Occasionally, some international colleague, teacher or researcher, asks for an explanation why Religious Education (RE) in Sweden is mandatory. Often it appears that such a request is caused by the fact that the person asking finds it difficult to combine the image of a highly secularized country, while at the same time all pupils in school are going to study religion.
Such a picture needs to be clarified in several ways.
First, as has been pointed out by several sociologists of religion, it is wise to be cautious with leaving general reviews regarding the propagation of religious belief in a society. Many have seen how Sweden on Inglehart-Welzel well-known cultural map occupies a separate place in the right-hand corner, representing a widespread, perhaps even hegemonic, strongly individualistic and non-religious life-viewing discourse. Such a placement may, on certain points of departure, be argued, but it should be remembered that the place of religious belief and religious ritual in Swedish society should not be generalised in a way that contradicts a rather complex picture of human existential anchoring and belonging.
Secondly, it is important to emphasise that religious education given in accordance with the Swedish school’s policy documents should be non-confessional, meaning that it should not contain elements where pupils are taught about what views of life and religions can be said to be “true” or “more reasonable” than others. The compulsory RE subject is not motivated for confessional reasons, but rather because it can contribute to a religious literacy that is part of a citizenship literacy where knowledge about religions and beliefs is considered to constitute important requisites for a mutually respectful life in the pluralist community that now is dominating in many societies. And such an approach can of course be regarded as highly reasonable and motivated in a society where many people do not seem to have knowledge of or personal involvement in religious beliefs and rites.
In the following, I will present a brief overview of how the subject of RE is built in Sweden, taking my starting point in the two reforms implemented in 2011: the ones for the compulsory school (Lgr11) and the upper secondary school (Gy11) respectively.
There is also a national reform for Special needs upper secondary school from 2013. Its syllabuses, including the one for RE, follow mainly the syllabuses in Gy11.
The subject of Christianity
The predecessor of today’s RE subject was a subject focused on Christianity. Ever since the birth of elementary school and until the mid-1960s, knowledge of Christian faith and what was seen as Christian values were highly emphasised in the course. It was important for children and young people to learn what such faith means and what moral consequences it should have. A concrete sign of the significance of Christianity was that it was presented first on the list of subjects on the overall grade the students received.
However, the image of the development of RE in Sweden should not be simplified in an unprecedented way. Although Christian faith and tradition constituted a main focus in the subject of Christianity, successively, there were also prospects of what was described as “non-Christian views.” Such a widening became eventually clearer and here certainly the general social development played a role. In 1951 Sweden received the law on freedom of religion and increasingly pluralistic perspectives raised in teaching. Phenomenological perspectives inspired by Ninian Smart’s well-known approach to religious studies had probably a role to play and with an ever-increasing need and interest in widening the nationally-limited views, coupled with a discussion about the importance of a teaching on existential and moral issues taking into account questions and challenges the young themselves wrestle and find important, contributed to breaking a historically rooted and conservative pattern of RE.
The subject of RE
When the term “religionskunskap”, “knowledge about religions” or RE, in 1969 replaced “Christianity”, this was a sign that the process had reached a certain point – but also that a platform for further development was established. What had happened can be summarized in four points:
- From little about much (Christian faith and tradition) to much about little (religions and ethics).
- From Christian and Biblical knowledge to religious knowledge.
- From confessionally “learning in” to non-confessional “learning about” religion.
- Even “learn from” religion (s): value base.
What has to be emphasized is that teaching in Christianity with the objective of communicating an existential position for young people to take over and to practice, is replaced by a teaching on religions where the goal is rather to offer students a knowledgeable basis for the freedom of themselves to develop an approach to different religious and secular traditions and life-views. In order to succeed in such an offer, both teachers and students need time – and time is almost always limited in the school´s world. If the school during the era of Christianity was able to offer children and young good knowledge of Christian faith and tradition, the offer in the context of a wide and plural religious education meet challenges when it comes to how the teaching is organized. What kind of content should teachers address and how will they, together with the students, investigate religions and life-views in a way that cannot only lead to personal development, but also to knowledge that can be displayed on good and fair grounds of good quality?
Intentions with 2011 school reforms
Before the two reforms that govern Swedish religious education today were implemented, they were objects for inquiries commissioned by the Swedish government. These pointed to the need to regulate the structure of this education in a more orderly way. Needless to say, such a request was emphasized not only for RE but for the subjects of the school in general. According to the inquirers, it was necessary to have clearer systems for how a progression of knowledge can occur during pupils´ education. One needs to continuously measure students’ knowledge to create a process where you can talk about clear knowledge development. Such clarity requires a clearly defined content for teaching and also clearly defined instruments to measure to what extent pupils can be said to have good knowledge of this content.
Presently the course plans for compulsory school and upper secondary school are under revision. More information will be given on this page in due time.