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Religious Education


RELIGIOUS EDUCATION is an issue of considerable controversy and debate in Western societies, for three main reasons. First, there is a conceptual problem, depending on whether it is perceived as a religious activity or an educational activity. In the former case, it may be defined as nurture or faith development; in the latter, it is an activity designed to increase understanding of an important dimension of human existence and to encourage cross-cultural understanding. Second, in terms of actual provision, religious education may mean one of three things: an item on the curriculum of the school; the teaching with which religious groups supplement the public schooling their children receive; or a religious approach to the whole educational process (often found in "faith schools") that rejects contemporary secular values. Third, different religions and denominations have different understandings of religious education, often based on a rich history of provision, and this adds another layer of complexity to the already wide diversity of national policy and established practice in religious education that exists in different countries. The result is that different issues dominate national debates, and international comparisons are difficult. These three issues provide the framework for this entry.

Two Concepts of Religious Education

There is an important distinction to be made between education in religion and education about religion. The former, sometimes called religious instruction, is a religious activity designed to nurture young people in a particular faith, and thus to preserve that faith across the generations. The latter is educational in the sense of aiming to develop children's knowledge and understanding of religion while leaving them free to choose their own path in life. Although it is tempting to insist that the former should be called religious instruction and only the latter religious education, this does not accord with contemporary usage. Both practices are commonly called religious education, and one unfortunate outcome is that many people assume that in the United States all religious education in public schools is unconstitutional, not just the former kind. For convenience, the former will be called type A religious education, the latter type B.

Type A religious education may be formal or informal and typically occurs in the home, the family, a place of worship, a religious institution, or with a local community of believers. It also takes place in public schools in countries where the majority of citizens share a single religious faith (including many Muslim and some Roman Catholic countries) and in denominational schools, whether private or state-funded. Sometimes called catechesis, or the confessional approach, type A religious education involves faith development through the transmission of the teachings of a particular religion or denomination. It is justified in terms of both the interests of the faith group (preserving and perhaps increasing the numbers of adherents and maintaining and developing the faith) and the interests of the child (providing emotional stability and continuity with the beliefs of the child's significant others, and, more importantly, encouraging the child to engage with and be transformed by the truths of the faith). Both globally and historically, the vast majority of religious education is of this kind. However, type A religious education is criticized for paying inadequate attention to such liberal values as critical openness and personal autonomy; for teaching as truth beliefs that are significantly controversial; for defining knowledge in terms of dogma, revelation, and religious authority rather than in terms of rationally justifiable beliefs; and for failing to prepare children adequately for life in a multicultural, multifaith society.

Type B religious education, on the other hand, involves teaching children about religionand about a number of different religionswithout any expectation that they will necessarily develop their own personal religious commitments. The aim is to produce people who are "religiously educated" or "religiously literate," in the sense of understanding different systems of religious belief and being able to reflect knowledgeably on a range of religious issues. Type B religious education is justified on the grounds that religion is so fundamental to human existence and has had such a profound influence on history, philosophy, art, music, literature, morality, and other domains of knowledge that people can hardly be considered educated if they know nothing of religion. This approach is fully compatible with liberal education in its aims and methods. Teachers are required to adopt a position of neutrality and impartiality in their presentation of a variety of religious and nonreligious worldviews. Teaching children about different religions makes them aware of alternatives and enables them to make informed autonomous choices about their own commitments and ways of life. Learning about the diversity of religions in the world can help to break down religious prejudice and can contribute to the development of a tolerant, harmonious, and respectful multicultural society. This approach to religious education has been promoted strongly in the United States in recent years by scholars such as James W. Fraser, Charles Haynes, Robert Nash, Nel Noddings, and Warren Nord, who make up what is sometimes called the "New Consensus." However, Type B religious education is criticized for reducing what believers call revealed truth to cultural practice, for encouraging relativism, for prioritizing the individual over the community, and for undermining commitment to any particular faith by teaching that all faiths are equally worthy of respect.

