United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Religious teaching on the rise?

Corrigendum: This press release replaces the text distributed on May 22 because of changes made to the reference to Pakistan.

Paris - Religious education appears to be on the rise in public school systems around the world and has become a key issue for education policy makers in many countries, according to the latest edition of Prospects*, UNESCO’s quarterly education review.

Entitled Education and Religion, the June 2003 edition presents an overview of intended teaching time to be allocated to religion, as reflected in official curricular timetables from about 140 states. It also analyses the evolution of religious teaching over the last century in France, Israel, Pakistan and the Russian Federation.

According to the preliminary analysis, carried out by UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education (IBE, Geneva, Switzerland)**, religious education appears as a compulsory subject in the timetables of 73 of the countries surveyed on at least one occasion during the first nine years of schooling.

In 54 of these countries, the time to be devoted to religious instruction during the first six years of education amounts to an average of 388.4 hours or approximately 8.1 percent of total intended teaching time.

The authors say this indicates a “visible increase” in the proportion of time dedicated to this subject since previous research published a decade ago, and a reversal of the decline in religious teaching which that research showed had marked most of the past century.

The earlier study, which the authors carefully point out is not necessarily equivalent to the present overview, looked at religious education over four different periods between 1920 and 1986 and found that although the number of countries teaching religious education remained fairly constant, the number of hours devoted to it had steadily declined. Between the years spanning 1945-69 and 1970-86, for example, the average time dedicated to religious education decreased from 5.4 percent to 4.3 percent.

In the new data set being assembled by the IBE, two countries stand out: Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where respectively 31 percent (1,458 hours) and 28.2 percent (1,104 hours) of total intended time for academic instruction during the first six years is given to religious instruction. This is, on average, three times more than the time allocated in other countries.

The analysis also looked at patterns over the first nine years of schooling, to see whether religious education was given greater emphasis at the beginning or latter stages of schooling. Thirteen of the 44 countries included in the data set allocate more time to this subject during the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, two countries devote the same amount of time right the way through and 29 others gave more time to religious education in their timetables during the first six years of schooling.

In the other 69 countries, religious education does not appear as a compulsory or optional subject in the lesson timetables. However, the authors say that this does not mean that no religious contents are taught. In federal countries, for example, such as Switzerland or Germany, where decision-making powers on education are decentralized, religious education can appear on the official timetables of some administrative regions, but not on others.

The information presented, stress the authors, is incomplete and should be used “as a point of departure for a broader reflection on the place that religious education occupies in education systems” in our increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-confessional societies. The discussion is launched in the other chapters of this issue of Prospects, which analyse the place of religion in four different education systems and present the new thinking on this issue within the Council of Europe.

In France, which does not dispense any religious education in schools, historian and sociologist Mireille Estivalèzes examines the strengths and failings of laicity. “French society” she says, “bears the traces of a deeply Christian past, in particular through its many artistic expressions […] but also through the reference points of life in society (the calendar, holidays etc.). Yet for young people, the religious and symbolic dimension of this cultural heritage has now become partly incomprehensible.”

In Israel, Zehavit Gross from the Bar Ilan University’s School of Education looks at the successes of State Religious Education (which covers 20 percent of Israeli children and youth), as well as its contradictions, including the aspiration “to be open to the modern world on the one hand, and to shut itself up within the world of religion and halacha (Jewish law), on the other.”

Rukhsana Zia, an education specialist and deputy permanent delegate of Pakistan to UNESCO, recognizes that religious education is an important part of education in Pakistan but more research is needed to corroborate the assumptions of certain scholars that education in most religious institutions remains focused on the rote learning of the Quran with very few offering teaching in the 3rs.

The rise of Orthodoxy in the Russian Federation, reports Russian journalist and religiologist Alexander Soldatov, is seeing “more and more Orthodox high schools […] being opened”. He concludes that “the discussions about the educational standard for theology are purely political in character and tend to hide a desire of certain clerical circles to bring about a radical change on their social role and legal position.”

The debate within Europe over the way religion should be dealt with in education was relaunched after the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, writes James Wimberley of the Council of Europe. That event, he says, was seen as “a wake-up call” to tackle the “widespread and serious problem of poor community relations in Europe,” where “mutual mistrust, intolerance, racist incidents, and discrimination mainly take an ethnic form, but sometimes a religious one.” “Intercultural and interfaith dialogue” it has been decided, will become one of the major axes of the Council’s development.


*Prospects is a co-publication of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education in Geneva, Switzerland, and Kluwer Academic Publishers. First published in 1971, it serves as a platform for the exchange of ideas on current and controversial educational themes, presenting the views of researchers, academics, decision-makers, curriculum developers, educators and graduate students.

**The International Bureau of Education acts as an international centre in the area of the contents and methods of education, with a special emphasis on curricular development. This is carried out through three basic programmes: (a) capacity-building; (b) policy dialogue; and (c) a resource bank and observatory of trends.

The Prospects homepage can be visited at: www.wkap.nl/journals/prospects
The contents pages and information on other language versions, are also available on the IBE's homepage: http://www.ibe.unesco.org

Source Press Release N° 2003-29
Generic Field
Editorial Contact: John Fox, Head of Publications, IBE tel.: + 41 22 917 78 00
- Email j.fox@ibe.unesco.org
Publication Date 02 Jun 2003
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