1 Introduction

Discussions in which comparative perspectives on denominational and non-denominational religious education (RE) are highlighted often tend to limp along, being characterized by structural imbalance. A denominational RE is associated with various kinds of religious teachings and beliefs that are taught to children and young people according to varying methods. A religiously existentially anchored platform forms the basis of the teaching, and one goal is for participating students to understand the importance of, and perhaps also the truth conveyed in, the denominational RE subject.

When it comes to non-denominational RE, questions about the platform on which such an argumentational strategy rests seem often to be absent. It is as if the short negation ‘non’ is perceived as signalling that this type of teaching about religions has no other purpose than to more or less descriptively inform students about different traditions and beliefs. Such information can be justified, for example, by the fact that knowledge of religious diversity is important for children and young people living in a multi-religious society, just as with corresponding knowledge of, for example, political diversity. Here, however, an issue could be raised regarding the extent to which such rather conventional conceptions of RE may be challenged by present-day strategies for the development of intercultural education (cf. Lund Johannessen & Skeie, 2019).

If non-denominational RE is perceived as the opposite of denominational RE, then the question of the normativity of teaching in the former seems to frequently be treated as if it were absent—or at least less present than in the latter (cf. Kittelman Flensner, 2018). Considering that all teaching is normative in one sense or another, this is a remarkable interpretation. Questions about what normative beliefs and methods support a non-denominational RE should be discussed more than is the case now.

Such a discussion is certainly not entirely absent. One example is the critical arguments made against the so-called ‘world religions paradigm’, inspired by Ninian Smart’s phenomenological approach, with a focus on how simplistic and generalizing images of religion and religiosity characterize non-denominational RE, as well as the criticism of such an interpretation of Smart’s position (cf. Cush, 2020). Another example is such secularist discourses that, according to current research, may characterize certain non-denominational RE in which religious and other beliefs are portrayed as archaic, outdated, and in conflict with modern science. Through interview studies, Holmqvist Lidh (2016) and Kittelmann Flensner (2017) have both shown that young people with religious affiliation can experience such teaching as offensive and as sanctioning misleading images of religion and religious belief.

These are examples of how a negative or limiting normativity has been elevated to investigation and analysis. The interpretations and beliefs expressed in non-denominational RE in these two cases have attracted attention. It is important that the normative conditions and the implementation of teaching be critically examined, whether characterized as non-denominational or denominational. At the same time, there needs to be a discussion about the reasons for the conditions and the normative basis of the implementation.

In the following I will discuss the Swedish case, in which RE—like all other teaching in compulsory school—is prescribed to be non-denominational. What is particularly interesting is that the Swedish curricula, while providing for ‘objective’, ‘all-round’, and ‘non-denominational’ teaching, state that the ethical basis for all activities in school is ‘the ethics borne by a Christian tradition and Western humanism’ (Skolverket, 2018, p. 5). A relevant question to ask here is to what extent a teaching that is to rest on ‘Christian tradition’ (and Western humanism) can be non-denominational. Is it a contradiction, an incoherence, or perhaps rather an imbalance in what is prescribed for the school’s activities?

By discussing this issue, I hope to problematize overly sharp dichotomizations between denominational and non-denominational RE. A fundamental problem seems to be that the distinction is usually perceived with reference to an assumed dividing line between religious and religiously relevant teachings, beliefs, or opinions that should, or should not, be proclaimed in teaching. However, if the discussions stop at such an interpretation, an important prerequisite for examining the distinction between theory and practice is neglected. The Swedish case can hopefully shed light on the significance of this premise.

In this context I want to make a reference to an often quoted description of Sweden, presented by Jenny Berglund, as a “society that can be described as a society marinated in Lutheran Christianity, officially claiming to have washed away the marinade, but having problems in admitting that the taste abides” (Berglund, 2013, p. 181). Berglund claims that what from an inside-Swedish perspective is conceived as “neutral and objective”, from an outside perspective can be understood as “deeply Lutheran”, speaking not only of the national Swedish history, but also about how people think about religion in society and how RE is perceived (ibid., p. 181).

Berglund´s description, which, in several respects, seems to harmonize with research published by previously mentioned Thurfjell (2015), may be perceived to rest on a good foundation. However, this does not mean that the problems related to the task of clarifying the distinction between denominational and non-denominational has been solved. Berglund finishes her article by emphasizing a need for a discussion of “the concepts of objectivity, neutrality and non-denominational teaching” which “cannot be done in a simplistic way” (ibid., p. 181).