At first glance, these two types of religious education are quite incompatible: one cannot both reinforce a religious upbringing and encourage children to adopt a critical stance towards it at the same time. The result would be confusion and uncertainty. However, some scholars have argued that the two approaches can exist in a kind of creative tension. First, though one type involves looking at religion from the inside and the other from the outside, both are examining the same phenomenon. Second, children who feel good about their own identity (which is developed by type A religious education) are in a strong position to be tolerant and respectful towards other faiths and to make a positive contribution to a pluralist society (which are precisely the goals of type B religious education). Third, anxieties about different types of religious education often presuppose an old-fashioned, rigid transmission form of pedagogy; a constructivist approach, on the other hand, suggests that what children take from religious education depends to a large extent on what they bring to it and thus anticipates more open outcomes.

In practical terms, a threefold pattern of provision is likely to emerge in liberal democracies in view of the issues that have been discussed so far: (1) in the public school, students may be introduced to religious beliefs, practices, and issues in a nondogmatic, phenomenological way as part of the school curriculum; (2) in the Sunday school, madrasah, synagogue, gurdwara, temple, or other place of worship, children will be taught the traditions and practices of their own faith from a believer's perspective; and (3) those parents who are unhappy with the split between secular and religious learning have the option of sending their child to a religious or denominational school, for which they may have to pay fees. Each of these forms of provision is commonly called religious education.

Patterns of Provision in Religious Education

In many countries, although not the United States, the term religious education commonly refers to an item on the school curriculum; indeed, in England and Wales until 1988, religious education was the only compulsory school subject. In denominational schools, religious education is typically taught from the perspective of a single faith (type A) and in nondenominational schools from the perspective of a diversity of faiths (type B).

In the school curriculum

In England and Wales, the religious education syllabus in nondenominational schools has to be determined by a committee made up of representatives of teachers' unions, local councilors, and representatives from the Church of England and other religious denominations. The justification for teaching religious education as a separate subject is that religion is a distinguishable form of knowledge known at the university level by the titles of theology, religious studies, or divinity, having its own distinctive concepts and truth criteria. Opposition to the separate teaching of religious education comes from two sides: those who believe religion to be a human construct may prefer it to be taught through history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, or its various cultural manifestations (art, literature, music, and so on); while those who believe that all knowledge is religious may prefer religion to be integrated throughout the curriculum.

In nondenominational schools, the subject matter of religious education usually falls into two categories: learning about religion and learning from religion. "Learning about religion" entails learning about the religious beliefs, practices, and values of specific religions, including their festivals, places of worship, ethical codes, sacred texts, prophets and leaders, denominational differences, stories, pilgrimages, rites of passage, symbolism, artifacts, forms of artistic expression, lifestyles, religious experience, language and expression, and forms of prayer, meditation, and worship. There is room for debate about which specific religions should be taught (clearly not all can be taught, since the United States alone is home to more than five hundred different religions, denominations, and sects), but the most common pattern is for up to six major world religions to be taught (typically Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism), plus any other religions of particular local significance. Learning about religion should also include learning about religious diversity, natural religion, implicit religion, emotional responses to religion, dialogue between religions, arguments against religious beliefs, and nonreligious worldviews. "Learning from religion" gives space for students to reflect on some of the big questions raised by religion, such as the existence of God, the meaning of death and the possibility of life after death, debates between science and religion or postmodernism and religion, and the problems of evil, suffering, and war. Learning from religion also encourages students to explore such concepts as spirituality, love, right and wrong, and identity and commitment, and to develop sensitivity, tolerance, respect, and understanding towards those whose beliefs differ from their own.

