The teaching of religion in secular schools: what results?


This year marks 20 years of “Debray report”, presented in February 2002 to the Socialist Minister of National Education, Jack Lang. His key proposal was to establish a “teaching of religious facts” in public and secular schools. While the 9 edition of the secularism day, let's come back to this initiative which had had an important echo in its time.

Written the day after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the text aroused the interest of public opinion while the minutes of silence in class, in tribute to the victims of terrorism, had sometimes given rise to disputes and that we observed a resurgence of conflicts linked to the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in class.

The personality of the author, Régis Debray, former comrade in arms of Che Guevara, prolific writer, senior civil servant, personally agnostic but fascinated by the question of the sacred, contributed to the interest aroused by his proposals. It was not a question of reintroducing "God at school" but of studying, distanced and critical way, the material and immaterial traces of past and current beliefs.

Train teachers

Rather than creating a new teaching, in a French educational system where the programs were already very heavy and fragmented, Debray advocated a transversal approach. It would be a question of approaching the religious facts within the disciplines which could lend themselves music to it, plastic arts, languages, French, letters, philosophy. This meant modifying and making the programs consistent, but also mobilizing the teachers by arming them “intellectually and professionally in the face of a question that is always sensitive, because it touches on the deepest identity of the students and their families”.

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Debray advised the Minister of Education to set up compulsory initial training as well as continuing education modules for teachers and educational staff, to produce appropriate educational resources, and to create a European Institute of Religious Studies (IESR) , attached to the section of religious sciences of the Practical School of Advanced Studies. This institute would act as an interface between research in the science of religions and the training of teachers and civil servants.

Initially, despite a change of Minister of Education following the elections, the recommendations were partly implemented. The IESR was created in June 2002. In 2005, religious facts were defined as part of the common foundation of knowledge. Programs and textbooks have also been reworked to develop a more scientific approach to religious facts.

However, teacher training on these issues has never been generalized, despite the introduction of modules in certain teacher training institutes, and the development, by the IESR (renamed IREL, Institute for the Study of Religions and Secularism, in 2021), a course offer. Little by little, the mobilization around the teaching of religious facts weakened, while other educational emergencies appeared: education for sustainable development, critical thinking and the media, gender equality , etc. The reorganization of the programs, judged too heavy by the teachers, did not make it possible to develop there the place of the religious facts.

Respond to new generations

The attacks committed in the name of Islam have punctually reactivated, under the five-year terms of François Hollande and then Emmanuel Macron, the desire for a reasoned and national implementation of a policy of teaching religious facts. However, no concrete measures have been taken, in a context where priority has been given to the transmission of the values ​​of the Republic.

The Ministry of Education has sometimes itself discouraged goodwill, sanctioning for example in 2017 a school teacher who had his students work on the Bible for having “breached his duty of neutrality and secularism”.

Although the administrative court rehabilitated the teacher, the attitude of the ministry, even if it was mainly linked to bureaucratic stiffness, may have had a inhibitory effect. In the field, the teaching of religious facts remains perceived as hypersensitive.

Despite the difficulties of implementation, the Debray report remains relevant at the start of the 2020s. New generations' interest in beliefs, their more liberal conception of secularism, which draw, according to Frédéric Dabi, a generational divide, seem to call for a reinvestment in the question of religious facts, within the framework of the “Secularism and values ​​of the Republic” training courses.

Reflection on the relationship between belief and knowledge, which is at the heart of the approach advocated by this teaching, can also be useful in a context marked by post-truth, a political and media configuration in which the credibility of discourse relies less on their adequacy with the facts than on their correspondence with beliefs and emotions.

Charles Mercier, University Professor of Contemporary History, University of Bordeaux

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


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