Interreligious education: beyond mono- and multi-religious learning?

Interreligious education: beyond mono- and multi-religious learning?

Didier Pollefeyt, Mieke De Vlieger en Wim Smit gaan in op de mogelijkheid om een vorm van interreligieus godsdienstonderwijs te ontwikkelen. Ze ontwikkelen niet alleen een theoretisch kader, ze onderbouwen hun bevindingen ook met Vlaamse empirische gegevens.

Abstract: Until the 1970s religious education was characterized by a mono-religious point of view. Some religious pedagogues have called for an appropriate educational answer to growing secularisation and pluralisation. They have developed a multi-religious model. In this paper, we wish to put under scrutiny both the mono-religious and the multi-religious concepts of religious education. We wish also to put forward a new concept, namely ‘inter-religious learning’. Supported by a theoretical framework, and some remarkable results of recent empirical research in Flanders, we hope to demonstrate that this model is not only a more appropriate answer to the challenge of secularism and pluralism than is the multi-religious approach, but also that it is practically feasible.


Smit Wim


The growing pluralisation and secularisation have put the traditional mono-religious religious education under pressure. Christianity no longer possesses a privileged position in Western Europe. Nowadays, students are confronted on the one hand with unbelief – being religious is no longer self-evident – and on the other with people of different religious faiths[0]. Moreover, since the 1980s, individualisation and individualism are increasingly in evidence. More and more religion has become a private matter; and people feel less connected with religious tradition and religious institutions. In large parts of the population, this had lead towards religious indifference and, in any event, to a marked decrease in church-involvement[1].
In this climate, religious teachers have their work cut out for them. In most of the European countries religion is still an obligatory subject, certainly in Christian (denominational) schools. Every day, and in each lesson, teachers must try to arouse the pupils’ interest in the subject. But because of the students’ slight enthusiasm, and the presence of an increasing number of students with another religious belief in the classroom, this is no easy task. In Flanders, just as in other parts of Europe[2], there are many pupils of Moroccan or Turkish origin. These have introduced Islam into Catholic religious education in a very direct way. In consequence the question arises how to deal with the ever more pluralized situation that is manifest in society and which commonly results in incomprehension and even violence between sections of the population of different cultural and religious origin[3].
How can religious education today address the multi-religious classroom? Does the classical catechetical education still stand a chance? On the one hand we will examine these questions from within a theoretical framework, and on the other hand we will throw light on the empirical findings of a recent large-scale survey that we conducted in Flanders. The purpose of this research is to develop a model that makes it possible for religious education to contribute to peaceful co-existence between the different philosophies of life and cultures present in Western Europe.


