Religious Education as Small ‘i’ Indoctrination: How European Countries Struggle with a Secular Approach to Religion in Schools

  • Wanda Alberts Faculty of Philosophy, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany
Keywords: religious education, Europe, small ‘i’ indoctrination, Germany, Norway, England


This article critically reviews the European religious education landscape and argues that a religious notion of religion prevails in most models, not only in confessional RE but also in integrative models and even in so-called alternative subjects that are compulsory for pupils who do not take part in confessional RE. Thus, schools in Europe provide hardly any chance for pupils to acquire a secular perspective on religion and religious diversity, based on a non-theological study of religion. Furthermore, the explicitly or implicitly religious character, particularly of integrative approaches or obligatory alternative subjects to confessional RE, is frequently hidden or played down. Building on analyses of separative (Germany) and integrative (Norway, England) models of RE, the article argues that carefully distinguishing between religious and secular approaches to religion in school is a serious human right’s issue, not least because only secular approaches may be compulsory. The predominant religious framing of religion – that is always linked to confirming the exceptional position of Christianity among the religions in RE – in combination with an actual lack of secular alternatives creates a climate of what may be called ‘small ‘i’ indoctrination’, i.e., an unquestioned discursive hegemony of a particular (Christian) notion of religion as a frame of reference for almost all education about religion, which is, furthermore, often represented as if it constituted not a particular religious view of religion, but a kind of universal perspective on religion. This results in highly problematic conceptualisations, both of religion in general and individual religions – most visibly in stereotyping ‘other’ religions, that are not complemented with an unbiased secular perspective. Thus, the subject matter religion is widely exempted from the secular approach to education in European schools, while a particular religious perspective on religion is promoted, even in models that are designed for all pupils of a religiously heterogeneous class.


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