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


Multi-Faith Religious Education In A Religiously Mixed Context: Some Norwegian Perspectives


By Halldis Breidlid &Tove Nicolaisen, Oslo University College, Faculty of Education.   

Paper presented at RE Research Symposium in Lund (Sweden), March 11-14 2004




Since Norway has a Lutheran State Church, “the Church of Norway”, to which 90% of the population belongs, religious education (RE) in school has traditionally been based on the Lutheran confession. Until 1969 RE was basically “Christian Instruction”, designed to teach the baptised children. Other religions were presented in comparison with Christianity. The subject “Social science” was responsible for most of the orientation about other religions. Since 1969 the task of RE in school has been to provide knowledge about Lutheran Christianity and Bible stories as well as to put a strong emphasis on moral education. Children who do not belong to the Lutheran Church, could be exempted from RE in school. These children have had two other options:



·                    to participate in another subject called “Life Stances”, whose aim has been  to give neutral orientation about different religions and secular world views, in addition to moral education in general

·                    not to participate in  religious education at school


As Norway has become a multicultural society this practice turned out to be a big problem, especially in Oslo, where most of the non-Christians live. The students were separated when religious and moral issues were dealt with. Such deprivation of a common space for dialogue and exchange of existential views has been dissatisfactory for the teachers as well as for the students. 




As a growing multicultural society Norway continually faces the challenges of plurality. In 1997 a new curriculum for primary and lower secondary school was therefore introduced. The emphasis is now not only on Christianity, but also on all the other main religions as well as philosophy and secular world views. The subject, called KRL (Christianity, Religion, Life stances) is compulsory for all children, whether they are Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Hindu, Muslim or atheist. Cultural understanding, tolerance, dialogue and identity building are in focus. At the same time the curriculum documents are based on an essentialist understanding of culture, which means that the cultural heritage is seen as something given and absolute, something to be handed over to the next generation, almost as it is. In this perspective individual identity is seen as developed in encounter with the cultural heritage. On the other hand the increasing plurality in the society is seen as a threat to this identity project, even if the same documents want these stable identities to be developed and enriched by other cultures. Such a perception of culture is challenged by the implementation of a multi-faith RE in the classroom, where religious plurality is reflected. The aim of the curriculum project – to present all religions as “living sources for faith, moral and life orientation” – is widely understood as the task of KRL to reflect the religious plurality in society and in school. Therefore, reality is a bit more complex then the documents assume.


Dealing with the challenges for identity building set by a modern plural society, the Norwegian RE researcher Geir Skeie discusses the difference between a traditional and a modern identity. (Skeie, 1998) Traditional identities are built within a traditional framework, where the basic stories in the culture are essential elements in the building process. On the other hand modern identity is described by Skeie as a “transversal identity”, which is only understandable from the perspective of a constructivist understanding of culture, where diversity and change are intrinsic aspects. A constructivist understanding of culture means that culture exists only as a continuing process constructed and reconstructed all the time. Human beings more than objective “culture” are in focus. In this perspective the individuals are continually “working on their identity,” using and incorporating elements from many traditions. Another Norwegian, Sissel Østberg, has done research on Pakistani children in Oslo. Her conclusion is that children relating to two cultures normally will benefit from this. They are developing high competence to live in different cultural contexts. Østberg calls this an “integral plural identity”. (Østberg, 1998) 


Moreover the plurality of society is a challenge to the construction of unity and common values. There might very well be a tension between the need of society to build up a feeling of unity and common values among citizens and – on the other hand – expectations of religious freedom and tolerance towards diversity and otherness. The discourse of “citizenship” is useful here. (Jackson, ed., 2004)  




The educational policy in the post-apartheid South Africa reflects this double aim: unity and diversity, expressed by the slogan “Unity in Diversity”. The new integrated school system aims at taking the social, ethnic, cultural and religious challenges of the new South Africa seriously. In spite of the deep differences in terms of historical and contemporary political experiences between the two countries, there are remarkable common features between South Africa and Norway when it comes to religious and cultural diversity in school. Both societies have to deal seriously with new challenges of plurality, emerging from the new social and political situation, i.e. to build a nation – and a school – of unity as well as diversity and tolerance. We have discovered interesting similarities from a comparative study of the philosophy of plurality in the Norwegian curriculum and in the South African Curriculum 2005. It also raises new questions like: “What kinds of plurality are experienced as significant in different societies?” This is reflected partly in the curricula, partly in the schools. Another important question is: “How are the mixed challenges of traditional plurality, modern plurality and secularisation dealt with in the Norwegian compared to the South African society?”