There remain many unresolved questions about religious education as a school subject, particularly relating to the role of the teacher, teaching approaches and strategies, and the sequencing of the subject matter. Do teachers need to have some experience of, or commitment to, religion in order to teach it effectively? Should they share their own beliefs and values with students or keep quiet about them? Should different religions be taught together (for example, through studying a topic such as festivals or sacred books) or is such an approach liable to confuse children? Do young children have a natural spirituality that schools should nurture, or is it the task of religious education, like other school subjects, to develop rational understanding? Most of these are value judgments rather than empirical questions that can be resolved by research, and in any case the amount of research into religious education seems to have declined since Kenneth Hyde's comprehensive review of the topic published in 1990.

In supplementary schooling

In pluralist societies where there is a system of common schools, most faith groups provide some form of supplementary schooling through which their children are nurtured in the faith and taught its basic beliefs and practices. Though few groups would call this religious education, preferring a title that identified the specific faith concerned, it is an important part of any overview of the provision of religious teaching. Such teaching may take place in a private house or a place of worship, is usually privately funded by parents or the faith community, and is exclusively type A religious education. There is a close similarity of approach to supplementary schooling among different faiths and countries.

Sunday schools have a long, well-documented history, and they are a major method used by (mainly Protestant) churches to pass on Bible stories and Christian moral teaching to children. Confirmation classes provide a more formal introduction to Christian beliefs and practices, leading to full church membership, while Christian youth clubs, holiday camps, and other activities may be used as a general introduction to Christian values. Bible classes provide continuing adult education. Similarly, many Jews in Western countries send their children for supplementary schooling at the local synagogue, where they learn about Jewish identity, beliefs, values, and practices; study the Torah and perhaps Hebrew; and prepare for the ceremony of bar or bat mitzvah. Though such schools tend to cooperate in large cities, making use of the same teaching materials and organizing joint summer camps and other activities, they are not centrally controlled. Comparatively few children continue with such schooling beyond the age of thirteen. Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras in the West are beginning to set up evening or Sunday schools to teach children the language of their scriptures and their faith communities and also to supplement the religious education that goes on in the home.

Islamic supplementary education is also well established in most Western countries. Muslim children from the ages of about four to thirteen attend the local maktab or madrasah (mosque school) for up to two hours daily after regular school to learn Arabic, Qurʾanic recitation, the basic requirements of the sharī ʿah, and the principal Islamic beliefs. Children who wish to memorize the whole Qurʾān and become a āfi may attend in the mornings as well. The language of instruction is commonly Arabic in North America and Australia, Urdu or Punjabi in the United Kingdom, and Turkish in Germany, though the language of the country of residence is increasingly being used. For a variety of reasons, however, many Muslims consider this provision to be educationally unsatisfactory: it makes extra demands on children's time, the premises are often inadequate, the teachers unqualified, and the methods (including rote learning and strict discipline) compare unfavorably with schools in the state system. To solve this problem, while at the same time fostering integration, several European countries (including Belgium, some German provinces, and some British local authorities) have introduced specific Islamic instruction for Muslim students in state schools. This solution also has its problems; in particular, it does nothing to resolve the conflicting values to which Muslim children are exposed. For a growing number of Muslims, the answer is separate Muslim schools.

In faith schools

The third meaning of religious education is full-time schooling that is permeated by religion in a conscious attempt to exclude secular influence. The term faith school, which has only recently come into widespread usage, covers all full-time schools with a religious foundation and a religious vision, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other. Some countries (including Great Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Israel) and some provinces (including Newfoundland in Canada) fund denominational as well as secular state schools, and many other countries (including the United States, France, Belgium, India, Indonesia, and Japan) allow private faith schools. Faith schools typically seek to preserve a religious ethos but vary significantly in terms of the amount of time spent on religious education, their willingness to admit students and employ teachers of other faiths, and their compatibility with liberal democratic values.

