Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Religion and Modern Educational Aspirations

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_2


Religion is – across national context – commonly said to have had a historically central role in educating and raising future generations in premodern times. In popular as well as in academic discourse, it has often been assumed that the non-West was and still is particularly marked and even controlled by religion up until today, and thus it is dubbed “premodern.” The West, including Western education, has in contrast been identified with modernity and thus secular rationality. Modernity in Europe and North America has been perceived as based on separation of religion from public matters, including separation of religion from modern schooling. Such views are related to the concept of secularization that up until the 1990s dominated Western educational and historical research, as well as religion studies, including voices critical toward secularization as a political project.

Since secularization as a research paradigm was increasingly found inadequate from especially the 1990s, historiographic educational research has challenged the narratives on modern schooling and pointed to how religion has played a role in modern European and North American educational effort: How religion, especially in the form of Protestantism, has been used and transformed in the modern civilizing mission of schooling, in nation-building through schooling, and in the languages of education, and as such, circulated globally. The concepts of modern schooling that developed in Europe and North America from especially the mid-nineteenth century onward have been part of transforming and reinforcing religion globally from colonialism to present day politics of globalization.

The Question of Religion in Educational Discourse

Though it is common sense in the educational field that religion before modernity has played a central role in education, opinions differ when turning to a perspective of the present. In, for instance, Europe, among teachers, scholars, and teacher educators, as well as among politicians and other debating voices in the media, roughly two main positions can be detected. One position points to the fact that religion in the meaning of Christianity had such an important cultural impact that its role should be maintained since it provides the education systems with history, cultural background, and morality for the future citizens. The other position views religion as belonging to the past and views it as progress to leave religion in the past: The role of teaching future citizens morality and conduct today should, from this position, be sustained by what is seen as secular bodies of school knowledge such as philosophy of life, civics, etc.

Both approaches, though ideologically differently positioned, share a prescriptive aim, namely, to point out what role religion should play and thus which conclusions should be drawn in the education systems. The positions also rest on another common presupposition, namely, that religion has historically been fraught with morality and as such delivered the basis for the legislation and constitutions of States (“the law”), hence the foundation of present society. Religion is in other words viewed as a form of morality in the meaning of guidelines for individuals as well as the moral basis for modern ideas of the political.

Seen from a historiographic point of view, such assumptions are somehow correct and yet not very precise. Though it is correct that in, for instance, Medieval Europe the church played a crucial role, it was just as much as a political, economic, and sometimes military force, and religion can thus not be confined to being a provider of morality. While the reformation in especially Northern and Central Europe led to new relations and divisions between State and church institutions, for instance, to several confessions and thus church institutions within the same State, it did not necessarily mean a division between church and State administration. In the Lutheran States in Scandinavia, parish priests on the contrary served as local administrative representatives of the State, and it was not least in this capacity that church and schools remained and became increasingly connected, namely, during the forming of the State education systems in the nineteenth century.

Viewing the role of religion – and religion in education – as confined to morality and a supplier of culture and cultural heritage is closely connected to modernity and to a political process of secularization in the meaning of division of church institutions from State institutions such as schools. This process began much earlier in republican States such as the USA than in, for instance, the European monarchies.

In light of this (ideological), positions as the abovementioned do, however, point to and exemplify central elements regarding how religion as a phenomenon has been perceived and made useful in the European and North American States throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, meaning during the emergence of modern schooling and the founding of education as academic discipline and science. This period was also the formative period for modern State formation, where State crafting, especially from the early twentieth century, increasingly became based on functionalizing and optimizing the State body and its citizens by means of scientific results and methods. As part of this process, what today is defined as religion became scientifically conceptualized and described.

The educational field has played a pivotal role for projects of science-based State crafting and as a central venue for the political project of secularization. Religion did not disappear from education. Rather it was transformed and spread out, for instance as a central part of what historian and educational theorist Daniel Tröhler calls languages of education (2011) and as part of the salvation project of modern schooling (e.g., Baader 2005; Popkewitz 2011). Furthermore, religion in education can be seen as a force in what Emilio Gentile (in relation to Italian fascism) has named the sacralization of politics (1996) and as related to what, e.g., Robert Bellah, inspired by, e.g., Rousseau’s work on “The Social Contract,” has conceptualized as civil religion (1967). Finally, education in the form of religion and religion in the form of education have been important parts of European colonial projects, a process which has been crucial on the one hand to how religion took the shape of a civilizing education mission, which also reflected back on the metropolitan terrain of empire and on the other hand for the whole basis of talking about religion as a phenomenon.

