Religious Education and Social Cohesion – A Normative Stance

François Levrau

Intercultural Citizens

Let’s take this common, hence not fully uncontested, assertion as a starting point: a just and stable liberal-democratic society characterised by a diverse population needs people who trust each other and get along -or at least are not inclined to act on the basis of stereotypes and fears. People, then, have to be sufficiently equipped with the necessary knowledge and appropriate manners to smoothen interpersonal contact so that society, as a whole, does not become endangered by the diversity of its own population. While (religious) segregation may sometimes be a strategy to avoid conflicts, in highly diverse societies mutual contact is inevitable. A well-functioning and vibrant multicultural society therefore presupposes intercultural citizens who meet and respect each other and share a sense of belonging together. Education is an important seedbed that could and should contribute in its way to the formation of such a cohesive society where people really want to live together and feel sufficiently connected. The question in this essay is how (DRE could be designed to make a proper contribution.

Shared Educational Environments

According to numerous liberal thinkers such as Callan (1997), Gutmann (1987), Kymlicka (2002), and Levinson (1999), plural, liberal, and stable democracies need shared educational environments where dialogue, critical reflection, reciprocity, and democratic citizenship are stimulated. Students should not be exclusively educated into one particular religious tradition, but should rather learn about the plurality of religious views. In addition, they should learn and experience that people who do not share their religious convictions are also reasonable, decent, and humane and deserve equal concern and respect. The default position thus should be the presence of a substantial range of courses that bring students of different religious backgrounds together so that they not only learn from each other, but also learn to reflect upon their own religion. Courses that focus on only one religion should then be considered as options for those who really want to be taught into a specific belief (cf. Temperman’s contribution in this volume).

The upshot is twofold. First, the sole provision of (to use the example central in this book) confessional and denominational IRE or IRI can be questioned because it might be tantamount to ethnocultural and religious segregation, and thus it might be detrimental for the accretion of overarching feelings of togetherness. Second, in most countries the reality is as follows: teaching into a specific religion is the norm, while teaching about religion is rather an option. We believe it should be the other wav around. /

Children-Parents Conundrum

Religious parents, however, may think the education provided in such “integrated and cooperative learning environments” is not in line with their own convictions, and therefore they might not support them. In that case, they will not only criticise their children’s educational achievements, but they might also reject the school’s message and, ultimately, even refute the grounds upon which a liberal-democratic society is built (as their freedom is not respected). This leads to an interesting paradox. On the one hand, parents have a right to raise their children into a specific religion, to establish and choose schools, and to opt for religious courses in line with their own (religious) convictions. But on the other hand this right may hamper the autonomy of the children and limit their future life options. In addition, it may endanger the social cohesion and the stability of a fair liberal-democratic society which is, ironically, a prerequisite for the aforementioned parental rights.

This conundrum is also reflected in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The third paragraph mentions that parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children, which means that they are allowed to opt for segregated (I)RE and for separate confessional schools. The second paragraph of this Article, however, mentions that education should be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Education, it is said, needs to promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations and all racial or religious groups. So while the second paragraph points at the importance of education that prepares children to live in liberal-democratic societies, the third paragraph indicates that parents are allowed to choose education that conforms to their own cherished convictions.

While liberal states cannot legally forbid the establishment of Islamic schools nor the possibility for parents to choose IRE/IRI (inside or outside the regular schools), they can (1) intervene when it comes to

Religious Education and Social Cohesion 285 protecting the rights of the children and (2) softly encourage people to socially integrate. Below, we consider both strategies.

/o' o

Rights of Children

In a liberal-democratic state, citizens are not only allowed to pursue their ways of life, but they should also be given access to information about other possible life courses. This, in its turn, requires children to learn about the plethora of ways of life through mandatory education. Education therefore is not a simple prolongation of the parental (religious) viewpoints, but it rather expects children to somewhat detach from the home community and their culture and religious way of life, and to interact with people who adhere to other communities and cultural/religious convictions. When they reach maturity, children should be able to decide for themselves how they want to live, and this choice should be the result of their own well-informed reflections.

The main task of a school (certainly if it is funded by the state) therefore is not to teach students how to become decent Muslims or Christians or atheists, nor is its aim to create good socialists or liberals. Rather, its main aim is the general formation of people who will be capable of living in complex, superdiverse, liberal-democratic societies. We usually would not think of children as members or defenders of a political ideology, and hence we would not strive to educate them into one particular ideology. Why then would we treat them (even at an early age) as members of a religion who need to be (solely) educated into only one particular faith?

A Moral Duty to Social Integration

Next to the protection of children’s rights, liberal-democratic societies can also appeal to a moral duty to socially integrate. People have rights to engage in separate religious schools and courses, but paradoxically, the use of these rights can be detrimental for social cohesion. If we consider social cohesion to be a higher-order ideal - because without a shared sense of feeling together a stable and just society will be short-lived - it is important to focus on how the fulfillment of individual and collective rights may increase or endanger it. What needs to be emphasised is that people should understand and make use of their rights and liberties somewhat more as an expression of community spirit. Citizens must be stimulated to form a close-knit community with others whereby freedom is spontaneously limited by a sense of shared responsibility and solidarity. The upshot is that people (both from minority and majority groups) have a moral duty to socially integrate, understood here as a duty to seek greater contact with other groups or at least not to voluntarily segregate (Mason, 2012). Obviously, this is not a hard paternalisticrestriction of freedom, but rather a soft attempt to align the ideals of freedom, equality, and solidarity.

As this moral duty implies a form of “soft paternalism”, it is a form of an “imperfect duty” (Mason, 2012). It does not imply real and concrete demands that can be punished when they are not fulfilled. Instead it aims to encourage people to deeply reflect on their daily choices and behaviours and how these can or cannot contribute to keeping the society as cohesive as possible. When people do so and when they adjust certain decisions and choices, this can be welcomed as acts of responsible citizenship. Especially in times of social instability - due, for example, to Islamic radicalisation processes, but also to increasing amounts of Islamophobia and right-wing populism that feed the fears of people - citizens should be well aware that they have this moral duty. Autochthonous people could, for example, reflect on common stereotypes and fears which are, unfortunately, often affirmed rather than contested in existing RE textbooks (as in Norway and Denmark). In addition, Muslims - especially as they want to be perceived as active participants in both civil society and politics - could rethink their wish to opt for separate Islamic courses or schools. Finally, the state might promote this “interpersonal ethos” (Levrau, 2018) to prompt parents to reconsider their wish to have separate IRE by making schools and RE more inclusive.


Callan, E. (1997) Creating Citizens. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Gutmann, A. (1987) Democratic Education. Princeton, Princeton University Press. Kymlicka, W. (2002) Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford, Oxford University


Levinson, M. (1999) The Demands of Liberal Education. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Levrau, F. (2018) Towards a New Way of Interacting? Comparative Migration Studies, 6 (12), 1-8. DOI:

Mason, A. (2012) Living Together as Equals. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >