It has been three years since the Hungarian government introduced religious instruction to the curriculum of elementary schools. In the name of separation between church and state, students could choose whether they wanted to attend religious or so-called “ethics classes” once a week.
The decision met with widespread opposition, not only because many parents thought religion had no place in state schools, but also because teachers were not trained in the teaching of ethics.
Now, three years on, it seems religious classes have actually resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of church-goers. Some priests speaking to Hungarian print daily Magyar Nemzet complained of losing as many as 25 percent of students attending Bible classes in parishes.
According to Béla Bárány of the Esztergom-Budapest diocese, even though two-thirds of Hungarian students are baptized, they lose interest in religion as they grow older. For this, compulsory Bible classes in school are also to blame, Bárány said.
He said an elementary school class is simply not an appropriate setting for teaching the catechism.
“Prior to the introduction of compulsory Bible classes, children were flocking to the parishes,” Bárány said. “With afternoon classes, sports and other hobbies, students are overstressed and their parents don’t send them to catechism classes any more. This means that when they finish school, they are often lost to the Church.”
Other religious organizations are suffering from the same problems. Péter Gáncs of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Hungary also told Magyar Nemzet that children have stopped going to Sunday school since Bible classes were introduced in schools.
“We should build a bridge between schools and parishes,” he said. “Children should not view Bible classes as just another burden at school.”
Parents not happy
Many parents would also be happier if their children did not have anything to do with religion within school walls.
“My son is interested in religion and he is happy to go to Bible classes in the afternoons, but he is not happy about extra school classes. Most of his classmates are not interested, which makes Bible classes in school boring and unnecessary,” a parent of a 10-year-old public school student told The Budapest Beacon.
Others complained of needless ethics classes.
“These classes are supposed to teach children ethics and how to behave properly. But why do they need books for that? Isn’t that what parents and teachers are for?” asked another parent.
Despite the unpopularity, it seems religious instruction is here to stay. Although a few months ago state undersecretary for education László Palkovics vowed to lighten the burden of students, starting with the possible abolition of religious classes, the government denied there was any talk of this.