Unlike other Nordic Countries, Finland uses the religion of parents to group children into separate religious classes in school. When you look at this issue from the perspective of religious freedom and modern political science, it can be seen that religious education in Finland is lagging behind the modern world. In addition to this, organizing seperate classes for different religions in public schools is also expensive. According to the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, a common religious curriculum could save at least 19 million euros per year nationally.
Current Finnish legislation works like this:
- The primary education provider organizes religious education according to the religion of the majority of students.
- If there are at least three students that belong either to the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, or the Finnish Christian Orthodox church, these students will be taught their own religion, if they do not participate in the previously mentioned classes.
- If a student is not a part of the previous group, they will be taught their own religion, at the request of their guardian, and if there are three students of this religion.
- Ethics will be taught to those students that do not belong to religious associations, or (if their guardian requests it) those who are not taught their own religion. Also, three students are required for these classes to be organized.
- Students that do not belong to religious associations can be taught, if the guardian requests it, by an outside party, commissioned by the primary education provider, that corresponds to the upbringing and cultural background of the student. In this instance, education can occur in another school, or even in the students own religious congregation.
The Finnish Education System Is a Path-dependent Cradle of Science
The only reason we still teach our children religion (or ethics) in this way is the history of the Finnish education system. If we started planning the system all over again, we would most likely not develop this system that pigeonholes students and demands the creation of curriculums for all religions. Currently, the Finnish Board of Education has approved, in addition to ethics, curriculums for 14 different religions. Therefore, it is theoretically possible that a large and multicultural school would have to teach 15 separate belief systems that all require their own teachers. In addition to this, the school might have to arrange some education outside of the school. There are, of course, more religions than this in the world, so we can expect this system to grow even more, unless it is reformed.
The Finnish education system is a world-renowned scientific institution. If the parents of a child do not believe in evolution, or contraception, their child will learn about these things at school anyway, as they should. Schools must develop the ability of children to understand society and provide them with comprehensive general knowledge of the world, in order for them to become critical societal actors. This is beneficial for children, but also for society in general. Schools should not teach children to be religious, or how to properly behave as a member of their parents’ religious community. They should teach students to discuss religion from a scientific perspective as a cultural phenomenon, as is the case with other subjects.
What Is Religious Freedom?
According to current legislation, students have the right to learn their own religion. This is based, supposedly, on the religious freedom granted by the Finnish constitution. The freedom of religion and conscience is the right to practice (or not practice) religion (Finnish Constitution 11 §). In general, this means that the state cannot prevent individuals from practicing religion. It does not mean that the state should promote the practice of religion with public funds. In Finland, religious freedom is a well established right. Religious freedom is not a positive right, but a negative right, which means that as long as the state does not interfere with the right, people are free.
There may be situations where people cannot practice their religion, because a non-governmental party threatens them with violence or discrimination. In this instance, the state should be active and use public funds to enforce the practical implementation of the negative right to religious freedom. The decision to protect the freedom of religion of Jews in France, as anti-semitism is on the rise, is a good example of this type of enforcement.
The right to an education is a positive right and clearly requires the state to take action in order for the right to be realized. In order to realize religious freedom, these actions are not required, unless the state needs to eliminate a threat of violence or discrimination. The government does not fund the building of churches or mosques, so why is it funding Christian and Muslim lessons?
The religion of your parents should not determine the content of your government-funded education. This can lead to unequal quality of education. In more serious circumstances, it may cause a situation where a child is forced to learn a religion, which they do not believe in, but has been forced to because of the faith of their parents. Religious upbringing should not be a matter of the state and should be a private matter within families.
Toward Scientific Religious Education
Common religious education is not a utopian idea, but has been tested in Finnish school at Kulosaari Secondary School and at most schools in Naantali. Still, even in the common classes at Kulosaari, students are divided into religious groups, so that Muslims read the Quran, Christians read the Bible and the non-religious read the UN Declaration of Human Rights. When discussing Jesus at Kulosaari “Christians look at Jesus from the perspective of their faith, ethics students look at historical Jesus and students of Islam look at what Islam says about Jesus (quote translated)”.
This is not the case in any other subject at school. We do not make the children of leftist parents read, for example, the Communist Manifest, while the children of right-wingers read, for example, Adam Smith. We do not make students look at Mannerheim from a different perspective, depending on what side of the Finnish Civil War their relatives were. History classes take a scientific perspective and look at world events as cultural phenomena. Why can we not study religion in the same way? Should everyone not learn how Christians, Muslims and historians understand the teachings and life of Jesus, and how their views differ? Can this not be done without automatically grouping children on one side of the debate?
What Does A Modern Religious Curriculum Look Like?
The study of all religions and ethics could be combined into a general curriculum that teaches students about world views in general. Students could study the geographical and theological evolution of religions, in relation to other religions and world views. These lessons could also be fused with history- and philosophy courses. There is no special need for religion to even be studied as a separate subject. In any case, the current system needs to be reformed somehow, so that we can realize the proper execution of religious liberty and gain a more cost-effective way of teaching.
There may be other benefits to teaching religion scientifically as a historical and cultural phenomenon, other than cutting down on costs. Children that come from families, or communities, with very fundamentalist religious views, may gain a new very valuable perspective, which can help reduce religious extremism. In addition, it is important to learn about other religions than that of your parents. This is why we do not teach children about politics based on the political views of their parents. Understanding the views of others changes your perspective and facilitates co-existence of people. Because of this, a modern Finland needs modern religious education.
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