Religious Education in Norway: Distance and Unease

February 05, 2016

Unrest and frequent changes in Norwegian religious education seem to create unease among teachers

Religious education in Norwegian public schools is a highly contested topic. Norway, like Sweden and Great Britain, has chosen a model for religious education where religion is an ordinary subject for all pupils, regardless of their religious background. But this model has spurred a larger debate on the place of religion in the public sphere. The subject (KRLE) has since its implementation in 1997 been through several changes. It has been tried by Norwegian courts and sentenced by the European Human Rights Court in 2006 for giving Christianity a too privileged position.

After the election in 2013 the negotiations about a new conservative coalition came to include RE. The Christian Peoples Party (KrF) demanded strengthening Christianity in schools by fixing the time spent on Christianity to about half of the total time spent in the subject, and bringing Christianity back into the subject’s name, from where it was removed in the latest change.

The proposition brought about a massive debate in the media. And the criticism of the change was close to unanimous. Non-religious organizations, teachers’ unions, researchers on religion and even a few bishops from the Norwegian church voiced concern for changing the subject yet again.

The change was implemented this August (2015). In my opinion one of the most important objections to this change is that it does not stem from an evaluation of how the subject is being taught at all. The content of the subject remains unchanged, as was the case in the last change (2008) as well. It can also be argued that since the old curriculum already gave Christianity the qualitative largest portion of the subject, this change doesn’t really change anything substantial; it only further contributes to unrest and controversy about religion in the classroom.

Unease about religion

This change reinforces the notion that religion in school is sensitive and a possible source of conflicts. Even though the change amounts to little in the day to day teaching, it will impact the subject in other ways. A recent study of Norwegian RE in the northern and middle parts of Norway shows two tendencies concerning RE; unease and distance. Several teachers in the study express concern about how they can teach religion. Especially when it comes to what sort of methods they can use in the classroom. There is great unease about teaching in a way that someone can experience as religious. Recurring themes are the use of psalms, prayers and other religious expressions. Several teachers say they now avoid these, unsure where to draw the line between teaching religion and involving the pupils in religious activities.

In the study this unease is most tangible among the teachers that identifies as Christian. They experience their own religious identity as a didactical challenge in the classroom. Commitment to a religious view is reported as a potential source of conflict and the Christian teachers in the material choose to hide their religious affiliation. Also pupils’ religious backgrounds are seen as problematic and some of the teachers report to actively avoid situations where pupils’ religious beliefs, if any, are being expressed.

Distance and indirect teaching

This unease seems to impact how the subject is taught. The study shows a strong trend towards indirect teaching. Religious education is learning what other people believe. Pupils mostly encounter religion through accounts of other people. The teaching also becomes very dependent on the textbooks. Several teachers report to restrict themselves in what sort of methods they use, to avoid coming too close to the borders of religious practice.

In some ways this can be said to be in line with the curriculum, which stresses that KRLE is an ordinary school subject, that shall be taught “impartially and based on facts”. But according to the study this comes at a cost of making the subject less meaningful for the pupils. Many pupils say they find it hard to see any real relevance of KRLE. Some of the teachers confirm this as they point out that pupils lack experiences with religion, and they find it hard to involve and engage them.

The debate concerning religious education, and what part religion should play in public education, is important. But it runs the risk of being a purely ideological debate that has little, or nothing, to do with how the schools actually teach the subject. This becomes a problem if these controversies impact the subject in a negative way without any real gains. The latest change in KRLE is in my opinion such a change. The subject is in no substantial way being changed, but the notion that KRLE is a sensitive and problematic subject is being reinforced. And I think evaluation and the further development of Norwegian religious education will profit from a more empirically informed debate.