Is religion meant for criticism

Why is criticism of religion good for religion?

At first glance, the question asked in the title is quite easy to answer: Criticism of religion is good for religion because it helps to point out inadequacies and undesirable developments in religion and thus to participate in its improvement ("Improvement of religion" was also the expression, which Enlightenment theology used for the Reformation.) Hence, a considerable - if not by far the largest - part of the criticism of religion is actually from one interest motivated by her.

In addition, there is also criticism of religion, which is no longer formulated out of interest in improving religion, but is ultimately directed against all religion. This criticism of religion is therefore also unaffected by efforts to reform religious reforms; For political reasons, she may prefer liberal religions to orthodox, but in the end, according to the radical criticism of religion, the world would be better off if there were no religion at all. When “criticism of religion” is mentioned in the curricula for religious education, it is mostly this second type that is meant. On the one hand, this is appropriate insofar as this is perhaps the greater intellectual challenge. On the other hand, with this escalation, a multitude of important aspects for religious education are lost. I will therefore devote more attention to the first type than is otherwise due to it in theological-religious-pedagogical literature.

Criticism of religion in the interests of religion

I would like to differentiate between three basic types of criticism of religion in the interests of religion: 1. the developmental psychological criticism of childish religious ideas, 2. the criticism of specific individual undesirable developments in religion and 3. the fundamental criticism, which requires a reorientation of the whole of religion.

1. Personal religiosity developed and thus the critical reassessment of previous religious beliefs can open up the possibility of maintaining the belief over time. A research team led by Friedrich Schweitzer recently gathered significant insights into this: Young people are interested in this type of religious criticism, "Because I no longer just want to believe it as I used to, but rather doubt it and try to decide for myself."1) In terms of religious education, it is therefore advisable to open up opportunities to relate to childish religious ideas and patterns of interpretation, to evaluate them and, if necessary, to try out new ones. The question of whether these were not appropriate for the child's age can certainly be negotiated, which at the same time provides initial insights into the biographical and developmental psychological flexibility of religious interpretations.

2. Occasionally young people follow debates about grievances in the religious field very attentively and feel like trying out their will to criticize them. Criticism of religion here often takes the form of criticism of the church. Contingent undesirable developments in religion, human misconduct and individual failures are discussed. (Of course, it is also important to ask whether and to what extent these undesirable developments are based on systemic reasons.) In terms of religious education, a simple defense of the Church is less appropriate, but rather the question: What is actually the standard of my criticism? What would a “good” church look like? Are there ways of achieving such an improved church? Criticism of religion in this sense would be a deeply Protestant activity and could show the students that they themselves have hidden claims to the church that they were not even aware of.

3. And yet there are also forms of criticism of religion that are not only directed against specific grievances, but that require a fundamental reorientation, a complete paradigm shift in the way people think about religion. At this point - in addition to the Reformation - above all the criticism of religion that emerged in the context of the Enlightenment and that continues to this day. The more recent theological research into the enlightenment has been able to convincingly demonstrate that a total rejection of the enlightenment to religion can only be said in individual cases.2)  As a rule, the real interest lies in their transformation or reorientation. A corresponding criticism can be put forward in sharp form, but it too is ultimately still carried by an - often very hidden - interest in religion itself. This historical consideration forces us to make a factual differentiation. Because in this respect the question is what exactly is being criticized. It shows “how important it is to use the term 'criticism of religion' precisely. Is it about de-dogmatization, de-positivisation, de-denominationalisation, de-churchisation or de-Christianisation? "3) Each of these variants can still be driven by an interest in an "improved" religion. However, they then each have very different consequences in terms of religious education.

Let us summarize: In each of these respects it can be said that criticism of religion has always been a theological concern.4) The religious criticism of Old Testament prophecy or the disputes of Jesus are examples of the fact that biblical texts can already be analyzed from the point of view of religious criticism. The Reformation can also be understood as an internal theological criticism of religion: Luther's criticism of religion of the papal church concerned not only indulgences, but also the veneration of saints, the pilgrimage, certain prayer practices, obligatory confession and much more. Finally, the Age of Enlightenment brings historical criticism and philosophical criticism of knowledge into the theological process.

