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Poll: Most Finns would drop religious education classes

Some 70 percent of survey respondents support replacing religion and ethics with a subject open to kids of all faiths.

Uskonnon oppikirja.
Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

Most people in Finland support phasing out religion and ethics classes in primary school in favour of a single broad subject, according to a Taloustutkimus survey for Yle.

In early December, Taloustutkimus asked 1,000 respondents whether or not religion and ethics classes should be replaced with a general religion class that introduces kids to world religions regardless of their faith.

The poll found that 70 percent of respondents said that instead of kids learning about religion and ethics in elementary school, it would be enough for them to be exposed to a non-denominational subject that exposes them to different religions, regardless of their denominations.

Currently, religious education is a compulsory subject in primary and upper secondary schools in Finland. Pupils who do not belong to any religion can choose to study religious education or ethics. At the same time, pupils can get religious education in their own denomination as long as it is registered in Finland, according to the association representing religion teachers in Finland, SUOL.

The pollster found that support for scrubbing religion and ethics from the school curriculum in favour of a single combined subject stretched across different age groups.

Backing for the proposition reached 73 percent among 25–34-year-olds, while it stood at 67 percent in the 65—79-year-old age group. The survey’s margin of error was +/-3.2 percentage points

In terms of regional differences, support for the proposal was highest in Helsinki and the Uusimaa region in southern Finland at 76 percent and somewhat lower in other parts of the south at 66 percent.

Religion teacher and principal Petri Kainulainen of the Kauppis-Heikki primary school in Iisalmi in Northern Savo, said he was not surprised by the outcome.

"It’s a logical result," Kainulainen commented, adding that religion could be a major bogeyman for some people, or the only option for others.

Religion teachers support different subject

In primary schools, there is some overlap between the teaching of the majority religion – Lutheran Evangelicalism – and ethics.

SUOL has not communicated a formal position on a general religion class. However according to a poll from 2019, nearly half of teachers favour the idea.

The organisation’s view is that the biggest challenge in teaching a general religion subject would be formulating the content.

SUOL chair Tuovi Pääkkönen said that it would be necessary to teach diverse and critical content about different religions and worldviews.

"General education in religion and religious literacy are important for children who belong to some denomination as well as for those who do not practice religion to understand the world and different cultures," Pääkkönen said.

According to Pääkkönen, one positive thing about a general approach to religion is that it a single subject would make it easier to provide teaching on religion and ethics. This approach would also mean that parents would not see the need to take their children out of religion classes, as is the case now.

"One subject would also place students on an equal footing, because participating in the class would not depend on which of them are members of a religions group and which are not," he noted.

While some favoured ethics alone as a replacement for teaching religion, Pääkkönen said that it does not provide enough information about religion.

Religion-based teaching too narrow

Meanwhile the Life Stance Education group which provides learning material for students who do not belong to any religious denomination, said that it would be futile to create a new ethics programme.

The organisation also noted that creating a new curriculum would be a protracted process that could be vulnerable to political influence.

Activist Riku Salminen noted that the teaching of world religions only as part of a new subject would be too narrow an approach. He said it is important for the curriculum to include ethics, morals and shared values, not just teaching from the perspective of religion or atheism.

Lawmakers opposed to change

Satu Honkala of the National Agency for Education said that the teaching of general religion cannot be only about religion, because modern world perspectives do not spring exclusively from religion.

"The idea is old-fashioned and was abandoned a long time ago," she declared.

Last autumn, education minister Li Andersson said that she would begin looking at how ethics could be included as an optional subject, although the required legislative reform is not part of the government programme.

Last autumn Helsingin Sanomat reported that the matter was on the minister’s agenda however. A similar law change was previously rejected by lawmakers.

According to Honkala, opening up ethics as an elective subject would be one realistic option that would help advance ethics teaching and that would help make it relevant to young people’s philosophical life questions.

On the other hand, replacing religious education and ethics is hardly likely to move forward, Honkala noted.

"Given that making ethics an elective subject alongside religion didn’t get through in parliament before, it’s unlikely that any decision to get rid of religious education altogether would succeed," she concluded.

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