The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief


The following text was composed for a round table conference in connection with a session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in April 2001. It is written by Ingvill Thorson Plesner, on the basis of discussions in a working group of the Oslo Coalition consisting of Lena Larsen, Oddbjørn Leirvik, Ingvill Thorson Plesner, Tarald Rasmussen and Bente Sandvig.



Religious Education in pluralistic Societies
– Aims and Challenges


A Response to the documents for The International Consultative Conference on School Education in Relation to Freedom of Religion or Belief, Tolerance and Non Discrimination, to be held in Madrid 23-25 November 2001



The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief (OC) warmly welcomes the reports given by the Special Rapporteur on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (SR). In particular we welcome the presentation of results from the SRs survey on religious education (RE) in different countries of the world, as well as the initiative to gather state representatives as well as Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to discuss these findings at the conference in Madrid in November.


In this statement we shall first comment on some points in the reports of the SR. Then we will use these perspectives in a brief evaluation of the Norwegian experiences in the field of RE. 


Aims and dilemmas of RE

The OC supports the idea that there is a close connection between the aims for the school education in general and the aims for the RE and for Human rights Education; promoting a culture of tolerance is a challenge for the school education as a whole.


The SR rightly points at the importance of understanding of and identification with the other as an aim for the school education. Education should help seeing that ”the others are indeed us”, he writes. The OC holds that knowledge about other religions is an important precondition for the development of such an understanding, and hence also of a culture of tolerance. Support of the idea of human dignity and human rights for all persons is another foundation for solidarity and identification across religious and cultural boarders.


The universality of human rights demands support of the idea of equal human dignity and equal human rights for all people. This, however, includes also the right to be different, - to preserve and develop one owns identity. The Oslo Coalition would therefore like to stress the importance of having in mind the distinction between the conception of equality and of similarity. When discussing possible foundations for a conception of an inclusive ”we”, for a common identity in pluralistic societies or for the whole human kind, the focus on recognition of an equal human dignity and on other common values must never challenge the basic right to distinguish oneself from the others by holding for instance different religious or philosophical views that do not recognise other views as equally true. 


The exclusiveness of particular religious or philosophical views and beliefs must not, however, be understood as a negation of the principle of tolerance. On the contrary, tolerance  - by the meaning of the word - presupposes that you have a basic conviction that differs from the convictions of the person that you tolerate. Nevertheless, fostering tolerance demands a dialogue on the limits of tolerance. The SR underlines that freedom of religion – including the freedom to search for truth – never must lead to the questioning of the universality of human rights. One might add that human rights also lines out the limits of tolerance. We do not – and shall not – tolerate views that do not support the idea of equal human dignity and equal human rights. The same conception of equal human dignity demands a respect for the dignity of the persons that hold these views, even though we do not tolerate their views.


The OC also would like to draw the attention to the dialogue about the cross-cultural and multi-religious consensus about human rights and basic values as an important part of – and precondition for - the work for tolerance and peaceful co-existence in pluralistic societies.

Dialogue projects and scientific studies show that most religions and life stances (philosophical convictions) have resources in their view of man and their basic value foundations to support both the idea of human dignity and of human rights. The RE in school therefore can play an important role both in the teaching of human rights and in the search for common, cross-cultural values in a broader sense.


Just as the right to freedom of religion or belief also includes the freedom not to hold a religious view, the OC would like to stress the fact that an inclusive RE should also teach about life stance and philosophical convictions.


A meeting with different religious and philosophical traditions might lead to change in the self-conception of the individual child.  If one important aim of the RE is to help the pupils to ”see themselves as the other”, the school therefore will have to deal with the challenges that follows from the parents rights to decide about the religious and moral education of their children. The SR has pointed at the need to protect this right when developing an RE program

that might foster tolerance and understanding. The OC would like to stress that the wish to develop an RE for pupils of different confessions might in practice lead to tensions – or even conflicts  - with the parental right and hence with the regard to religious freedom. These tensions derive from the fact that it is hard to find support for a value based RE that will be regarded as ”neutral” in relation to different conceptions of truth and views of what is important knowledge.  We will elaborate on this by sharing with you some of the Norwegian experiences in this field.


RE and religious dialogue: The Norwegian experience

A basic question is whether RE in pluralistic societies should be compulsory or optional. Another question is whether the school should develop an RE subject that might include pupils of all confessions or if the classes should be (partly or fully) confessionaly divided during the RE. The study of the SR shows that RE is optional in most countries. Also in a large number of countries the RE is divided confessional. In a large number of the countries where RE is organised by confessions it does not provide knowledge about other religions.

In most countries where RE includes knowledge about different religions, the subject is optional.


