TRS Interviews Karsten Voigt (Part 1)

In Berlin, ethics has been compulsory for high school students since 2006, while religion has been offered as an optional course. A few years ago, in 2009, Germany’s capital found itself confronted with the question of whether ethics courses should be compulsory for Berlin high school students, while religion classes remained optional or whether students should have a choice between the two.

As an advocate of the “Pro Reli” campaign, which had the goal of giving students a choice between ethics and religion, German politician Karsten Voigt is of the opinon that religion should not be optional when ethics is compulsory. Rather, he believes, students should be able to decide for either one or the other.

Karsten Voigt was a member of the German parliament from 1976 to 1998 and foreign policy spokesman of the SPD (Social Democratic Party). He is part of the Board of Directors of the German Council on Foreign Relations and was Coordinator of German-North American Cooperation in the German Foreign Office.He was President of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly.

Three years after “Pro Reli” failed, Karsten Voigt talks to Linda Eggert of TheRadicalSecularist about the intricate relation between politics and religion.

TRS: As a supporter of the “Pro-Reli” campaign for religious lessons, what is your take on the politics of religious education?

Voigt: The point is the current constitution, not the practical question. Whether the constitution should be changed is a different matter but there won’t be a majority in the Bundestag anyway [to do so]. In Germany, everyone has the constitutional right to be offered religious education at school but it is not obligatory to take religion classes. So the state has to offer religion as a subject but no one can be forced to take religion. That is why there needs to be a choice between religion and ethics.

TRS: Why should religion be taught in schools in the first place, rather than being practiced privately?

Voigt: According to the German constitution, religion has to be taught at school. That is what the law says. Since every German citizen is entitled to religious education, different religions have to be catered to. Since there is a big number of non-believers, we have to offer ethics instead of religion. And since there are Muslims [who are part of the school system], we need to consider them too. Now, there is the problem that people, for example here in Berlin, lay claim to [receive] Islamic religious education but we have no teachers that have been educated in Germany. As a result, we agree to send people to teach in Islamic communities that have not studied at German universities. That isn’t good in the long run. We have to accept Islam as de facto German, which means that the people who preach here as Imams should be educated at German universities, not at private Islamic schools. The question to be dealt with, is how to prevent fundamentalists from teaching at German schools. The answer is establishing theological Islamic faculties at German universities.

TRS: Does the state regard its role as having to counteract religious attitudes that potentially contradict what would be taught in state schools?

Voigt: That remains to be seen. According to the Basic Law, schools are under government supervision just like the teachers. But the state has to remain neutral, which requires that in Catholic religious education, the curriculum includes lessons about Judaism, Islam and other religions.

TRS: How can the state remain neutral?

Voigt: That needs to be negotiated. Religious education needs to be tolerant of non-believers and people of other religions. It can be of Protestant or Catholic orientation while ethics classes should be tolerant of religion too. The critical factor is not whether someone is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim or not religious at all, as there are fundamentalists in all areas. After all, there are also atheist fundamentalists. What is crucial is that every religion has its own logic and is not taught at variance with enlightenment [values]. People need to be encouraged to be tolerant, they should still have their own opinions, but they need to be tolerant of others.

TRS: The state being neutral when it comes to religion, how secular is Germany?

Voigt: There is no strict separation between the church and the state according to the German constitution. But the state is neutral when it comes to specific religions, meaning that it is only neutral as to particular religions while it is favourable towards the principle of religion itself. So according to our constitution, if Catholics lay claim on a peculiar right, the same has to be afforded to Protestants and Muslims. That is the neutrality of the state in relation to specific religions. That means that the state must not itself become a representative of one religion. But it is by no means anti-religious.

TRS: When does the state interfere?

Voigt: It is tricky when it comes to religion and politics: it will always be controversial in which cases the state should do something. We have our specific traditions and that works quite well. Of course, it does not work seamlessly. Particular cases will always be controversial. Our model is not applicable to others. Today, we accept a plurality of motivations for attitudes and opinions. People organise themselves according to their political convictions and we are not to question their motives. Whether someone supports democracy for religious or secular reasons is none of our business so long as the laws are respected. If, in Germany, a representative of Islam is against other people’s religious freedom, that does not matter as long as they abide by the German law. If they do not comply with the law, they will have to be punished.

TRS: Does it not matter where such convictions and values come from?

Voigt: No, it matters what kind of values a person has. But how and where values originate, that is secondary. Whether a person’s ethical framework is constituted by religion is everyone’s own business. I can have private conversations about that but when I elect a politician, what matters to me is the position. if I am dealing with the Federal President, I’ll want him to embody democratic values. If it is the Chancellor, it is just as important that he or she be decisive and determined. If it is a fellow minister at Länder level, I don’t care whether he has five or six girlfriends but he should not be a defrauder. In short, it depends on the respective position.

TRS: Why should we draw a line between someone’s ethical values and actions?

Voigt: When I meet people, I can contemplate the origins of their values. But when I set up ethical norms and create general guidelines, I cannot use the origin of these norms as measure, only the resulting behavior, as that actually has an impact on society. Only someone’s action can affect someone else but not their thinking itself. If someone does something bad, I cannot inquire as to the reason and ask for their motif.

TRS: But surely, making the distinction between values on one hand and the resulting behaviour on the other isn’t as easy as you make it sound.

Voigt: There are people who can and there are people who can’t make that distinction. I, personally, try to do it.

TRS: Is the state capable of making that distinction?

Voigt: The state can only set up norms and sanction them. The state has nothing to do with attitudes and convictions, it really only depends on the consequences. However, in Germany, speaking can be action when it comes to stirring up hatred.

TRS: So where do you draw the line between freedom of speech and what really happens?

Voigt: That is for the court to decide. It also changes over time: Freedom of religion used to be so overriding that one could voice hatred in the church. But that has changed after 9/11.

TRS: If religious education is offered in schools, does the state not thereby propose religion as an ethical frame of reference and become accountable for the origin of certain values?

Voigt: The same applies for teaching philosophy.

TRS: So when you give people the choice whether to study ethics or religion, is that basically a choice between “philosophical” and “religious” ethics?

Voigt: Well, there is not one specific religion as such. And at the end of the day, Kant states that one should live so that one’s own behaviour could become the norm of general law, basically says that, as a human being, I do not only assert myself, but need to always be aware of my repercussions on others. That sounds nice and I agree but why should a human being act like that? There are, after all, many people who don’t, who are just selfish and who do not care about the effects of their behaviour on the common good. But myself, preferring Kant’s principle does not have to be the product of reading Kant himself. I can derive that from my idea of the human being as being both an individual and a part of society. But I can also derive that from the principle of godliness and Christian love, so I would say, I should follow Jesus and therefore I should act out of Christian charity. If someone does that, I, on a societal level and as a politician, am not interested in their motivation but only in the resulting action. Motive is something to be talked about in private but as a politician, I am not to judge.

If someone, for whatever reason, does not want Catholics to be treated equally, then that is something to be condemned whether or not it is based on religion. If someone says ethics does not matter and all they care about is making money, then I am unwilling to accept that behaviour. So on the one hand, I reject such behavior independently of whether it is founded on religion and on the other hand, I accept it, no matter whether it is religious or not. And this is a sphere where the state (and on a political level I am responsible for general norms) should not interfere.


Linda Eggert’s Interview for TRS.

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