The Contribution of Religious Education to Religious Freedom: A Global Perspective


United Nations Conference

on Religious Education

in relation to freedom of religion or belief

MADRID 22 – 25 November 2001

John M Hull

in Religious Education in Schools: Ideas and Experiences from around the World, Oxford, International Association for Religious Freedom, 2001 [papers presented to the United Nations conference on Religious Freedom, Madrid, November 2001] pp. 1-8

reprinted in Peter Schreiner et al (eds) Committed to Europe's Future-Contributions From Education and Religious Education: A Reader Münster, Comenius Institute 2002, pp. 107-110


Religious Education: a Religious Perspective

The manner and extent to which religious education is included in state education varies from country to country in accordance with (i) the religious affiliation of the society, whether mono-religious or multi-religious, (ii) the relation between the religious and the secular within each country, (iii) the historical tradition of each country, and (iv) conceptions about the nature and purpose of state school religious education.

Referring to the first factor, we may consider Greece which is predominately Greek Orthodox and the state religious education is the same. In England and Wales, however, there has been a pluralistic Christian tradition since 1689 and a significant multi-religious presence since the Second World War. This situation contributed to the creation in 1870 of a non-denominational Christian education, and to the gradual appearance of a mullet-faith religious education since about 1970, codified in the 1988 education reform act and exemplified in the 1994 Religious Education Model Syllabuses, which deal with six major world religions.

As to the relation between the religious and the secular, we may compare the United States of America with France and Turkey. The secularity of the United States Constitution is not historically hostile to religion but represents a separation of church and state in the interests of securing the freedom of religion from state control. On the other hand, the secularity of the modern French education system is influenced by the 1789 revolution, which was hostile to the church. The result is that religion is not taught in the French State schools but there is a significant Roman Catholic sector. This anti-religious secularity is also apparent in Turkey following the founding of the modern Turkish State by Ataturk. Never the less, Islamic religious education is taught in this predominantly Muslim country where it has become the focus of the struggle between those who wish to maintain the secular character of the Turkish state and those who wish to restore an Islamic state. Another version of the secular/religious relationship may be found in the state schools of Australia, where the most prevalent pattern is for religion to be taught by representatives of religions but not by the professional teachers.

The historical experience of each country modifies these factors. Because Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were more or less equally present in most of the German provinces, it became historically necessary that religious education in the state schools should take either a Protestant or Catholic form. The appearance of large numbers of Turkish guest workers has challenged this system. In the meantime the incorporation of the former provinces of East Germany, where church traditions had been weakened under the communist government, led to the emergence of various patterns of multi-faith religious education combined with education in ethics and values, e.g. the Brandenburg syllabus. We now find that the greater religious diversity and the increased secularity of some of the northern German cities are generating similar diversity (e.g. in Hanover and Hamburg). Another example of the impact of history upon the type of religious education may be found in several countries of post-colonial Africa. The 19th century Christian missions saw no value in the primal religious traditions, and the religious education of many sub-Saharan African states after independence was firmly Christian. However, the recent more positive evaluation of primal religion is leading to the introduction of these traditions into religious education, often accompanied by an expansion of the Christian curriculum to include other world religions e.g. Botswana.

Finally, we may trace the impact upon these various strands of new understandings of the nature and purpose of religious education itself. These in turn have appeared under the influence of modern philosophies of education from Rousseau to Dewey, new interpretations of human rights including the rights of children, and progressive re-interpretations of religion on the part of theologians and religion scholars. In addition, the huge impact of modernity upon contemporary social and intellectual life cannot be over estimated. New conceptions of human maturity have undoubtedly influenced education including religious education, such as the value of critical thought, the ethical significance of freedom of choice and the impact of scientific rationality. At present, the negative impact of financial globalisation is encouraging a new interest in the character of spirituality as a necessary feature of the lives of individuals and societies. For example, the traditional Lutheran catechise of Norwegian state education was replaced in 1997 by a new syllabus of world religions, ethics and humanism, inspired by these values.

It is against this enormous variety, and in the light of the complex way these many strands inter-weave to form distinctive national patterns that we must consider the contribution of religious education to religious freedom. From what we have said it is clear that there can be no simple answer to this question. Immediately one is faced with the response: what kind of religion? what kind of religious education? what kind of freedom? The best way to unlock these problems is to consider in greater detail the fourth factor referred to in the introductory discussion: the different ways in which religious education itself is conceptualised.

