During the first decade of the 21st century there has been a
lot of discussion in Finland about religion and the relationship between
church and state.
There are two historically significant churches in Finland: the
Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and The Finnish Orthodox Church.
These two churches are sometimes referred to as 'state churches' because
they hold a separate position in Finnish legislation. The majority of
Finns belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and as a result the
church has been very influential in society. Religion has traditionally
been an important part of the school curricula; the Lutheran faith used to
be the only religion taught in Finnish public schools, although the
increased immigration of non-Lutheran people in the late 20th
century has led to other religions being included in the curriculum as
At the moment, there is a rapidly growing number of immigrants and
refugees in Finland who represent different religions. As a result, the
government has once again been forced to rethink some of its policies
relating to religion and education, and especially the role of religion in
the Finnish school system.
People rarely like changes in the society around them, and the new
policies have met with some resistance. Some political parties have also
been highly critical of immigration and multiculturalism. This has
presented an additional challenge to the restructuring of the school
This paper examines religious education in the Finnish comprehensive
school curriculum. How and why is religion taught in Finnish comprehensive
schools? What are some general principles behind the legislation and the
national curriculum? How have things changed over the years? What are the
modern attitudes towards religion in Finland? Should religion be a part of
the modern school curriculum? What does the future look like for religious
education in Finnish comprehensive schools?
History and Development of Religious Education in Finland
Historically, the term 'religious education' in Finland has been
understood as the teaching of Christianity, particularly Evangelical
Lutheran Christianity. In the early 20th century the teaching
was very confessional-oriented, which meant that it focused on
'guiding' the children to the 'right path.' From the 1950s
onward this began to change. The individual-oriented, confessional
education began to give way to a more general approach, which was
informative rather than instructive (Peltonen in Luodeslampi 423-424).
In the past, religious education was compulsory for most
students. However, non-Christians were able to opt out of the
religious education on the basis
of the Freedom of Religion Act (267/1922). In place of religion
they were required to study history of religion and moral
philosophy (Elo and
Linnankivi). During the decades following the Second World War,
the religious education was suddenly hit by waves of strong
criticism from people who
demanded changes in the teaching of religion in the schools.
Some even demanded religion to be removed from the schools
entirely. Religion was never
removed from schools but some cuts in lesson hours were made. In
1957 the word 'religion' in its curricular sense was
broadened to include history of
religion and moral philosophy in addition to the confessional
education (Luodeslampi 424).
When the modern Finnish comprehensive school was being
established in the 1960s, a committee was set up to prepare the
school reform (Luodeslampi 424).
At the time, the idea of neutral or non-religious education was
gaining popularity (426). Consequently, the committee took a
stance on religion and
moral philosophy that was deliberately quite vague, and thus
could be interpreted in different ways (Kähkönen in
In the 1980s it was decided that if a school had at least three
students who weren't part of any religion, the school would
have to teach them ethics
instead (Elo and Linnankivi). This is actually very close to the
way the current system still works.
Religion in Modern Finland
The Finnish population is still quite homogenous: predominately
Finnish-speaking, Caucasian, and Lutheran. About 80% of all Finns are
members of the Evangelical Lutheran church. The second largest religious
group is Orthodox at 1.1% (Statistics).
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and The Finnish
Orthodox Church are sometimes referred to as the two 'state
churches,' even though there has
not been an official state church since 1870. They do, however,
have an official status in Finnish legislation (Sihvola 149).
For example, the churches
collect a church tax from their members, and the Finnish Tax
Administration takes care of collecting the tax for both
Despite the majority of Finns being members of the Evangelical
Lutheran Church, religion is quite invisible in modern Finland.
While many Finns do
celebrate Christian holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, very
few attend church regularly. This is also reflected by the
increasing number of people
leaving the church. The percentage of people with no religious
affiliation is increasing: in 2009 it was 17.7% up from
12.7% in 2000 (Statistics).
Compared to many other churches, such as the Roman Catholic
Church, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church is quite liberal
in its official policies
and fairly tolerant of its members' diverse opinions. But
even though there are different views inside the church, the
conservative voices often tend
to be the loudest.
For example, there was a TV debate in October 2010 hosted by the
Finnish Broadcasting Company which sparked much controversy. The
topic had to do with
gay rights, gender-neutral marriage, adoption rights and church
weddings for same-sex couples. The Lutheran church does not have
an official stance on
the topic, but some of the speakers had very conservative views.
The anti-gay comments made by some of the panelists resulted in
over 30,000 people
resigning from the Evangelical Lutheran Church within the next
several weeks (Yli).
As society changes, attitudes toward religion also
change, and especially conservative views start evoking strong
reactions. Religion seems to
be losing influence in people's lives, which may be a sign
that at some point Finland as an increasingly secular
society might also have to revisit
the role of religion in its education system.
