In Sweden, religious studies is a compulsory subject in upper secondary school.
Even though many Swedes define themselves as secular and Sweden is often described as one of the world's most secular countries, it does not mean that there is a lack of interest in religious topics. Despite the description of today’s Sweden, there’re plenty of religious Swedes who practice on a daily basis. Since the 1990s, religious studies have been a compulsory subject in Swedish upper secondary school. Even though Christianity is the religion you start from, for historical reasons, the course is a review of the five world religions and some prominent views on life and ethics. The purpose of the subject is to deepen the knowledge of Christianity along with the world religions and what belief system each upholds.
Students are taught to be able to describe the most distinctive features of each religion, to increase their understanding between people.
I have been teaching the subject for over 25 years and I have been struck by the importance of meeting young people and giving them the opportunity to discuss moral dilemmas as well as world events affected by religion. The purpose of the school subject is to create an understanding of different cultural expressions that can impact people in their everyday lives such as clothing, eating habits, and life choices.
Many young people have a great need to discuss things they’re affected by in their everyday lives.
In today’s classrooms, the students come from all around the world. This means that several religions are represented in the same class even though the majority of the students have an Abrahamic background. The subject of religion allows them to talk about their views on ethical dilemmas as well as different types of religious expressions. In a teacher-led discussion, there’s an opportunity to ask questions — not only to me as a teacher, but also to each other. The nature of the subject invites reasoning and conversations about religious experiences.
The idea is that one should also be able to talk about things that can be perceived as controversial.
Here I want to emphasize the importance of a balance between science and exploration. The students often are highly motivated and many have a seemingly pent-up need to talk about existential issues. What is the meaning of life? What does it mean to live a religious life? What is right and what is wrong? They want to know why a Muslim woman can choose to wear the hijab or why the conflict between Israel and Palestine continues. It can switch between high and low.
It is fantastic to be a teacher in religious studies and to be able to take part in what today’s young people think and feel. Students are not afraid to ask burning questions and as long as it is done with respect and led with a gentle hand, it is enriching for all parties.
Students must be allowed to express their thoughts and talk about what is current and important to them.
Much of the teaching is about describing the message and core of each religion and what it means for the religious person. How food, clothing, and rituals can strengthen the religious identity. In that context, the students get to read excerpts from sacred documents and if possible we visit a church, synagogue, and/or a mosque together.
But it is not always easy to teach the subject of religion.
One must always be prepared for issues that may be difficult to address and that students can react strongly depending on previous experiences. On occasion, I have had to interrupt students who have verbally insulted another student or when someone has expressed a way of thinking that is not compatible with the school’s and the society’s values. I therefore usually start each course by teaching students about the importance of being able to express thoughts and opinions with respect for others and the importance of being able to listen.
It is not a completely safe way to avoid problems, but my experience is that young people are good at talking with each other and that the subject of religion contributes to them getting to know each other a little bit better.
In the school where I teach, we have a recurring religious dialogue where the school invites a pastor from the Lutheran Church who, until the year 2000, was the state church of Sweden, a Rabbi, and an Imam.
They usually start the dialogue by presenting themselves as religiously active in the Swedish society, there after they get to answer the student’s many questions. Almost every time, the invited guests have to stay longer than planned because the students have so many questions. We have chosen to invite representatives from the Abrahamic religions as we want to counter anti-Semitism and polarization between secular/Christians and Muslims.
The religious dialogue serves its purpose and made students approach each other.
They have been able to see and listen to a Rabbi who was born in Israel standing next to an Imam who was born in Palestine on a stage at school and both say that the two of them have more that unites them than separates them. It has affected the students positively.
According to Swedish surveys that have been conducted, a decisive majority of high school students believe that the subject of religion is an important subject in today’s society.
Ulrika von Yxkull is a teacher in a senior high school in Stockholm, Sweden. She teaches religious studies, Swedish and literature.
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