Christianity as Religion and Education

As an academic concept religion was originally a European creation, a provincial entity that got circulated globally not least through colonialism, for instance, through missions and migrations. Historian of European intellectual history Tomoko Masuzawa has pointed to how the concept of the so-called world religions should be understood as situated in the European project of claiming universalism and as closely connected to hierarchies of othering (2005). While the upcoming discipline of anthropology played a decisive role as knowledge producer during the British Empire, the German universities, for instance, became an important site for developing what today is known as Comparative Religion.

The emergence of comparative studies of religion was part of a general rise in exploring and conquering “the Orient” through knowledge production in, for instance, the philological disciplines, which boomed during the nineteenth century. At the Northern European universities, a new range of academic disciplines centered on “culture” developed, an effort that included attempts to make academic knowledge about culture useful to society. In, for instance, Germany, liberal theologian scholars were among the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pioneers of studying religion as culture. A part of this scholarly effort was to make the new science-based knowledge on religion useful for the modern State. These so-called cultural Protestant theologians argued that academic knowledge about religion as culture could provide State and society with culture and thus bridge between a growing divide between Christianity and culture by means of academic knowledge. Many also involved in the Social Christian movement which sought to provide solutions to the so-called social question as an alternative to the rising labor movement: How to resolve the growing poverty in especially the urban setting – for instance, through education – without fundamentally changing the social divisions of society.

The new cultural disciplines were in other words utilized from the outset, and seeking to utilize new academic results in the education system and to involve in the educational sciences was part of this endeavor for many cultural protestant scholars of culture. A German example is the reform pedagogue and Jena-plan architect Peter Petersen, trained theologian under, e.g., the Danish-German-Swedish liberal theologian and pioneer of comparative religion Edvard Lehmann, who also involved in the question of education. In Sweden, comparative religion in the form of “history of religion” became integrated in the school curriculum for religious instruction in 1919 as one of the first examples of this in the world. Such reform did not implicate that all religions were seen as equally valuable for developing moral and culture as part of creating good citizens for the State; rather, Christianity was viewed as being the highest of cultural value, but also, for instance, “non-Christian” figures such as Zarathustra could be of value in State education (Buchardt 2015).

Another central site for globally distributing the concept of religion into social practice was missionary education (and the upcoming discipline of missionary studies which collected knowledge about religion as well as on for instance educational efforts in “the missionary fields”). The missions were confronted with what in the period was increasingly understood as differences in culture among populations under colonial rule, and missionary education thus in different ways became a central site of the “civilizing missions” that were able to handle difference.

Historian Parna Sengupta has in studies of Bengal during the British rule shown how colonial pedagogy cannot be understood as a Western secularization of the non-West: The “involvement of missionaries in the expansion of modern education ultimately reinforced, rather than weakened, the place of religion and religious identity in the development of Indian Modernity” (Sengupta 2011, p. 1). This contributed to setting the conditions under which Muslim and Hindu educational reformers operated and which ultimately “made education one of the primary ways in which Bengalis, whether Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, came to identify and ultimately divide themselves” (Ibid, p. 5).

Also “at home” – in the metropolitan terrain of the Empire – missionary practice impacted education and led to new practices concerning religion in schools. Historians of education Rob Freathy, Stephen Parker, and Jonathan Doney have shown how the late twentieth-century reform of religious education in domestic UK schools where a so-called world religion approach was adopted can be traced back to, for instance, the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference in 1910 and the ecumenical movement which developed from such international cooperation (see, e.g., Freathy et al. 2015).

Protestantism, Educational Reform, and the Global Languages of Education

The world religion approach to the teaching of religion in schools can be understood as part of the development of concepts for schooling, which could grasp the social and “cultural diversity” among the populations to be schooled. The world religion concept utilized in schooling can simultaneously – in line with Masuzawa’s points – be viewed as tool for dividing and creating hierarchies of population through hierarchies of knowledge.