I agree that there is such a need, and that it has to be seriously handled. One consideration that I would like to highlight here is that in order to prevent such a discussion from being conducted in a simplified way, it is fundamental that it rests on the basic premise that when analyzing non-denominational RE, it is always relevant to critically examine its contextual presuppositions. A non-denominational teaching is never implemented and developed in a cultural, traditional or ideological vacuum.

The purpose of the following examination is to make a contribution to such a discussion of the concept of non-denominational RE, by conducting a critical analysis of some arguments that seem to be expressed or referred to in debates on this issue.

2 Non-denominational teaching in Swedish schools

The teaching in Swedish schools, it is stated, should portray and convey basic democratic values:

The inviolability of human life, individual freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people, equality between women and men, and solidarity between people are the values that the school should represent and impart. In accordance with the ethics borne by a Christian tradition and Western humanism, this is achieved by fostering in the individual a sense of justice, generosity, tolerance and responsibility (Skolverket, 2018, 5).Footnote 1

In this context, it is stated that ‘teaching in school must be non-denominational’ (ibid., p. 5). It is emphasized that objectivity and open approaches are to guide the teaching:

The school should be open to different ideas and encourage their expression. It should emphasize the importance of forming personal standpoints and provide opportunities for doing this. Teaching should be objective and encompass a range of different approaches. All parents should be able to send their children to school, fully confident that their children will not be prejudiced in favour of any particular view. All who work in the school should uphold the fundamental values that are set out in the Education Act and in this curriculum, and clearly dissociate themselves from anything that conflicts with these values (ibid., 6).

I argue that this is a quite transparent example of how the concept of ‘non-denominational’ education, without reference to relevant analytical considerations, is closely related to what is described as ‘objective education’, a relation which consequently seems to be founded on shallow ground. At the same time, this may seem rather astonishing, since the quoted paragraph in fact involves a reference to ‘the fundamental values that are set out in the Education Act and in this curriculum’ as an ethical platform for everything that goes on in school. This platform is hardly objective or neutral; it is, in a strong sense, normative. Given this fact, it may seem peculiar to state that ‘denominational’ teaching should be excluded since it does not satisfy the criterion of objectivity while the ethical approach prescribed for ‘all who work in the school’ does satisfy the criterion. Why does one kind of normativity (denominational teaching) constitute a threat to objective education, while another kind (non-denominational teaching on fundamental values) does not?

In the following I will present some critical reflections on the distinction between denominational and non-denominational teaching as it seems to be understood in the curriculum paragraphs quoted above.Footnote 2 I will also develop an argument against a conception of denominational and non-denominational RE as referring to two different kinds of teaching which divide the RE arena into two wholly separate domains.

3 A curricular reference to Western, Christian values

As we saw in the first of the two cited sections from the Swedish curricula, there is a clarification of which ethics should govern the activities of the school: ‘the ethics borne by a Christian tradition and Western humanism’. What such an ethics can mean—and whether there is even an ethics that can be appointed to be fundamental for or typical of these two cultural-historical contexts—is an issue that can, and should, be discussed. From the early preparatory work to the wording of recent decades’ curricula, there are examples of how the image of, for example, a ‘Christian ethics’ has been criticized and questioned (cf. Piltz, 1992). While I shall not go into this criticism here, I believe it can be substantiated in several respects with convincing reasons.

What I would like to emphasize, instead, is a need to critically examine the incoherence that seems to characterize the curricula’s statements on non-denominational teaching on the one hand and an ethical platform rooted in Christian, Western tradition on the other, as governing the school’s activities. Why is it that a Christian traditional ethics in such a role is not considered denominational?

One possible answer to this question may be that a Christian traditional, Western ethics in a Swedish, traditionally Christian cultural circle is perceived as more or less prevalent, and it is not linked to any definite notions of a religious nature, but perceived as secular and independent of referential transcendence teachings. The examples of values that in the first quote above relate to a Christian, Western ethics appear to be universal in the sense that they are also asserted outside a Christian, Western context. They are simply universally human.