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


The criticism by different minority groups when the subject was first introduced lead to some changes in the curriculum. Different religious traditions shall now be presented also at the lower grades, and it has been underlined by the school authorities that knowledge about Christianity and other religions or believes shall be taught by the same pedagogical principles, without presenting any of them as better than others. However, several minority groups reject that this is possible, taking the present content of the subject into consideration. They claim that the subject leads to discrimination, referring for instance to that more than half of the time shall be spent on teaching about Christianity. At present there are two trials going on because groups of Muslim and humanist parents – represented by the Norwegian Humanist Association and the Islamic Council Norway- have claimed the right to take their children out of the subject. The case of the Humanists has now been accepted by the High Court of Norway and will start its proceedings on the case in June this year. The humanists and the Muslims fear that the dominance and role of Christianity in the subject can lead to influencing – or even indoctrinating - their children to see the Christian faith as better or truer than others.


On the other hand, the majority of the parents – belonging mostly to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Norway – are for the most satisfied with the new subject. The school authorities are reluctant to make the subject optional as they see it as an important arena for providing necessary knowledge and dialogue in an increasingly multi-religious society. The authorities argue that the dominant role of Christianity in the subject can be legitimised because of the role of Christianity in the Norwegian history and the fact that 85% of the Norwegian population belong to the Evangelical Lutheran State Church.


So what are the lessons learned so far about the common RE project in Norway?

The continuous conflict about this RE subject that is supposed to be common for all pupils clearly expresses the dilemmas that we have pointed out in the introduction, - constituted by the wish to provide an education for children of all faiths on the one hand and on the other the regard to the rights of the parents to decide about the religious, moral and philosophical upbringing of their children. The case of Norway also shows that this tension might increase if an RE for all shall include more focus on one particular tradition because of its historical and present role in the society. Further, we have learned that the success of ”RE for all” presupposes that the subject is truly inclusive in the sense that it has a broad support amongst both the majority and the different minority groups.


While it is a broad consensus amongst the different groups about the need for (at least some) common education about religions and life stances, there is so far no such consensus about what should be the content and aims for an including RE model. But there is an ongoing dialogue both between different groups of believers and between these groups and the school authorities about what changes are necessary to find a model that all groups might attend.


The input from the reports of the SR on aims and principles for RE might help in making this dialogue even more constructive. For instance, the report of the SR points at the close connections between RE and Human Rights Education (HRE) in the work for a culture of tolerance. The present curriculum for the RE subject of Norway only has a limited emphasis on human rights. In the revision of the curriculum, the role of human rights in the school education in general and in the RE in particular should be stressed and reflected.


Experiences with religious dialogue should be another important part of the RE. Also here the conceptions of human rights may play an important role. Drawing upon the Norwegian experiences, we might distinguish between at least two approaches to religious dialogue.

The dialogue can be seen as

-       a search for the minimum common denominator (for instance a cross-cultural consensus about the universality of human rights)

-       or as a search for the maximum common denominator (understood as a broader sense of ”common values”)


These approaches to the aims of religious dialogue can also be seen as two conceptions of what is the necessary value foundation of a pluralistic society.


Both before the introduction of the new RE subject in 1997 and as a result of this new subject, there has been extensive dialogue between different faith and life stance communities. As a result of the controversies about the new RE curriculum, there has now been a break-through in the contact between the different minority groups and the Norwegian school authorities.

However when the basic premises for the new subject were formed five years ago, there was hardly any dialogue between the school authorities and the different minority groups. It is our conviction that such a dialogue at an early stage can be seen as one most important precondition for the work towards developing an RE model that might have a broad consensus in the civil society.


The religious and religio-political dialogues during the last years have been institutionalised by the development of two permanent network structures, gathering people with different religious and philosophical believes:

·      In 1996 the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway was established.

·      In 1998 the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief was established at the end of the Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, with the Council just mentioned as one of the hosts.

The establishment of the Co-operation Council and the Oslo Coalition hence can be seen as positive unintended effects of the difficult religio-political process in Norway the last



Concluding remarks

Government has presently proposed some new changes in the subject in order to meet with some of the claims of the minorities and the challenges revealed by a research-based evaluation of the subject. The Oslo Coalition hope that these suggestions might be steps in the right direction for a subject that might get a broader support. The question remains however whether or not it is possible to have a compulsory RE subject for all. We assume that one of the reasons why it is so difficult to achieve this is because of the common view on religion as only a source of belief for the individual and not as a field of knowledge for all. 


The OC would like to conclude with a challenge: We encourage other countries - both state parties, NGOs and faith or life stance communities- to study and evaluate their own experiences in the field of religious education in their own country in order to identify how challenges can be met in a way that meets with the aims presented in the draft documents for the Madrid conference. In this way we will provide valuable empirical material that can be useful for people working with developing strategies for such a subject in the future, and that can be used during the discussions at the Madrid conference in November later this year.