In the United States, more than 10 percent of all children attend private religious schools. About half of these attend Catholic schools, while the other half attend fundamentalist Christian schools or schools belonging to a wide range of denominations, sects, and world religions, including Lutheran, Calvinist, Episcopalian, Quaker, Seventh-day Adventist, Orthodox, Mormon, Christian Science, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu. Proportions are significantly higher in countries where faith schools are state-funded: about two-thirds of all students in the Netherlands and nearly one-quarter of students in Great Britain attend faith schools. Church of England and Roman Catholic schools make up the vast majority of funded faith schools in Great Britain, and Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and evangelical schools are more numerous in the independent sector.

The reasons for founding faith schools vary widely. Catholic schools were founded because of a perceived Protestant bias in the public schools. Amish schools, on the other hand, seek to reinforce group identity and prepare children to lead a simple, useful, godly life. Muslim schools are typically founded as a result of dissatisfaction with the moral standards in public schools. Jewish schools have been justified as the best way to respond to the danger of absorption into the dominant culture of Western societies. More than anything else, faith schools are an attempt to address an imbalance that many believers find in public schooling, in which secular values take priority over religious ones, religious neutrality silences religious expression in schools, and the message is conveyed that religious belief is either false or unimportant. Faith schools enable parents who are believers to ensure that their children are educated within an appropriate spiritual environment and that their distinctive cultural and religious beliefs are, as far as possible, preserved. Opponents of faith schools, on the other hand, are likely to claim that they are divisive and may encourage intolerance and extremism; that the right of parents to choose their own children's education is trumped by the children's right to an education that does not culturally encapsulate them but liberates them from restrictive backgrounds and develops their personal autonomy; and that parents have no right to expect public funding if they choose a religious education for their children.

Religious Education in the Great Religious Traditions

The nature of the education provided in faith schools depends to a significant extent on the educational theories and practices that have been developed in the religion concerned. Most world faiths have rich traditions of thinking about religious education, often developed over many centuries both by individual scholars and theologians and by the sustained training and research carried out in seminaries and universities.

Within Hinduism, religious education has traditionally been an informal process carried on in the home and local community. Children pick up an understanding of Hindu deities and basic beliefs and practices through participation in daily rituals, such as ablutions and meals, as well as worship at family shrines; through the celebration of festivals, rites of passage, and pilgrimages; and through listening to traditional stories narrated by grandparents, professional storytellers, and temple priests, or (more recently) at the cinema. In classical Hindu teaching, the student stage (brahmacārin ), centered on the development of spiritual understanding and the relationship between teacher (gurū ) and disciple, is the first of four stages of life. Since the nineteenth century, a number of educational reformers and leaders (including Rabindranath Tagore, Vivekananda, Mohandas Gandhi, Aurobindo Ghose, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Vinoba Bhave, Jiddu Krishnamurthi, and Sathya Sai Baba) have attempted to develop forms of education in line with Hindu principles. Outside India, Hindus have tended to rely on temple schools to provide children with more structured religious education. There are also some Hindu faith schools in the West, and Hindu University in America, the first Hindu university in the United States, opened in Orlando, Florida, in 2001.

The word Sikh means "learner," and this points to the importance of the balanced development of the individual throughout life. At the heart of Sikh education is the development of spiritual and moral values, but Gurū Nānak also displayed a surprisingly modern approach to education in his emphasis on the need for reflection and critical enquiry into traditional ideas. As with Hinduism, the primary responsibility for the religious education of children traditionally lay with the extended family, but outside the Punjab Sikhs have increasingly looked to the gurdwara to provide weekend classes in Gurmukhi and the Sikh scriptures for their children. In Great Britain, several full-time Sikh schools have been established as of 2004, including two that are state-funded.

In a sense, the whole of Buddhist teaching is a course of spiritual education, with a strong emphasis on meditation, moral self-discipline, and enlightenment, traditionally passed on by teachers in the monasteries. The Buddha himself made use of many techniques currently favored in contemporary Western religious education, including narrative, analogy, the use of visual aids, and teaching by example, and the qualities expected of teachers in their dealings with pupils are set out in the Sigālovāda Sutta. The first full Buddhist universities were established in India and Thailand in the twentieth century, and Soka University of America, the first Buddhist university in the United States, opened in southern California in 2001.