Such an interpretation seems to be possible to relate to an analysis Thurfjell (2015) makes of what he describes as a “post-Christian” identity as prominent in a Swedish arena. People choose to participate in rites that express a Christian heritage, such as baptism and confirmation, and they celebrate holidays such as Christmas and Easter when they may also attend services. But they do not consider themselves believers or “religious”. Before secularization seriously broke in and grew strong, the term “Christian”, according to Thurfjell, meant much more than the perpetuation of a number of dogmas. It referred to a “cultural public domain” where certain ways of living and thinking and being in relation to each other and society at large constituted a common platform (ibid., p. 39). In the late 1500s, the final break with Catholicism came with the assumption of the Augsburg Creed, and in the unified church that emerged, Swedish identity became tantamount to practicing Lutheran Christianity (ibid., p. 41). It is an identity with religious, cultural and national dimensions interwoven into one entity.

The approach that Thurfjell describes as an expression of a “post-Christian” identity is characterized by notions that can be traced back to times when the word “Christian” included much more than a belief in the truth of dogmas. What his analysis shows as relevant to this article’s investigation is an important example of how a cultural and moral heritage can be described as having roots in Christian tradition without being bound to a religious confessionality among its adherents. Since, according to Thurfjell’s analysis, a positive attitude towards other religious traditions, especially Buddhism, can also be identified in this arena (ibid., 157 pp), one could possibly add that a non-denominational, Christian heritage does not have to accommodate a rejection of other religious traditions, which is another parameter that may support the thesis that cultural and moral Christian identity need not exclude an inclusive interfaith stance.

There may still be several challenges with the interpretive approach described, and when I discuss them here, I will focus on those that are directly related to the practice of a ‘Christian ethics’ as a platform for schools’ overall activities. Using the term ‘Christian’ for an ethics perceived to have biblical roots in Jesus’s teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, as well as referring to presumed universal values, seems to raise important issues of various kinds. The golden rule, stated by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, is discursive and pluralistic in that it invites to many interpretations and pedagogical strategies in a Christian context as well as on other (religious and secular) arenas where it is highlighted. It is far from obvious what a ‘Christian ethics’ means; whether it is unambiguous or ambiguous, clear or porous. If one wants to refer to such an ethics as a platform for school activities, someone critical of the strategy could claim that one would have to make the implications clear for how the distinction between denominational and non-denominational school contexts may be conceived.

It may be argued that one consequence of this strategic approach is that it is difficult to understand how the rejection of denominational education by curricula, and their simultaneous confirmation of a denominational basis for school activities, can be linked in a coherent whole. Religious teachings cannot be proclaimed in the teaching, but values rooted in Christian tradition not only can, the argument continues, but should be conveyed and portrayed in the collective activities of the school. There seems to be a problem here, which may have its roots in a review of how religion and ethics can be united in both personal and official guidelines for people’s coexistence. This may be due to a poorly substantiated understanding of the concepts of religion and ethics. It may also have to do with such a fear of touch that sometimes seems to make itself known in secular societies in terms of religion and religiosity.

Perhaps the picture can be made clearer if one reflects on how a problematization of the distinction between denominational and non-denominational teaching could open doors to a more inclusive understanding of both the assets and shortcomings of both forms of teaching.

4 Christian ethics without Christian dogmatics

Let us imagine for a moment that it is possible to argue that Christian ethics should constitute the moral platform for schools’ activities, but without it being substantiated by any theological claims. Christian traditional ethics is rather perceived as a system of norms and values that, while rooted in a biblical Christian tradition, can be anchored, but not by being motivated by reasons and considerations for those claims of authority that may be raised with reference to the Bible’s stories of Jesus’s ministry; rather, these norms and values involve following certain basic principles of human coexistence.

In a Swedish cultural-historical context, these norms and values have a role to play that can traditionally be incorporated into a Christian world of thought, but this does not mean that claims to ethical or theoretical primacy need to be raised. Rather, it is an ethics that throughout history has been considered to have proven to possess qualities and the ability to bring people together on issues of right and wrong, good and evil. Some interpretations of these concepts can be found in other cultural-historical contexts, while others may not. But the point is that it is not a question of pursuing a stance in the wording of the curriculum, according to which ‘Christian traditional ethics’ appear to be authoritative by virtue of a supposed conviction as to the veracity of the traditional narratives that anchor these values and norms.

