Thursday, 23 April 2009

A Little Bit of Local Politics

This Sunday is polling day in Berlin. But the ballot papers won't feature a list of parties and candidates, but a simple "yes" or "no". Unfortunately, the issue at hand isn't all that simple, as Spiegel reports in English here.

It's a referendum over whether to make children aged 12 and up decide between "Ethics" and "Religion" as part of the curriculum. Ethics was introduced at Berlin's high schools as a compulsory subject in 2006, in response to an "honour killing" and what some saw as inter-ethnic violence at schools. Pupils can still choose to take Religion too, which is taught by the respective church or organisation - Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims are thus taught separately, provided there are enough of them at any one school to make up a class.

Don't get this "religious education" confused with what kids learn in Britain, though. They don't learn about the beliefs and customs of different faiths, tolerance and understanding. As a proud atheist in the fourth generation, I genuinely enjoyed RE at school, as it also gave us a chance to discuss ethics in a very inclusive and accepting way. But I often find Germans are rather ignorant about other religions, perhaps because they didn't have this privilege at school.

The "proReli" campaign behind the referendum is supported by the churches, the Jewish Community, one Muslim association and the CDU, and has a number of celebrities calling for "freedom of choice". They feel it is important for children to be taught ethics separately according to religion, and argue that fewer pupils are opting for Religion now, as it is usually offered after core teaching hours.

The "proEthik" campaign, on the other hand, is less glamorous, with not a celebrity to be seen. But way back in January, the writer Julia Franck chimed in with a very interesting essay in Spiegel magazine. Franck wrote the winner of the 2007 German Book Prize, set to be published in the UK as The Blind Side of the Heart. Which I'm sure I've mentioned before is a stonking good read and very thought-provoking.

Franck points out all the good sides of talking about ethics with children of all faiths together, and the possible consequences of splitting them all up again. She argues that Ethics lessons could be used to teach about all the religions, including visits to temples, mosques, churches and synagogues: "Competition between the state and religion is neither natural nor necessary. Particularly in a globalised and pluralist society, every German school pupil ought to learn about different religions, their history, ideas and practices."

What she doesn't mention is what for me is the larger issue. For the plebiscite to succeed, forcing the authorities to take action and make pupils choose between Ethics and Religion, the proReli campaign needs 610,000 "yes" votes. I personally doubt they'll reach this target, and as a parent, I also hope they won't. But who actually gets to vote? Is it all parents of school-aged children? Is it even perhaps school-aged children themselves?

Perish the thought. It's all German citizens registered in Berlin. Now if you know anything about German nationality law and demographics, the warning bells should start ringing about now. Because that excludes the 470,004 individuals in Berlin who don't hold a German passport. And, as the demographics show, these people are more likely to have more children than your old ethnic Germans, plagued as they are by stress and career pressure. And non-German nationals are also less likely to belong to the dominant Protestant church, which provides most religious education at Berlin's schools. So I for one, and many of the other parents at my daughter's school, won't have any say whatsoever over whether our children are taught ethics together or separately in the future. And that's the real scandal.

Update: proReli lost the referendum, with about 48.5% of votes, and failed to reach the required quorum. Berlin's protestant Bishop Wolfgang Huber expressed his disappointment but hoped that the churches would work more closely with Ethics classes in future - echoing Franck's suggestion, perhaps.


David said...

The state should not be involved in religious instruction. Period. Actually, it seems to backfire in Germany, as evidenced by all the beautiful - and empty - churches.

"stonking good"??

kjd said...