RE in Germany

Bastei, forest and sky.
Bastei Bridge near Dresden, Germany.

Religious Education in Germany


1. Historical Background

Before the details of RE are laid out, it is helpful to look at the history of schooling in Germany. The primary school system (Volksschule) was established in the light of the Reformation with the goal to educate the masses in questions of faith from a Protestant perspective. In answer to that, the Catholic dominated regions established schools for everyone as well. Because of this, many of the elementary school teachers until the end of the 19th Century were pastors in training (Kothmann 2015).

With the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, which was significantly influenced by Bismarck, conflicts between the state and mainly the Catholic church arose. This is also known as the Kulturkampf (Kuhlemann 1991). The result was a separation of church and state that was finalised in the laws of the Weimar Republic 1919. However, this process was not without controversy. The fights in the government could only be brought to an end with a compromise: Known as the Weimarer Schulkompromiss (Weimar school compromise), the schools were organised by the state, but the churches were still allowed to teach compulsory confessional RE (Herrmann 2015). This compromise was adopted in the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany, because the experience in the Third Reich showed the necessity of preventing the state to use subjects like RE for their own ideology (Rothgangel & Ziebertz 2016).

This brings us now to the current legal situation of RE in Germany and explains the special status of this subject. The general conditions for RE are laid out in the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution. Three Articles of the law are crucial: (1) The separation of state and religion which is determined in Art.140. The separation in Germany doesn’t follow a strict type such as in France but allows areas of cooperation, e.g. RE in schools (Rothgangel & Ziebertz 2016, p.119). Therefore, RE is seen as a res mixta: a joint project of state authorities and religious communities. (2) This cooperation is influenced by a second aspect: Religious freedom based on Art. 4 of the Basic Law. This guarantees freedom from religion as well as freedom for religion. Thus, space is provided for religious communities and churches in the public sphere including the educational system. And the principle of freedom from religion guarantees the right to opt out of confessional RE. (3) Last but not least, RE is the only subject in school guaranteed by the Basic Law. Art. 7.3 states:

Religious instruction shall form part of the regular curriculum in state schools […]. Without prejudice to the state’s right of supervision, religious instruction shall be given in accordance with the tenets of the religious community concerned. Teachers may not be obliged against their will to give religious instructions.

Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (retrieved on 29.06.2021)

In practice, this means that the government provides the framework and has the overall responsibility for the educational system and the religious communities collaborate in terms of curricula and teacher training as well as schoolbooks. In Germany, this collaboration – and all education policy – is located at regional level (i.e. the 16 federal states of Germany [Bundesländer]). “One core element of this status [of the Länder] is […] the so called cultural sovereignty (Kulturhoheit), i.e. the predominant responsibility of the Länder for education, science and culture.” (Eckhardt, T. & German EUYDICE Unit 2019, p.15). Meaning in our case, the churches cooperate directly with the governments of the federal states regarding RE.

3. Educational System in Germany

The school system in Germany is composed of three main levels: primary, secondary and tertiary education. Generally, children enter primary school at the age of six and attend nine or ten years of compulsory full-time schooling (depending on the Land). In order to attend university at tertiary level, pupils have to complete 12 or 13 years of schooling in total (again depending on the Land) at the end of which they receive the corresponding qualification (Abitur).

The primary school comprises the first four years of schooling, except for Berlin and Brandenburg where children attend primary school for the first six years. The secondary school level in Germany shows a great variety of school forms due to historical developments in East and West Germany and due to various reforms over the last decades. As a consequence, children and their parents can choose among different school forms to accomplish a leaving school certificate. The most decisive difference is that some (comprehensive) schools offer several certificates under one roof (and therefore teach pupils of all levels together) and others offer only one specific certificate (and therefore pupils are separated in different schools depending on the level of certificate pursued). Currently, one can observe a tendency towards a two-fold system: one comprehensive school (Integrierte Gesamtschule) alongside a one course school (Gymnasium). Due to historical developments, the latter is often regarded as more demanding and prestigious although both school forms can lead towards the general higher education entrance qualification (Abitur).

At upper secondary level, vocational schools offer an additional educational path. Here, pupils can either follow a full-time schooling programme or a vocational education and training in a dual system (cooperation of schools and companies).