Islam has long-standing traditions of education, and the Qurʾān itself is full of injunctions to pursue knowledge. Of the three Arabic words for education, tarbïya implies personal development towards maturity; ta ʾdïb implies moral, social, and cultural refinement; and ta ʿlïm refers to the pursuit of knowledge. The Muslim scholar Abū āmid al-Ghazālī distinguishes two forms of knowledge: the revealed (which is divine and absolute) and the discovered (which is human and tentative). These should be in harmony and should both lead to God, but the former takes priority.

In the golden age of Islam (7501150 ce) a large network of educational institutions was established across the Islamic empire, including the maktab (writing school), the alqa (circle school), the masjid (mosque school), and the madrasah (school of public instruction), as well as universities in Baghdad, Cairo, and Nishapur. There was an upsurge of Islamic scholarship in all known disciplines at this time, but Islamic education later began to stagnate. European colonizers introduced modern Western systems of education for the elite, leaving traditional Islamic education unchanged for the masses. In the postcolonial period, Islamic states have resolved the inequalities between the two types of education in different ways: some have made Westernized education available to all, others have attempted to Islamize the educational system as thoroughly as possible, and still others have tried to run the two systems side by side as viable alternatives. Muslim immigrants to the West thus arrive with a variety of educational experiences and expectations, though most try to preserve their religious and cultural heritage through supplementary schooling, and a growing number see faith schools as the way to combine the teaching of advanced Western knowledge, especially in science and technology, with a religious ethos that is true to Islamic values and traditions.

Education is a formal requirement of Jewish law, and a system of universal elementary education for Jewish boys seems to have been in place for two thousand years. The traditional school systemthe heder (or cheder ) for younger children and the yeshivah for older children and adultstaught only the Torah, the Talmud, and other religious writings, but by the late eighteenth century the system diversified as schools came under pressure to include general and vocational studies. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is a clear distinction between Jewish education in Israel and Jewish education in the Diaspora. In Israel, except in the religious schools, Jewish identity is developed through Hebrew and the study of Jewish history, literature, and culture, rather than through religious instruction and observances. In the Diaspora, Jewish education is primarily religious and mainly under the control of synagogues, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist; like other religious education, it is found in the home, in supplementary schooling for those who attend secular public schools, in full-time faith schools (usually called "day schools" by Jews), in less formal activities (including youth clubs and youth movements), and in the yeshivah for higher-level studies.

For many centuries, the history of education in the West was coterminous with the history of Christian education. In the Middle Ages, treatises on education were written by both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and systems of schooling were developed by teachers like Alcuin. The well-to-do were educated at monastic and cathedral schools, and later at the new universities, while the illiterate were educated mainly through sermons. After the Reformation, greater emphasis was placed on the ability to read the Bible for oneself, and religious education was high on the agenda of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon in Germany, Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich, John Calvin in Geneva, Johannes Amos Comenius in Moravia, and the Anglicans and Puritans or nonconformists in England, the latter including Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and, later, Wesleyans. Each developed their own distinctive forms of religious education and schooling, as well as training colleges for ministers. Meanwhile, new approaches to Catholic education were being developed by the Jesuits and other groups. With the transition to a state system of education in Great Britain in the nineteenth century, the free churches were generally satisfied with the nondenominational religious education provided, which they supplemented with denominational teaching in Sunday schools, and so they abandoned denominational schooling altogether. The Church of England, however, retained its separate schools, and the Catholics built up their own corresponding system of schools. Both systems are state-funded, but whereas the Church of England schools generally see it as their mission to provide an education with a Christian ethos and based on Christian values for the needs of the broader community, the Catholic schools cater primarily to the children of their own faith community.

