Interview-dialogue with Dr Giovanni Lapis (University of Venice) on the state of the art of religious studies in Europe

1. Giovanni Lapis (PhD at the Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and at the Department of Asian and North African Studies at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) for some time now you have devoted your studies to the theoretical, epistemological, sociological, historical, methodological and pedagogical aspects of the so-called “Religious Education”. Based on your studies, how would you respond to a neophyte who asks you to clarify the concept of Religious Education (RE)?

From the broadest point of view possible, the term “Religious Education” may embrace various and heterogeneous elements, covering a spectrum that spans from religious upbringing into a specific tradition in the context of a religious community, to a strictly objective teaching based on the academic study of religion in the context of public compulsory school systems. In between we may find various shades of grey, such as teachings about various religions offered from a point of view of certain religious traditions, or seemingly neutral teaching of religions aimed at nurturing a general ‘religiousness’ in pupils, and so on.
From a slightly more specific point of view, RE refers to a school subject mainly (but not exclusively) focused on the topic of religion/s whose management, aims and contents greatly varies according to the type of relations a State entertains with one or more religious traditions. Sometimes, there is not a specific subject devoted to the topic of religion/s, but this latter is expected to be touched in other subjects such as History and Geography (this is the case of France, for example).
In a more restricted sense, the RE I refer to in my work may be a subject in its own terms, or a bundle of topics to be engaged within other school subjects, but nonetheless it must have the academic field of the study of religion as its epistemological point of reference. This means being a teaching which is a-confessional and a-religious, i.e not pro- nor anti- any religious traditions or ‘religion’ in general, and therefore it is addressed to any kind of pupils, irrespectively of their religious, anti-religious or indifferent positions.

2. Why, from your perspective, is it necessary to teach religions in public schools? What do you think is the pedagogical aspect of these disciplines?

There are at least two reasons why I think it is necessary to teach RE in the third modality above mentioned. Firstly, if subjects such as History, Literature, Philosophy, Arts, Social Sciences etc. are meant to equip pupils with tools to comprehend and critically understand various facets of mankind’s cultural landscapes, I see no reasons why the topic of “religion” must have such a ‘special status’ that must be taught by ‘religious specialists’ which cannot but belong to certain traditions. It is true that also ‘normal’ teachers dealing with History may have certain peculiar affiliations, such as particular philosophical, historical or literary trends, but in this case we are talking about epistemological constraint and – especially – political power absolutely incomparable to religious organizations.
Someone may object and affirm that people – such as an agnostic researcher like myself – who do not have experience of a generic and universal ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual feeling’ will inevitably fail to completely address the issue of religion, especially with religious pupils. I cannot go into details here, but several scholars have explained how this allegedly ‘exceptionality’ and ‘universality’ of religion is just the result of modern developments of European and North-American culture, which has been disseminated in the whole world, especially through the violence, physical as well as epistemological, of colonialism.
This brings us to the second reason for the importance of RE in schools. It is a gateway, albeit not the only one, to delve deeper into the presuppositions and unquestioned certainties of Modernity, first of all its universal application.
Again, I cannot go into details, but many scholars argue that when Euro-American civilizations came to the self-consciousness of being ‘modern’ and ‘secular’, they construed ‘religion’ as the opposite of such qualities, and took for granted that such idea of ‘religion’ – exactly like modernity – was universally applicable. Do we find phenomena similar to our modern, Euro-American idea of religion? Sure. Are they exactly the same? Not at all, especially in pre-modern times, when the influence of Europe was negligible.
I find this struggle into balancing sameness and difference when looking at the various corners of the world fascinating, especially when it comes to a topic normally taken as an unquestioned universal such as religion. And this brings us to the pedagogical implications of studying religion and religions. On one side, it opens a new window in our historical self-understanding. On the other hand, we are put in front of glaring examples of how our categories are strictly relative to our historical and cultural background. Therefore, we are warned that the similarities we perceive among various religions may be: 1) a result of past modern influence from Euro-American powers, especially during colonial times; 2) a biased interpretation due to our cultural conditioning into thinking about “religion” in certain, determined terms and 3) an actual proof of a common humanity, which nonetheless continues to elude our attempts to circumscribe its fuzzy contours or to individuate allegedly constant variables. In other words, dealing with the issue of religion and religions is an effective exercise of intercultural understanding and critical self-awareness.

3. In the face of the growing pluralism that characterizes our society, what kind of perspective and objectives should this “school subject” have? And what methodology?

