Science and Religion in Schools: A German and Worldwide Perspective

Science and Religion in Schools: A German and Worldwide Perspective

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A new project for ‘Science and Religion in Schools’ must start from the position of existing curricula and the way in which issues on science and religion are now taught in the context of religious education and other subjects.  In the first part of this article a curriculum analysis will be presented which focuses on the issues taught and the ages at which they are dealt with.  This analysis refers to the German situation where religious education is a subject in all schools, guaranteed by law and organised in collaboration between the state and religious communities.  The educational system in Germany is shaped by the federal political system in which the sixteen states have a major responsibility for both the content and structure of education in schools. (1)


Primary School

Issues of science and religion are already integrated in the German curricula of religious education.  For example the curricula in Hesse,a federal state in the middle of Germany, the situation concerning our topic can be described as follows: (2)

In primary school pupils learn about the creation stories in the bible. Children also ask basic theological and philosophical questions, and space is provided during the lessons to explore these questions (e.g. an 8- year old girl asks “Is there any God or do we just think that there is a God, because there are several religions?”). Pedagogical programs are developed to analyse and to accompany these phenomena (3). In that stage, we have to face a pedagogical paradox. In so far as children know about dinosaurs and have a little knowledge about evolution from the media, but because they are, following a term of Paul Ricoeur, ‘in a stage of first naivete, they are not able to differentiate, from a perspective of developmental psychology, between different complementary perspectives in a cognitive way. Similar structures can be described for the perception of symbols. In that respect it is not possible to teach children of this age to differentiate in a cognitive way between a scientific or a religious worldview.

Secondary School

Helping to develop a differentiated understanding is the goal of curricula for the 5th grade. From a perspective of developmental psychology, this attempt is quite early at this age. So a lot of teachers prefer to teach these issues in the 6th grade. The main topic of this teaching unit is the doctrine of creation. Biblical traditions like those in Genesis are supposed to be related to scientific models like the Big Bang model. Also it has to be said that the pupils only have very rudimentary knowledge of cosmology at this age. The issue of responsibility for creation has to be considered within this teaching unit, and a first critical view concerning new technologies has to be developed. The main focus of this unit concerning issues of science and religion within the 5th grade, is learning to understand that the creation stories within the bible are not scientific texts but documents of belief. They can be seen as a testimony of belief in God, “who wants and loves life”. For understanding the creation texts within the bible as testimonies of belief that have to be differentiated from a scientific perspective, pupils have to learn how to handle complementary perspectives on the world (4). The ability to handle complementary perspectives can also help to develop a tolerant attitude towards others, especially members of other religions. (5)

The Need to Differentiate Between a Scientific and a Religious Worldview

Related to the ability to handle complementary worldviews is also a transformation of an understanding of God, as pointed out by an empirical field research project with longitudinal character undertaken by Fetz / Reich / Valentin (6) on “Worldview-development and an Understanding of Creation”. So, for example, Fetz / Reich / Valentin describe the case of Markus. Markus has an artificial understanding of creation when he is 7 years old: “God has developed them … the trees, the stones, the air, the birds, the human beings”. When 12 years old, Markus has integrated some elementary knowledge about Big Bang and evolution theory within his artificial worldview: “He has simply made the universe, then it has simply developed, he has made nothing, then he has made something, so that living beings came. … He has simply made living beings, and these then have developed themselves, and from there we were developed”. When Markus is 18 years old, his belief can be described as a partially reflected artificial form of belief in creation: “He must have developed a beginning form where everything started to develop. God doesn´t act directly. In the beginning something is given by God and then it is automatically going on like that”. From a perspective of different positions within developmental psychology, like Oser / Gm¸nder, (7) Markus’s stage of belief, when he is 18 years old, can be characterized as deism. The case of Markus is just one example of a possible structure of an understanding of creation, but a very characteristic one. So the question of how to relate different complementary worldviews is a necessary part of individual development when a religious worldview should not be given up by the individual subject. This crucial individual task of relating the scientific and the religious worldview can be shown by the quote of a 13 year old boy: “I feel schizophrenia between my religious and my understanding of science”. From a perspective of religious education, it must be the goal to reach a complex understanding of creation, to help the individual subject develop the ability to handle complementary worldviews and to use a differentiated critical form of hermeneutics, especially when focusing on biblical texts. That means that high theological standards have to be necessarily taken into account when teaching the described units.

Intelligent Design   

The issue of how to relate the scientific and the religious worldview is especially important concerning the current debate on the “Intelligent Design” argument. This position proposes that evolution process can only be understood in relation to a transcendent being who gives some ‘information impulses’ within the evolution process, for instance, when the basic structure of eyes had to be developed within the process of evolution. Only to focus on the interplay between mutation and selection to understanding the process of evolution is not accepted. The main problem when operating with an approach like the ‘Intelligent Design argument’ is that it is only a monistic world-view in which scientific and religious elements are mixed.

But when focussing on the whole spectrum of positions within the debate about evolution theory, “Intelligent Design” is moderate compared with radical forms of creationism like “Young Earth Creationism,” which understands the first chapter of Genesis in a direct and verbal way and believes that the age of the earth is 6000 to 10000 years.

Especially in the U.S., a quite emotional and widespread debate has started about teaching “ID” in schools within science classes. And in some states like Kansas it has been suggested that even radical forms of creationism should be taught in science classes. In Europe the debate about “Intelligent Design” and creationism is also of growing relevance and has a specific impact on teaching RE in school. This is the case over issues raised when discussing the ‘Intelligent Design argument’ and also radical forms of creationism. Both show the necessity of helping individuals to develop differentiated forms of handling different world-views. It is true for describing the relationship between science and religion as well as for focussing on the situation for intercultural and inter-religious living. (8)

This is the first main line that can be drawn when discussing the relationship between  religious education and ‘science and religion’.

Gymnasium: Focus on Ethical Issues

With the second main focus, we reach the topic of RE within the age of genetic engineering. The curricula of Hesse are discussing these issues within RE in the 12th grade of Gymnasium (upper secondary level of German general school system). The main focus of this discussion is ‘Acting as a human being’. Now issues of health, illness, about being disabled, and about dying are discussed. Basic questions and conceptions of anthropology have to be dealt with. These issues are related to the fact that the dawn of post-humanism can be described for several technological fields: so for genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and for the field of brain research and its implications. These technological fields are starting to have implications for our everyday life.

An Age of Genetic Engineering

We are living in an age where science, together with technology and economics, has the leading position as a symbol-system (9). The frontiers between these three social factors are fluid. In the field of genetic engineering, cheaper and easier ways are being developed for genetic testing (e.g. with DNA-chips). So, for instance, in a declaration, the National Ethical Committee in Germany proposed that, under specific conditions, forced genetic testing should be allowed for getting a job (for instance for pilots, bus-drivers and people working with nutrition). Even the proposal for this form of genetic testing is still quite restricted and related to certain circumstances of illnesses within a family, a broad spectrum of social groups is reached by the examples of professions. So the proposal can be seen as a first step towards distributing jobs on the background of the results of genetic testing. In that sense, we can recognise changes compared with other declarations on the issues of bio-technology (e.g. the Bioethics-Convention of European Council of 1997). And the medical Insurance companies in Germany still will not accept the use of knowledge of genetic testing until 2010, when they will decide if they will use knowledge from genetic tests. It might be that human beings will have to live with the knowledge that they may have, for instance, a 70% chance of a heart attack, an 80% chance of a thrombosis and (as a female) a  90% chance of breast cancer. Each human being will have his or her own genetic future. Since the genetic tests just describe probabilities, it can not necessarily be said that the individual will get the disease. In any case he or she will have to live with that knowledge. Genetic tests can easily be ordered through the internet. They are even used to recommend a certain form of life-style, like following a certain nutrition schedule. And genetic testing technology is used, in relation with in-vitro-fertilization, for pre-implantation genetic diagnosis as well as for diagnosis of human fetuses. Forms of genetic therapy have been developed, although they are not working well in the moment. The question is whether this technology will reach and change human germ-line. Technologies like cloning and ‘stem cell usage’ are related to developments within genetic engineering. These new technologies make ethical decision-making even more complex, especially when concerning issues that have already implications for our everyday-life. When looking closer at the relevant theoretical concepts and visions behind these technologies, reductionist elements can be found. (10) So the main question within this field that has to be faced is: “What is a human being? And what will a human being be supposed to be in the future?” One of the leading figures within the field of genetics – James Watson – gave the following answer to this question: “In the past, we thought our destinies lies in the stars, now it lies mainly in the genes … for the genetic dice will continue to inflict cruel fates on all or many individuals and their families who do not deserve this damnation. Decency demands that someone must rescue them from genetic hells. If we don’t play God, who will?” So it is not only an ethics of helping and healing that can be described within this field, but visions, reaching much further, should be developed. Several of these visions are described in religious language: “to become like God”, “to know God´s plan”, “to read in the book of life”, “to find the holy grail of biology”. These visions are drawn by leading figures of genetic engineering who want to overcome the human condition through technology. In that sense it can be described as post-humanist movement (11).

Reactions of German Adolescents: Empirical Insights

What is the present situation, focussing on adolescents and their relationship with new technologies in Germany? A large-scale study, the 14th Shell Jugendstudie 2002 (12), describes a generation of adolescents who are seeking to find their individual way within a society characterized by efficiency and success. An orientation towards being a consumer, being especially interested in corporal attractiveness, and an openness towards new technologies can be found. A lot of adolescents are not willing to use new technologies, if they involve any risk. This happens for the pragmatic reason that they are not willing to endanger their own lives. But a certain number of adolescents are willing to take risks with new technologies.

So pupils in the 11th grade of a German Gymnasium were against cloning whole human beings, but had a positive opinion of using cloning technology for gaining cells and organs. The same was true for the pupils’ attitudes towards genetic engineering. They thought that the new technologies within the field of genetic engineering were useful for gaining organs. In this case, the pupils were suspicious of the development of whole genetically modified human beings. Traditional normative and religious orientations were not part of the argumentation of adolescents in the first case. But these pupils were extremely interested in getting to know about and to discuss the issues resulting from bio-technology.

The access towards traditional normative and religious orientation was different in the case of the observation of adolescents of the 12th grade, who study at a Gymnasium with a specific scientific profile. They were  involved in philosophical and religious arguments concerning the problems resulting from bio-technology. They complained about a missing critical discussion of this technology in science class and were actively trying to change this situation. So, for example, they hung up posters of the “Aktion Mensch” – a German organization that focuses on the rights of disabled people – in the floors in front of the bio-technology laboratory within their school.
 Possible Reactions of Religious Education

What can be done, from a perspective of religious education didactically, to deal with the current challenges of bio-technology? First, religious education can give a forum in which to discuss these issues. A twofold approach, a cognitive and an emotional one (13), is helpful when trying to get access to the described ethical problems resulting from bio-technology. A cognitive approach can help to understand the structure of the problems, as well as the reductionist consequences of an understanding of human beings represented by science. Therefore the philosophy of science can be a helpful partner in showing that science is not as neutral as it claims to be. (14) And, from a religious perspective, a different understanding of what it is to be a human being, as it can be found within tradition, must become part of the discourse on these issues within the classroom. From a Protestant perspective, the line of these anthropological concepts can be drawn as follows: What does it mean that a human being is ‘a justified being’ as is formulated by the doctrine of justification? What do ‘personhood’ and being ‘created in the image of God’ mean? And what does it mean that the notion of the suffering, crucified God can be found in the centre of doctrine? From this focus on anthropology, a different perspective on life can possibly result. In that sense, traditional theological doctrine is gaining new relevance in an age of genetic engineering.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Brain Research   

It has to be pointed out that a technological development and focus, like that in genetic engineering, can be also structurally described for AI (Artificial Intelligence) and even more challenging for brain research and its technological implications. Visions of brain-scans that describe probabilities for mental illnesses or for certain developments of character are already developed (brainom) and are, from a technological perspective, not too far away. The deterministic understanding of human beings within this field of research and technological development is very well shown by the following quotation from Antonio Damasio, a famous brain researcher. “Soon we will know how we experience happiness, sadness, delight and pain. Even the mechanisms of consciousness are no miracle for us anymore. Then a dream of humanity is achieved”. The question is what this development of new technologies will mean for those suffering from illnesses (especially mental illnesses), the old and disabled people. Theology and RE will have to take responsibility and to bring their sources and resources into public debate and discuss these issues in the classroom.

This rough insight into the teaching of science and religion issues, mainly in religious education, in German schools provides the ground for a German project about science and religion in schools.

The German Project

The planned project is encouraged by an exchange with the UK project and the proposed enlargement into a global project “Science and Religion in School World Wide”

First meetings and exchanges included science teachers and RE teachers as well as academics from universities. The Comenius-Institut, a Protestant Centre for Research and Development in Education in Muenster, has taken the starting initiative in encouraging and promoting a project. Fortunately there are several offers from universities and similar institutions which would like to take part in the project and also to take over responsibility of development and coordinating work. It is planned to collaborate closely with existing internet providers which have already established platforms of exchange and information for schooling. This partnership could also encourage the participation and involvement of many teachers in the classroom from the very beginning of the project.

The proposed project will take into account the issues discussed above and will support the further development of curricula concerning “science and religion”. The aim is to produce teaching resources and materials that stimulate open-minded discussion. The overall aim will be to encourage young people to study the ways in which science and religion may be relevant and to encourage a more mature understanding of the issues than is often conveyed by the media. The teaching material will be presented on the national Catholic and Protestant virtual RE platforms. Teacher training will be or is already offered in specific teacher training academies. Accompanying empirical research will be done to evaluate these courses and the offered teaching material. In Germany already several Metanexus groups exist. In some of them school teachers participate.



1 RE in the German system is mainly organised in separate faith groups according to the pupils confession or religion. It is mainly Protestant or Catholic, but in some areas Christian Orthodox, Islamic and Jewish RE exist. The Protestant RE is open to pupils of all backgrounds, but it keeps its Protestant profile in both content and in the religious affiliation of the teachers.  

2 The teaching of ‘science and religion’ and the curricula are very similar in other German federal states like Bavaria or North-Rhine Westphalia.

3 Cf. Bucher, A. (u.a.) (Hrsg.), Jahrbuch Kindertheologie, Stuttgart; Oberth¸r, R., Kinder und die groflen Fragen, M¸nchen 1995; ders., Kinder fragen nach Leid und Gott, M¸nchen 1998.

4 Cf. Reich, H. / Schrˆder, A., Komplement‰res Denken im Religionsunterricht, Freiburg 1995; Reich, H., Between religion and science: Complementarity in the religious thinking of young people, in: BJRE 11, 1989, 62-69.

5 Cf. Dinter, A., Von Thinking Skills und Komplementarit‰t, in: Vogelsang, F. / Meisinger, H. (Hrsg.), Theologie und Naturwissenschaften. Eine interdisziplin‰re Werkstatt II, Bonn 2008. 

6 Cf. Fetz, R. / Reich, K. / Valentin, P., Weltbildentwicklung und Schˆpfungsverst‰ndnis, Stuttgart / Berlin / Kˆln 2001.

7 Cf. Oser, Fr. / Gm¸nder, P., Der Mensch – Stufen seiner religiˆsen Entwicklung. Ein strukturgenetischer Ansatz, Z¸rich / Kˆln 1984.

8 Cf. Dinter, A., Von Thinking Skills und Komplementarit‰t, in: Vogelsang, F. / Meisinger, H. (Hrsg.), Theologie und Naturwissenschaften. Eine interdisziplin‰re Werkstatt II, Bonn 2008 (in print). 

9 The notion “symbol-system” is oriented towards the notions of “forms of worldview” of Alfred North Whitehead and Ernst Cassirer´s “symbolic forms”. Cassirer thinks that different forms of symbolisation apprehend a background of reality that the human ability of comprehension is not really able to perceive. That means that a specific form of perception is related to these symbolic forms which are significant for any perception of the subject. So he develops a non-realistic position. Whitehead´s model differs from Cassirer, insofar, as the different forms of symbolisation are founded in the multiplicity of forms of reality, which are related to an eternal realm of ideas like in Plato.

10 There is a transfer of a reductionist form of information theory (only focussing on semantics) from cybernetics towards genetics and molecular biology that brings with it a reductionist understanding of organisms. The reductionist moment is already within theories within genetics and molecular biology.

11 Cf. Kr¸ger, O., Virtualit‰t und Unsterblichkeit, Freiburg 2004.

12 Cf. Deutsche Shell (Ed.), Jugend 2002 – 14. Shell Jugendstudie. Zwischen pragmatischem Idealismus und robustem Materialismus, Frankfurt 2002.

13 Cf. Kuld, L. / Gˆnnheimer, St., Compassion – Sozialverpflichtetes Lernen und Handeln, Stuttgart / Berlin / Kˆln 2000; Dinter, A., Religiˆse Erziehung im genetischen Zeitalter, in: Bioethik, RU 3 / 2003, S. 101-105.

14 Cf. Rothgangel, M., Naturwissenschaft und Theologie. Wissenschaftstheoretische Gesichtspunkte im Horizont religionsp‰dagogischer ‹berlegungen, ARP Bd. 15, Gˆttingen 1999; Dieterich, V.-J., Science and Theology in Religious Education, in. JET 3 (1990c), H. 1, S. 47-57; Dinter, A., Models of how to relate science and theology, in: Synthesis Philosophica 2004, 245-257.