Religious criticism of all religion

In addition, there is also criticism that is no longer based on a constructive interest in religion and has therefore rightly been referred to as “radical genetic criticism of religion”.5)  Such a concern always encompasses three concerns: on the one hand, it denies the foundations of religion's claims to truth, on the other hand it proves the supposed usefulness of religion as a mere appearance, and on the third it offers an explanation of why religion could nonetheless come about at all. The level of thought that the classics of religious criticism - Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche,6) Freud - have not yet been outbid.7) All of this is well known and worked through in religious instruction in schools.8)

In addition, I would like to point out the Anglo-Saxon criticism of religion in the wake of David Hume: it is content with a great skepticism with regard to the truth claims of religion and otherwise turns away from the many hideous manifestations of religion simply in disgust.9) The result is not a formal denial of religion, but an efficient reversal of the burden of proof: Common sense simply sees no reasons for religion; Whether the reasons are convincing against them is then no longer very interesting. Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins also live far more from this tradition than from the actual criticism of religion.

Why do we deal with criticism of religion in school?

Why should we deal with criticism of religion in Protestant religious instruction, and what is the theologically gained thereby?
Before we try to answer this question, we should ask whether and to what extent problems critical of religion are actually questions from students or whether these - like many other school subjects - are only brought to them for reasons of responsibility. The most important sociological signatures of our time are known to include individualization and pluralization. In the latest empirical studies on the religiosity of young people, the widespread great inconsistency is particularly striking: Young people can at the same time assess themselves as "non-religious", calmly question God's existence, yet pray occasionally, be astonishingly open to questions of meaning and imagine that religious belief gives strength can. At the same time, the need for consistency in religious matters is not very pronounced. Strict rejection of religion, God and the Church is less common than one would think.10)

At the same time, however, it is to be expected that basic arguments critical of religion have long been known to the students in a sedimented, unexplained form - not least because of their dissemination in all kinds of media formats (most recently for example in the great Netflix series "After Life" by and with Ricky Gervais).

But beyond that, a number of weighty theological-didactic reasons can be given why we should concern ourselves with the criticism of religion:

1. The preoccupation with religious criticism enables students to discover the reformability of Christianity. Exemplary work is carried out on this in the school. Unfortunately, there is certainly no shortage of topics. Obvious are, for example, the earlier glorification of the national or the subject of hostility towards the body; in both cases one can show the progress of the reform relatively easily as well as outline the lasting importance of the reform concern. Didactically almost even more important than the matter itself is that students get to know themselves as people who are already involved in the project of reforming Christianity and the church. They find out that they have concerns about their outward appearance: As a rule, they are not indifferent to whether women have an equal say in the church, whether Christianity adheres to its own ethical standards or whether and how the Christian message is today can still develop liberating power. Schleiermacher has already been able to interpret this utterance of criticism of grievances as part of the ecclesiastical key office: "[A] he original and informal way [this] is exercised by each individual through his judgment of what happens in the community",11) and thus contributes to the reform of Christianity.

2. The Lower Saxony core curriculum shows the “dialogue competence” as a process-related competence.12) It has a complex structure internally. The “own point of view”, which is assumed here, must be strengthened in such a way that the young people can deal with the objections of the criticism of religion for the sake of their own faith. Religious instruction can support them in finding formulations and patterns of interpretation in which they can find themselves newly expressed. An apologetic moment is thus entered in religious instruction: the Christian faith sees itself exposed to external inquiries from the start and knows how to defend itself, and the arguments for this are worked out in the protected space of religious instruction. The transfer service would then be the ability to constructively introduce Christian positions in discussion situations and to argue for arguments that would have to be made plausible to interlocutors who are critical of religion - as well as to be able to appropriately reject allegations that go nowhere.