Coherently with my previous answer, I think that the main pedagogical perspective – in the sense of the socially desired upbringing of a child into being an autonomous subject – of this subject should be primarily informed by intercultural education and citizenship education. In other words, RE should not limit itself to “provide information about religions”, but, given the peculiar and contested nature of the very concept of “religion”, should give pupils the occasion to reflect on how very different frames of understanding exist in the world to know more in detail, also through the encounter with different culture and religions, which are our frames and values of reference and why we tend to think that they are more “universal” than those of the others. By doing this, and once we gain an understanding of which are our fundamental frames of understanding and values, we may start thinking about the degree of negotiability, a step which I deem pivotal in any process of democratic decision-making.
In a certain sense, I would advocate that other school subjects, such as History, Philosophy, Literature should take up this intercultural and citizenship education approach. The fact that I see RE as a fruitful occasion for such kind of reflection is not so much related to the nature of “religion” itself, but to the peculiar history and influence that this concept and related discourses had in modern Euro-American regions first, and in the rest of the world shortly after.
Given such a premise, the tools we need to engage religion and religions cannot be those linked to any religious traditions (or anti-religious tradition, for that matter). The present-day academic field of the study of religion is the most suitable candidate for several reasons: its pluri-disciplinary approach (history, social science, critical theory, and recently, cognitive sciences) and its painstakingly efforts to break free from its Protestant-Christianocentric origins – to the point that some scholar even denying the very coherence and usefulness of using the term “religion”.
Of course, such academic knowledge of reference should be accompanied and mediated by the disciplines devoted to teaching, learning and educating. That is, Didactics and Pedagogy. Moreover, even if the RE we are talking about is not meant to help pupils to “find” or “explore” better their own religious/existential aspirations, to completely disregard such expectations may be detrimental. Therefore, philosophical/ethical analysis of religious doctrines may find place in this RE, provided that careful attention is paid in order to avoid that simplifications or particular examples become reified into supposedly ‘eternal essences’ of religions.

4. Religions and school systems: what are the main RE patterns in public schools in different European States?

There are many ways in which scholars categorized the various instances of RE in Europe. The most commonly used is the institutional criterium, i.e. referring to the legal framework and, especially, the position of the state vis-à-vis the religious communities involved. Three main models can be listed, whose names are rather self-explanatory: 1) no religious instruction in school; 2) confessional religious instruction in school; 3) non-confessional religious education.
Another often used classification refers to the basic educational strategy of RE, which may be divided in three main orientations: “learning into religion”, “learning from religion” and “learning about religion”. The first one often overlaps with the confessional institutional framework and aims to introduce pupils into the self-understanding of a religious tradition, focusing on doctrinal matters and employing a theological perspective. With “learning about religion” the aim is instead to have pupils developing a factual knowledge of a certain tradition or number of traditions, usually from an academic, non-confessional perspective. “Learning from religion” is a bit more ambiguous and can be generally understood as enabling pupils to personally reflect, especially for what concerns existential, metaphysical or ethical questions, on the basis of various issues brought forth by the doctrines or practices of the religious traditions. These are ideal types and in practice we often find them in various degrees of mixture.
Other scholars, especially coming from the academic study of religion, developed other types of rather skeptical and suspicious eye towards the idea of classifications. A common point, however, is their “learning from religion”, which is often reformulated as “small-confessional RE” or “life-world-related RE”. In a nutshell, these scholars critique the idea of a RE aimed to foster a supposedly neutral “spiritual sensibility” in pupils, which is actually an idea culturally and historically bounded to Modern, European and Christian notions. Coherently, in opposition to such approach, these scholars advocate a detached modality of engaging the various religious traditions, based on the academic study of religions.

5. What do you think is the most effective approach?

For the reasons above mentioned, I fundamentally agree with the vast majority of the scholars from the study of religion, and I propose that RE should be strictly non-confessional and should equip pupils with both information and – more importantly – the right ‘tools’, i.e. concepts, methods and perspectives to make sense of the many and different information they can easily come across (by simply browsing internet, for example) about religious traditions. Such tools, as already anticipated above, can be easily found within the academic study of religions.

6. In the face of the heterogeneity of approaches to Religious Education in Europe, is there an attempt by the European Union to standardize this field? What are the legal references? The experiments?