As of 2004, religious education persists as a compulsory subject in state schools ("community schools") in England and Wales, but now with a world religions focus, and somewhat anachronistically there is still a requirement for a daily act of nondenominational collective worship. In the United States, on the other hand, the clear separation of church and state that is set out in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution means that all religious schools must be private establishments and public schools must maintain a position of neutrality between different religions and denominations, and also between religious and nonreligious worldviews. Numerous court cases have clarified precisely where the boundaries lie in terms of the unconstitutional promotion of religion in schools. Elsewhere, liberation theology has had a major impact on the development of education in South America and Africa, and the role of the Orthodox Church in the provision of religious education in Russia has increased dramatically since perestroika.

Future Prospects for Religious Education

In countries with adherents from several or all of the above religious traditionsand in some cases many more, for among the 741 accredited colleges and universities in the United States that have a religious affiliation, over seventy different faiths and denominations are representedthe decision to base policy on the liberal values of impartiality, tolerance, and respect for diversity has important consequences for religious education. First, different faith communities should be given opportunities to learn about each other, so that they are more likely to live integrated lives and avoid the fear, prejudice, and intolerance that ignorance breeds. Religious education can play an important role in developing interfaith and cross-cultural understanding. This is in line with the core values of the Religious Education Association of the United States and Canada (founded in 1903), with the approach adopted in British religious education syllabuses since about 1975, and with the views of the New Consensus in the United States, as represented by the writings of Warren Nord, Charles Haynes, and others. It seems likely that, over the first quarter of the twenty-first century, practice in religious education in public schools in different Western pluralist liberal democratic societies will gradually converge. However, this may result in individuals increasingly constructing their own personal religious faith, selecting bits from a smorgasbord of different religionsa phenomenon already being observed among some students exposed to a world faiths approach to religious education. It may also dangerously highlight the split between liberal and fundamentalist approaches to religious education.

Secondly, it is clear that religions and faith groups have the right to nurture their own children in their own faith through religious education, though this does not extend to the right to foreclose children's free choice with respect to religion as they grow older. This means that both supplementary schooling and faith schools will continue to have a place in liberal pluralist societies so long as children are not indoctrinated and so long as they are exposed somewhere within their schooling to other religious and nonreligious worldviews.

Thirdly, it is not the place of a pluralist liberal society to promote one religious worldview over another, or to promote religious belief over nonreligious worldviews. This means that the teaching of an established religion through religious education in a multifaith society is no longer justifiable, and the practice is likely to decline gradually, as is the British requirement of a daily act of collective, nondenominational worship in all British state schools. It also raises questions about the continued funding of faith schools in Western states, although there may be justification for partial funding where faith schools provide a general, as well as a religious, education.

See Also

Initiation, overview article; Scholasticism; Yeshivah.


Fraser, James W. Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America. New York, 1999.

Grace, Gerald. Catholic Schools: Mission, Markets, and Morality. London, 2002.

Hull, J. M. Studies in Religious Education. Lewes, U.K., 1984.

Hyde, Kenneth. Religion in Childhood and Adolescence: A Comprehensive Review of the Research. Birmingham, Ala., 1990.

Moran, Gabriel. Religious Education as a Second Language. Birmingham, Ala., 1989.

Nash, Robert J. Faith, Hype, and Clarity: Teaching about Religion in American Schools and Colleges. New York, 1999.

Nord, Warren A., and Charles C. Haynes Taking Religion Seriously across the Curriculum. Alexandria, Va., 1998.

Schreiner, Peter. Religious Education in Europe. Münster, Germany, 2000.

Thiessen, Elmer J. Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal, 1993.

Tulasiewicz, Witold, and Cho-Yee To. World Religions and Educational Practice. London, 1993.

Journals focusing on religious education include Religious Education, British Journal of Religious Education, Muslim Education Quarterly, and Journal of Beliefs and Values: Studies in Religion and Education.

J. Mark Halstead (2005)

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