Our ongoing project “Plurality as a challenge – from curriculum to practice” focuses on how teachers and school leaders in primary school deal with plurality. The interplay between curriculum and classroom activities is more complex than often assumed. Discussions about school subjects are often based on the written curriculum and on the assumption that the curriculum is carried out in every detail. However, what happens in the classroom is not identical with the written curriculum. In our project we look into what kind of interaction is taking place between the written curriculum and curriculum practice. Focus is upon how the philosophy of plurality in the curriculum is reflected in the classroom. As a methodological point of departure Goodlad’s theory of five “domains” of curriculum is appropriate (Goodlad et al., 1979): In the planning process preceding the written curriculum, ideas and ideologies exist as the Ideological Curriculum. The next domain, the Formal Curriculum is the document that gains official approval by the state and by the local school. The third domain, the Perceived Curriculum is how different persons and groups, in our context - the teachers, perceive the curriculum. The Operational Curriculum is what actually goes on in school and in the classroom. The last domain, Experiential Curriculum is how the pupils experience the teaching in the classroom, and what they actually learn. In our project we have been concerned about the second, the third and the fourth domain.


A main purpose in our project has been to establish a good connection between theory and practice. At a theoretical level there is a lot of discussion about the new plural societies and about cultural and religious plurality in school. On the one hand we have racism, hatred, the idea of “we” and “the other”; on the other hand values like knowledge, understanding, respect, tolerance and dialogue are promoted.


How are teachers dealing with these challenges in their daily practice? This is the main question. Our research focus has been on KRL and how this subject is utilised as a tool for understanding and tolerance. How is the KRL curriculum perceived by the teachers and school leaders and how is it made operational? Another question: what is most important for the teacher’s practice, the written curriculum or classroom reality itself? Our approach can be described as “action research” or as “research partnership,” the partners being teacher students and the ordinary teachers. Focus has been more on reciprocity and research subjects than on the more traditional relation between researcher and his or her objects. Part of our research was introducing different approaches like involvement through narratives and anthropological approach, as alternatives to the more traditional historical-systematic approach. In dealing with the different approaches in the classroom it became obvious that some approaches are more appropriate and fruitful than others in dealing with religious and cultural plurality. For example, approaches through narratives in a third grade class (8 years old) turned out to be far more successful and engaging than a more traditional historical-systematic approach.


These findings correspond with our theoretical work on narratives. We have been working on the topic in a didactical perspective for several years and through different projects. In the following we will present two of these projects.




According to the curriculum stories should be a main approach to all religious traditions in the KRL subject. This narrative approach is seen as a unique method concerning identity building, since the basic stories in a culture are considered to have great importance for the construction of identity. It is, however, necessary to ask some questions: How can stories from different religions contribute to the individual identity work in the context of a multi-faith RE? Are all stories from all traditions building and affirming the identity of all children, or are the Islamic stories only building the identity of the Muslim children, while the Christian stories are building the identity of the Christian children, etc.?


Different dimensions in stories

There has been a discussion in Norway about different approaches to stories in KRL. Some pedagogues emphasise the necessity of introducing all religious stories as part of a specific religious tradition - from the beginning. Others stress that also religious stories have a human, existential level open to everyone, independent of the religious and cultural context. If we regard stories this way, it means that all children can experience and learn from all stories - on the human level. That is why sometimes the teacher can introduce the story not as part of a religious tradition, but simply as a story. A consequence of this is that stories from all traditions can help people understand their own lives. For example, we can think of the Bible as a holy book with stories meant for use in the religious context. But we can also regard the Bible as a book full of stories about existential human problems and conditions: about relations between people, between human beings and nature, about the meaning of life. We can perceive the Indian epic Ramayana as a religious book for Hindus. But, at the same time, Ramayana can give much also to non-Hindus. It is a book about love, marriage, intrigues, about the relations between spouses, between parents, step-parents and children, between brothers - and so on. It is not necessary to believe in Rama as an avatar of Vishnu to benefit from the human aspects of Ramayana.


In the introduction to her book “Hindu Myths” (1975) Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty says that myths never have one single meaning. All myths have different levels, and she sketches four: the narrative, the divine, the cosmic and the human level.