Given its ‘special status’, we don’t see specific attempts to homogenize educational policies strictly related to the issue of religion – differently, for example, from language education policies. However, we find ample discussion on the role of religion in educational areas toward which the EU (in its larger sense) is keen to act as a catalyst of good ideas and practices. These are the fields of intercultural education, intercultural dialogue, citizenship education and education towards human rights. Here the issue of religious (and non-religious) worldviews is considered pivotal in these regards, as we can see in various recommendations, studies and guidelines, published especially by the Council of Europe. We may cite The religious dimension of intercultural education (2004), Religious diversity and intercultural education: a reference book for schools (2007). White paper on intercultural dialogue: living together as equals in dignity (2008), Recommendation CM/Rec(2008)12 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the dimension of religions and non-religious convictions within intercultural education and Signposts – Policy and practice for teaching about religions and non-religious worldviews in intercultural education (2014).
Interestingly enough, while highlighting that the religious dimension in intercultural education has to be different from religious nurture into a specific confession, in general it is argued that also faith-based contexts may implement intercultural education practices within RE. Also, we find conspicuous, especially in most recent publications, the influence of a renowned English RE approach, i.e. Robert Jackson’s “Interpretative Approach” in its cognate approaches. It is with such publications that the EU aims to inspire initiatives, especially from the bottom-up, rather that implement them directly. For example, through the Erasmus+ programme.

7. What do you think is the role of the Academy with respect to teaching religions?

Insofar we all agree that universities and research centers (especially if public) are meant to be the places in which knowledges are created, assessed and disseminated for the common good of all citizens and for the sake of knowledge itself, and insofar we agree that RE should be as neutral, objective and (self-)critical as possible, then universities cannot but be the primary reference for both RE contents, didactic methodology and educational perspective. Just like any other subject like Math, History, Biology etc. Of course, even if it is not the case of Italy, this may not completely apply in ‘grey’ contexts, such as universities with theology department – which nonetheless may develop valuable and agreeable contents and methods for RE. One should always look at the actual ideas and practices.

8. Can you tell us about your firsthand experiences with IERS and SORAPS? What are the goals of these projects? How were the networks composed?

IERS (Intercultural Education through Religious Studies) was a first attempt to create a cooperative consortium with various actors at university level, plus one ONG with expertise in promoting and disseminating educational actions to schools and public at large. More in detail IERS consortium included Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, École Pratique des Hautes Études, the University of Augsburg, the University of Salamanca, the University of Southern Denmark and the Italian branch of the Oxfam ONG. The main objective was the creation of web tools, called Digital Modules, which provide data, interpretation and analysis, along with various primary sources (texts, images, audios, videos) on various topics of the study of religions. Apart from an introduction to some most known religious traditions, other topics concern the epistemological question of how to study “religion” and “religions”, as well as some case studies regrouped under the theme “difference and similarities, coexistence and conflict”.
To be honest, to ensure a smooth cooperative work among many universities and scholars, also from different backgrounds (scholars from Augsburg were experts in History Didactics, whereas scholars from Salamanca were experts in educational ICT), was not an easy task. This experience, however, revealed itself quite formative and positive. Indeed, after IERS the same consortium embarked on a new project called SORAPS (Study of Religions Against Prejudices and Stereotypes), adding three schools as additional partners. The objective of this project was the creation of an on-line training course for teachers to equip them with the relevant knowledge and skills to fruitfully use IERS’ resources in their lessons. Moreover, we wanted to add a specific focus on the theme of stereotypes and prejudices. Presently, RomaTre University decided to take inspiration from these projects and, in cooperation with some old partners of IERS and SORAPS (such as Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and École Pratique des Hautes Études) as well as new ones, has recently submitted a proposal for a third project, entitled SORTICE (Study of Religions Towards Intercultural and Citizenship Education). Here the objective is the creation of in-class activities that exploit previous project’s resources in the perspective of intercultural and citizenship education through the study of religions.
All of the above-mentioned projects have been funded by, or are waiting response from, the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union.

9. During the implementation of these projects you had the opportunity to come into contact with teachers from schools from all over Europe. If you had to take a comparative perspective, what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the Italian school system with regard to the teaching of religions?

