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Oslo, 2-5 September 2004 - The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief


The current debate about religious education and freedom of religion in Norway



By dr. Oddbjørn Leirvik, Associate Professor, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo


Based on a paper presented to the conference on “Religious Education and Education in Religions”, Swedish Institute in Alexandria, 2002




Excerpts from the Education Act

General aims of the KRL-subject

Pedagogical emphases



For some decades, the discussion about freedom of religion in Norway has been strongly linked with the debate on religious, or rather Christian education in public schools. Until 1969, only Lutheran Christians were allowed to teach religion (i.e., Christianity) in public primary schools. Until then, confessional instruction in Lutheran Christianity was the only teaching of religion offered by the state schools. Many non-Lutheran pupils used the long established right to opt out. Only from 1971, an alternative was organised under the more neutral label of "worldviews" or "life stances". The "worldviews"-alternative in primary and lower secondary school came about because of pressure from the secular humanists in Norway. Only those who did not belong to the Church of Norway had the right to choose the "worldviews"-alternative – or to opt out entirely from religious and life stance education in school. In upper secondary school, a more neutral subject entitled "Religion and ethics" has long been compulsory.


Private schooling is a weak tradition in Norway and encompass only 1.5% of all primary and lower secondary pupils. After some debate, the first Muslim private school was opened in 2001. But the vast majority of pupils (also the Muslims) go to public schools.


This means that the discussion about religious education and religious freedom in Norway is mainly a question of what takes place in public schools. Public schools in Norway, as well as public kindergartens, have still got a Christian objects clause which states that kindergartens and schools should help the parents to raise their children in accordance with the basic values of Christianity. For primary and lower secondary schools, the formulation runs as follows:


“The object of primary and lower secondary education shall be, in agreement and co-operation with the home, to help to give pupils a Christian and moral upbringing, to develop their mental and physical abilities, and to give them good general knowledge so that they may become useful and independent human beings at home and in society.”


As one might expect, the clause in question has become an issue of heated debate during the last decades. From the 1980s, Norway has become increasingly multireligious, due to immigration and pluralizing processes in society. The Muslims, for instance, now constitute 2% of the population, and the Humanist Association about 1.5%. But the Christian churches still comprise more than 90% of the population. The Lutheran Church of Norway is by far the largest, covering 86%. Despite a steady reform process in the direction of church autonomy and equality between the faith communities, the Church of Norway is still as state church (for instance, the state appoints the bishops). In financial terms, non-discrimination has been secured by an Act that entitles every faith or life stance community that registers itself to exactly the same amount of money per member as the Church of Norway receives from state and municipal budgets.


In the 1990s, the need was felt to restructure religious education in schools so as to provide an opportunity for mutual learning. A new system of religious education in primary and lower secondary schools was introduced in 1997. Until then, parents had three options as to religion in school: either (1) Christianity with a confessional, Lutheran basis, or (2) "worldviews" with a neutral or even secular flavour, or (3) no religious or life stance education in school. In principle, the faith communities could establish their own out of school religious education, with financial support from the authorities. Some mosques took advantage of the opportunity and were thus able to receive some financial support for their qur’anic schools (only for those Muslim children who opted out from religion in school).


From 1997, this has changed and all pupils are now supposed to take part in the new and compulsory subject "Christianity, Religions and Life Stances" (the Norwegian acronym is KRL, for “Kristendom, religion og livssynskunnskap”). No alternatives can longer be established. Full exemption is neither not possible, only so-called "partial exemption" from activities that parents might deem to run contrary to their own faith (i.e. reading prayers aloud, or participating in other worship-related activities). The Education Act presupposes that all religions are taught with the same pedagogical approach and treated on their own terms as "a living source of faith, morals and life interpretation".


When first introduced, the KRL subject met with considerable suspicion and protest from the non-Christian minorities. Their apprehension had probably been raised by certain formulations in the general part of the curriculum (from 1993), which seem to refer to Christianity as the national bond: “Christian faith and tradition constitute a deep current in our history – a heritage that unites us as a people across religious persuasions”.


In the course of the process, some concessions were made to minority interest and resource persons from the minority communities (Muslims, Buddhists, secular humanists) were invited to contribute to the work on the curriculum.


The new curriculum implies that for the first time, all Norwegian pupils will receive a substantial amount of knowledge not only of Christianity but also of Islam and the other world religions, as well as of philosophy and more secular outlooks on life. Apart from ensuring that all pupils will have a good knowledge of the Christian tradition as well as of other religions and worldviews/life stances, the intention has been to open a space for dialogue training in an increasingly multireligious society.


Despite these good intentions, to which most parents and faith communities would probably subscribe, minority representatives initially saw the new subject as a just another way of reinforcing "the Christian cultural heritage" or "Christian and Humanist values". Although several adjustments have been made to accommodate for minority interests, many minority representatives still struggle for the right to opt out of the new subject entirely, and – possibly – to organise alternatives as before. Both the Humanist Association and the Islamic Council brought the case to Norwegian courts in 1999. After their cases were turned down, the Humanist Association plans to bring it before the European Court in Strasbourg.