Modern School System and the National Curriculum
Currently, the compulsory Finnish comprehensive school consists
of nine grades, with children usually entering first grade at
the age of six or seven. It is very
unusual for a Finnish child not to attend school. In fact, 99.7%
of all Finnish children attend and graduate from comprehensive
The Freedom of Religion Act (453/2003) brought some changes to
religious education. What was previously referred to as
'confessional education' was now
called 'education in one's own religion.'
Furthermore, it was no longer required that the person teaching
Lutheran or Orthodox religion should be a
member of the church (Sihvola 151-152).
There is a national core curriculum determined by the Finnish
National Board of Education, which establishes general
guidelines for the teaching of
different subjects. There are also municipal curricula, which
expand and specify the general principles in the core
curriculum. Additionally, the
schools often have their own specific curricula based on the
national core curriculum and the local municipal curriculum
individual teacher then applies these curricula in his or her
own lesson plans and teaching (Innanen 190).
Religious Education in Finnish Comprehensive Schools
The national core curriculum of 2004 states that basic education should
not be religiously or politically aligned. In other words, religious
education should never interfere with other subjects. However, in practice
the Christian tradition can often be seen in many ways in school life. For
example, it has been a common tradition in Finnish schools to re-enact the
Nativity of Jesus in a school play right before Christmas. Singing
Christian-themed songs and hymns at school events is also very common
(Sihvola 160). These are old traditions in Finnish schools, so most of the
parents and teachers feel strongly about keeping them. In fact, this is
probably the main reason why these traditions still exist.
As to the actual religious education, everyone is entitled to
education in his or her own religion. However, there is some variation.
The municipality is obliged to arrange teaching in the religion of the
majority. Those students are also obliged to participate in the teaching
of said religion. Anyone else can freely participate in the teaching of
the majority religion. In practice, the majority religion is usually
Evangelical Lutheran. Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox teaching needs to
be arranged if there are at least three members of that church studying in
the school. Ethics must be taught if there are at least three religiously
unaffiliated students in the school.
For any other religion, the same rules apply, except that the
students' guardians must request the teaching to be
organized. If teaching in the
student's religion cannot be arranged, and the student does
not wish to participate in the education of the majority
religion, he or she can
participate in the ethics classes instead (Sihvola 154-155).
Despite the flexibility of the system, the teaching of minority
religions needs to be monitored. There is a separate,
curriculum for each minority religion as well as for
ethics that the teachers have to follow. The general
philosophical principle in the national
core curriculum is that the goal of any religious or ethical
education should be to support the student in building his or
her own, individual world
view (Ubani 173-174).
The national curriculum also states the minimum lesson hours for
different subjects. The following table illustrates the minimum weekly
lessons per year (which means 38 lesson hours in total per year). As can
be seen in the table, the total portion of religion or ethics is 11 weekly
lesson hours, which is considerably fewer than many other subjects. For
example, mother tongue and literature totals 42 weekly lesson
hours, and mathematics totals 32. In fact, those subjects totaling
fewer hours than religion and ethics do not become part of the studies
until later on. History and social studies, which totals 10
weekly lesson hours, usually starts in fifth grade, while
B-language (this generally means Swedish) with 6 lesson hours,
home economics (3 hours), and educational and vocational
guidance (2 hours) usually start in seventh grade.
Religion and ethics, however, are spread throughout the entire
comprehensive school; the minimum weekly lesson hours for the first five
grades being 6 hours, and 5 hours for the last four. Thus, as things
stand, religion does not currently seem to have a very significant role in
Criticism of Religious Education in Comprehensive School
Compared to many other countries around the world, Finland treats its
religious minorities fairly well. However, the Evangelical Lutheran and
Orthodox churches still have a distinct status in Finnish legislation, and
the Christian faith is still the norm in the society. One could argue that
separating the children according to their religious affiliation and
beliefs does not help improve the equality and cultural acceptance among
students. In Finland, young students are essentially always together: all
in the same classroom, studying the same subjects. If some of them are
suddenly separated from the rest because of their religious affiliation,
it could further encourage separation and the forming of cliques based on
ethnicity and religion.
On the other hand, many parents do consider religious education to be
a very important part of their children's upbringing. If there was no
religious education at school, they might worry about their children being
at a disadvantage if they had to seek the education elsewhere. The
churches might also be concerned that the number of young followers might
drop considerably if religious education became non-mandatory, simply
because religion would suddenly require additional work from the students.
Religious education would have to be sought outside of school, and it
would require an extra time investment from the students in addition to
their mandatory school work.
However, one question is whether religious education is good for
a child. After all, a child's cognitive skills are still significantly
underdeveloped until around 14 or 15 years of age (Holm 146). Logically,
this would mean that a child is not capable of making any significant
ideological decisions before that age. It is understandable that parents
would like to guide their children towards their own values and
ideologies. However, this perspective puts government-funded religious
education in a questionable light: shouldn't individuals be able to
make up their own minds about which religion if any to
adopt? In fact, some would argue that it is the government's
responsibility to support this kind of freedom of choice.