I shall limit myself only to subjective impressions, as I got in touch with all but a tiny fraction of the educational systems of the countries we cooperated with. The first obvious hurdle is the presence of a non-compulsory subject called IRC, “Insegnamento della Religione Cattolica”, i.e. teaching of catholic religion. Its contents and aims are decided by the Italian Episcopal Conference in cooperation with the Italian Ministry of Education. The presence of a theological bias is evident, albeit many actors (IRC teachers included) claim that it is not a confessional subject. The problem here is that even if we do not see and explicit indoctrination, this does not warrant a neutral perspective, especially on contested concept such a “religion” itself. The training of IRC teachers, in fact, takes place in training facilities directly managed by the Italian Church. In other words, there is a political issue to be reckoned with in order to implement a study-of-religion-based RE at schools. Even if we were to add a second, neutral RE along with IRC, it is not easy to imagine an opposition from the Catholic Church, or even from those teachers who are genuinely convinced that their subject is not “confessional”, but, notwithstanding the specific Catholic perspective, it nonetheless engages “universal issues”.
It should be noted, however, that the opposite situation, such in France where the principle of laïcité is strongly felt and upheld by teachers and other actors, is not and ideal terrain of RE either, since many teachers are suspicious of the term “religion”, immediately equate it with Christianity and are not used to think about “religion” in neutral, academic terms.
Presently, Italian graduates in History or Sciences of Religions have the possibility to become teachers of several school subjects. Such persons may, in theory, disseminate some bits of the study of religions at school through History, Philosophy, Arts and so on. Ultimately, I think the whole question boils down to the personality and good will of the teacher him/herself. If a person feels satisfied, appreciated and acknowledged by society for his/her work, I think s/he will be able to innovate and strive for a betterment of the school system. Unfortunately, due to the low salaries and (unjustified) low reputation of teachers in Italy does not facilitate such attitudes.
In sum, the three main obstacles for a RE in Italian schools are, in primis, the political issue of the Italy- Vatican Concordat on IRC, secondly, the low reputation and esteem in general for the teachers. Lastly, but not less important, there is the influence of a notion of religion which, while being conceived as universal, in reality is very Christian at its core. It is this lack of problematization of this very idea which still engenders theoretical and didactical problems also in countries where RE is supposed to be neutral and based on academic disciplines, such as England or Sweden.

10. Some chapters of your thesis are dedicated to Intercultural Education, what do you think is the relationship between Intercultural Education and Religious Studies?

As already mentioned above, the very fact that a study-of-religions based RE is meant to problematize the concept of religion, which the common parlance and understanding unquestioningly posit as universal, it amounts to a challenge to our ingrained ways of thinking that projects our native modern Euro-American notions into other cultures. At the same time, the glaring similitudes and “family resemblances” that strike us as hinting to something in common, should push us to come up with new concepts – which in our case I think we can keep call “religion” or “religious” – that can account for differences and similarities without erasing the specificity of a given phenomenon. It is such kind of methodological stance, more than a mere knowledge of many “facts” from various corners of the world, that helps fostering an intercultural attitude.
Moreover, when put in front of religious (or cultural, for that matters) phenomena that somehow elude or baffle our categories, it may be a fruitful chance to think about these very categories, that we often take for granted and that we should investigate more thoroughly in order to have a fuller, critical awareness of our cultural backgrounds.
Additionally, and this applies especially (but not exclusively) to the field I specialized in, (that is, east Asian traditions), there is often another factor relevant to intercultural education. This is the cultural influence (apart from the political and economical ones) of the Euro-American regions into the development of modern cultural traditions of Asia, especially the religious one. In a nutshell, if today we tend to think to Indian religions or zen buddhism as expression of a rarefied spirituality that the “West” has long forgotten, this is due to the cultural hegemony and influence that modern colonial powers exerted directly or indirectly to both Asian and Euro-American societies. To be aware that the modern ways of living (sometimes contradictory) of many, if not all, extra-European countries is the result of colonial influence is a necessary, preliminary step to engage in a genuine intercultural dialogue.
Just to give a quick example, to read from national survey that 80% of Japanese are Buddhist while 70% are Shintoist, or that the majority consider themselves non-religious while holding belief in spirits and earnestly visiting temple and shrines, should not lead us to think that Japanese are a kind of schizophrenic people. Instead, this is the result of a modern western concept of religion that has been forcefully applied in Japan as a part of a hasty process of modernization and emulation of colonial powers from the end of the 19th century onwards. Without having an awareness of the existence of this kind of historical backgrounds, I think that a full intercultural education is not possible.

11. What do you think are the gaps and actions needed for the development of the teaching of religions in Europe?

Leaving aside the various, yet necessary peculiar conditions relative to the particular situation in each country, I think that are two main questions concerning the possibility of implementation or, where it is already in place, the improvement of a thoroughly objective teaching about religions in Europe. The first is a political one, i.e. the political will by the various governments to engage with a problem that, while is not usually felt as a impelling necessity, especially in times of pandemic and economic crisis, is still capable of stirring harsh and often ideologically-driven quarrels.
The second is a cultural question. That is, as long as we keep assuming that notions such as “religion” are natural, universal, and pertaining to the private, inner life of the individual, REs based on the understanding of traditional European religious traditions, or REs based on “crypto”-religious understanding will basically go uncontested (excluding attacks from anti-religious zealots), whereas RE approaches that look at religions in its social, cultural, historical and also political aspects will sound strange, uninfluential, ‘dry’ or even harmful. That is why I hope that tiny bottom-up attempts such projects funded by EU programmes will, little by little, influence the understanding of next generations so that possible, future top-down reforms will find more receptive grounds.