Religion belongs in school

By Carlo Willmann, June 2016

To prevent fundamentalism, the subject cannot simply be ignored. Waldorf schools could lead the way in multi-religious education.

Photo: © drbrook/

One of the main characteristics of our times is a societal transformation on a scale never seen before, which has effected all major societal subsystems. This also applies to religion, which has experienced breaks from tradition, individualisation, deinstitutionalisation and pluralisation. However, the various counter movements have to be taken into account, which have the aim of cementing traditions, interpretations and ways of life.

Freedom and limitations

The lifestyle of an open, liberal society has its origins in the European Enlightenment. The philosophy of the Enlightenment and the political and educational ideas of Rousseau, Lessing and Kant, with which it is associated, are an expression of self-reflective and self-conscious thinking.

An enlightened person sets themselves the goal of defining the principles guiding their thoughts and actions on the basis of their own autonomous choices and capabilities. Religion and its institutions and instances were not spared from this impetus.

The relationship to God and the perception of His presence and ministry should only be based on the logic of “natural” reason and no longer on instructions founded on the interpretation and control of the church. In spite of resistance by the church, the ideas of the Enlightenment have not only taken hold in the religious way of life and education, but also, if not more strongly, in the relationship between the state and the church.

This created the conditions for a secular society, the hallmarks of which are the political neutralisation of the claim to truth by religion(s), the safeguarding of civil and human rights independent of religious premises of truth, and of having managed to create the conditions for religious tolerance and religious peace. The accompanying religious freedom, which permits the active engagement of individuals and expects the passive tolerance of others, is an inalienable (human) right in every modern and liberal society. But this vital building block of the religio-political emancipation of European society not only led to the politically and societally necessary decline in the importance of organised religion as a consequence of its extreme manipulation, but also lead to a general silencing of religion in everyday societal culture.

An example of this is the French form of secularism, which is defined by the law of “Laicité républicaine” of 1905 in which a strict neutrality by the state in terms of religion is outlined. This prohibits the presence of religious articulation in all state-supported areas of public life: just as a Muslim teacher is forbidden from wearing a veil, even for religious reasons, a Christian is prohibited from wearing a crucifix.

However, limitations can just as easily lead to alienation and marginalisation and this then begs the question, does the enactment of laws to limit religion also mean a withholding of recognition by society?

Ideologically neutral religious education is a necessity

The shocking terrorist attacks in France have lead to debates across the entire country about the use of education programmes as a means to combat terrorism. The notable French essayist Cécile Wajsbrot took a remarkable position on this: “I think that, in the face of the pressure of current problems, we have to think about softening it (the law, C.W.). Ideally we would be offering ideologically neutral religious education, in which children would learn that there are a diverse number of religions and that they all deserve our mutual respect.” (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 15 January 2015).

With this she holds a public education system which has distanced itself from religion responsible for the increase in tensions between various ethnic and religious groups, due to the fact that a lack of knowledge inevitably leads to a lack of mutual understanding and tolerance. On the other hand, if religions and religious lifestyles entered the arena of public education, they would indeed be subject to correction, and reductive, fundamentalist world views with totalitarian aspects could be challenged by enlightened points of view.

From religious education to a religiously sensitive school culture

But is a “neutral” religious education the ideal method for the development of societal and religious cooperation based on trust and tolerance? Religion and religiosity in their authentic forms touch deeply existential dimensions of human existence which exist above ordinary, daily life and cannot be understood on a purely cognitive level. In a similar manner to the arts, a religious life requires conviction and commitment, consistency and discipline, a sense of community and social creativity.

Theologically-oriented religious education needs to be taught in a meaningful and rewarding manner. But in the same way that musicology is not music, theology is not religion. Music is an art that needs to be learnt and then, above all, practised. When this takes place, then it can move us inwardly and continually enrich our lives. This is a similar case to religion which, when cultivated, can support an emotional, spiritual and ethical life.

Rudolf Steiner took the religious dimension of human life very seriously in his educational thinking. He was convinced that religion and religiosity are an integral part of being human, and that it is necessary to develop this in children, so that they have the ability to develop it further autonomously as adults. Just like science and art, a Waldorf education should also put focus on religion. However, even in Waldorf schools, religious education clearly takes a secondary role. The reasons for this are many, including the general trend in society described above, but it can also be put down to failures of the institutions that officially represent religion and religious life.

This makes the job a lot harder and ensures that the fulfilment of such an aspiration is one of the most difficult, as well as urgent, tasks in current education. The growing fault line between a post-Enlightenment society with secular tendencies and increasingly fundamentalist religious groups needs to be identified, the gaps between the two groups need to be bridged and the negative effects need to be counteracted through education.