Could it be said, in this case, that the curriculum prescribes a Christian-interpreted ethics without necessarily being an example of denominational education? It may seem difficult to see how this would be possible with regard to a reductionist ‘Christian ethics’. Expressed in terms of confessionality, it could be said that it is not only a philosophy of life or religious teachings that are subject to an existential commitment—or confession. This can also be the case with ethical teachings—or ethical positions.

Teaching in Swedish schools, as we have seen stated in the curricula, should not take a stand either for or against particular beliefs and positions, or sanction a certain religion, philosophy of life, or existential or political opinion. It is not difficult to see the value and importance of such a stance. Students should be made aware of the diversity of teachings, positions, and opinions that exist; partly to develop good civic knowledge, and partly to gain access to a broad platform from which they can develop personally reflected considerations, arguments, and positions.

However, as we have seen, according to the curricula there are limits to how accepting of this diversity those working in schools can be. Perceptions contrary to the democratic values that constitute the platform for school activities are to be revealed and subject to rejection. Democratic values thus constitute a fundamental basis for school activities, and these values cannot or must not be called into question. This is an example of a commitment that everyone who works in school has to make (cf. Franck, 2020).

It is unclear whether this commitment should be based on secular or religious grounds. While the references to Christian ethics are thin and vague, it is a fact that they are there, perhaps as some kind of cultural-historical formality. To get closer to a convincing interpretation of what kind of ethical attitude is provided for here, it may be important to consider what would happen if the reference to ‘Christian ethics’ was excluded and instead ‘democratic values’ were stated as the basis for school activities. All teaching is normative, in that it is based on certain norms and values that are expected to be staged in classrooms and schools’ common areas. Asserting an ethical doctrine as such a foundation is not a position based on objective grounds. Rather, it is a normative positioning for a certain type of ethics that is thought to be desirable as a guiding principle for people in general, and for children’s and adults’ relationships in school. This positioning can be substantiated by different types of reasons, but it cannot be used as evidence. It needs to be the subject of a position; in this sense, it is reminiscent of other types of positioning. But there also seems to be a special feature in promoting certain values as constituents of the ethical stance that is to characterize school activities and to then, albeit in sparse terms, refer to a religiously entrenched doctrine as authoritative.

5 Objectivity

The requirement of objectivity and open approaches (Skolverket, 2018, p. 6) prescribed by the curricula seems to be challenged by the ethical positioning in question. Given that ethical positions represent normative commitments, they do not seem to meet the basic requirements of objectivity. This does not mean that they are subjective in a relativistic sense; different kinds of rational reasons and considerations can be cited in support of them. As long as several possible alternative ethical platforms can be identified and developed, and as long as the curricula provide for one of them without further argument, it seems that there is no way to talk about objectivity in the sense that the curricula do.

Denominational education, however, can be understood in several ways. A doctrine or an ethical approach can be pursued to varying degrees and with varying demands for obedience. School systems contain generally ethical positionings, ranging from resting as a more or less unspoken superstructure over the activities that take place, to—in more or less detailed forms—being subject to transfer or preaching. Such positionings can be more or less exclusionary, or inclusive, and be expressed through everything from fixed governance to open dialogue based on certain given basic conditions (cf. Loobuick & Franken, 2011).

One approach to opening up the locks in terms of understanding the distinction between denominational and non-denominational education is to look more deeply at what it is the curricula mean by a teaching that is not objective. Here, the proclamations and positions on doctrines, positions, and opinions seem to be examples of things that can threaten objectivity, all-roundness, and the defence and development of open approaches. If it is a Christian ethics that, according to the curricula, should be conveyed and portrayed, then—even if the curricula talk quietly about these—certain beliefs seem important to highlight. The biblical roots, which have historically formed a platform for Christian truth claims concerning beliefs as well as moral norms and values, may here become a problem for those who want to avoid denominational teaching.

6 Objectivity and open approaches

It may seem difficult to understand why the reference to ‘Christian ethics’ persists, given the requirement of objectivity and open approaches. Since the curricula state a Christian ethics in terms of democratic values, it could conceivably be justifiable to exclude the above-mentioned references. Democratic values are not objective in the sense that the curricula refer to, and by hijacking the reference to a Christian, Western context, one could open up for a more inclusive approach when it comes to the prescribed democratic ethics.

