Teaching Religion the European Way

As the Bundestag discusses introducing compulsory religion and ethics classes, DW-WORLD takes a look at how the topic is dealt with across Europe.

"Every type of religion class comes with its own version of history," explained Peter Schreiner, President of the Intereuropean Commission for Church and School (ICCS). "You can make comparisons, but there won't ever be a pan-European approach."

For now, he pointed out, each country decides itself how to organize classes, develop the syllabus and select teaching materials, train teachers -- as well as providing options for students unwilling to attend religion classes.

The way the topic of religion is treated varies widely across the continent. In southern and eastern Europe, Finland, Italy, Austria and Germany, religion classes are divided according to denomination. In other countries, including Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain, students can opt for non-denominational alternatives, such as ethics, philosophy or values classes.

Germany and Austria

Compulsory religion classes across Germany's states is a principle enshrined in the German constitution or 'Grundgesetz', with one small opt-out clause, known as the "Bremer Clause" for certain states with a different legal status. Bremen and Berlin, for example, are not governed by the legal obligation to provide religious education, as legislation already in existence when the 'Grundgesetz' was drawn up in 1949 takes precedence. Instead, these states offer 'Biblical History' and a discipline known as LER - 'Life, Ethics and Religion.' Berlin, moreover, is the only German state where religion classes are the responsibility of the church rather than the state.

In Austria, students can't complain of lack of choice, with Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, New Apostolic, Jewish, Islam and Budhist classes available. Religion, whichever it is, is a compulsory subject in schools, while an alternative, non-denominational option has been also been available since 1997.

Italy and Greece

Catholic classes, not surprisingly, are a guaranteed fixture of the Italian education system. Available to children from all backgrounds, religion became a voluntary subject in 1984. Other classes are also provided, but need to be paid for privately if sufficient pupils express interest. Alternatively, students can attend 'Civic and Human Rights' classes.

Greece takes the opposite approach. Here, Orthodox classes are compulsory, regardless of personal faith.

Learning about religion

In northern Europe, England, Wales and Scotland, pupils can take religion -- or a class in which they learn about the world's different religions.

"Classes about religion belong to schools' educational duties, rather than religious education per se," observed Friedrich Schweitzer, theology professor at Tübingen University.

Local education authorities in England and Wales develop a syllabus together with the Anglican church and representatives from other religious communities, although the emphasis is firmly on Christianity. Even so, since 1994, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Budhists have been encouraged to help contribute to the syllabus.