Religious Education in Norway vs UNHCR

Surprising news from Norway, via the Asian Tribune:

Norway rejects demand for religious tolerance in education

Oslo, 03 June, (Asiantribune.com); The Norwegian government has refused to allow more tolerant religious studies in its education system despite the strong criticism of the country’s rigid religious education curriculum. The Norwegian parliament has rejected the proposal for amending the religious curriculum despite the severe criticism of the current curriculum by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Actually, the UNHRC did not just “criticise” the curriculum; it declared it to be in breach of the law. As Matt Cherry of the Institute for Humanist Studies reported last November:

The United Nations has ruled that the Norwegian public school system’s compulsory teaching of Christianity violates the human rights of humanists. The decision follows a seven-year battle by parents belonging to a humanist association of Norway. Under international law, Norway must now reform its education laws to ensure they respect the rights of humanists and other minority belief groups…The Commission stated that Norway has an obligation under international law to change its educational system to ensure that children can receive an education in conformity with their own convictions. Norway was given 90 days to explain how it would implement the ruling.

Cherry also explained the problem with the subject:

In 1997, the Norwegian government introduced a new mandatory religious subject in the Norwegian school system, entitled “Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education” (CKREE). The law required that CKREE “Provide a thorough knowledge of the Bible and Christianity both as cultural heritage and Evangelical-Lutheran faith.” The CKREE classes were considered a normal part of the school system that must be attended by all students.

Before 1997, Norwegian parents could withdraw their children from religion and lifestance classes. The new law only gave the possibility of a partial exemption from CKREE: parents could provide a written request that their children should be removed from the parts of CKREE that involved the actual practice of Christianity; it was at the discretion of each individual school whether to accept a request for a child to be granted a partial exemption.

Cherry links to the UNHCR document, which can be seen here.

The irony is that the new curriculum was supposed actually to promote tolerance, as can be seen in this 2001 discussion from the Oslo Coalition on Religious Freedom and Belief:

The present Norwegian model for RE that was introduced in 1997…is both compulsory and does not have any clear “confessional” basis.  On the other hand it can be sees as a part of the tendency in several countries to provide multi-religious education for all pupils,  – one of the main aims of the subject being to provide tolerance and understanding between religions by providing knowledge about different traditions and dialogue about common values in multi-religious societies. This aim of the RE subject goes well with the principles for RE that are presented in the reports of the SR[*]. This aim is also the reason why the subject is compulsory for children of all faiths, with only a limited right to exemption from certain parts of it (for instance activities that might seen as parts of religious rituals). Even though the subject shall provide knowledge about other religions as well as secular worldviews, it has a basic emphasis on knowledge about Christianity and the Christian cultural heritage of Norway. The combination of a main focus on Christian knowledge and a limited right to exemption has made the subject controversial among parents of different minority groups. Also, the public school act points at Christian morals as a basic foundation for the school education in general in addition to tolerance and freedom of though. This has contributed to the fear of different groups of parents about the possible effects of the role of Christianity and Christian values in new RE subject. Also suggestions about having “Christian and humanistic values” as a foundation for the school and for the subject has been rejected by minority groups.

…The humanists and the Muslims fear that the dominance and role of Christianity in the subject can lead to influencing – or even indoctrinating – their children to see the Christian faith as better or truer than others.

On the other hand, the majority of the parents – belonging mostly to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Norway – are for the most satisfied with the new subject.

[*SR = The Special Rapporteur on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, following the UN’s 1981 Declaration on the subject – RB]

Christian Moe of Oslo University adds further analysis in a recent paper (currently still a “work in progress”):

One explicit aim of this change [in 1997] was integration; primarily, integration of immigrants’ children from other religions and cultures. By learning about the religion that allegedly pervades Norwegian culture and society, they would be better equipped to understand and integrate into that culture and society. Furthermore, by having children of different religious backgrounds discuss religious and ethical issues all together, the classroom would become an arena for convergence on a “common platform of values.” The underlying political philosophy, apparently, had a communitarian streak, emphasising the need for a shared core of values if society is to function.

…Effectively, Norway is seeking to use public school education about the religion of the state as a tool in a new nation-building project to integrate a growing number of immigrant communities. The Balkans, clearly, are not the only area where religion is the handmaid of nation-building. Religion is a very sensitive issue and therefore a dangerous tool to use; it might well inflame relations with minorities more than it improves them. It is of particular concern that Norway has chosen to apply this tool to children, inevitably raising fears of indoctrination away from the parents’ religion, and hence placing children in a conflict of loyalty.

Meanwhile, the Church of Norway reports that a reform of religious education was voted on in 2003; this reform places confessional religious instruction completely outside the public school system:

On 27th May 2003 the Norwegian Parliament (the Storting) voted to reform the religious education in Norway. By endorsing religious education in all religious communities the Storting wants to stimulate young people’s religious identities and understanding of their cultural heritage and traditions.

…Children have the right to spiritual development (Article 27 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child). Religious education is a task for the religious communities, not for the public school. The reform intends to secure that the Church of Norway will provide the teaching of Christian faith for which public schools once were primarily responsible. The Church of Norway now wants to develop systematic education to help all baptised members between the ages 0 to18 years to interpret and master life whatever their level of functionality is.

But the Parliament has not simply rejected the UNHCR criticism. Back to the Asian Tribune (CKREE given as CRREE for some reason):

the Government has made it easier to get exemption, and removes the link between the Christian objects clause and the CRREE teaching. That is good enough for the Labour Party’s Karita Bekkemellem Orheim.

“We have given support to what the Government proposed, which we believe takes into account what the UN has criticized the CRREE subject for,” Bekkemellem Orheim told Dagsavisen.

(Tipped from Christianity Today)

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