Here, by contrast, it may be worth recalling that Swedish schools’ education on religion has a long history, and that it has changed in many ways over the years. The ‘non-denominational’ RE that prevails today had its formal breakthrough in the mid-1960s; this was about a decade after Sweden enacted its religious freedom law in 1951 (Algotsson, 1975). The predecessor of the present subject was Christianity (‘Christianity Knowledge’), which from the establishment of the General Swedish Public School in 1842 onwards was a foundation for all teaching. For one thing, it was here that children and young people learned the tenets and dogmas of Christian doctrine, in accordance with Luther’s catechism (Hartman, 2002, p. 212).

The teaching that was conducted was denominational—and it is important to note that this was the case in two respects. On the one hand, the authority and truth of the Christian faith were provided in teaching. Here it was not about critically examining and reviewing its dogmas or claims of truth attached to them. Over the decades, however, the form as well as the content of Christianity knowledge changed, which was a result of critical voices both outside and within church circles regarding the Protestant state-church interpretation sanctioned in teaching (ibid., p. 212). Later, in the twentieth century, thoughts also arose regarding the notion that other religious traditions might be given some space, but, as has been mentioned, it was not until the mid-1960s that a non-denominational RE replaced Christianity.

Christianity, however, was denominational in another respect as well. The teaching was intended not only to convey knowledge of the truths of the Christian faith, but also thereby to raise children and young people to lead a decent moral life. The ethical dimensions of the Christian faith could be conveyed through the Bible’s stories about the dynamic relationship of the Jewish people with God and the Ten Commandments, but also, and not least, through the New Testament’s depictions of Jesus’s life and ministry, the many parables with moral themes, and the Sermon on the Mount with its ethically demanding message (cf. Hartman, 2002, p. 212).

What this means is that Christianity was denominational in terms of teaching both the truths of the Christian faith as well as the moral norms and prescribed choices conveyed as being rooted in the Christian faith. In this case, the interpretation is clear: The prescribed ethics was denominational because it was explicitly entrenched in the Christian doctrine that was regarded as having general and unrestricted authority (cf. Franck, 2021).

In the foregoing, I have questioned how today’s Swedish curricula link the school’s values to Christian tradition, taking into account that this reference is only narrowly described and then lacks further justification, and that the requirement for non-confessional teaching is prescribed as unwavering and non-negotiable. It is also unclear what, regarding the teaching of religions, is meant by the reference to this as non-denominational. In a basic sense, it means that religious teachings and ideologies, just like political ones, can hardly be proclaimed as true or authoritative. Instead, the teaching should be informative in the sense that various religious and secular traditions are, as far as possible, elucidated in a matter-of-fact and comprehensive way. But, as we have seen, a religion like Christianity contains not only beliefs about transcendent powers and relationships but also ethical norms that are more and less directly linked to such doctrines. What the Swedish curricula sanction, however, is an ethics that is tied to Christian tradition. This should, one might think, mean that teaching about ethics in RE cannot but be denominational. It is the ethics attached to Christianity that is considered to be the one that will govern school activities both in and outside classrooms where RE is conducted; thus, a denominational positioning appears to be inevitable.

7 Dichotomizing the concept of non-denominational RE

Questions about how secular RE in Europe can be perceived regarding a relationship with a Christian culture and imagination have been interestingly discussed by Wanda Alberts in the article Religious Education as Small ‘i’ Indoctrination: How European Countries Struggle with a Secular Approach to Religion in Schools. The title refers to a specific relationship that Alberts ties to most ‘integrative’ as well as ‘separative’ models of RE; that is, models in which RE takes place in a single composition of a class, for example with a non-confessional orientation, and those in which it is conducted according to one or another separation of students, not infrequently with a confessional orientation (Alberts, 2019, p. 5). Alberts points out that both approaches are characterized by inherent variations, but she argues that in both instances it is often the case that ‘a religious notion of religion prevails’ (ibid., p. 53).

In the critical discussion, where Alberts argues that the two approaches contain inherent variations, she also asserts that ‘the distinction between a (in one way or another) religious approach and an approach that at least aims at conceptualising religion in a non-religious way is the striking difference between approaches’ (ibid., p. 6). She also argues that the existence of a prevailing religious notion is often invisible: It is not expressed in a straightforward, explicit way but is rather maintained as ‘hidden’ (ibid., p. 70).

