the monies to build and maintain churches, synagogues, hospitals, and nursing homes, and to train religion teachers. If you register as a member of a recognized religious group you must pay the tax. You can opt out of course, but if so you also opt out of services and rites provided by the religious establishment.

Attempting to address my American bewilderment, a learned acquaintance suggested that it is better to teach tolerance and morality within a non-discriminatory, academic framework such as that provided by Church-State cooperation. As for the case of Islam, better a State approved curriculum than a radical one say the politicians quoted in papers. Another comment comes from someone who has relocated to the U.S. and expresses surprise at having to “pay for her child to learn about God” (i.e., private school). The fundamental assumption here is the existence of God. All atheists and agnostics step out into the hall please.

Let’s, for a moment, go with the premise that a religion class might teach students about a formative force in human history and that such a class might break-down prejudicial assumptions and promote greater tolerance among individuals of different faiths. Imagine proposing such a class to the Kanas State Board of Education (imagine!). What group or groups would design the curriculum? What faiths would we include? Would fundamentalist Christians allow discussion of Judaism or Islam, or vice versa? What if we structured classes like the Germans –a class for Protestants, one for Catholics, one for Jews, one for Muslims? Need I mention Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and Hindus to name just a few other faiths? Even if a school district happened to establish a “Protestant” class, could you see a group of Evangelicals and Episcopalians agreeing on what to teach? I related this scenario to a small, diverse group but they seemed to shake their collective heads at a peculiarity of American society.

Of course a “no big deal” attitude is easier to maintain in a homogenous society, and incongruously in a more secular nation, but Germany is experiencing diversity growing pains and finding an increasing Muslim population challenging. Here again though, this has not prompted questioning of religion in public schools, but rather an attempt to incorporate a new class for the newcomers. Some schools in certain parts of Germany now allow a choice between Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Islamic religion class -for all other cases you’ll have to petition and my guess is the flying-spaghetti monster is out of the question. It’s all very simple you see, the Basic Law of Germany specifically limits religious instruction to religion class, prohibits any discussion of religion outside of this class, and specifically reserves one the right to opt out of religion class. So there is no need for my consternation; if one wants more religious education, there are private schools; if one wants no religion, there are private schools. By law you cannot be forced to take religion class and if you do sign up, you cannot be discriminated against for your personal beliefs (fundamentally Christian perspective aside).

It remains problematic for me to imagine religious teachings in U.S. public schools precisely because the U.S. is a more religious nation than Germany and a more diverse nation. Although I can admire much about German society and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to experience a fundamentally different point of view, I continue to appreciate my home country’s attempts to protect diversity of opinion and its comparative commitment to secular education. Of course diversity is complicated and diversity is hard. America always has and will continue to wrestle with diversity, ever inching forward, and for this I am thankful. Now, if I could just get the oven settings right so I don’t make a mess of the pie.


Rafael 2 years, 1 month ago

(1/3) Hey Ashworth, I stumbled upon your blog through the Expats Blog Writing Contest, and just having spent a year abroad myself, have been following it with interest. Since I’m from Austria, and Austria and Germany are places quite alike (don’t let Germans or Austrians tell you otherwise), it was fun getting this view from the “other side” on school life here. Your last entry about religion classes made me want to try and explain what I feel are the reasons for things being like they are. Since I’m from Austria, I’ll be writing from a more general, European point of view, but I think the situation in Heidelberg will be quite the same as my experiences.

That out of the way, what got my interest were your thoughts on the how and why of religious education in Heidelberg. Did you have the feeling people weren’t really getting why you gave so much thought to the question of if your kid should join religion class? I think that’s because most Germans wouldn’t really give that much thought to it either. Even agnostic or atheist parents might let their kids join, and would think nothing of it; some kids might even not be registered as Christian and would still join. And the thought of their kids getting indoctrinated with some unwanted belief system wouldn’t occur to these parents, because that’s not what they would associate with the curriculum in religion classes.

But, if it’s not really religion that’s being taught, and if anyone can join, then why do public schools even have religion classes? Well, I think this can best be understood historically. Religion class might have played a more important role some 50 years ago, same as religion in people's lives in general. Since the decline of the importance of religion though, the religious and belief system-centered content in class is getting replaced more and more by other topics. I think that many people have the feeling that in these classes, kids are just supposed to learn about some of the traditional (Christian) stories we used to hear when we were young ourselves, and therefore want our kids to hear too. Not so much as a religious education, but to keep the cultural heritage alive. Maybe history class in the US teaching American kids about the origins of Thanksgiving, or the Founding Fathers story would be comparable; also comparable for the feeling and expectations many people would have about this class. At the same time, religion class is nowadays also used to teach the kids fundamental ethics, and – how to put this in a general way – knowledge considered important for their mental and social well-being. This has progressed to a point where voices are getting louder that it would be better to abolish these "religion" classes (and the underlying system of church appointed teachers) all together and replace them with something called "ethics class", which would put the right label on it again, so to speak.

