God and Berlin
Mar 26th 2009 | BERLIN
From The Economist print edition
A referendum next month may import religious teaching into Berlin’s schools
BY AMERICAN standards, German culture wars are mild affairs. A spat in Berlin over teaching religion in schools may be an exception. Next month the city will vote on whether schools should teach the subject as an alternative to an ethics course. The debate is only partly about how God fits into the classroom; it is also about how Muslims fit into Berlin.
In most of Germany, the constitution already makes religious instruction part of the curriculum (secular students can opt out). But Berlin and two other states are exempt. The city’s godlessness was shaken in 2005 by the “honour killing” of a young Turkish woman. As an antidote, Berlin’s government brought in a non-religious ethics course a year later.
For Berlin’s beleaguered believers, this was both threat and opportunity. Enrolment in (voluntary) religious classes outside school hours dropped. But some religious folk spotted a chance to sneak in more traditional teaching. Thus was born Pro-Reli, a movement that has festooned Berlin with red-and-white posters demanding “free choice between ethics and religion” and collected 270,000 signatures to force a referendum.
The debate is over whether religious teaching fosters or hinders tolerance. Pro-Reli’s critics fear that separating schoolchildren by religion may undermine social peace. Supporters retort that people with strong religious convictions respect faith, whatever its form. …
The battle lines are not sharp. Stephan Frielinghaus, a Protestant pastor, supports ethics classes as a “space where different traditions can learn to live together”. … he has joined a pro-ethics movement. Berlin’s ruling coalition of Social Democrats and the Left Party is anti-Reli, but some Social Democrats are pro, including the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
What everyone shares is an obsession with Muslims, who account for over half the students in parts of the city. The ethics course is partly meant to snuff out incipient violent radicalism. But it leaves many children learning the Koran from teachers who have little stake in German society. Better, says Pro-Reli, to bring it into school, where German-speaking teachers can impart Islam under the state’s watchful eye.
That Pro-Reli has got so far is a success in a city one sociologist calls “the world capital of atheism”. Some 60% of Berliners profess no religion, a tendency stronger in the ex-communist east than in the bourgeois west. Even if Pro-Reli wins a majority, the referendum will fail unless a quarter of the 2.4m-strong electorate says yes. Teaching of religion in schools may be undone by sloth, not atheism.