It is primarily the RE in Germany, England, and Norway that serves as an example in Alberts’s discussion, and a prominent argument in this respect is that Christianity is, in one way or another, more or less transparently, assumed to be the ideal both in regard to the view of other religions and as a basis for developing a desirable approach to values and norms. Here, Alberts refers to the designation ‘small “c” confessional’ RE, introduced in Jensen and Kjeldsen (2013), used to describe a religious teaching that is ‘nominally non-confessional… in which the confessional character is hidden but nevertheless there’ (Alberts, 2019, p. 8). Alberts points out that there are significant differences between the approaches to RE that she discusses, but argues that such a comparative analysis as the one she presents

shows some striking similarities, despite the critical differences between the approaches. Many European school systems have their roots in a religious system, in which a religious perspective, for a long time, used to be unquestioned framework for education. These systems have been increasingly secularised, but religion itself as a subject matter seems to have been exempted from that process. This is obvious in the separative system in which religion (and only religion) is addressed in a confessional way, or in a small ‘c’ confessional ‘ethics’ or ‘values and norms’ subject that still does not start from a secular approach religion (ibid., 16).

Alberts cites Sweden as an example of a context where an integrative and non-confessional approach to RE is used, but she does not discuss it further. One question, however, is to what extent her criticism of a frequently ‘hidden’ and ‘mystified’ presence of bias towards a religious, and specifically Christian, notion also permeating many non-confessional approaches to RE also encompasses the Swedish model. As I have shown, it is unequivocally the case that the current ‘non-denominational’ RE has its roots in the former—denominational—Christianity subject, and thus the question can be asked regarding whether the references to ‘Christian ethics’ that I have criticized above can be considered yet another example of the bias Alberts discusses.

One would imagine that the answer to this question is a given: it is, one might think, just such bias and prioritization in the Swedish curriculum I have identified and criticized in the previous question. The reference to a ‘Christian ethics’ lacks an explicit, let alone detailed, justification, and that would be a reason to ask whether this could possibly be the result of unawareness or ignorance.

Here, however, we come to what appears to be a crossroads in the interpretation of the concept of Christian ethics in the Swedish curricula. If I interpret Alberts correctly, the existence of this concept could, more or less generally, be interpreted in terms of religious or—or more precisely Christian—bias, either in direct form with Christian ethics specified in terms of definite norms and values, or in which such desirable norms and values can generally be said to be best supported and encouraged on a Christian basis. However, I doubt that dichotomizing these two options is the only possible interpretation of how the term is used. It seems to me that it is not obvious that the existence of the concept of Christian ethics must be interpreted in terms of such bias, if Christian faith and tradition are assumed to be neither necessary nor sufficient prerequisites for sustainable norms and values to be defended and maintained.

What I interpret as Alberts’s sharp dichotomization between denominational, confessional and non-denominational, non-confessional RE makes me self-critically question whether I might have previously pushed the criticism of the Swedish curriculum’s statements about ‘Christian ethics’ too far. It should be said that Alberts, as I have pointed out above, does not discuss the Swedish organization of teaching on religions in more detail in her article, and that I am therefore not sure whether there is room in her argument for a milder contrast between the opposites of the dichotomy. Some of her statements suggest that such a thing is possible; but in that case, as far as I can see, it is not given any closer attention.

In any case, what I perceive as a sharp dichotomization in Alberts’s representation makes me want to seek a minor yet grave difference between a strictly denominational variant of RE on the one hand and a strictly non-denominational one on the other. My suspicion is that such a thing may be needed, in order to capture the use and meaning of the concept of Christian ethics in the Swedish curriculum. What would such an interpretation look like?

8 Christian traditional ethics: two conceptual dimensions

As stated, the Swedish curricula stipulate that the ethical foundation for Swedish schools, including such concepts as individual freedom and integrity as well as the equal value of all people, should be represented and imparted ‘by fostering in the individual a sense of justice, generosity, tolerance and responsibility’, achieved in accordance with ‘the ethics borne by a Christian tradition and Western humanism’ (Skolverket, 2018, p. 5).