In our work with stories (Breidlid & Nicolaisen, 1999 and 2000) we have developed a teaching model where three central dimensions in stories are emphasised. This model can be used as a tool both when stories are presented and when they are analysed. In our opinion this model takes seriously both the seducing power of stories and the children’s different backgrounds. The three dimensions are:


·                         The human, existential dimension (about human relations, the meaning of life etc)

·                         The common religious dimension (about themes that are common for different religions, like God’s mercy, the fight between good and evil etc)

·                         The specific religious dimension (about the central themes in a religion, like forgiveness in Christianity, enlightenment in Buddhism etc)


Different persons will experience stories differently, dependent on their background. Some will experience all three dimensions in a story; others will experience one or two. A non-religious person can experience stories from the religious traditions as thrilling stories, aesthetic stories, or stories about moral dilemmas. A religious person can experience stories both as stories about human values, as well as stories about religious values.


The “Gift to the Child” approach, developed in Birmingham, is of great interest in connection with the “human level thinking” (Grimmit et al., 1991; Hull, 1996). The idea is that small children cannot cope with religious traditions as such. What gives meaning, is to hear and talk about single stories, songs and artefacts. At the teaching stage that normally comes first, the idea is that all children shall learn and experience from the religious stories, whatever their religious background might be. The stories are the property of all children, and because of that, everybody is allowed to enter this world of stories. The next step is that the stories are put into a religious context, and only those who belong to the actual tradition, can enter this context. The religious context can for example be set by hearing a new story about the religious practice of a Hindu child. Religion is presented in context, the way it is lived and acted out by people. This last stage has similarities with the anthropological approach of The Religious Education and Community Project, Warwick University. (Jackson & Nesbitt, 1993; Jackson, 1997)


The dimension approach may be seen as a Western/Christian approach. At least in the Lutheran tradition in Europe it is common to separate sharply between the sacred and the profane or between what is human and common and what is religious. If we go to traditional societies, the situation is different. Reality is not separated into different spheres, but is regarded as a unity. Pupils with other backgrounds than the traditional Norwegian will therefore probably be familiar with a more holistic view of reality.


Conflicting stories

One apparently problematic area concerning identity building is when stories are in conflict with each other, either on the narrative level or concerning the values involved. For instance, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam we find many stories about the same persons. As long as the stories only differ in details, we can call them “parallel stories”. But when the stories represent rivalling and conflicting ideas or values, it is more appropriate to call them ”rivalling” or ”conflicting” stories. What will happen when “my” stories and “your” stories are in conflict?


We shall look at three options for the teacher handling conflicting stories:

·                         The teacher can harmonise the stories. This means that from different stories one coherent story is formed, including important elements from the original stories.  The result is another story, which is not a genuine part of either tradition. We find this problematic.

·                         Through scientific references one can often suggest that one story is more original than the others. The teacher following this programme is likely to give an answer which identifies one of the stories to be true and the others to be false. We consider this as a way of exercising power. But at least on higher school levels this should be a topic for discussion. An example is the relation between the Biblical and the Islamic scriptures. From a Jewish/Christian point of view the Islamic stories are secondary in comparison with the Biblical stories. But from a Muslim point of view the Biblical stories are distortions of the original stories, which are correctly written down in the Qur’an.

·                         We can also introduce the stories side by side. In a multi-faith classroom - and in a multi-faith subject as such - we think this approach is the only possible way of doing it. This is the only alternative that takes the children’s background seriously.

(Breidlid & Nicolaisen, 2000 and 2003a)





Many KRL teachers are dependant on the textbooks. Therefore, the textbooks and the teachers’ guidebooks have a big influence on the teaching. On the assumption that the basic cultural and religious stories promote identity and cultural understanding, we should ask the following questions: Which ideals are conveyed through the religious stories? How do the stories talk about human beings, ethnicity – and about gender?  We have looked into these aspects of the religious stories as they are presented in the KRL textbooks. The analysis was part of a broader analysis of narratives in KRL textbooks. (Breidlid & Nicolaisen, 2003d )


Self and Others - ethnicity in religious stories

A main purpose of the KRL subject is to promote tolerance, dialogue and peaceful coexistence between groups of people. Are the religious stories suitable for this purpose? The Exodus story, one of the great and fundamental stories in the Bible, can illustrate this dilemma. The Christian and Jewish tradition interprets this story as a story of God’s liberation of his people from suppression. At the same time this story reveals an attitude towards other people which for modern men and women is hard to accept, namely that God, because of Pharaoh, had to punish the whole Egyptian people: men, women and children, in such a cruel way.


How do the textbooks deal with such a negative attitude towards other people as seen in the Exodus story? In what way do the textbooks retell the biblical story?  Do they omit the difficult parts, do they reduce them, or do they render them with all the cruel details? And how do the teachers’ guidebooks recommend the teachers to deal with the stories?