In addition to these structural elements, one can observe a stronger emphasis on a policy of inclusion over the last decade. This shows in the increasing number of comprehensive schools but also in reforms, which lead toward a school system where students with and without disabilities learn together. Separate schools for students with special educational needs exist as well but are decreasing.

Figure 1 Basic Structure of the Educational System in the Federal Republic of Germany (KMK 2019)

This description of the German school system is highly simplified, for every of the 16 federal states is organised differently. For a more detailed overview, please visit Kultusminister Konferenz site.

4. Religious affiliations

In 2019, about 55% of the German population belonged to either the Roman-Catholic Church (22,6 million people or 27,2% of the population) or the Protestant Church in Germany (20,7 million people or 24,9% of the population) (EKD 2020). However, the biggest ‘confession’ in Germany are the ones without a confession with 38,8 % of the population. This growing group is especially strong in the East of Germany as a consequence of the anti-church policy of the former GDR regime. Beside these three groups, the next larger one is the Muslims with about 5,5 %2 of the population. Other religious groups, e.g. Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus or Jews are minorities in Germany and make up together the last 4% of the population.[1]

In addition to these bare numbers, it should be noted that the population’s composition varies greatly depending on where exactly you are looking at in Germany. Whereas the Northern Länder of Germany are traditionally influenced by Protestantism, the more Southern regions display a more Catholic tradition. Furthermore, the percentage of Muslim population is higher in West Germany than in the East and also higher in big cities compared to rural areas. In addition to that, the amount of atheists and people without a specific religious affiliation is much higher in Eastern Germany than in Western Germany due to historical reasons.[2]

For more detailed information on religious groups in Germany, please visit the website of REMID – the “Religious Studies Media and Information Service” or the website of the “Forschungsgruppe Weltanschauungen in Deutschland”(research group worldviews in Germany) (information only in German).

5. Organisational Framework of Religious Education

The organisation of RE is based on the cooperation between the federal states and religious communities. In terms of the separation of state and religion, the state is required to stay neutral towards religion. However, in the sense of positive freedom of religion, the state also has the duty to offer suitable conditions for teaching RE in schools. This results in the state financing teacher training and the teachers’ payment. Religious communities organise teacher training (studies of theology at university, courses of professional development), and design curricula and teaching materials. These responsibilities carried out by the religious communities must all be approved by state authorities making sure that all content in teacher training and in the classroom are in accordance with the law and educational policy more broadly. Thus, the labelling of ‘confessional’ or ‘denominational’ refers to a shared sponsorship by the state and religious communities.

In order to implement such a cooperation with the state, religious communities have to be organised as an association and accepted as an official religious community, which can offer RE in schools, by the German state (cf. Yavuzcan 2015, p. 17). A second barrier, that has to be taken, is a minimum number of students who attend the lessons. This number is determined by the federal states and differs between five and twelve (Rothgangel & Schröder 2020).

In most federal states RE is offered as Protestant and Catholic RE, increasingly also as Islamic RE (North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg, Lower Saxony, Hesse, Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and models in other federal states) and Jewish RE (Bavaria, Berlin, Baden-Wuertemberg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, Hamburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland, Saxony, Thuringia). Less established are Christian-Orthodox RE (Baden-Wuertemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia), Alevi RE (Berlin, Baden-Wuertemberg, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westfalia, Rhineland Palatinate, Saarland), Mennonite RE (Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland Palatinate) and Buddhist RE (Berlin) (Rothgangel & Schröder 2020). Depending on the students’ religious affiliations and the availability of respective teachers, it may vary greatly from school to school which exact kinds of confessional RE are offered.

In most federal states where confessional RE is offered, one also finds the subject of Ethics as its counterpart (depending on the state it is called Ethics, Philosophy or Values and Norms). In some states, confessional RE and Ethics are equal alternatives, in others Ethics is only a substitute subject if students drop out of confessional RE.

In terms of total student numbers, the three biggest subjects are Catholic RE, Protestant RE and Ethics/Philosophy, followed by the amount of students who don’t attend any of these subjects at all or who attend a form of RE for all.

Figure 2 Own illustration based on “Auswertung Religionsunterricht Schuljahr 2019/20“ by Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs. Percentages indicated as 0% refer to numbers between 0-1%. More information.