Let me start by making it clear that I interpret these four values as both evaluative and descriptive; that is to say, as ‘thick’ in the sense that Bernard Williams in his well-known discussion on the distinction between thick and ‘thin’ values suggested (Williams, 1995). In contrast to thin concepts, such as ‘good’ or ‘ought’, according to Williams, thick ones are both evaluative and descriptive in the sense that they are sensitive to facts and factual circumstances—which, as Pekka Väyrynen asserts in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, means that they are usable in a sense in which thin concepts are not:

Because of their descriptiveness, thick concepts are especially good candidates for evaluative concepts that pick out properties in the word. Thus they provide an avenue for thinking about ethical claims as being about the world in the same way as descriptive claims (Väyrynen, 2021).

I will not enter a more thorough discussion here about how Williams characterizes ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ concepts, although I have doubts that ‘thin’ concepts would possess no descriptive dimensions at all, which would invite interesting assessments of the extent to which they also, albeit in a more flexible sense, refer to factual circumstances (cf. Väirynen, 2021).

In any case, given that the values listed as normative in the Swedish curricula can be perceived to refer to descriptive content, there are also conditions for argumentatively interpreting and assessing this content. It is possible to argue for what, for example, ‘generosity’ and ‘tolerance’ mean, and when the meaning of these concepts can (or cannot) be said to correspond to a real relationship. Those who lack the ability to share are not generous, and those who do not treat people of other faiths or beliefs respectfully are not tolerant; and it is in principle possible to reach agreement on when the referential conditions for applying these concepts are met.

Such a principled consensus is important for my interpretation of the Swedish curriculum’s reference to ‘the ethics borne by a Christian tradition and Western humanism’. When the curriculum has spoken of the values that can be linked to a Christian tradition, a possible interpretation is that it is not about any purely internal ethical conceptualizations. These are values that are evaluative in the sense that they are considered desirable on normative, universal human grounds, but at the same time are attributed to identifiable descriptive content which, in accordance with certain referential conditions, can be considered to be fulfilled, or not. Here, the curricula designate Christian tradition and Western humanism as the discourse within which said values are interpreted and practised, but there is no explicit position that it is only within these bounds that an acceptable interpretation and practicality can take place, let alone any rejection of the notion that such interpretation and practicality could not also occur in other historical or contemporary discourses.

In other words, there is nothing in the wording of the curricula to suggest that the values attached to a Christian tradition would be exclusively related to, or harboured in, this tradition only. It is general ethical values that are recognized in relation to this tradition, but there is nothing in the wording that suggests that values are perceived to be identifiable, nurtured, and protected only there. The values are prescribed to be the subject of education within the framework of such a tradition, but the wording contains no, more or less, principled reservation that they could also be successfully sanctioned in other traditions.

9 About cultural-historical bias

One conclusion is therefore that the wording of the Swedish curricula cannot be interpreted to mean that the stated values cannot be found in and practised in traditions other than a Christian one, but only that it is important in Swedish schools’ activities that said values be nurtured in accordance with such a tradition. Here, of course, Alberts’s criticism of a milder form of Christian bias, whereby Christian tradition is generally advocated as the best basis for developing norms and values satisfactorily, can be used to show that it is precisely such a general bias that the Swedish curricula’s formulation express. But it seems, frankly, that there is little to suggest that such criticism is valid.

The curricula stipulate that all teaching in Swedish schools be ‘non-confessional’ and ‘objective’, and it omits positions of any particular doctrine or belief. This will contribute to the development of a broad and diverse discussion and analysis:

The school should be open to different ideas and encourage their expression. It should emphasize the importance of forming personal standpoints and provide opportunities for doing this. Teaching should be objective and encompass a range of different approaches. All parents should be able to send their children to school, fully confident that their children will not be prejudiced in favour of any particular view (Skolverket, 2018, p. 6).

If one looks more closely at the revised RE syllabus that was implemented during autumn 2022, it is also difficult to find signs of a bias towards Christian traditional ethics. A general objective is as follows:

The teaching of the subject of religious studies should give students the conditions to develop.

  • knowledge of religions and other philosophies of life, as well as of different interpretations and varying practices within them,

  • the ability to critically examine issues related to the relationship between religion and society, and.

  • the ability to reason about ethics, moral issues and life issues from different perspectives (Skolverket, 2021).Footnote 3

The core content for Years 4–6, for instance, is described in this way:

Ethics and life issues.

  • Conversations about and reflection on everyday moral issues based on the students’ own arguments and different religious interpretations. Such issues can concern, for example, responsibility, exclusion, violations, gender equality and sexuality.

