Legal empowerment through religious diversity in schools

Religion in education: a shifting agenda

Current aims of the role and position of religious education in public schools at the global scale are still lingering between transmitting or instructing a specific religious system of faith and responding to the challenges of globalization and super-diversity in more holistic terms. The example of the recent Guidelines for Teaching about Religion developed by the American Academy of Religion is telling:

enhancing literacy about religion . . . can enrich civic dimensions of education and promote respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national and global arenas.[1]

In other words, the constitutionally declared secular States are presently realizing the need to move beyond the mere acknowledgement of the relevance of religion to more pro-active attempts to control and/or at least influence prevalent discourses on religions as they are connected to religious diversity management. This process is spearheaded considerably by the presence of religious institutions as actors within and outside the education system. For education, this translates into attempts to influence and even control in some cases how beliefs and traditions are taught (e.g. through textbooks) with the broader intention to construct positive imagery of certain faiths.

The path from a “laïcité of ignorance” to a “laicité of intelligence”, if not religious literacy, relies on three essential requirements: first, the need for learners to engage with their own religious heritage, second, a better understanding of religious identity politics and, finally, the preparation to live in diverse societies?

Post 9/11, Habermasian post-secular consciousness seems to be connected at present explicitly with religious literacy as a civic skill designed to build ‘global citizens’ able to comprehend and negotiate differences. The English and South African case studies analyzed in previous chapters are moving towards a more pluralistic model of religious education with growing comparative and non-devotional elements in the study of religion and religious ethics. This move towards religious culture and ethics training is not, however, without obstacles, essentially because it cannot be value-free and thus will be contested, at least by some.

Education as development: globalizing and transnational dimensions

Education remains a dominant variable in the determination of both individual but also collective economic growth. The general tendency at present is for states to embrace the internationalization of both education theory and education systems, understanding that globalization and educational reform are interrelated.[2] Transnational funding (e.g. through the World Bank) has been distributed within that spirit, although not without criticism.

This movement has been ‘translated’ into a corresponding “astonishing processes of global alignment” among education systems that follow a pattern characterized by: “a standardized model of schooling that is strongly institutionalized, with funding and control exercised by the state, organized in terms of levels and courses of study and end-of-stage examination . . . and with government regulations of teaching and learning through syllabi, examinations, etc.” These processes of ‘global alignment’ do not account for national contexts, parental preferences or teachers’ agency.

In an opposite direction, hybridity, however, among the types of schools but also among the discourses used within them, as the cases of Israel, South Africa and the UK revealed, suggest a corresponding plurality in the functions and approaches that these schools undertake towards religious diversity promotion.

Depending on how each school positions itself vis-à-vis itself, the wider community or particular faith communities, it may choose to prioritize different tasks: fostering expressions of personal beliefs, shaping identities as they emerge through the commitments of each community and the individuals who belong to it, creating social bonds and networks, forming moral discourses, promoting civic engagement and political participation and providing social services, collaborating with or replacing the State.[3] The two parallel yet apparently contradictory processes of the local and the international understandings of the role of education are not, however, mutually exclusive but are instead parts of a synthetic transnational, more globalized comprehension of religious diversity management within societies characterized by multiple modernities.

This transnational layer of normativity for the purposes of the present analysis means first, the need to account for non-state laws (particularly religious norms) in education as connected to the expansion of religions through immigration, and second, a diversified understanding of the role and agency of religious organizations in shaping religion within education both directly (i.e. jointly with the State) or indirectly (i.e. for example, within independent religious educational establishments).

An overarching element from the case studies is the relevance of emerging religious diversity agendas in schools for purposes of social cohesion. In all three cases examined, public schools face, to varying degrees, segregation, due among others to factors such as residence, the public/private divide, ethnicity, social class, access rules and parents’ preferences. While it has not been the aim here to provide a hierarchy among these factors, it is worth wondering whether it is religious belonging that perpetuates educational segregation or rather other factors such as the exercise of parental choice as influenced by socio-economic criteria. What should rather have been retained as the predominant criterion of assessment is the content and level of the learners’ religious diversity training.

  • [1] National Endowment for the Humanities, Religious Worlds of New York; Teaching the Everyday Life of American Religious Diversity, available at as quoted in A. Barb, ‘Governing Religious Diversity in a (Post)Secular Age: Teaching About Religion in French and American Public Schools’, Theo-Web, 16(2), 2017, 204-222 at 209. 2 Barb (2017) at 210. 3 Barb (2017) at 215. 4 Both terms belong to Régis Debray, L’Enseignement du fait religieux dans l’école publique, Paris: Report to the Minister for National Education, 2002.
  • [2] Barb (2017) at 207. 2 John Trevitt Scott and Ann Cheryl Armstrong, 'Faith-Based Schools and the Public Good: Purposes and Perspectives’, Paper presented at the AARE Annual Conference, Melbourne, 2010, 1-13, at 4. 3 Scott and Armstrong (2010) at 4. 4 J. Schriewer, ‘Worldsystem and Interrelationship Networks: The Internationalization of Education and the Role of Comparative Inquiry’, in T.S. Popkewitz (ed.), Educational Knowledge: Changing Relationships Between State, Civil Society, and the Educational Community, State University of New York Press, 2000, 305-343 at 313. 5 Scott and Armstrong (2010) at 4.
  • [3] Scott and Armstrong (2010) at 5. 2 On this point sec William Twinning 'Normative and Legal Pluralism: A Global Perspective’, Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law, 2010,473-518, at 506. 3 Scott and Armstrong (2010) at 7 4 Scott and Armstrong (2010) at 7. 5 See the cases of Israel and the UK as discussed in Chapters 4 and 6. 6 See Chapter 3 for more on this point.
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