Basic Types of Religious Education

My colleague Michael Grimmitt has usefully distinguished between learning religion, learning about religion, and learning from religion. We may use these distinctions to describe the main types of religious education which in our worldwide survey.

Learning religion describes the situation where a single religious tradition is taught as the religious education curriculum, and is taught from the inside, so to speak. The teachers are expected to be believers in the religion themselves, and the object of the instruction is to enable pupils to come to believe in the religion or to strengthen their commitment to it. This type of religious education we may also describe as proceeding from faith to faith.

Learning religion means that the pupils are expected to learn that the religion is true, and to learn to live in accordance with that religion. This type of religious education is challenged when religious pluralism appears in the society. This may be due to immigration of people belonging to another religious tradition, or it may be that people in a certain society begin to drift away from their traditional religion, creating a secular/religious kind of pluralism. It may also be that on some occasions a more or less unified and monolithic society begins to respect the hopes and ideals of its minority faiths.

When plurality in such formerly monolithic societies does appear, two possible reactions may be observed. First, religious education may be abandoned altogether and the state education system may become completely secular. When this takes place, it is expected that nurture into religious faith will be confined to the homes of the children or to the religious communities.

The second possible reaction may be described as the pluralisation of learning religion. This means that the same kind of religious education as was indicated by the expression ‘learning religion’ is repeated again and again, for howsoever many religions present in the society require it. This can be called a situation of parallel instruction, where the children from each faith are educated in separate classrooms, receiving instruction from a representative of that faith. For example, the Muslim children are educated by the Muslim teachers, the Orthodox children by the Orthodox teachers and so on.

The freedom which this kind of religious education offers is too restricted. It offers freedom to the religion which is being taught, a freedom of non-competitive transmission but it does not enhance the freedom of the student because it does not expand the affective sympathies or the cognitive horizons of the student, who is left with a single freedom – whether to respond to the transmitted religion or not.

There is, however, a third possible reaction to the onset of pluralism (and this corresponds to Michael Grimmitt’s second distinction) which we may describe as ‘learning about religion’. Instead of religion being taught from the inside, in the situation which I described as being from faith to faith, religion is now taught, as it were, from the outside. There are courses in some American high schools on the Bible as literature. The essential point is that the Bible is not taught as a religious book or as a sacred book of a certain community of faith, but as literature, that is, from a different, non-religious perspective. Sometimes this kind of religious education may be called ‘education in comparative religion’, and may be based upon anthropology. It is more common, however, to find that religious education of this ‘learning about religion’ type is influenced by developments in the study of religion itself. Sometimes, indeed, the subject is called ‘religious studies’, and often it follows one or more of the various disciplines evolved by the study of religion such as the history of religions or (more frequently) the phenomenology of religions, or (more recently) the ethnography of religions.

This approach may be called ‘learning about religion’ because of its descriptive, historical and critical approach. It tends to appear as a reaction against the mono-religious ‘learning religion’ situation, and is often motivated by the desire to create a purely educational religious education, one which will not be open to the charge of indoctrinating or giving an unfair advantage to any particular religion. A disadvantage of this ‘learning about religion’ approach is that it tends to focus upon the content of religions and therefore the pupils are often not motivated to study it. Moreover, religious education of this type tends not to grapple with the life-world of the pupil, and often makes little or no explicit contribution to the pupils’ search for moral and spiritual values.

However, this kind of religious education, learning about religion, has a significant role to play in the prevention of religious intolerance. Because it empowers the student with critical skills for interpreting religious phenomena, it tends to release students from unexamined belief, breaking down the stereotypes of other religious traditions and providing frames of reference which will help defend the student from fanaticism and prejudice. Unfortunately, some religious traditions have negative images or beliefs of other religions built into their own self-understanding. Progressive religious traditions are looking for ways to emancipate themselves from these features of negativity towards others and while that process of reformation is essentially the responsibility of the spiritual leadership of each religion, there is no doubt that learning about religion in the state school curriculum can make an invaluable contribution, moreover, whereas the self-reformation of religion makes an immediate impact only upon the members of that religious community, the state school curriculum of learning about religion enables the public at large to be set free from negative stereotypes. The significance of this as an antidote to Islamaphobia is obvious.

Nevertheless, as has been indicated, learning about religion does present certain limitations. For this reason, a third kind of religious education has emerged. This may be called ‘learning from religion’. The difference between ‘learning from religion’ and ‘learning religion’ is that in the latter kind of religious education pupils are expected to participate in the beliefs and practices of the religion being taught, whereas in ‘learning from religion’ the distance between the pupils and the religious content which is typical of ‘learning about religion’ is strictly maintained, and yet at the same time the life-world of the pupil, rather than the internal structure of the religion, tends to inform the curriculum. The question at stake is to what extent, and in what ways, children and young people can gain educational benefit from the study of religion. This becomes the kind of religious education which has as its principal objective the humanisation of the pupil, that is, making a contribution to the moral and spiritual development of the pupil.

In the first two kinds of religious education, learning religion and learning about religion, religion is taught for its own sake, whether as an object of faith to which the children are summoned, or as an object worthy of critical study. However, in the third kind, learning from religion, the central focus switches to the children as learners. Religion itself has become instrumental to the humanisation process. It is because, in this third kind of religious education, the main concern is to make a contribution to the education of the children that this third kind may be described as educational religious education. Whereas the first kind of religious education, learning religion, continues to be controlled by the self-understanding of the religion, and the second kind (learning about religion) is controlled by the scientific study of religion, the third kind of religious education (learning from religion) becomes a discipline within educational studies. It is for this reason that learning from religion is receiving increasing attention and support from professional religious educators throughout the world.

It is at this point that the most significant contribution of religious education to human emancipation becomes evident. Whereas learning religion offers freedom to the religion in question, and learning about religion offers freedom from unconscious prejudice through critical study, learning from religion offers personal freedom to young people by enhancing their moral and spiritual lives in a human direction which may or may not be religious. This educational religious education makes a contribution towards the religious freedom which is the unique possession of the educated person.

Faith-based Religious Education

Sometimes those who reject the religious studies or the learning about religion approach tend to favour what is called faith-based religious education. This is, in effect, a development of learning religion, but is often more self-conscious and more sophisticated than the traditional forms which religious education took in mono-cultural societies. Faith-based religious education seeks to present various religions from the point of view of one religion. It is upon faith in that one religion that this approach is based, although it attempts to be plural on this basis. This is one of the most important differences between this kind of faith-based education and the older monolithic learning religion style, which never considered other religions at all. Faith-based religious education regards itself as opposed to secularisation in the sense that the religion itself, the religion upon which faith is based, controls the curriculum and the methods of teaching rather than these being controlled by education itself, which is often perceived by faith-based educators as being dominated by humanist or secular norms and values.

Clearly, a pluralistic but faith-based religious education is preferable to a learning religion approach which was entirely monolithic, and in which children learnt nothing except their own traditional religious affiliation. Moreover, the sense in which the religious education is based upon faith in a particular religion may vary considerably. The distinctively Protestant and Catholic religious education which is typical of most of Germany is so strongly influenced by the concerns of the pupil, and has such powerful psychological and sociological interests that the sense in which it is based upon faith becomes somewhat remote. The problems of teaching religious education to modern young people are much the same throughout the world, and the religious educators tackle these problems in broadly similar ways.

The faith-based approach appeals to some Muslim educators who feel that the learning from religion approach is dominated by the social sciences, or is not susceptible to the Islamisation of knowledge, or in some way relativises Islam. These concerns are also felt about ‘learning about religion’. The fear of becoming relativised i.e. placed in comparative relation to other religious traditions, is quite commonly expressed by people from many religious traditions who are coming out of mono-cultural situations into plurality for the first time.

In situations where there has been a strong anti-religious secular movement, one can understand the desire and the need on the part of a religion to retain control over its own instruction rather than falling into the hands of an unsympathetic secularity, which might try to use the religion for its own nationalistic purposes or even indoctrinate against religion, as in the old Soviet Union.

In spite of its obvious appeal, especially to religious believers, the faith-based approach does have certain weaknesses. Although it appears to be tolerant of pluralism in the sense that it offers to teach a world religions curriculum, this tolerance is more in words that in reality. After all, if several religions are to be taught, who is to choose which faith the teaching is to be based upon? If all religions are to exercise equal opportunities, and if all insist upon being faith-based, the faith-based type of religious education would simply dissolve into the situation of parallel or plural instruction. Moreover, we have to ask what is interesting about the religion of other people. Is it interesting because of the way we see them or because of the way they see themselves? The faith-based approach seems to preclude any genuine dialogue between religions, and it does not allow pupils to approach the religion being studied from the point of view of the people who live in that religion.

I also have a reservation about the expression faith-based religious education, in the sense that a teaching process can be based upon faith in more than one way. Those who advocate faith-based teaching have in mind a convergent model of faith in which the faith of the teacher, the contents of the teaching, and the outlook or commitments of the pupils are all intended to converge. However, there is another kind of religious faith, which is available to adherents of all the modern world religions, which we may call the divergent approach. This means that it is consistent with the faith of the teacher to teach content other than that typical of the teacher’s own faith, and to anticipate a range of responses from the pupils, and all this without infringing the basic principles of one’s faith. I agree, however, that this kind of faith basis for religious education is much more subtle, and requires a more critical approach towards one’s own faith than is often assumed on the part of the advocates of faith-based teaching. I also agree that before a ‘learning from religion’ kind of situation can emerge, there must be a state in which secularity is aware of the value of the religious traditions for the building up of the society, and there must also be a willingness on the part of the religion or the religions to relax their own control and trust the secular educators enough to support the enquiring approach to religion which' learning from religion’ anticipates.

The Role of Religious Education Today

The distinctions between various approaches to religious education which we have been discussing are certainly of great importance in understanding the nature and purposes of modern religious education. However, they remain somewhat domestic in their outlook. They are concerned with the self-understanding of the subject, as this relates to the self-understanding of religion. They are concerned with the relationships between religion and education, and those between the pupils and the content of religious education. Important as these issues are, they do not in themselves offer a contribution to human freedom sufficient to justify the inclusion of religious education within a publicly funded state education system. If we take the first of the three types of religious education which we discussed, learning religion, then we might well claim that it is the business of each religion to ensure its own transmission to the next generation. If the community at large is going to pay for religious education of this kind through the government revenues, then the public might well ask why such religious education cannot take place under the direct sponsorship of the religious communities themselves. Why should the school do the work of the mosque or the church? And what about those children who do not come from a religious family background at all? Is it right and proper that they should be affiliated to a religion, possibly without their parents’ approval? In any case, we have seen that the contribution which this kind of religious education makes to the struggle against religious intolerance is strictly limited.

As for the second approach ‘learning about religion’ we could imagine that from the point of view of the state, such an approach would be preferable in that at least it places religious education on the same footing as the other subjects of the curriculum, making it available to the same norms of critical inquiry and pedagogical skill as everything else which the school teaches. Such religious education at least aims to contribute to the general knowledge of the pupil, and insofar as religions remain important in the modern world, it could be considered part of the general education of all young people that they should become well informed about such issues. Moreover, we have seen that this kind of religious education makes a significant but not a comprehensive contribution to the struggle against negative religious stereotypes.

However, this approach still leaves much to be desired from the point of view of the state. The curriculum is under pressure, and although there is no doubt that religion is an extremely important aspect of modern living, it might be argued that education in mathematics and science is more significant from the point of view of the modern state. Of course, we have the question of mutual understanding and toleration between different religions, the whole question of community and race relationships, in which religions play a central part. This is certainly a responsibility of government, but when we start to talk like this, we are already moving away from religious education as learning about religion toward our third understanding of the subject, learning from religion. This is because if young people were to become more tolerant of others through the study of religion, it would mean imparting a human or a personality attribute which the pupil might acquire through the study of religion. This, however, is to learn from religion.

Indeed, the great strength of the third approach is that in speaking of the benefits which young people and society may derive from the study of religion, one is moving away from the domestic concerns of the religious communities and the internal questions about the best way to study religion into the wider issues with which government and the community at large are rightly concerned. Therefore, in order to gain a fuller realisation of the contribution of religious education to freedom, I want to extend the argument about religious education as learning from religion and put it in a wider national and international context.

