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Swiss Atheists Crusade Against School Religion Classes

Secularists in the Swiss canton of Zurich are up in arms over the introduction of a compulsory course on religion and culture in public schools.

(hughmiller)

ZURICH - The fastest-growing religious status in the central Swiss canton of Zurich is not Islam, but atheism. According to the most recent census, one in five Zurich residents professes no religion at all.

A part of this growing minority now finds itself in a showdown with the local education system. Followers of the Free Thought movement, who are committed to preserving the secular ideals of the Enlightenment, are up in arms over "Religion and Culture" classes recently introduced into local schools by the Zurich Education Department. Unlike the recently abolished Biblical history course, the new class is compulsory. It does not give denominational religious instruction, but rather imparts factual knowledge about world religions.

For Andreas Kyriacou, a neuropsychologist and member of Free Thought, this plan is unacceptable. "Children who have grown up in a home without religion will inevitably feel that they are missing something," he complains, adding that the course could pressure them to choose one of the religious identities presented in the course. He argues the canton's plans violate the Federal Constitution, which prohibits the government from forcing a citizen to participate in religious instruction.

Kyriacou, who also sits on the board of the Swiss Green Party, belongs to a group which is carefully monitoring the course's implementation. He believes the curriculum's content is too one-sided. The federal government originally agreed the course would teach general questions of ethical conduct, but now, it seems, it will only address religious views.

Kyriacou contrasts Zurich with the eastern canton of Grisons, which hired an ethicist from the University of Zurich to help develop its new school subject. There, the new course is named "Religion and Ethics."

Dark side of religion

The Zurich Public School Authority makes no secret of the fact that the world's largest religions are at the heart of the new course. "This course is not designed to provide a moral education," says department manager Brigitte Mühlemann. The development of value systems is a multidisciplinary task, she explains, and not one that should be left to a single class.

Zurich's education department refutes the Free Thinkers' claims. "This new school subject will not teach that being non-religious is inferior," says Mühlemann. The goal of the course is to teach children how to deal respectfully with religious questions and traditions. It will be done with sensitivity, she says, and the darker side of religion will also be discussed, as will secular values.

Mühlemann's argument is supported by the former District Councillor Andrea Widmer Graf, who first spearheaded the development of the new school subject five years ago. She says she was keen to see ethical issues dealt with in the course, but did not expect anything more than what is now in the curriculum and is "very satisfied" with it.

Andreas Kyriacou is not just criticizing the course's learning objectives. He says there have been flaws in its implementation. Although they are no longer explicitly teaching religion, many teachers in Zurich still have missionary objectives. Recently, a teacher in the rural community of Hombrechtikon caused a stir when he instructed his students that people of faith are superior to skeptics. The father of a student, himself a militant Free Thinker, filed a public complaint with Director of Education Regine Aeppli. She agreed the lesson did not correspond with the established curriculum for Religion and Culture.

According to Kyriacou, this is not an isolated case. Up to half of all teachers are still using the old model of religious instruction, according to an interim evaluation conducted by the Education Department. In many cases, the same teachers who were previously responsible for Biblical history are now teaching Religion and Culture. "They have not realized that this is a different subject," warns Kyriacou.

Mühlemann plays down the findings of the interim study. She says the results merely demonstrated that the subject is "very challenging" and that its implementation will take time. "We take these findings seriously," she says. Mühlemann adds that it is natural for those with a fundamental interest in the subject to want to teach the course on religion and culture. But this does not inherently prevent them from being objective, she says, noting that regulations bind all teachers to ideological neutrality in the classroom.

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