Until the 1970s the religious education we knew was primarily mono-religious in orientation – an approach that is still extant[4]. Up to the 1960s, this classical religious education was marked by a strong exclusivism that worked from the premise of the superiority of Catholicism – ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’. Later, after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and with awareness of the growing pluralism, the exclusive model was replaced by a less strict inclusive model, which considered Catholicism as normative, but was inspired by an increasing respect and appreciation for other religions. No longer was salvation seen as existing only within the Church; the truth (of Christ) was active in other religions.
Since the 1970s, a number of people have been trying to formulate an answer from the standpoint religious education to pluralism. This response has developed towards a multi-religious concept of religious education. This concept has especially had success in the Netherlands. In Germany too, the concept has been discussed, but not developed further. Multi-religious religious education is based on the notion that all religions are of equal, or strictly relative worth. As a consequence, it commits itself to ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ education[5].
But the problem with multi-religious religious education is that, while still in their early years, students are brusquely presented with the differences and incompatibilities between the different religions. Such a ‘ruthless confrontation’ at a tender age, as the authoritative Karl Nipkow calls it, is problematic from a pedagogical point of view. Merely external and objective descriptions of the different religions will in the end only hinder the emphatic understanding, from inside out, of other religions. Not to interpret or explain these differences, he writes, will lead towards relativism, and obstruct precisely that robust understanding of a variety of religions that aims towards a respectful association with different (religious) convictions[6]. Multi-religious learning does not require contact with peoples who are engaged in a (radically) different religion and who can communicate this other religion from inside out. On the contrary, engagement is seen as an impediment for the objective representation of religious convictions. This approach is quite problematic because the core of religious conviction lies exactly in the acceptance of an engaged perspective. It is even a contradiction of the objective of education, namely forming students so that they can take up a role in society.
But at the same time, religious absolutism, which is behind mono-religious instruction, no longer suffices, because it leads to a denial of other ways of salvation, and of the fact that human understanding is limited – no philosophical or no religious perspective can exhaust the whole truth. Besides, empirical research indicates that the exclusive model has ethnocentric roots, and does not teach pupils to associate with peoples of different (religious) beliefs[7]. And this, together with teaching students to deal in a respectful way with others, regardless their religious conviction, needs to be one of the purposes of a renewed religious education that takes into account the present multicultural and multi-religious situation.
To avoid ethnocentrism on the one hand and relativism on the other[8], religious pedagogues in the 1990s developed the inter-religious concept. This distinguishes itself from mono-religious pedagogy because it acknowledges pluralism and, even more, takes it into account by integrating this aspect of society in the curriculum. Religious education becomes a place of encounter for different religious convictions. As well, it further distinguishes itself from the multi-religious model by rejecting both religious absolutism and the objective representation of a multitude of religions. In the inter-religious model, students are not only informed, but are introduced – by a teacher who takes an explicitly religious (Christian) standpoint – to the commitments and instincts of different religions, giving them the opportunity to enrich and develop their personal religiosity[9]. The curriculum of an inter-religious education seeks to take up a variety of truth claims through a hermeneutic-communicative dialogue. In this process, the pupils are fully-engrossed subjects, because they can enter the dialogue from without their own religious background, sensitivities and experiences. In other words, religious education in a pluralistic society cannot be approached with a catechetical attitude in the same way it was with mono-religious instruction[10]. The purpose is not to convert the students to Christianity, but to guide them in the formation of their own religious identities, in confrontation with a Christian and pluralistic system of meanings.
Nevertheless, inter-religious instruction does not simply take a mere middle position between multi-religious instruction on the one hand and mono-religious instruction on the other. Indeed, it indicates, as in the multi-religious concept, distance from one’s own tradition, but only a temporary and partial distance. At the same time, it asks for ‘commitment’ from teachers and students, without endagering or excluding dialogue. In this sense, inter-religious instruction offers more than either established model. It acknowledges that in a pluralistic multicultural society unity can be found in diversity, but that this unity is not pre-given and has to be brought about[11].
Inter-religious instruction acknowledges and emphasizes that truth is pluralistic and relational. Because of that in this new concept, communication and dialogue about the various underlying religious assumptions of the teacher and the students have a central place. Each one of them, in a dynamic and searching way, is connected with his or her religion, and from this connection he or she participates in a conversation[12]. It is this dialogue that gives the pupils the opportunity to become themselves learning subjects “insofar as the subject of learning in RE [Religious Education] is based on the experiences, relevance systems and meanings of the pupils”. The existence of different religions and ideologies need not be a threat to the development of religious identity. On the contrary, it offers a mediation for one’s own meanings, boundaries and affiliations and gives one the chance to achieve mutual understanding, and find mutual acceptance[13]. Central in this model is the idea that people need not necessarily already be initiated into one model of belief, but that much building material is at hand to develop a religious identity via the confrontation with those who have already taken some steps towards some religious commitment. Indeed, these latter have material to offer those seeking to build upon their own religious engagements.
In this way, students have the opportunity to form their own (religious) identities. It is certain that an identity does not arise from simple self-reflection, but can only be found via the ‘detour’ of interaction and dialogue with the other. So identity is, as Paul Ricoeur puts it, a tissue that changes through interaction[14]. In relation to this we can speak of the ‘dialogical self’. From this viewpoint, inter-religious instruction undoubtedly must be dialogical instruction. In this context, inter-religious learning starts from what Nipkow describes as ‘weak pluralism’, namely, an existing openness towards dialogue, and an acceptance and taking into account of a form of relativisation of one’s own religious convictions. Dialogue in this conception is, as opposed to ‘hard pluralism’, not seen as something that injures one’s own religious point of view[15].

We clearly prefer the inter-religious model that is characterized by (1) respect for diversity, (2) engagement, and (3) dialogue. These are fundamental elements contributing together with the subject’s own religion, to the religious identity-construction of the students. To make the presuppositions of our theoretical concept testable, they were converted into statements or propositions, and posed in a questionnaire. With the responses to these propositions, we sought to map the ideas of teachers and students, and to check if the theoretical propositions [? conditions?] are present to implement inter-religious instruction within the curriculum. The propositions gauged the ideas of the teachers and students about (1) their openness towards people with other beliefs, (2) their experiences of faith and their religious self-perception and their interest in religion, and (3) their attitude towards dialogue in the classroom. On the basis of the propositions, we also tested if we could discern and assess practice of the religious-pedagogical models of mono- and multi-religious instruction in the classroom. And lastly, we asked after the feasibility, the practical organisation, the motivation and the purposes of religious instruction by teachers in Flanders.


