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Religion and morality come under the spotlight

The teachers' position paper says children need to learn the basics of all the major religions RDB

The teaching of religion in Swiss schools is an issue guaranteed to spark heated debate from believers and unbelievers alike.

This content was published on April 3, 2008 - 12:40

The Swiss teachers' umbrella association is now offering recommendations about ways to handle religious issues and moral values in state-run schools.

Not only has migration brought an influx of children from different religious backgrounds; many Swiss children are now growing up with no knowledge of the country's main Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.

The teachers' association points out in a position paper that state-run schools are being asked to pursue conflicting goals. On the one hand they have to be neutral as far as religious orientation is concerned, but on the other they are expected to provide a moral education.

"That is impossible without certain basic values, which means rejecting value systems which threaten those basic values," it says.

It reminds teachers of the legal bases governing religious freedom as set out in the Swiss constitution, the civil code and the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The teachers' association also offers help in specific situations. "How should teachers behave when confronted with difficulties? The paper offers them advice about what to do," Beat Zemp, president of the association told swissinfo. "That is actually the most important part."

Growing ignorance

Knowledge of religion is part of basic education and is important for personal development, the teachers' association says.

It regrets that growing ignorance about religion cuts children off from their cultural roots - a personal loss to them and to society as a whole. "When cultural rootlessness creates a space for shortlived fashions in society or culture to take over, this is not good for any society."

No one can understand how modern-day Switzerland came into being if they are unaware of the religious forces at work in the past, the association maintains, and warns that historical ignorance could endanger the cohesion of the country.

But it is not only Switzerland which has been shaped by religious influences. "It is becoming increasingly important to have at least a basic knowledge of the roots and background of current political events in the world," the paper points out.

It makes clear that children need to be given a background in the basic elements of all the major religions.

Passing on values

Beyond a factual knowledge of religions, schools have a role in passing basic moral values on to their students, the paper says.

"Religious education in the sense of teaching church doctrine is not the role of state-run schools.

"Moral education means looking at different religions and seeing what values they have in common."

Since mutual respect is a prerequisite if people of varied cultures are to live together, it is essential to have at least a basic knowledge about other cultures.

"It makes sense to include the subject 'Values and Religions' in the curriculum," the paper suggests, adding that this would require qualified teachers. But it is up to each of Switzerland's 26 cantons to decide on the details of its curriculum.

"Freedom of belief and of conscience, tolerance and equality are among the values which actually make social coexistence and integration possible," Zemp believes.

But at the same time the subject of individual religions cannot be glossed over, because different value systems come into conflict with each other, he says.

"This can lead to problems. And that is why it is important at least to be familiar with the different religions and for example to know why people fast in Ramadan, or what happened at Easter."

Praise and criticism

Professor Fritz Osterwalder, Director of the Institute of Education at Bern University welcomes the fact "that the teachers' association has pointed out that religion is part of Swiss history, and is therefore part of the educational input that everyone should receive".

But while it is true that the values that schools want to convey do indeed have their origins in religion, that is not the end of the story.

"What is important for a civil society today is that these values can be shared regardless of their religious origins or connections. And this is the spirit in which they should be conveyed," he says.

While Zemp says the paper has been well received in the different sections of the association, there has been criticism from the public. Decency, fairness and tolerance are not religious values, and can be taught in school without bringing religion into it, many people claim.

Other people have written to the newspapers complaining that the paper could give the wrong signal to creationists or religious fundamentalists.

"People who say that haven't read the paper," counters Zemp.

"There is not a single word pitting creationism against Darwinism. The paper simply says that religions are part of moral education. People need a basic understanding of their own and other cultures to construct a value system that goes beyond specific religions."

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Christian Raaflaub

Religion in Switzerland

About 80% of Swiss residents describe themselves as Christian. However, many of them do not go to church regularly.
Just over 11% say they have no religion.
Immigration has changed the religious landscape in the past few years. Although the largest proportion of immigrants are Christian, the number of Muslims doubled between 1990 and 2000.

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Some legal texts on children and religion

The Swiss constitution contains a number of relevant articles, dealing with such topics as equality of opportunity, respect for the dignity of the person and outlawing discrimination.

It also guarantees the freedom of belief and conscience.

The constitution states that responsibility for educational matters lies with the cantons.

The Swiss Civil Law code covers the wellbeing of the child and its upbringing by its parents, including their religious input.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child deals with the child's well being and its right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

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