5.1 (Christian) Confessional RE Teaching

At the heart of confessional RE is the teaching about the faith, beliefs and traditions of the denomination in question, in Germany mostly the Catholic and Protestant one, partly Muslim denominations. Students learn about the key aspects of their faith. Through this engagement with religion, the students explore core questions of life and meaning in today’s world. The formation of their own personality and identity are being promoted. For that, in teaching RE, it is important to connect the religion’s core beliefs to the students’ nowadays reality of life. Students shall be equipped to find orientation for their personal life journey as well as for participating as active citizen in today’s complex and plural world. That also means that denominational RE in Germany includes interreligious dialogue and learning about other denominations and religions.

In the context of Germany, confessional RE is based on the idea of a teacher clearly rooted in his or her religious denomination, who can therefore authentically communicate about his or her belief. Ideally, students in confessional RE all belong to the very same denomination. However, when taking a closer look at nowadays classrooms, one has to state that reality doesn’t always comply with this theory. An important percentage of the students, who attend a denominational RE class, belong either to a different denomination or religion or are not affiliated to any religion at all. Furthermore, RE teachers also have to take into account that many of the students, who do belong to the denomination in question, don’t dispose of a deep religious upbringing in their families. RE didactics have to adapt to this plurality in the classroom. Also RE teachers themselves dispose of various backgrounds and forms of religiosity.

5.2 Islamic RE

There has been a discussion about Islamic RE in Germany for 40 years now. Many obstacles lie in the way to establish this subject. Starting with Art. 7.3 that determines that only a religious group in a specific organisational form can take responsibility for this subject. Many Muslim organisations do not meet the standard, for they are working in more loose structures. It took almost three decades to find organisations that match this criterion. This is also the reason why in the state of Baden-Württemberg only Alevi RE is provided officially (Rothgangel & Schröder 2020, p.24). Even though the group of Sunnites take up a much bigger part of Muslims in Germany, up to now no organisation in this federal state could be found to take the responsibility for the Sunni RE (74% of all Muslims in Germany are Sunnites, 13% Alevites, and 7% Shiites).[3]

Another barrier also became clear: According to law, it is not possible to offer “Islamic” RE, but it has to be denominational RE meaning Alevi RE, Sunni RE etc. However, many federal states try to find their way around it and offer Islamic RE anyways by cooperating with advisory boards composed of several Muslim organisations (Rothgangel & Schröder 2020).

A third obstacle is that the religious groups are also responsible for the teacher training. Establishing adequate training programmes at universities just takes a while and till the teachers are ready to work in the classroom even longer (Halm et al. 2014, Kiefer 2011, Yavuzcan 2015, Yildiz 2015).

On 3 October 2010, the German president at the time Christian Wulff stated that Islam is part of Germany. In terms of Islamic RE, this is discernible only in parts of the German school system. After a long process of establishing the framework for Islamic RE, the current status is that 9 federal states have some form of Islamic RE, only 4 states have no form of Islamic RE, and 3 states have in general non-denominational forms of RE (Rothgangel et al. 2009).

5.3 Differently organised RE in Bremen, Berlin, Brandenburg, and Hamburg

Four out of the 16 federal states in Germany have RE organised in completely different ways than the others. The denominational approach is only established in those federal states where it already existed on 1 January 1949 (date of validation of the Basic Law).

The city state of Bremen has had already established “education in Biblical history based on general Christian principles and not bound to any particular denomination” in 1947 (Rothgangel & Ziebertz 2016, p. 120). After a major reform in 2014/2015, the subject changed its name from “Biblischer Geschichtsunterricht” (biblical history teaching) to the simple name of “religion”. In nowadays practice, this means that RE in Bremen is an “RE for all”, where all students are taught together, and which has an emphasis on interreligious and dialogical learning with the goal to improve the students’ competencies to deal with plurality in society. This is under the sole responsibility of the state but accompanied by an advisory board in which religious communities participate among others (Rothgangel & Schröder 2020, pp.129-145).

The federal states Brandenburg and Berlin also refer to this so-called “Bremen clause” for justifying an organisation different to the denominational one. In Brandenburg, it was introduced the subject of LER: Lebensgestaltung-Ethik-Religionskunde (“life choices, ethics, and religious studies), which is obligatory for all students. However, in Brandenburg students can also attend confessional RE if they wish. This can be done either as an additional subject or by opting out of LER. (Rothgangel & Schröder 2020, pp.108-119). In Berlin, the subjects Ethics is obligatory for all students, but only in grades 7-10. As in Brandenburg, students can choose to attend additional confessional RE classes. For primary schools, Catholic and Protestant RE offer a common denominational-cooperative RE since 2018/19 (Rothgangel & Schröder 2020, pp.73-81).