The idea in the national curriculum is that regardless of the
religion being taught, other world views, or at least the major
world religions, should
be covered. And this needs to be done in a neutral and
non-judgmental manner. Some worry that this may not be
happening, especially in the teaching of
certain minority religions (Sihvola 156). There are so many
different subjects lumped under the same name, religion and
ethics, that it is almost
impossible to monitor everything. Maybe it would be easier to
simply merge the various religious curricula into other
Alternatives to the Current Model of Religious Education in Finland
With increasing immigration into Finland of non-Lutheran people in the
early 21st century, it is getting harder to balance all the
different religions in legislation and education. More and more religions
and religious subgroups are emerging, and as a consequence an increasing
number of curricula need to be developed and approved. It is possible that
at some point it will be deemed easier to simply drop religion from the
school curriculum entirely. The curricula are getting more and more
bloated each year, exhausting both the students and the teachers. Dropping
religion from the curriculum might give more breathing room. The portion
of religious education may not be overwhelming, but 11 out of 222 weekly
lesson hours is still something. However, if religion were to be dropped
from the curriculum, it is not unlikely that instead of being merged into
other subjects, such as history and social studies, and freeing
space for other subjects, it would simply be replaced by some new,
collective subject, such as ethics.
Pekka Elo and Jaakko Linnankivi describe on the website of the Finnish
philosophy and ethics teachers' association (FETO) three ways how
religious or ethical studies could be organized. The first is the one
currently in use in Finland, where every student gets education in his or
her own religion. There is nothing wrong with the idea of all students
being entitled to free education in their own religion. However, as more
non-Lutheran immigrants arrive in Finland, and new curricula need to be
planned and implemented for every new minority religion, the process keeps
getting more and more expensive.
The second model is that of a single, universal curriculum, which
includes for example ethics or general religion studies. In theory, the
school would stay neutral and nobody should feel discriminated against
based on his or her religion. However, it is hard for the teachers to
always stay objective when it comes to their personal world views. Thus,
with this model there is always the risk of majority bias. In Sweden, for
example, this has raised some significant concerns.
In the third model there is no specific religious or ethical education
in schools. Religion and ethics are merged into other subjects, such as
history, geography, and philosophy. This model, according to Elo and
Linnankivi, is clear and unifying. However, some problems might still
emerge. It could be that the merging causes the original contents to
become fragmented; some essential material may even disappear in
the process. Furthermore, depending on the people involved, some of the
ethically charged material might accidentally find its way into other
subjects' curricula (Elo and Linnankivi).
These models represent only a few of the many possible ways to
organize religious education in schools. Nonetheless, finding a good
solution seems to be hard as it is realistically impossible to
build a completely unbiased system. For example, the teacher always has
his or her personal views and values, which are often a defining part of a
person's identity. It would be impossible to teach outside of oneself
and one's values. This is not a problem exclusive to a neutral
education model, but one that exists within every religion or ideology:
there are always different interpretations. Thus, not even the first model
is entirely immune to this problem.
Most of the criticism of the education system is currently aimed at
increasing the proportion of practical and arts subjects. However, there
is some concern about the state of religious education in comprehensive
schools as well. For example, the political party Green League is pushing
for a neutral model, a universal curriculum such as the one proposed in
the second model. The party believes that separating young children
according to the religion of their families would not be rational in an
increasingly multicultural society (Rutonen).
The Future of Religious Education in Finland?
As Finnish society changes, changes also need to be made in policies. The
first big change in the teaching of religion in Finnish comprehensive
schools was introducing minority religions into the curriculum in the late
20th century. With the rapidly increasing non-Lutheran
immigration and the secularization of people's attitudes, it seems
that the time for the next big change may be approaching.
There may not be a 'right' solution to the issue, but the
policy makers will have to decide which goals to pursue. The current
system represents positive freedom where all students are entitled to free
education in the religion of their or their guardian's
choice. But it is costly and harder to monitor. It also underlines the
differences between students, which may encourage discrimination.
The two alternate models described by Elo and Linnankivi seem to aim
at fading religion out of the curriculum. They promote equality among
students but might be harder to implement in practice. Furthermore, they
may not allow as much freedom for religious expression in schools, and the
religious education may need to be sought elsewhere.
However, any change is often met with resistance, which would also be
the case with any changes to the teaching of religion in the public school
curricula. While it is understandable that people are skeptical about
changes, this makes it harder to change the curriculum even if
another model was determined potentially better. However, the Finnish
population structure has changed radically in the past few decades; in
2010 there are more different religious minorities than ever before. Thus,
just as changes have had to be made in other areas of society, the role of
religion in the Finnish comprehensive school system will soon also need to
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