The same can be said concerning the cultural Protestant academic involvement in the aspirations of modernizing schooling and modernizing the State through schooling in Northern Europe, e.g., in Sweden and Germany in the early twentieth century, as well as with their Protestant equivalents across the Atlantic: Protestant reformers that involved in the so-called Social Gospel Movement in the USA. Historian of education and educational theorist Thomas S. Popkewitz has shown how Puritan narratives of salvation reappeared in American progressive education, intertwined with national exceptionalist ideas about the chosen people. In addition, this entangled with ideas on the moral disorder in the conditions as well as in the people of urban settings, a legacy from the Social Gospel Movement to which many of the educational reformers related during the early twentieth century (Popkewitz 2011, e.g., pp. 220ff, Tröhler 2011).

The Social Question inscribed ordering and classifying principles about modes of living that differentiated and divided the qualities encased as civic virtues of “the chosen people” from those different and casting out in other, unlivable spaces. […] The very inclusive principles that ordered the sciences of education and pedagogical practices entailed inequality through the divisions that characterized and distinguished the qualities of individuality. (Popkewitz 2011, pp. 235–236)

Though there were crucial exchanges across the Atlantic, differences regarding confession and State formation, which also impacted the field of education, are important to note. While tracing the religious elements in the language system behind contemporary globally circulating educational discourse, Tröhler has pointed to distinctions between republicanism and the monarchies and between the languages of different Protestantisms. Calvinism and Puritanism were influential in republics such as Switzerland and the USA and Lutheranism in, for instance, imperial Germany (e.g., Tröhler 2011). An orientation toward Bildung and thus “Geist” and “the culture sphere” in German pedagogy and toward “the social sphere” and the demands of the republic in American educational science, can thus not be understood independently of the different Protestant languages which fed into educational thought and modern educational aspirations.

This is also mirrored in the differences between the roads taken by German and Nordic Cultural Protestantism and the American Social Gospel Movement, despite similarities. Both movements were confession-wise quite open and comprehensive, but the Lutheran imprint was strong in the North European movements, whereas the Social Gospel Movement developed in an environment marked by reformed Calvinism, the latter with a strong tradition for communal and republican engagement (cp. Tröhler 2011).

The new liberal Protestantism in Northern Europe did also have its social wing, for instance, the German Evangelisch-sozialer Kongress, a social and political movement, active from the 1890s and into the 1920s, with the aim of dealing with social problems from a Protestant ethical point of view, featuring key figures such as the pastor and politician Friedrich Naumann who also engaged in educational questions. However, it was not least by transforming religion into culture and putting it to work for the State in formal education that liberal Protestantism and educational reforming intertwined in Germany and in the German-influenced Nordic States (Buchardt 2015).

Protestant languages also formed part of the German reform pedagogy, but as it has been explored by historian and educational theorist Maike Sophie Baader, the Christian elements mixed with inspiration from, for instance, Theosophy, modern Western occultism, and esotericism in what Baader calls figures of thought (Denkfiguren) such as “the child as holy” and “the teacher as pastor” (e.g., Baader 2005).

Religion and Education as Scholarly Object

Rather than seeing modern schooling and modern educational aspiration as secular, it might make more sense to understand educational modernity in its European and North American shape as, in the words of historian of education Fritz Osterwalder, pedagogization of the public sphere which went hand in hand with a sacralization of pedagogy (Osterwalder 2006). The extent to which religion in modern pedagogized form has been part of a sacralization of State and politics and of making the civil religious has not yet been fully explored, but that religion has played a vital role in this process is beyond reasonable doubt.

It is, however, important to note that insofar as it makes sense to talk about sacralization of State and schooling, it is to be understood as the flipside of the coin in a process of increasing secularization in the meaning of institutional division of State and church, a process which in the Protestant-dominated States in Europe took place from the late eighteenth century onward. The status of religious instruction as a subject matter in schools was during this process a highly debated topic in, for instance, many European States, and still is today.

The question of religion in education historically can, however, not be confined to the question of religious education. Just as the intellectual history of religion in schooling is broader than religion as a subject matter, so is the institutional history, as, for instance, historian Daniel Lindmark has pointed out (Lindmark 2015). Naturally, the question of religion in schooling can also not be confined to Europe and North America. Nonetheless the global languages of education circulated through, e.g., supranational bodies can be said to draw extensively on what historian and educational theorist Bernadette Baker has conceptualized as Western world forming (Baker 2009). The same can be said of the very concept of religion, and thus – once again – about its pedagogically utilized modern forms.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Learning and PhilosophyAalborg UniversityCopenhagenDenmark