In total we questioned 104 schools in Flanders, spread over the different provinces. It involved general education high-schools, and technical high-schools. Teachers and pupils had different questionnaires, in which the propositions were specified according to the target-group. The questionnaire for the teachers included 38 questions about background-variables, and tested 263 propositions. The survey for the pupils included 40 questions about background variables, and tested 261 propositions. Both had the opportunity to answer on a scale from 1 to 6. For 98 teachers and 1224 students, the data are processed in the results of the inquiry.

The average age of the questioned student-group is 16 to 17 years. This student-group includes 526 boys and 698 girls of whom 58% are from a general high-school and 42% from a technical high-school. In this student-group 25,43% call themselves religious, 37,94% call themselves unreligious and 36,30% are undecided[16]. These background-variables teach us that this student-group is not homogenous; pupils differ in religious self-perception and education. As a consequence this heterogeneous student-group calls for a specific religious-pedagogical approach. This conclusion is important from the viewpoint of our research, in which we started from the idea that mono-religious instruction is not an adequate approach for heterogeneous class-groups.
In our research a few propositions are inserted which had as a purpose to check if students think exclusively, inclusively or pluralistically. Empirically speaking, only two factors could be found, (exclusivistic) inclusivism and pluralism. We concluded that the propositions about inclusivism and exclusivism are bounded within one cluster. In subsequent research we integrated this cluster as (exclusivistic) inclusivism[17]. The average response on this factor is low, which is to say that students do not agree with these propositions. Around the factor of (exclusivistic) inclusivism we also noticed a strong connexion between the propositions that gauged for the pluralistic convictions. 75% of the students agree or agree completely with the proposition that besides Christianity, there are also other religions that contains truth. (Graphic 1). The results of this proposition link up with our presupposition that students today think pluralistically.
In our research we also took up some questions that could give us an image of the attitude of youngsters towards peoples with another religious belief. They were presented with the statement: when I come into contact peoples with a different religious belief, I feel – fear, anxiety, annoyance, insensitivity, uncertainty, co-operation, connectedness, respect, openness, willingness for dialogue (Graphic 2) From the answers, we can conclude that students are open to people with another religious belief. This conclusion forms the core of inter-religious learning, because, as we pointed out, the dialogue between the religious perspectives is central in inter-religious learning. It is about exchange, interaction and a variety of confrontation which makes that peoples feel challenged in their own religious or unreligious feeling. The proposition, ‘In my opinion, one can learn a lot from people with different religious beliefs.’ is clearly confirmed positively by the students. (Graphic 3) 68% of the pupils agree or totally agree with this proposition. By declaring that they are open for dialogue with peoples who have another religious belief, so that they can grow in their religious identity, students make clear that the mere gathering knowledge and information (as is typical of multi-religious learning) should be transcended. It is the task of the teacher to make a learning process from this dialogue. A learning process in which personal education and the formation of an own identity are the roots of the matter.

The average age of the queried teachers is 42 years. In the teacher-group, 54 are men and 44 are women. When asked, 94,79% of the teachers call themselves religious; 47% call themselves Catholic, and 45% say they are Christian. 89,79% of the teachers agree with the inclusive proposition ‘For me, the Spirit of Christ is actively present in other religions’. From these results we can conclude that this is a homogeneous group with a distinct inclusivistic attitude. Only a few teachers do not call themselves Christian. Their religious identity is fully-formed and the queried teachers do not think very pluralistically, as they are convinced of their religious position. That is the reason why they have a high score on some of the (exclusivist) inclusivist propositions.
Nevertheless 82,66% of ‘religious’ teachers do not agree with the idea that it is their duty to prove the spiritual, ethical or doctrinal superiority of the Christian religion. (Graphic 4) This last result makes it impossible to mark the questioned teachers as exclusivistic. The fact that teachers do not see it as their duty to prove the superiority of their own religion, clashes with the theoretical definition of exclusivism. An exclusivist feels obliged to proclaim the Catholic religion and to convince people with another religious belief of the special merit of the Catholic religious conviction[18]. The exclusivistic model is being rejected for its negative attitude towards peoples with another religious belief.
This interpretation is also supported by the reactions of the teachers on the proposition: ‘My affective attitude towards religious plurality, is defined by: fear, anxiety, insensitivity, uncertainty, co-operation, connectedness, respect, openness, willingness for dialogue’. (Graphic 5) 95% of the teachers make it clear that they agree totally with the willingness to engage with people with another religious belief.
With the empirical data above in hand, we can conclude that the purpose of any dialogue cannot be defined as being, to convince the other of our own religious beliefs. This conclusion also supports the presupposition – typical of inter-religious learning – that there is openness towards other (non-exclusive) religious systems. Together with the high score on the proposition ‘openness to the concepts of people with different beliefs does not preclude the teacher’s own, proper religious convictions’ (Graphic 6), we also see the confirmation of the other part of our presupposition, namely that the teacher does not place him- or herself in a neutral, bystander’s perspective (so, they do not embrace pluralism). On the contrary, he or she is an explicit, committed (Christian) participant in the religious debate.

