Religious Education in Schools in a Democratic Society. The Urgent Need for Reform


By Álvaro Ramis, PhD in Moral Philosophy, Civic Education Coordinator at the Continuing Education Program, PEC, of the Philosophy and Humanities Faculty.

Translated by Anthony Rauld

Just as Leszek Kolakowski put it in If God Does not Exist: Concerning God, the Devil, Sin, and other Preoccupations of the So-called Philosophy of Religion (1995), religious traditions are part of a realm of knowledge that seeks to find the ultimate principle and meaning of reality, in order to overcome the contingent nature of human life.  This search is expressed historically and in everyday life through symbolic language, whose social importance and impact requires a formal education that goes beyond the practices of socialization of families and religious organizations that take place in the private sphere.

A certain consensus can be discerned with respect to the need to incorporate this dimension into the education system, so that people can critically interpret the symbolic, religious and even the mystical elements that make up the collective imaginary of the society.  But there is no consensus with regards to how this formative initiative should be incorporated: Should it consist of a confessional learning subject or course, whose content and educator require the approval of the respective religious authority?  Or should this area of knowledge be spread across different courses, so that each one, from their unique disciplinary perspective, can contribute to a critical understanding of the phenomenon of religion in its specificity?

In between both positions, some of us sustain that religious education should have its own, and explicit, space within the curriculum, although devoid of all confessional bias, in order to generate critical competences allowing students to extend and to reflect on the diverse expressions of human religiosity, recognizing their historical contributions, and at the same time rejecting the destructive, fundamentalist, or discriminatory practices that might be embedded in these traditions.

Religions are symbolic language systems, or in the words of Enrique Dussel in “Pablo de Tarso in Contemporary Political Philosophy” (El Títere y el enano, 2010), they are “rational stories based on symbols.”  These accounts can be submitted to a double hermeneutic: on the one hand, they can be interpreted theologically, that is, from the point of view of the subjective conviction, the basis for the community’s faith.  But they can also be interpreted philosophically in order to discover its ultimate rational meaning in relation to universal categories that include these stories.  The normative structure of religious education should reflect this second dimension, so that it can promote respect for religious tolerance and pluralism, without discrimination.  The school is not a place for the active promotion of comprehensive doctrines of the good; it is rather the place where these doctrines are subjected to critical and analytic study, so as to understand, interpret and comprehend them phenomenologically.

However, our legislation does not respond to that criterion.  Law 19,638 argues that parents or guardians should be able to choose for their children the religious and moral education that fits their own convictions.  As a consequence, decree 924/83, which regulates religion courses within the education system, forces all primary and secondary schools to offer two hours of religion classes each week, from first grade to senior year.  However, attendance in these classes is voluntary (determined by parents and guardians at enrollment) and course grades are not included in the official record.  In this way, religious education has a confessional or proselytizing character and requires that the educator have the support of the respective religious authority, who must issue a certificate of suitability in order for the teacher to teach the class, irrespective of his/her academic credentials.

The fact that attendance is voluntary and that the course marks are unofficial ensure the difficulty of teaching the course.  Especially in the numerous cases where schools allow students who are not officially taking the course to nevertheless remain in the classroom.  It is easy to imagine the following scenario: a classroom with forty students, where twenty five are in attendance, fifteen are doing their own thing, and out in front is a teacher who does not have many tools beyond his/her conviction and talent.  Unable to generate the mechanisms to incentivize or to encourage participation, which are crucial to develop intrinsic motivation in students, teachers are forced to look for mechanisms of extrinsic motivation, which translates into an attempt to teach a “fun” or “dynamic” class, using entertainment to move the class along, all this in a formal schooling environment marked by the dynamics of competition and production.

Although the legislation permits the teaching of all religions recognized within the Religion Law, in practice the courses rely on a certain minimum number of students for the assignment of teachers.  In practice, only one religion is incorporated massively into religious education courses (Catholic), although Evangelicalism is slowly being incorporated.  This model favors discriminatory practices towards children who are not part of the main religion, or of any other, which generates, in this way, more inequality.  Another factor that infringes upon rights is when parents are forced to declare whether they want their children to receive “religious education”.  This information request is discriminatory and it affects the privacy of students.

Considering Rights

This context reveals that the teaching of religion in schools has passed down a huge crisis, which has not been publically addressed owing to a tacit agreement, linked to the political pacts of the transition, where the relations between the state and the church organizations were not to be altered.  But in practice, the course on religion, as it was contemplated in 1983, no longer resists the contextual change of our society, strained by a more diverse religious demographic and by increasing secularization among the younger generations.

From the point of view of human rights, religious freedom cannot be understood as an unlimited right, since its unfettered exercise can harm other equally protected rights, when placed at a disadvantage.  Human rights must be considered on the supposition that the presence of differential treatment justifies their necessity.  In this case, it is hard to argue for the need to implement a confessional religious education program, during school hours, as part of the curriculum, and with the backing of the respective religious authority.

The current legislation places a segment of the population in an inferior situation in relation to a determined group, since it establishes systematic patterns of unequal treatment towards members of minority religions, and towards non-believers.  Preferential treatment exists towards persons who profess the major religions, and there is no justification for this policy, a situation that produces inequality.  This situation should lead to the elimination of the current model of religious education in schools; otherwise, this kind of discrimination will repeat itself over and over, regardless of whether specific instances of discrimination can be neutralized.

Towards a Non-Confessional Religious Education

In Latin America relevant changes are being implemented with respect to these issues, Brazil being an important model in this area.  Within its legislation, the religious sector has been understood as a specific area of human practice that deals with the “ultimate questions” that have an impact on people’s lives.  Within this framework, religious education in schools has become deconfessionalized, removed from the purview of ecclesiastical authorities, and linked to the science of religion, functioning under the same academic criteria as in any other discipline.  In Argentina, a Supreme Court ruling declared the Salta provincial education law unconstitutional, a law that had incorporated religious teaching into the mandatory curriculum.  In this way, an important precedent has been established, one which requires that the rest of the country adjust this area of schooling.

In Chile there is a short-term opportunity to modify the status quo, linked to the implementation of Law 20911/16, which has established a mandate for the creation of a new “civic training” course, to be implemented in 2019.  This incorporation should move the National Council for Education to reflect on the importance of ethical training within schools.  The new civic training course cannot replace the role of religious education in schools, but it is clear that the two courses complement each other and have links that can improve their impact inside the classroom.

The deconfessionalization of religious education in schools would permit us to overcome the current crisis facing the religion course and would help to incorporate this area into a realm of integral civic training, which takes from the humanities key elements conducive to a human community, a truly human community.  As Reyes Mate reflects in Tratado de la Injusticia (2011), “…in living religions there has been a millennial reflection concerning the forgiveness of the unforgivable, the meaning of a life without meaning or the saving memory of what has failed…” In an age where education is reduced to the depersonalized training of “human capital”, we should not lose this cultural and historical patrimony.  But its appropriation in a democratic society requires the use of practical reason as an inescapable element of universalization.

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