Summer 2020

Secular Reasons for Confessional Religious Education in Public Schools

Winfried Löffler

The cultural importance of religion and its ambiguous potential effects on the stability of liberal democracy and the rule of law recommend including information about religions in public school curricula. In certain contexts, there are even good secular reasons to have this done by teachers approved by the religious communities for their respective groups of pupils, as is being practiced in various European states (with a possibility of opting out, with ethics as a substitute subject in some schools). Is this practice compatible with the religious neutrality of states? An illustrative analysis shows how suitable criteria for the admission of religious groups to offering religious education can block the objection of undue preference. Like any solution in this field, it is not immune to theoretical and practical problems.

Winfried Löffler is Associate Professor in the Department of Christian Philosophy at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and a regular Visiting Lecturer at universities in Italy, Croatia, and Vietnam. He is the author of Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (3rd ed., 2019) and Introduction to Logic (2008) and has authored more than 120 essays in journals, handbooks, and collected volumes.

Democracies should not risk the dangers of religious illiteracy, given the ongoing cultural importance of religion and its ambiguous potential effects on the stability of liberal democracy and the rule of law. This essay analyzes a widespread European practice of securing basic religious competence: religious education in public schools taught by teachers approved by the respective confessional groups. In the light of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, it might seem exotic and a clear case of an inappropriate preference of one or a few lifestyles or social groups over others. However, this model (although it is not transferable into every cultural context) has a lot to recommend it, even within the normative framework of a religion-neutral constitution and the priority of the secular rationale for political arrangements.

There is widespread consensus that secularization theses, a former intellectual commonplace, have lost a lot of their plausibility in both of their two usual readings. According to the first reading, religions would lose their importance, shrink, or even die out in the course of modernization. The second reading postulated that the plausible and worthy components of the traditional religious ethos would live on in secular transformations, such as in the shape of the human rights ethos or various cultures of sensitivity (the environmental, emancipation, and gender equality movements or the general social trend to nonviolent education styles might provide examples). Both processes were taken to be irreversible.

Today, however, both readings of the secularization theses seem doubtful, if not wrong. Religion appears surprisingly resistant, at least as an ongoing topic of political discussion, if not a living, organized, and widespread practice. There is hardly any major crisis without religious aspects or, at least, to which such aspects would not be attributed. Moreover, sociologists of religion point to differentiated results that suggest that “individualization” and “pluralization” of religion are better diagnoses than “secularization”: organized, institutional religiosity might indeed be shrinking (at least in the West; for Eastern Europe, South America, or Southeast Asia, this is less clear). But individual patchwork religiosities prevail and “religion” in a looser sense of the word keeps its importance. The second reading–claiming a transformation from religious to secular ethos–is challenged by counterexamples, which are doubly puzzling: in various European countries and in Russia, but also in the United States and recently Brazil, irritating styles of policy find their support among those who explicitly plead for a revision or discarding of human rights, gender equality, the general culture of nonviolence, solidarity, and respect for the less privileged, and that display a general contempt of democratic processes and their players. Even more, these policies often sail under a “Christian” flag, although they are in precise opposition to the vast majority of theologians and religious ethicists, and conflicts between governments and church leaders and Christian charity organizations increase. The purported transformation from a religious to a secular ethos seems to be neither content-preserving nor irreversible.

. . .

To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now