Compulsory, Objective, Critical, and Pluralistic Teaching About Religions?: Incentives and Disincentives Under International Human Rights Law

Jeroen Temperman

One hundred ninety-six states’ parties to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child agreed that the education of the child should be directed towards the “preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.” (CRC, Art. 29[l][d]) In line with this, contemporary international law-based endeavours promoting religious literacy (e.g., OSCE/ODIHR, 2007; Jackson, 2014) are all premised on the plausible hypothesis that knowledge about different religious and non-religious traditions defeats prejudice and intolerance. According to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the baseline that can be inferred from children’s rights to education and to freedom of religion or belief and parental rights in the areas of education and religion is that “the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner”.1

The equally important flip side is that when forms of teaching are in fact “objective, critical, and pluralistic”, parents are not empowered to mobilise their parental liberties vis-à-vis the state, even if the topic of religion or belief is touched upon during such teaching. In the words of the ECtHR, relevant fundamental rights do not prevent states from imparting through teaching or education information or knowledge of a directly or indirectly religious or philosophical kind. It does not even permit parents to object to the integration of such teaching or education in the school curriculum, for otherwise all institutionalised teaching wotdd run the risk of proving impracticable.2

Why, then, do we not see in Europe more objective, critical, and pluralistic and, moreover, compulsory and publicly funded teaching about religions, including Islam, in all state schools stricto sensu (which will be the main focus of this essay) but arguably also in other publicly funded schools? Is it because too many parents would be against such teaching and would start demanding sweeping exemptions? Is it because there is no demand for such teaching in the first place - because the devout can in any event avail themselves of private denomination schooling and the non-religious, who enroll their children at governmental (and other publicly funded) schools, would not care for teaching about religions? For instance, practising Muslims send their children to Islamic schools, and non-Muslims are likely to be vehemently against their children learning anything to do with Islam. Is this right?

Not quite. Aside from those assumptions being fundamentally flawed -that is, not all religious parents send their children to religious schools (see the chapters on the Netherlands and the UK in this volume), and many non-religious parents would be interested in pluralistic religion education if this were both more widely available and promoted - the real reason why teaching about religions has not quite taken off rather has to do with organised religion’s traditional prerogatives within publicly funded schooling. There is at present no separation between religion and the state in the educational sphere: there is confessional religious teaching in (often state-subsidised) private denominational schools, and there is more confessional religious teaching (often including IRE/IRI) in governmental schools.

Admittedly, this is overstating my case a little. While it is certainly true that teaching about religions, despite excellent international benchmarking, remains woefully underexplored, traditional - i.e., denominational and confessional - RE, at both governmental schools and denominational schools, has been subject to more or less “plurali-sation” in different countries (cf. Franken, 2017). These multi-religious or semi-confessional models nevertheless remain far removed from the “teaching about religions” paradigm; within the former models at least one religion is taught in a confessional fashion, thus contrasting sharply with the more holistically objective, critical, and pluralistic mindset that underlies the latter model (cf. Jensen 2008; 2011).

True, at governmental (and occasionally also at other publicly funded) schools, exemption schemes are provided to patch up any concerns about the religious and educational rights of the non- or dissimilarly religious. In that way, most parents seemingly get what they want from schooling: confessional religion teaching or no religion teaching at all. International human rights monitoring bodies perpetuate this situation. Despite optouts having been rejected in socio-legal studies, international monitoring bodies keep accepting exemption schemes as wholesale solutions to the problem of religious compulsion within governmental schools. This is bad enough in its own right, for opt-outs do not quite remedy anything but rather are part of the problem here; they foster peer pressure, stigmatisation, bullying, differential treatment, familial issues, and identity issues amongst impressionable persons (Mawhinney, 2006; Mawhinney

Compulsory Teaching Abou t Religions 289

et al., 2010; Mawhinney et al., 2012). Furthermore, the direct by-product of monitoring bodies’ uncritical endorsement of confessional religious teaching in the governmental school classroom is that objective, critical, and pluralistic teaching about religions never really gets a chance.

If international human rights jurisprudence, informed by social science, were to effectively banish confessional religion teaching from publicly funded school classrooms, it would be interesting to see what states would want and what parents would want for their children. Would it be to maintain objectivity by obstinately avoiding any reference to religion, or would it be to ensure objective, critical, and pluralistic instruction by teaching the various religions and worldviews that are important to a country? In many Western countries these would include Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and, not to be omitted, non-religious beliefs - in many states the “no religion” box is amongst the most popular ones in the census.

Is the former alternative - avoiding any mention of religion in the curriculum - even possible? Can history or art or ethics even be discussed without touching upon religions? And in the latter approach, how many parents would be opposed to such teaching precisely because it is conveyed in an objective, critical, and pluralistic fashion? How many parents would, like the Muslim parents mentioned in the chapter on England, voice concerns about a pluralistic - “shopping list” - RE? Admittedly, that number might be quite high, but let us not forget that there are options remaining, facilitated by the right to create (denominational) schools outside the realm of governmental school education. Not only in rather “pluralist” or “multicultural” nations like the Netherlands and the UK, but also in a “secular” state such as France is this policy a genuine option for Christians, but also for Muslims and other religious groups. This residual right to avail oneself of non-public schooling remains at all times for those parents who essentially oppose aspects of governmental schooling as a result of scruples over the latter’s very publicness.

In contrast to the Toledo Guiding Principles, which suggest that in public schools the state has “exclusive responsibility for teaching about religion” (Vacca, 2019, 122), according to canon law, “it is the Church’s responsibility to design the curriculum for religious education in all schools” (Vacca, 2019, 122). Not surprisingly, this view is adopted by the Muslim community; it is this religious community (or its representative organ) and not the state that in most European states or regions is responsible for IRE/IRI as a separate and confessional subject in state-funded schools. Besides the fact that this sounds like a principled rather than a practical irreconcilability of visions on governmental school education and the role of religion therein, another important consideration appears to have been omitted in that analysis. Most actors, including religious ones, who have made concerted efforts to bring to a haltinternational or domestic teaching-about-religions initiatives have done so based on one fear: Teaching about religions may very well become a resounding success. It might succeed in absolute numbers (i.e., in the number of schools offering such a curriculum), and it also might do so from - among other perspectives - a human rights perspective (promoting tolerance, diversity, etc.). Like most conflicts, the one over teaching modalities vis-à-vis religion within governmental schools ultimately boils down to a turf war.


  • 1. E.g., held in the landmark 1976 Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen v. Denmark, para. 53 and repeated ever since, e.g., in the 2007 landmark judgment of Folgero and Othersv. Norway, para. 84(h).
  • 2. Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen v. Denmark, para. 53; Folgerp and Others v. Norway, para. 84(g).


Franken, L. (2017) Coping with Diversity in Religious Education: An Overview.

Journal of Beliefs & Values, 38 (1), 105-120. DOI: 13617672.2016.1270504.

Jackson, R. (2014) Signposts - Policy & Practice for Teaching About Religions & NonReligious World Views in Intercultural Education. Strasbourg, Council of Europe.

Jensen, T. (2008) RS Based RE in Public Schools: A Must for a Secular State. Nutnen, 55 (2-3), 123-150. DOI:

Jensen, T. (2011 ) Why Religion Education, as a Matter of Course, Ought to Be Part of the Public School Curriculum. In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.). Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society. A Paradigm Shift. Münster, Waxmann, pp.131-150.

Mawhinney, A. (2006) The Opt-Out Clause: Imperfect Protection for the Right to Freedom of Religion in Schools. Education Law Journal, 2, 102-115.

Mawhinney, A., Niens, U., Chiba, Y. and Richardson, N. (2010) Opting Out of Religious Education: The Views of Young People from Minority Belief Backgrounds. Belfast, Queens University Belfast.

Mawhinney, A., Niens, U., Richardson, N. and Chiba, Y. (2012) Religious Education and Religious Liberty: Opt-Outs and Young People’s Sense of Belonging. In: Hunter-Henin, M. (ed.). Lazu, Religious Freedoms and Education in Europe. London, Ashgate, pp. 229-250.

OSCE/ODIHR (2007) Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religions & Beliefs in Public Schools. Warsaw, OSCE/ODIHR.

Vacca, M.A. (2019) Education and Religious Freedom in the Toledo Guiding Principles: A Comparative Analysis between the Holy See and the United States. Arizona Journal of International & Comparative Law, 36 (2), 111-129. Available from: [Accessed 7 January 2021].

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >