French Government Sets Up an Institute to Study Religious Factor

Proposed by Former Marxist Who Discovered the Importance of Religion

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PARIS, JUNE 23, 2003 ( The European Institute of the Sciences of Religions, created by the French government’s Ministry of Education, has been inaugurated to promote the teaching of the religious dimension in the country’s lay and republican schools.

The new institute, presided over by Régis Debray and directed by Claude Langlois, is under the École Pratique des Hautes Études. The institute is to be the source of formation and resources at the service of public education, as well as a center of applied research on the teaching of the religious factor in Europe.

The institute came into being officially last week, 18 months after the French Ministry of Education asked Debray to prepare a report on the role that the teaching of the religious factor should have in a secular and republican context.

Born in Paris in 1941, Debray once manned the ranks of militant revolutionary Marxism. In 1967, when he was in Bolivia with Che Guevara, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Released three years later thanks to international pressure, he was, among other things, adviser to French President François Mitterrand on Latin America.

A disillusioned Debray recalls how much he had hoped that Marxism would construct a just society — and he is alarmed by the absence of objective values in today’s society.

At the end of his report, Debray proposed «the reintroduction of the teaching of the religious factor» in the schools, as an indispensable element of formation, «insofar as it is the prolongation of all fundamental teachings.»

Debray thus summarized his report addressed to the Ministry of Education: «It is not possible to understand great Renaissance painting, if the story of Joseph, Mary and her child, Jesus, is not known. Someone who visits a museum will not know what he is seeing when he looks at St. Sebastian, and he might ask, Is this a cowboy riddled with Indian arrows? To understand a Bach Magnificat, or a Te Deum, one must know what it is and what the Mass is about.»

Rather than proposing a new course on religion in the French school system, the Debray report suggested that teachers be given formation in the disciplines that touch upon the religious factor, especially those who teach history and literature.

Added Claude Langlois, the new institute’s director: «But we can also address the scientific disciplines, in the context of relations between science and religion.»

The Debray report makes a distinction between «teaching of the religious and the teaching of religion.» In his opinion, the French public school «can and must be enriched by teaching the religious factor, with teachers who are especially formed, but discarding religious indoctrination and the catechisms of each confessions.»

Last year, Debray published a voluminous book «Dieu, un itinéraire» (God, an Itinerary), in which he focuses on the capital importance of religions in the moral and spiritual history of mankind.

Last November, the European Institute of the Sciences of Religions organized a colloquium on the teaching of the religious factor for directors of national education. An international conference is planned Oct. 2-3 on «Politics and Religion in Asia: The Present in the Light of History.»

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