Modernity, knowledge, education and religion Religions as such, (not the sociology of religion) are not a field of epistemic inquiry. As Durkheim has put it, religion is a subject for science rather than a science itself (Durkheim 1995). Religions are formulations of doctrines that lie beyond the system of reason. The discourse of religion is not based on any system of dialectic argumentation and is not subjected to refutation or falsification. In these terms religion lies at the opposite end of epistemic knowledge, since its discourse is definitive. Therefore religions, despite their establishment and deep influence in the foundation of European Universities, and education institutions in general, are not epistemic subjects. This peculiar co-existence between unverified doctrine and reason within education institutions represents a survival of tradition in the context of Modernity.
Educational institutions constitute a field of expression and at the same time a compression of the contradictions of the Modernity project. Education systems, apparently, constitute a systematic attempt towards secularisation and displacement of church in the control of education. State intervention in education and the development of educational systems, through the institutionalisation of free of charge and compulsory education for all citizens, is a process which took place in the European states and the USA during the 19th century, in the main, and has contributed in the political construction and the amalgamation of cohesion of the called nation-states (Green 1990). The secularisation process, however, is not either universal or equally radical throughout all European societies. In some cases it continues to be uneven and not fully accomplished, while educational provision is often mixed, allowing an essential intervention on the part of the churches. The celebrated quest of rationalism regarding the separation between reason and faith might be expected to have found its political expression in educational institutions. However, this is hardly the case. In European states the churches are entitled to establish confessional schools, while in many countries curricular contents allow or even impose catechism. In Greek public schools religion is a compulsory confessional subject referring exclusively to the dominant religion, while in Denmark the compulsory subject of religion is defined as ‘Christian Studies’. In this sense, it could be argued that in European societies, the modernity principles of rationality and critical reflexivity present a peculiar symbiosis with traditional values of religious catechism. In several European education systems morality is confused with or it is constructed as equivalent to religiosity. In countries such as Germany, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania and Luxemburg the subject of secular ethics is placed in the curriculum as an equivalent alternative option to the subject of religion (Zambeta 2003).
Contradictions such as these are expected to emerge at the level of society where different attitudes and ideologies coexist. The same contradictions though can be traced in the discourse of the Enlightenment theorists as well. The basic assumptions of French Enlightenment as they were epitomised by eminent representatives, such as Diderot and Voltaire were that, firstly, the state was the institution which would promote rationality through the displacement of the church dominance in education and, secondly, that in the 18th century society the bourgeoisie was the par excellence social group susceptible to rational thought (Vaughan and Archer 1971). While education was perceived as a precondition for the realisation of democracy and for the emancipation from superstition and prejudice, social emancipation was restricted to the new social elite which was the bourgeoisie. The separate roles of state and church were recognised but religious teaching was acceptable in primary education, as an effective mode of social control for the populace. Secondary education, which at the time was an exclusive terrain of the bourgeoisie, should be free from religious teaching.
In this sense, the Enlightenment quest for social progress, rationality and emancipation, to a large extent, gave way to the aim of maintenance of social stability and reproduction of existing social hierarchies. Education, in the form of state education systems, serves mainly the latter. The contradictions observed in the management of church–state relationship in Europe and the subsequent education policies have their origins in this genuine contradiction of the modernity project, which on one hand facilitates social emancipation and at the same time serves social reproduction. The survival of religion in the context of Modernity has been performed through, on one hand, the immense potential of the hierocratic organisations of religions (churches) to exercise spiritual power over people and the use of religion on the part of the state for political legitimisation and social control on the other (Weber 1983; Weber 1993).
Modern states have reached to a modus vivendi with the churches varying from a pure secularist model that governs the church-state relationship, such as in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and the USA, to states with an established state church, such as in Greece, Denmark and the UK. In other cases the historical compromise with the churches has led to states with quasi-separation between church and state such as those of Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy or Finland (Foundethakis 2000). In the case of quasi separation, there is no established religion, but the church and the state can collaborate in several aspects of social policy, while churches are usually funded by contributions of their registered members. However, the way church-state relationship is defined in the constitution does not account for the place of religion in European schools (Zambeta 2003). Educational institutions have been a battleground where forces of secularism and religion have confronted each other.
Universities represent the most interesting example of the historical compromise between modern knowledge and religion. Theology and Classical Studies, Medicine and Law were the first subjects to be developed in the early European Universities. For centuries medicine has been practiced by the clergy who considered disease as the outcome of supernatural intervention and was mainly interested in the cure of the soul rather than the body. The secularisation of Medicine was accomplished through the development of the subject in the context of universities (Benedek 1973). The research and discovery of the human body involved practices severely discouraged and condemned by the official church which, for centuries, did not allow its members to participate in medical actions that presupposed the shedding of blood. Interestingly, the churches have never condemned war for similar reasons. On the contrary they supported and blessed the crusades.