The city state of Hamburg has also found a different way to teach non-denominational RE without breaking German law, because of the special circumstances in this port city. “According to the accounts of those responsible for Religious Education, there are 106 different religious communities in Hamburg now, and 247,000 non-Germans from 185 countries with 100 different languages” (Meyer-Blanck 2014, p. 153). As a consequence, Hamburg installed the programmatically called subject “Religious Education for all”. Nevertheless, this subject has traditionally been under the sole responsibility of the Protestant church. As a consequence, only Protestant teachers have been teaching this subject over the last 70 years even though an interreligious and dialogical approach has always been at its centre. For some years now, a reform of the organisation of RE is on its way. The federal state of Hamburg has adopted cooperation contracts not only with the Protestant Church but also with the Catholic Church, Jewish and Muslim communities. Goal of this ongoing reform process is to keep “RE for all” but under an equal responsibility of all religious communities involved. Teachers of other religions are being trained and new curricula and didactics are being developed to put this into practice (Rothgangel & Schröder 2020, pp.160-170).

6. Current Discussions

One of the most strongly discussed topics in Germany is the denominational form of RE. It is argued that in an increasingly plural society, the currently prevailing structure in most federal states is not adequate anymore. A more inclusive form, a subject like “religion for all” would be needed. However, exactly what this should look like is controversial. Some advocate for more interreligious dialogue and learning, others want a more neutral approach like “learning about religion”. In any case, denominational affiliations already become less and less clear even under the current system. As stated before (4.1) even students belonging to one particular denomination have increasingly little knowledge about their own religion. Parallel, the numbers of atheists are on the rise. These tendencies are not only true for the students but also for the teachers. And that, although the religious identity of the teacher is actually one of the cornerstones of denominational RE in Germany. This brings up the voices that ask for non-denominational RE, but especially the Catholic and Protestant Church oppose to this approach. It is the firm belief that religious knowledge can only be learned and understood from a specific standpoint. Many concepts for a connection of denominational aspects and needs of non-denominational pupils are developed.

One concept to meet the needs of a plural body of pupils is denominational-cooperative teaching (Konfessionell-kooperativer Unterricht). This concept aims to bring together students and teachers of different Christian denominations. Basically, there are four different types of implementation: (1) Denominational groups, but intensive communication about the content and maybe once in a while a shared project. (2) Denominational groups, but changing of the teachers in a certain pattern. (3) Mixed groups with a changing of the teachers in a certain pattern. And last but not least (4) Mixed groups that are team-taught by teachers of different denominations. In practice this concept is adopted by Protestant and Catholic RE teachers. However, there are considerations of also involving e.g. Islamic RE teachers respectively Ethics teachers (Biesinger, Schweitzer & Boschki 2015).

Another field of controversy are questions around RE’s goals or ‘outcome’ concerning competencies (Feindt et al.). RE as part of the overall education policy and curricula has to define the competencies students learn in this subject. Especially notable is the broadly agreed goal to teach “capability for pluralism”. This does not only refer to religious plurality but also to living together in plurality more widely. This is often seen as a crucial competency for democracy, where diverse groups and opinions can interact and resolve conflicts peacefully. Digital competencies are also becoming more and more a debated focus for RE classes. This also links to democratic competencies as digital competencies are indispensable for understanding certain dynamics in society and for taking part in the public sphere. Often, it is argued that quite direct links can be found between the digital and “classic” RE topics, may that be in identity building and the role of social media or the love of one’s neighbour and hate speech. One way or another, the digital is integral part of the students’ life reality to which religious education classes need to connect. A similar issue lies at hand concerning questions of climate change, which are very prominent for young people. There is an intense debate about the contribution RE can make in this field. Preserving God’s Creation is an old Christian concern, which experiences a new relevance today.

One main concern, that resonates with all of these different debates and topics, is the will and the need to keep the subject of Religious Education relevant for students and to demonstrate its contribution to education in the German society of the 21st century.


[1] Numbers for 2019. Further information (in German)
[2]  A graphical display of religious affiliation in Germany, in East and West
[3]  Further information (in German)


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