In the presentation of the Exodus story for the lower level, there is a tendency to play down or ignore the problematic aspects. Even if it is recommended to minimise the plagues and put the focus on God who saves his people, one of the guidebooks for the second grade suggests that the children draw certain aspects of the disaster and attach the drawings on a big paper with the heading: “Let my people go!” There is no reference to the challenging aspects connected with the suffering of innocent Egyptian children and the Egyptian people as a whole.


For the upper level the approach to the story is not radically different, but the plagues or disasters are told more explicit and detailed. As one of the textbooks puts it: “Moses went to Pharaoh and asked him to let the people go. But Pharaoh wouldn’t. Then Pharaoh and Egypt were hit by seven plagues. The same night an angel went through Egypt and killed a lot of people. Then the people (Israelites) were rescued.” There is no reflection in the teacher’s guidebook on the fate of the “Other” in the story.


Even if these plagues were seen by the Biblical authors as divine miracles to save the Israelites, certainly the experience will be very different from an Egyptian point of view. Although some of the guidebooks offer solid and useful Biblical knowledge to the teachers, this ethical dilemma in the story is not dealt with. When the textbooks and guidebooks either play down the drama or they tell the cruel details, they completely lack empathy with the Egyptians, suffering under a heartless Pharaoh and at the same time punished by God. It is worth noticing that the authors seem to be comfortable with the plot and the solution – namely God saving his people from the repressive Egyptians. Maybe the explanation is that the story is so seductive that traditionally we only see the Israelites as victims? Or maybe the reason is that we are used to interpreting the story through strong Biblical glasses? If we only focus on the faces of the Israelites, then we are unable to see the faces of the Egyptians.


For the teacher it is important to reflect upon the fact that some religious stories reveal negative and prejudicial attitudes towards other people and towards non-believers. For example in stories from the Medieval Ages, there is a long Christian tradition to see the Muslims in contrast to the Christians. The Muslims have traditionally been perceived as the “Other.” (See for example Said, 1979) On the other hand we have authors trying to tell the stories from the opposite point of view, as when Amin Maalouf writes the story of the Crusades from the Arab point of view. (Maalouf, 1983) In this story the Christians are identified as the “Other”. This is also the case in the Qur’an and the Hadiths, where Christians and Jews are perceived as the “Other”. The teacher in a multi-faith class – as well as in a more homogeneous class - will have to be careful when presenting stories about the “Others”. The teacher has to make clear the storyteller’s point of view and for what reason the story was told in the first place.


The Exodus Story is problematic both for ethical reasons and in relation to the role of God. The impression in the story that God supports some people - as people - and does not care about others – needs an explanation. This is an important issue, which has to be dealt with also in other contexts in KRL – especially in connection with the three religions and the different peoples in the Middle East. (Breidlid & Nicolaisen 2002a, 2002b and 2003b)


Women in religious stories

We have also done some research on the presentation of women in religious stories and how the textbooks deal with gender issues in stories. We have investigated whether the women in the stories represent traditional role models or if they represent change-oriented and independent women.


It is a fact that religious narratives often represent a challenge for modern women and men when it comes to gender issues. These stories were created in patriarchal societies, and therefore they often, explicitly or implicitly, advocate a view on gender that does not correspond with the values schoolteachers are obliged to promote. Still, there are different ways of dealing with these stories. They may be read, interpreted, presented and commented on from different perspectives. Here, we will use Sita, the heroine of Ramayana, as an example. Ramayana is a long story with various episodes and themes. It is therefore quite possible to present Sita in different ways. In the KRL textbooks we found three different approaches to Sita:


·                         Sita presented as an independent, proactive person in her own right, making both good and bad decisions - as humans do. Her acts drive the story forward. We find this Sita also in the original texts.

·                         Sita as a subordinate, faithful wife in the framework of a traditional pattern of sex roles. This corresponds with the traditional Hindu view of Sita as the ideal wife.

·                         By exclusively emphasising her husband Rama’s part in the story, this approach makes Sita invisible both in her role as an important agent in the epic and in her role as a goddess.


The presentation of Sita is one example of how differently women can be presented in religious stories. There are multiple examples of such differentiated presentations.  (Breidlid, 2000; Nicolaisen, 2000; Breidlid & Nicolaisen, 2000 and 2003c).  We have primarily analysed to which degree the stories of women are presented in a traditional patriarchal way versus a feministic way, stressing equality between the sexes. In a culturally and religiously mixed context in the classroom there will of course be different views on gender issues. Therefore, different people will interpret differently which stories are provocative and which are not. A future study of the challenges of gender-stories in a culturally and religiously mixed classroom could be very useful. 