Many Muslims have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the new compulsory subject. They are still suspicious towards the original design of the subject ("Christianity plus"), and critical of the idea of a compulsory subject that is mainly Christian in quantitative terms. At the local level, however, the situation is often different, and many Muslim parents seem gradually to have become more positive towards the subject because of the inclusive way in which it is now being practised in many schools. The general principle of adjustment to local context makes it possible to put more emphasis on Islam in schools with many Muslims. It might thus be that the subject (with some further adjustments) may eventually become rather flexible and pluralistic in practice.


The case is replete with potentially wide-ranging consequences. Within say ten years, we will know whether a unified school system – including a uniform system of religious education – will survive the new pluralism in Norway, or whether people will organise themselves differently in order to ensure their freedom of religion.


At the level of rights, the current discussion about the KRL subject may be seen as a controversy about how to strike the right balance between


·        The right of society (to delineate its cultural heritage and define its values)

·        The right of the faith communities (to have a say in public education? to establish alternatives?)

·        The right of the parents (to decide about the moral and religious upbringing of their children)

·        The right of the child (to be well oriented; engaged and critical; and free from pressure).




  1. Excerpts from the Education Act
  2. General aims of the KRL-subject
  3. Pedagogical emphases



1   Act relating to Primary and Secondary Education (Education Act)

Last amended 30 June 2000

Section 1-2. The object of education

The object of primary and lower secondary education shall be, in agreement and cooperation with the home, to help to give pupils a Christian and moral upbringing, to develop their mental and physical abilities, and to give them good general knowledge so that they may become useful and independent human beings at home and in society.

Upper secondary education shall aim to develop the skills, understanding and responsibility that prepare pupils for life at work and in society, and assist the pupils, apprentices and trainees in their personal development. Upper secondary education shall contribute to increased awareness and understanding of fundamental Christian and humanist values, our national cultural heritage, democratic ideals and scientific thought and method.

The primary, lower secondary and upper secondary schools shall further the equal status and equal rights of all human beings, intellectual freedom and tolerance, ecological understanding and international co-responsibility.


Section 2-4. Teaching in the subject Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education. Exemption from religious activities, etc.


Teaching in Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education shall

·        provide a thorough knowledge of the Bible and Christianity both as cultural heritage and Evangelical-Lutheran faith,

·        provide knowledge of other Christian denominations,

·        provide knowledge of other world religions and philosophies of life, ethical and philosophical topics,

·        promote understanding and respect for Christian and humanist values and

·        promote understanding, respect and the ability to carry out a dialogue between people with differing views concerning beliefs and philosophies of life.


Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education is an ordinary school subject that shall normally be attended by all pupils. Teaching in the subject shall not involve preaching.

Teachers of Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education shall take as their point of departure the objects clause of the primary and lower secondary school laid down in section 1-2, and present Christianity, other religions and philosophies of life on the basis of their distinctive characteristics. Teaching of the different topics shall be founded on the same educational principles.

On the basis of written notification from parents, pupils shall be exempted from attending those parts of the teaching at the individual school that they, on the basis of their own religion or philosophy of life, perceive as being the practice of another religion or adherence to another philosophy of life. This may involve religious activities either in or outside the classroom. In cases where exemption is notified, the school shall, as far as possible and especially in the lower primary school, seek solutions involving differentiated teaching within the curriculum.

Pupils who have reached the age of 15 may themselves give written notification pursuant to the fourth paragraph.


2        General aims and structure of the subject (from the curriculum)

Christianity, Religions and Life Stances

General aims of the subject are

·        to make pupils thoroughly acquainted with the Bible and with Christianity as cultural heritage and as a living source of faith, morality, and a view of life

·        to acquaint pupils with other world religions and orientations as living sources of faith, morality, and views of life

·        to promote understanding and respect for the Christian and humanist values on which school education is based

·        to promote understanding, respect and the capacity for dialogue between people with different views on questions of faith and ethical orientation of life

·        to stimulate pupils’ personal growth and development



The structure of the subject

1 Christianity +


2 Other religions +

3 Ethics/philosophy

Primary 1.-4.


Other religions and life stances

Ethics and philosophy

Primary 5.-7.


Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Secular Humanism

Ethics and philosophy

Lower secondary

Holy texts in Christianity and other religions

Religious and life stance pluralism in modern time

Ethics and philosophy



3        Pedagogical emphases


"Teaching of the different topics shall be founded on the same educational principles."


·        the national curriculum Û the local context

·        the aesthetical dimension

·        storytelling (primary) Û critical reflection (secondary)

·        engagement Û distance

·        philosophical and ethical dialogue