The cluster of propositions often shows a high degree of connectedness, which is a confirmation of the theoretical presuppositions which we tested in the propositions, and this gives us the opportunity to posit some empirical dimensions. Between these parameters we may also draw some correlations. These correlations point out certain connexions between the underlying parameters, and make it possible for us to examine the explicit and implicit conditions for inter-religious learning. From the parameter that maps the conditions for inter-religious learning, we derive two significant correlations. A novel aspect of this research is the empirical conclusion that there can be a proven correlation between a mono-religious attitude and an openness towards inter-religious learning. Typical for inter-religious learning is openness for diversity, commitment and dialogue (.412). Further, there is a significant correlation between inter-religious learning and what can be described as ‘conditional dialogue’ (.403). These correlations lead us to the following interpretation: the mono-religious teacher is a teacher who expresses his- or herself as Christian, and who sees it as his or her responsibility to include this Christian belief in classroom practice. These teachers are highly committed, and this commitment to their own religious conviction is a condition for communication with people of another belief (inclusivism). Dialogue for this teacher can be a mean, but this is bounded by certain conditions. One of these conditions is that the students have already developed a certain religious identity of their own, or that they are developing one. (This is also supported by the fact that most of the teachers think that the appropriate age for inter-religious instruction is 16. At this age students already have a certain religious identity.) It is striking that we could not discover a correlation (positively nor negatively) between pluralism and inter-religious learning.
So, we can conclude the empirically discernible presence of the fundamental conditions for the introduction of inter-religious learning, namely a clear religious identity in the teacher, an open religious building-process with the students, an openness for the diversity in the class and the willingness to have religious dialogue. Pupils and teachers are expecting more of the religious curriculum than the bare offer of some neutral or objective information. But they look forward to an engaged dialogue about religion in the service of the construction of their own religious identity. Into this dialogue, Christian (and other) religious traditions must be introduced. It is clear that the pluralistic paradigm is not capable of offering this kind of learning-process; quite to the contrary. In this sense, the mono-religious teacher (especially when he thinks inclusively) is better-suited to implement inter-religious instruction than the pluralistic teacher.


The surprise of multiculturality and multireligiosity, and the fear for the loss of one’s own identity can provoke different reactions. One reaction can be to close oneself in in one’s identity. But again, a wide-open reaction is one that leads to a loss of identity and dissolves into a jumble of different ideas without tradition. Throughout this paper we placed both positions under scrutiny and pleaded for inter-religious education.
From our empirical research we can conclude that students, as well as teachers, are open for dialogue and that the teachers who are prepared to accept the inter-religious model, are those teachers who put commitment at the centre of their education. Both conclusions offer a hopeful prospect for the future of inter-religious instruction. Further analyses of our empirical research, and further development of our theoretical framework will offer a feasible and acceptable route away from the traditional mono-religious, and the counter-productive multi-religious religious models education, and show us a way towards a peaceful inter-religious future.