As a conclusion we will point to two radically different ways of dealing with cultural and religious plurality. One option is to divide the world into the dichotomy “we and the other”. At all times in history people seem to have had an inclination to identify some sort of “Other”. Who those others are, varies. We all know the examples: Christians and Heathens, Blacks and Whites, men and women, Europeans and Arabs. After the cold war period the Arabs and the Muslim World once again became the “Other” in the Western eyes. And after September 11th the perception of the Muslim as the “Other” was confirmed.


In the present situation it is important to go for the other option, finding another way of dealing with plurality.  Instead of dichotomising the world, school children should learn to appreciate diversity and fight for equality. In the multicultural classroom the discovery of diversity among equals could turn out to be a fascinating journey into the religious practice and world views of their classmates.




Breidlid, Halldis (2000) Kvinneperspektivet i KRL - en utfordring. Prismet, 143-154


Breidlid, Halldis & Nicolaisen, Tove (1999) Stories and Storytelling in Religious Education in Norway, in: Chidester, D., Stonier, J. & Tobler, J (Eds) Diversity as Ethos. Challenges for Interreligious and Intercultural Education (Cape Town, ICRSA, UCT), 140-154 - and in (1998) Journal for the Study of Religion. 11 (1), 75-92.


Breidlid, Halldis & Nicolaisen, Tove (2000) I begynnelsen var fortellingen. Fortelling i KRL.  (Oslo, Universitetsforlaget)


Breidlid, Halldis & Nicolaisen, Tove (2002a) Values in Religious Narratives as Presented in Norwegian RE Textbooks: Focus on Gender and Ethnicity, in Mikk J., Meisalo V., Kukemelk H. & Horsley M.(Eds) Learning and Educational Media. The Third IARTEM Volume.  (University of Tartu), 139-147


Breidlid, Halldis & Nicolaisen, Tove (2002b) Når fortellingen utfordrer gudsbildet… . Religion og livssyn 3, 46-52


The following three articles are all found in Selander, S. & Skjelbred, D. (Eds) Fokus på pedagogiske tekster 7. Fire artikler om lærebøker i KRL-faget. (Høgskolen i Vestfold)


Breidlid, Halldis & Nicolaisen, Tove (2003a) Felles skikkelser, men ulike fortellinger. En analyse av hvordan parallelle og rivaliserende fortellinger tas opp i KRL-læreverkene.


Breidlid, Halldis & Nicolaisen, Tove (2003b) Etnisitet i KRL-fagets fortellingsstoff. En utfordring for læreverk og undervisning. "Vi" og "de andre" i fokus: Er Exodusfortellingen problematisk for KRL-læreverkene.


Breidlid, Halldis & Nicolaisen,Tove (2003c) Aktiv eller usynlig? En analyse av hvordan kvinner fokuseres i KRL-læreverkenes fortellingsstoff.


Breidlid, Halldis & Nicolaisen, Tove (2003d) Den narrative dimensjon i KRL-fagets lærebøker. En analyse av fortellingsgrepet og utvalgte temaer i læreverkene (Høgskolen i Vestfold)


Goodlad, J.I., Klein, M.F. & Ty, K.A.: “The Domains of Curriculum and Their Study” in Goodlad, J.I. et al (1979) Curriculum Inquiery (New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company) 


Grimmit, M. Grove, J. Hull, J. & Spencer, L (1991) A Gift to The Child. Religious Education in The Primary School (London, Simon & Schuster)


Hull, John (1996): A Gift to the Child: A New Pedagogy for Teaching Religion to Young Children. Religious Education, 91 (2), 172-88


Jackson, Robert (1997) Religious Education, an interpretive approach (London, Hodder & Stoughton)


Jackson, R. & Nesbitt, E. (1993) Hindu Children in Britain (Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham)


Jackson, ed. (2004) International Perspectives on Citizenship, Education and Religious Diversity (London, RoutledgeFalmer)


Maalouf, Amin (1983) Les croisades vues par les Arabes (Jean-Claude Lattès)


Nicolaisen, Tove (2000) Ramayanas heltinne Sita. Prismet 4, 180-190


Nicolaisen, Tove (2001) Dialog i KRL-faget. Prismet. 2, 73-84


O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1975) Hindu Myths (London, Penguin books)


Said, Edward W. (1978) Orientalism (London, Routledge) 


Skeie, Geir (1998) En kulturbevisst religionspedagogikk. Avhandling for graden Doctor Artium. (Trondheim, Det historisk-filosofiske fakultet, NTNU) 


Østberg, Sissel (1998) Pakistani Children in Oslo: Islamic nurture in a Secular Context. Thesis submitted to the University of Warwick for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. (Warwick, Institute of Education)