  • Conversations about and reflection on life issues based on the students’ own thoughts and different religious interpretations. Such questions can be about, for example, what is important in life and different notions of what happens after death (ibid.).

The same pattern appears in the core content for Years 7–9, as well as in the syllabus that has been in force since 2011.

There is also a formulation in the revised syllabus that, I believe, can clearly help in interpreting the curriculum’s reference to ‘Christian traditional ethics’. Forming part of the core content for Years 4–6, it reads as follows:

The importance of Christianity for values and culture in Swedish society past and present (ibid.)

I think this is how the writing of the curriculum should be perceived. Christian traditional values should not be perceived as the only reasonable or defensible ethical platform for developing a good and desirable approach to norms and values. Rather, it is cultural-historical knowledge that is valuable for understanding the ethical background and contemporary development of the Swedish social context, its basis for ethical arguments about morality, and relationships in their individual and collective dimensions.

The syllabus opens up for conversations about ethics and morals based on both different religious traditions and the students’ own arguments. There is no evidence that such arguments must be made on a Christian basis. The intent seems to be to create the conditions for a broad, inclusive dialogue on ethics, philosophies of life, and existential issues.

The exegesis of the dichotomization between non-denominational and denominational RE that Alberts seems to represent, and which I, myself, counted as a possible interpretation in this article’s introduction—namely that any curricular writing referring to Christian tradition must result in an unjust bias, even when presented in a non-confessional RE context—should be rejected. Things aren’t that simple. A cultural-historical reference can play the role of signalling the importance of knowing something about the ethical tradition that forms the historical background of today’s society, regardless of what values are nurtured with reference to either Christian or other religious and philosophical traditions.

I therefore reach the conclusion that the fact that achieving how a sense of justice, generosity, tolerance and responsibility is represented and imparted in school, is to be approached in accordance with the ethics borne by a Christian tradition does not necessarily constitute a threat to the non-denominational character of any teaching, be it in RE or other subjects, in Swedish schools.

10 A final reflection

There are many ethical concepts and principles that border between what can be considered ‘secular’ and ‘religious’, ‘non-denominational’ and ‘denominational’. The recently deceased South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, like Nelson Mandela, is associated with the well-known expression ubuntu, which, on a fundamental level, refers to the importance of a person being what he is through his relationship with others. In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount he mentions the ‘Golden Rule’, a call to action for the good of others, which is found in many religions and worldviews outside the Christian community. Such cross-border, universal ethical rules unite traditions and people, even if their core content is expressed in slightly different ways. More or less universal ethical values can, naturally enough, be expressed and exemplified in various ways in relation to the diversity of cultural, social, and religious conditions, but this does not mean that such expressions and examples need to take one-sided and fundamentalist paths whereby one’s own interpretation, without a will for dialogue and an overall consensus, prevails.

Such a complex picture of how ethics and values can be seen in the light of both universal and specific cultural and religious interpretations and expressions, means that those who teach ethics need to be given the opportunity to develop a competence to interpret and critically analyze the conditions for working pedagogically in a non-denominational arena. Such competence is anchored in knowledge of, among other things, ethics, religion, culture and pedagogy, and it creates the conditions for conducting an ethics teaching that provides space for both intercultural and existential perspectives and considerations.

When teaching about values such as justice, generosity, tolerance, and responsibility in the Swedish curricula can be achieved in accordance with ‘the ethics born of a Christian tradition and Western humanism’, this can be interpreted as a, more or less, fundamentalist denominational statement. As we have seen, however, there is reason to doubt the general reasonableness of such an interpretation. The regulation on non-denominational teaching in Swedish schools is strongly projected in the curricula; therefore, the reference to a Christian tradition should be perceived as cultural-historical, as a clarification that the historical Swedish discourse has been characterized by Christian tradition rather than as a denominational statement—or, for that matter, as I suggested above as a possibility, a statement that is dutiful but uninitiated.

Being clear about the historical roots of the ethical platform advocated in the curricula is not the same as claiming that such a platform cannot emerge from other ideological and existential roots. In the event of that such a totalitarian claim was to be made, the possibility to conduct non-denominational RE would fall on ethical as well as historical grounds. However, no such claim is made in the Swedish curricula. Thus, a non-denominational teaching of ethics can, without contraposition or contradiction, allow space for reflective interpretations and analyses of the historical, religious roots of its ethical platform.