Wednesday 29 April 2009

Ethics in The Atheist Capital of Europe

The much sought after (or perhaps not) title of Atheist Capital of Europe belongs to Berlin. According to the Observer, only 36% of people have a religious affiliation.

On Sunday Berlin held a controversial referendum on returning to segregated religious education as opposed to the inclusive teaching of ethics. The two groups of supporters were labeled ‘Pro Reli’ and ‘Pro Ethics’ and fought tooth and nail with the passion that only this issue seems to raise. However, in the end it was rather an anti-climax because the minimum quorum of a third of Berlin voters did not turn up, despite the appeals of none other than the German presenter of Who Wants to A Millionaire. Apparently it was a sunny day perfect for the park or maybe daytime telly, so Berlin still has its ethics.

An authentic Berliner, Victor Grossman, gives a fascinating insight into the complexities of this episode in Political Affairs Magazine.

In Germany church and state are inter-twined, as can be seen by the name of one of the main political party (Christian Democrats). However, a proportion of tax-payers money does not automatically go to the church, but only if you sign up for a religious denomination when you take a job. This is around 8% and may partly explain why many Berliners are atheists! If you do not ‘sign up’, you cannot be baptized, have a church wedding or be buried in a church graveyard. To ‘reverse’ your affiliation is quite a complex matter involving going to the town clerk and signing forms with witnesses. This efficient and burueaucratic way of doing things happily lives up to (or even exceeds) all our stereo-types of Germans.

Most German schools teach religion as part of the curriculum, and parents choose which class their children will attend. Typically the options are Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim or Free Thought (atheist). But, the City of Berlin broke away from this tradition a couple of years ago and in its place imposed a comprehensive and inclusive Ethics class. The religious lobby and the State (including Angella Merkel) didn’t like this and so invoked Berlin’s rarely used right to a referendum.

An interesting point to note is that Berlin is of course comprised of the former West And East and there was a similar split in voting patterns. 60% of former West Berliners voted Pro-Reli and 70% of former East Berliners voted Pro Ethik. Apparently, once Germany re-formed the Church imagined East Berliners would flock back to religion, only to be disappointed. I imagine the taxes have something to do with it. It certainly would put one off having a white wedding or baptism for the sake of pleasing Aunty Ethel.

Personally I am all in favour of a single Ethics (or Ethiks to be German) class as an inclusive way of covering both religious and non-religious ways of life. I believe all pupils should be in the same class and have the same options, rather than being separated due to parental persuasion. This argument can be made both in terms of the human right of the individual (i.e. to have a free choice) and in terms of the cohesion of society. Surely the parents should have no more right in dictating that their child should attend or avoid a specific religious class than to demand their child should avoid learning about a range of political beliefs.

If you feel the same way as I do about this issue, perhaps we should consider moving to Berlin?

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