3. Despite all apologetic efforts in religious education, it is conceivable that students will ultimately be convinced of the objections of the radical criticism of religion and consequently give up their self-definition as Christians - temporarily or permanently. Didactically, the first thing here would certainly be that the students feel they are being taken seriously theologically in their “new” position and not as people who simply have not understood the counter-arguments. At this point, however, there is still a real paradox of Christian religious education: He has made it mandatory to deal with radical criticism of religion, even at the risk that students - in short - lose their faith. Why do we still consider this to be what is theologically required and do not prefer to take Feuerbach & Co. out of the curriculum? This can only be justified by the belief that, according to the Christian understanding, those who belong to God for reasons of intellectual honesty believe that they have to say goodbye to Christianity. As a biblical basic sentence, John 4:24 comes into consideration: "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." In systematic theology this can be expressed in such a way that the true God is the " God above the God of theism " 13) and one can trust him because he “is God of all truth and only in truthfulness that accepts what is given to knowledge a person can be his own.”14) It is no longer in the power of the teachers to decide whether or not the students in question follow this thought.

From here it is also somewhat understandable why the core curriculum completely relies on the theological significance of the criticism of religion to the "dispute about the reality of God"15) assigns what in other respects would have to be viewed as inappropriately narrowing.16) 

4. In conclusion, I would like to mention a point which, to my knowledge, has not yet been addressed in the debate about the didactics of criticism of religion. In a homiletically oriented article, Ralph Kunz described Christianity as a permanent task, committed by Christians Constantly witnessing injustice and taking responsibility for it.17) If one wishes to continue to positively refer to Christian tradition in other respects - even if it is "only" ethically or art-historically - one must ensure that the dark traces that run through Christian history remain in the consciousness, whether it is are now the victims of crusades, of white slave-holding dominance culture, of sexual abuse and violence in Christian homes or others. This kind of culture of remembrance is painful but indispensable; and especially the memory of seducibility and the often heretical practices in Christianity18) can show more clearly what we value about Christianity in spite of everything and in which direction we want to develop it.

This last consideration, however, reinforces what is of course true for the other points: Didactically it would be a mistake to treat criticism of religion entirely from its point of view refutation to deliver. Much of the criticism of religion Right plain and simple; and if so, there is nothing to refute. I think that demonstrating and working on this is a good thing for Protestant religious instruction. As a rule, theological admission is based on the hope that all preoccupation with criticism of religion can ultimately benefit Christianity. As I have tried to show, this can still be thought of as hope even where the criticism of religion unfolds such evidence that one would subjectively want to step out of the Christian religion. Even this decision can still be interpreted theologically in the saying of Jesus: "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8, 32)

  1. Schweitzer et al. (Ed.), Youth - Faith - Religion, 20.
  2. See Beutel / Nooke (ed.), Religion and Enlightenment.
  3. Barth, The Philosophy of Religion of the West European Enlightenment, 143.
  4. See Hofheinz, Against God's Nostrification.
  5. Wagner, Art. Religion, 535.
  6. Especially about Nietzsche now Knura, religious education with Friedrich Nietzsche.
  7. See Weinrich, Religion and Criticism of Religion.
  8. Cf. e.g. Fricke, Talking about God in religious instruction, 37-71.
  9. See Hirsch, Geschichte III, 21-58.
  10. See Schweitzer et al., Youth - Faith - Religion, 60-248.
  11. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, § 145.2, 416.
  12. Lower Saxony Ministry of Culture (ed., KC, 16.
  13. Tillich, The Courage to Be, 137.
  14. Hirsch, Christian Account I, 126.
  15. Lower Saxony Ministry of Culture (ed.), KC, 40.
  16. See the broader collection of teaching materials by J. Kubik, In Search of Religious Identity, 18-38.
  17. Cf. Kunz, “You are dead on Sunday”.
  18. So Bolz-Weber, Shameless: 41, following Schleiermacher's teaching on heresy.



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