This means in the first instance making religion and religiosity a topic for discussion, not only for religious people but also for those who are not. The wordless confrontations between different concepts of life and directions of meaning has to be talked about productively, with both sides listening to each other and mutual recognition of both points of view.

Religious education in schools is generally taught in a teaching format of denominational religion lessons. In Germany, different ways of providing access to religious education are legally guaranteed under article 7, paragraph 3 of the constitution. Accordingly recognised religious communities can offer education in their faith to pupils in the state school system, be it purely denominational, inclusive or in combination with ethics. This arrangement is commendable. In its best form, religious education fulfils the task of explaining religion (and religions) to students while allowing them to learn to understand themselves within it, and consciously and deliberately practice their beliefs. This serves to help individuals find and develop their religious and ethical identity in a pluralistic society.

Yet in observing the current situation, the question also arises if this model has any future, at least in its traditional form. Generally such an education only reaches students who are already religious and if there is no cooperation with the teaching of other religions and denominations, then students are faced with an inward looking culture which no longer meets the communicative needs of an open society. And non-religious students ultimately do not receive a basic religious education at all.

The deficiency in this concept lies in the reduction of religious education to the “preserve” of the religion lesson. Removing this reduction and developing new supplementary forms of religious communication and culture both within the school and the classroom is a prerequisite for successful religious education which meets the requirements of the transformations that our society is currently experiencing due to the migration crisis, which is bringing both cultural and religious diversity to Europe.

General religious education as a pioneering model

When Steiner spoke of the task of religion coming to life in education at the opening of the first Waldorf school he seemed to have anticipated the developments that have been discussed here. He coined a term and initiated an educational idea which more than ever deserves to come into effect today: general religious education. This forms the basis of a school culture sensitive to religion which prevents the dangerous antagonism between materialistic secularism and religious extremism and facilitates inter-religious and intercultural convergence, aiming for understanding and recognition.

According to Steiner, general religious education is not primarily about a specific religion and its statement of faith, which was secondary for him, but about developing a differentiated feeling capacity and encouraging and stimulating religious feelings and will impulses. Children should experience what a religion in the best sense of the word constitutes: having trust and being able to experience wonder; learning to feel awe, humility and universal gratitude; being able to experiencing loving devotion to the world; learning to take responsibility for their own actions; experiencing humanity as the image of God. These are elements common to all religions. This is an important point to consider, since it grants dominance to no religion.

Which religious festivals, content, aesthetic forms or elements of religious ritual should be included in this education depends on the context. Even if Waldorf education is deeply rooted in a Christian view of the world, it remains open to all religions and cultures as it appeals to the living religiosity in all people. The developmentally dynamic teaching methods of Waldorf education with their aesthetic and symbolic teaching methodology are particularly suited to making sense of and giving meaning to the religious dimensions of the world. It is especially suited to a religious sensitisation in all contexts.

There are remarkable school models and schools that boldly and imaginatively encourage the development of a religiously sensitive school culture. Leading the way is the Three Religion Primary School in Osnabrück which sees itself as a place of learning that takes the way of life of all three monotheistic religions into consideration in the everyday life of the school and facilitates a trialogical way of learning. The Viennese Islamic comprehensive school isma has also adapted a remarkable school model which, although not functioning in an inter-religious context, is trying to orient itself according to the principles of Waldorf education from its fundamental pedagogical aims through the repertoire of teaching methods to the aesthetics of the classrooms. It also possesses an unexpected openness in questions of religious education. 

At the Free Intercultural Waldorf School Mannheim as well as other initiatives, new bold and commendable measures are being undertaken within the Waldorf movement itself. Here the focus is primarily on intercultural orientation, but since culture cannot be thought and experienced without religion, and conversely religion without culture, new ways of religious education are being developed here in the context of a deepening of the religious dimension.

If in this way religion can be conveyed as a worthwhile, life-affirming, joyful and challenging approach to life, requiring cooperation and not competition, seeking peace and not strife, looking at the welfare of all and not just those in our own group, then this will be the best way to sensitise young people against sinking to the lowest common denominator, exclusion and loss of meaning on the one hand, and ensnarement, radicalisation and fundamentalism on the other.

About the author: Prof. Dr. Carlo Willmann studied theology and history of art and completed his doctorate on the topic of “Waldorf education – the concept of theology and religious education in Rudolf Steiner’s educational method”. He teaches at the Rudolf Steiner Rural School in Schönau, is a lecturer at the Centre for Culture and Education in Vienna, is in charge of the Master’s course in Waldorf education at the Danube University Krems and holds a professorship at the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences in Alfter near Bonn.