Rafael 2 years, 1 month ago

(2/3) So it is this "not really religion class anyway" feeling that is the main reason for people to have such a relaxed approach towards that topic. Most people would have an image of the kids going there, doing some singing, doing some handicraft to bring home for the important family holidays, and hearing some stories, from which they might take some important life lessons with them. What these classes would not be perceived as, is something where you are made to believe something you don't want to (or don't want your kids to) believe.

You would have to go deeper to explain why this class can be called religious education and be handled the way it is, and I think it has to do with the different notions of religion in the US and Europe in general. Many of the kids going to such classes may never have seen a church from the inside. Of course, they still would have an entry stating their religion in their birth certificate, and probably they would also be baptized, but because that's something you just do, and not because you’re connecting a specific religious value with it. In a sense, you could say that religion nowadays is much more a system of following tradition than it is a belief system.

Of course, people differ on this subject, and there might be many (especially older) people who feel very differently about this than my 28-year-old self. But I think it is this underlying understanding of religion not being that important anymore anyway that lets people be so relaxed about it. That allows for a mutual feeling that no matter if you are a believer or an atheist or an agnostic or whatever, it’s not really worth getting upset or hurt or preachy about it.

I feel I can relate to you and your worries about what your daughter might be doing in that class though, and your views about how that system is handled in total. Compared to Europe, I have the feeling that the US is still a much more religious country. So in your context, it would make sense to see religious education as a matter that has to be handled with much tact, thought, and definitely more seriousness. The above would explain where the inability of the other parents/teachers at your school to understand those concerns comes from. In the end it's just a cultural difference.

Rafael 2 years, 1 month ago

(3/3) Oh my god, I already lost way too many words over this, better stop now.

What to take away from this? (TL;DR) Probably people don’t worry so much about religion classes because these classes are not focused on teaching kids really serious religious content anyway; and more interestingly because religion as a whole is perceived differently in Europe.

I’ll keep reading your blog with interest, and wish you all the best for your stay in Germany, a continuing curious approach to cultural differences and all the strength necessary for that. :)

Happy Thanksgiving, and good luck with the pie!


PS: Of course what I said above shouldn't be understood as that it's all sun and rainbows, there are problems in Europe too with this approach to religion classes. Some friends of mine, who happen to be atheist, insisted that their kids be taken out of religion classes. The teachers told them that in theory they could do that, but they advised against it because they were afraid the kids would become outsiders, being the first and only kids this had ever happened to (in elementary school). Those parents ended up leaving their kids in religion classes, and only when the kids started Gymnasium (where it is much more common to not go to religion class), they didn't go there anymore and instead had a class off, which they used to get some homework done.

Actually that's how I did it myself in the Unterstufe, mostly because our religion class teacher wasn't really great and it felt like a waste of time sitting there. Later when the teacher changed I joined again, because it was boring to sit outside and wait for the time to pass (because of course I was not allowed to leave the school during that one period), and I have nice memories of those classes - mostly we used them to talk about class dynamics, if there were any problems or fights in class, if some kids were left out of groups and why that was happening, etc.

PPS: The other big problem you mentioned in your blog post would be the kids with different confessions requiring special classes. Until quite recently, since Germany is a very homogenous country, there weren’t that many, and most of them probably still joined regular religion classes because of a quite similar faith (orthodox Christians, Protestants) - or because the parents didn’t care so much about it; the one that did, ended up putting their kids in special private schools anyway. But with the number of kids with Islam faith growing, there now is growing demand for more specialized religion classes; in bigger cities your kids could probably choose between Christian, Muslim, and maybe Jewish classes, with special teachers visiting all schools in the district. That’s another argument of the proponents to replace the religion class system with general ethics classes by the way.

ashworth 2 years, 1 month ago

Thank you for an insider's perspective. Although my German is improving - I've graduated from telling someone my name to telling someone what I had for breakfast - it is not adequate enough to navigate a conversation about religion with other parents at our daughter's school. It really is a fascinating contrast in attitudes. I have read in the English language papers about the difficulties of introducing Islamic classes and I can only think that this is the tip of an iceberg of changes on the horizon.

While religion class in the school has been a philosophical adjustment, I have to admit that I am really looking forward to the Weihnachtsmarkts.


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