Sunday, January 23, 2022

What happens when families can choose ethics instead of religious education?

By Mathew Goldstein

In Germany all public schools were required to provide religious education. Families of children who were not baptized could opt out their children from the religious education classes with a free time alternative. There were two categories of classes, a Catholic class and a Protestant class. The content of this “education” (in quotes because there is a mutually exclusive conflict with the goal of a genuine education) was dogmatic, with teachers selected by the church for the purpose of teaching that church’s doctrine. High school students spent about 1000 hours in religious education class. Opt-outs were rare, but then became more common in urban areas. 

Starting in the 1970’s, eight of the eleven West German states transitioned to providing a secular ethics education alternative. The question is what demographic outcomes changed that arguably can be attributed to the partial replacement of religious education with secular ethics education? A recent study from the international platform of Ludwigs-Maximilians University’s Center for Economic Studies and the ifo Institute in Munich addresses this question. See “Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education”. Their answer is yes, there were demographic changes that they claim correlate with the change in education policy. 

I do not doubt that the demographic changes they cite occurred around the same time, but I suspect the reduction in religious belief was a pre-existing trend that may have occurred anyway given that it was the increasing number of opt-outs that triggered this education policy change. This study, however, provides another of a growing collection of evidence based conclusions that ethical behavior is not dependent on religious belief as advocates for religious belief too often claim without providing adequately correlated supporting evidence. The number of people, the frequency of their commentary, the names and backgrounds of the people, who assert a conclusion, such as the assertion that religious belief is needed for ethics, does not replace or substitute for evidence when determining if the conclusion is true. And in any case the religious beliefs that are claimed to be needed for ethics are false so they are a rickety basis for grounding ethics.

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