Financial Globalisation and Spiritual Values

The globalisation of finance has created a situation of intense competition between currencies. As far as the hard currencies are concerned, those which are convertible on the money-markets, this competition goes beyond the nation-state, since only a small proportion of a given hard currency is under the political control of the nation-state. Even the most powerful government in the world, that of the United States, is to a considerable degree controlled by financial interests, and when it comes to the less powerful governments of the rich world such as France and the United Kingdom, there is no way that these governments can stand against the combined assault of the money-markets. As for the soft currencies, since these are not exchangeable on the money-markets, they are relevant only within the territory of their national governments and yet because the value of the national currency is not entirely within the power of government to determine, these soft currency governments are also, and even more so, at the mercy of the financial markets.

This powerful international and inter-currency competition is the basic context in which we must understand modern life. The pressures of this financial competition influence every aspect of governmental policy, have an immediate impact upon the workplace and on each individual, and create social and community values which are not those of the moral and spiritual dimensions of our species, but are those of money itself. In actual fact, all over the world the human values of freedom and love, of inter-personal solidarity and living the ethical life, are being eroded by the inexorable pressures of financial competition so that it is not an exaggeration to say that money has become the God, the idolatrous deity of our culture.

These globalising forces, however, are being challenged, and it is in this context that we must interpret the worldwide interest in spirituality, and in an education which will encourage the genuine humanity of our young people. However, here we see the dilemma which confronts every government of the world, as they consider their educational policies. On the one hand, it is necessary that citizens should be educated for successful international competition. If this does not take place, then living standards within the country will fall and no elected government will be able to withstand the political results. Yet we are all aware that the values of successful international competition are incompatible with the spiritual and moral values which we all respect. After all, if my country competes successfully against your country, your country becomes poorer and my country becomes richer. The distinction between the hard and soft currencies has set up what we might call a money-curtain which surrounds the rich world. Outside this money-curtain, the ravages of poverty, deteriorating standards of public health care and education, are the direct cause of the death of literally hundreds of thousands of children every year. Even in the wealthy countries inside the money-curtain, the differences between rich and poor are still widening, and child poverty is still increasing.

The dilemma is that we need to have an education which promotes the spiritual and moral welfare of our young people but if we are successful in this attempt, then we will not be successful in the education of young people for competitive advantage in the destructive financial world. The values are incompatible.

Therefore, what is set before us today is a way of life and a way of death. The way of death is to continue to promote financial globalisation and to watch while the values which make human life human continue to be steadily eroded. This is most certainly a way of death. It is not in the best interests of the species as a whole. The other way is the way of life: to create education systems which genuinely educate young people about the moral and spiritual values which are imperilled today. This, of course, must be combined with social and political steps to cool the hot money flows and to pacify financial and international competition.

But how can education promote moral and spiritual ideals? It is at this point that the world religions must be recognised as the principal foci of disciplined and coherent human moral and spiritual life. This does not mean that the religions are necessary to ethical life or that you cannot be good without religion. Nor does it mean that the religions are themselves always good. We know that religion today is extremely ambiguous, and that religion can become a promoter and a facilitator of world-wide financial competition. Nevertheless, the world religions contain the seeds of human protest. They remain, along with a humanised art, literature and science, the main resources which we have for the rehabilitation of human life, and when I speak of humanised art and science I mean ones which are truly in the service of the human and not wholly controlled by financial concerns.

If the religions are to co-operate in such an endeavour, they must rise above the competition into which they themselves have been drawn in recent centuries. The religions must no longer be supremely concerned with their own progress, with there own advantage vis-ŕ-vis other religions. It is not too much to say that the rivalry and competition between religions is an expression on the distorted spiritual level of the competition between nations and currencies. This religious competition must also be pacified, and this can only be done by the religions themselves, as they renew their inner life and rediscover their true mission. After all, the mission of Islam to the world is surely greater than the internal interests of the Muslim states, just as the role of the Christian faith in human history goes beyond the ups and downs of the church.

It is not without significance that the most powerful country in the world and the one most strongly committed to financial competition have no state-funded religious education.

We see then that the contribution of religious education to religious freedom is highly diverse. On the one hand, a narrow, traditional approach may lead to a kind of mental closure and a failure to make contact with the contemporary world. At its best, however, learning from religion is a unique resource for the advancement of human freedom, an option which challenges the nature of the competitive modern state but which points the way toward a new human society.