(0) T. ANDREE, Interreligieus leren. Een nieuwe loot aan de godsdienst-pedagogische stam, in L. LEIJSSEN, H. LOMBAERTS & B. ROEBBEN (red.), Geloven als toekomst, Leuven, Acco, 1995, p. 507.
(1) H.-G. ZIEBERTZ, Religie in de moderniteit?, in Tijdschrift voor praktische theologie 24 (2) (1997) 6-20, p. 10-11.
(2) F. SCHWEITZER, A Stronger Case for Religion. Perspectives on Multicultural Education and on Religiously Affiliated Schools, in International Journal of Education and Religion Vol. 1 (2000) 47-63, p. 49.
(3) W. WEISSE & T. KNAUTH, Dialogical Religious Education, in: TREES ANDREE, COK BAKKER & PETER SCHREINER (eds.), Crossing boundaries: contributions to Interreligious and Intercultural Education, Comenius Institut, 1997, 33-44, p. 41.
(4) H.-G. ZIEBERTZ, Mono-, multi-, interreligiös? Religionen als religionspädagogische Herausforderung in Evangelische Erzieher 46 (4) (1994) 328-337, p. 332.
(5) ID., Religionendialog in interkulturellen und interreligiösen Lernprozessen, in A. GRÖZINGER & J. LOTT (Hg.), Gelebte Religion. Im Brennpunkt praktisch-theologische Denkens und Handelns, Reinbach, CMZ-Verlag, 1997, 73-95, p. 79.
(6) K.E. NIPKOW, Ziele interreligiösen Lernens als Mehrdimensionales Problem, in J.A. VAN DER VEN & H.-G. ZIEBERTZ, Religiöser pluralismus und interreligiöses lernen, Kampen, J.H. Kok Publishing House, 1994, 197-232, p. 224.
(7) H.-G. ZIEBERTZ, Religiöse Identitätsfindung durch interreligiöse Lernprozesse, in Religionspädagogische Beiträge 36 (1995) 83-104, p. 84-85.
(8) J. VAN WIELE, Geschiedenis en beeldvorming. De problematiek van vooroordelen in het interreligieus onderwijs over de islam, in B. ROEBBEN, Religieus opvoeden in een multiculturele samenleving, Leuven, Davidsfonds, 2000, 121-133, p. 132.
(9) H.-G. ZIEBERTZ, Religious Pluralism and Religious Education, in Journal of Empirical Theology 6 (1993) 82-99, p. 86.
(10) ZIEBERTZ, H.-G. 1993. Religious Pluralism and Religious Education in Journal of Empirical Theology 6 (1993) 82-99, p. 82.
(11) H.-G. ZIEBERTZ, Intercultural learning in a new millennium: between fundamentalism and relativism, in L.J. FRANCIS, J. ASTLEY & M. ROBBINS (ed.), Education in Religion and Values for the Global Future, Dublin, 2001, p. 231. Zie ook: H.G. ZIEBERTZ, Religionendialog in interkulturellen und interreligiösen Lernprozessen, 221-238, p. 81/92.
(12) W.L. WARDEKKER & S. MIEDEMA, Denominational School Identity and the Formation of Personal Identity, in Religious Education 96 (1) (2001) 36-48, p. 45.
(13) W. WEISSE & T. KNAUTH, Art. Cit., p. 34.
(14) H.-G. ZIEBERTZ, Religiöse Identitätsfindung durch interreligiöse Lernprozesse, p. 94-95.
(15) K.E. NIPKOW, Ziele interreligiösen Lernens als Mehrdimensionales Problem, p. 205.
(16) In our empirical research we introduced the difference between Catholic and Christian in analogy to the research of KAREL DOBBELAERE en LILIANE VOYÉ, Religie en kerkbetrokkenheid: ambivalentie en vervreemding in DOBBELAERE, K, ELCHARDUS, M., KERHOFS, J., Verloren zekerheid, de Belgen en hun waarden, overtuigingen en houdingen, Lannoo, Tielt, 2001, p. 121. Peoples, they say, make a differentiation between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Christian’, core-difference is the acceptance of the church’ doctrines and the interpretation of these doctrines. ‘Christians’ take some distance from the position of the church, but they still acknowledge and support the message of the church.
(17) ZIEBERTZ, H.-G. 1994. Religiöse Lernprozesse und religionstheologisches Bewusstsein in VAN DER VEN, J.A. & ZIEBERTZ, H.-G. 1994. Religiöser Pluralismus und Interreligiöses Lernen. Kampen. J.H. Kok Publishing House. p. 233-275.
(18) TIELEMAN, H. 1997 Welcome Address in ANREE, T. & BAKKER C., SCHREINER, P., (ed.). Crossing Boundaries. Contributions to Interreligious and intercultural Education. Utrecht. 13-17, p. 15.

Aanvullende informatie

Co-auteurs van dit artikel waren Didier Pollefeyt en Mieke De Vlieger.
Dit artikel verscheen naar aanleiding van een lezing die werd gegeven op een UNESCO Conference die plaatshad in juni 2003 en handelde over ‘Intercultural Education’. Alle papers werden gepubliceerd op een cd-rom.

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