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He Gives Us New Ways to Look at Old Truths

Viktor Aldrin is the researcher who wants to shape the young teachers to look at their students with happy eyes and instil hope for the future. His research is based on an outsider’s perspective of religion as something odd but familiar. He tells us that it is important to create an understanding of other religions in order to counter a dangerous alienation in a secular society.

It is a chilly day around the time when autumn becomes winter. Gustav Adolf Church in Borås is surrounded by sparkling frost-covered grass. Preparations for tonight's concert with Gladys Del Pilar are underway inside the church. The stage is being built and the lighting and sound fine-tuned. Victor Aldrin takes a pew on the balcony in front of the organ, a peaceful spot with a nice view of the entire church.

Important to Understand How Religion Works

Aldrin is a senior lecturer in social sciences education specialising in religious education. To look at religiosity from more than one perspective is an integral part of his research.

‘My research emanates mainly from a church perspective but also from a school perspective. It is complicated to be religious in Sweden today and I see a great fear of addressing the topic of religion in society. But I’m convinced of the importance of daring to see the diversity that exists. We don't need to become religious, but we need to understand how religion works. My current research project is about school graduation ceremonies held in a church environment – a major Swedish tradition that remains neglected by researchers. I haven’t come very far, so I don’t have any results to share. But I expect to finish the project in 2017.’

Viktor Aldrin
Resides: In Halmstad.
Family: Married to Emilia, who is a senior lecturer in Swedish, two children and two cats.
Works as: New senior lecturer in social sciences education at the University of Borås. Also teaches within the teacher education programme.
Recently published: A new teaching material developed with Anders Holmgren, PhD in pedagogical work.
Background: Doctor of Theology in Religious Studies from the University of Gothenburg. He has a Swedish secondary school teaching certificate, has taught educational science and teaching and learning in higher education at Halmstad University, and has served as visiting research fellow at Lund University and as a visiting scholar at Helsinki University and the University of Cambridge. 
Common theme in his career: ‘There are several common themes, with the main one being how to teach in higher education and how religions are practiced. My doctoral thesis dealt with praying in medieval times. I have also been interested in how religion affects teachers in the teaching situation and how view of life is considered a strength.’ 
A typical week in Viktor Aldrin’s life: ‘I have two types of typical weeks. In one of them, I get up early, take the train from my hometown of Halmstad to Borås and often give a lecture around nine o’clock. I usually have a research or planning meeting in the afternoon before I go home. The other typical week is a research week. Then I get up a bit later, take the train to Borås and spend the day in my office working hard and focused on my research. That’s what you have to do if you want to get somewhere. My 24 years as a student have made me a fast reader.’

Results might be lacking, but Aldrin has come a long way in his thought process:

‘The issue of arranging end-of-semester and graduation ceremonies in churches is tricky, since 63 per cent of all Swedes are still members of the Church of Sweden but only about 20 percent actually practise a religion, according to the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg,’ he says and continues:

‘This means that the previous majority now is a minority, and that is of critical importance. With the present situation, the majority decides that the minority, the 20 per cent, should not be seen. I believe we can solve this through more knowledge about more religions. One way is to arrange school graduations in churches, but this is not necessarily the only solution. Study visits to places of worship and with representatives from different religions may also be a good way towards a more inclusive society.’

Religious Education in Sweden is Anti-Religious

The Swedish national curriculum for upper-secondary school provides that ‘education must be non-denominational’, but Aldrin points out that there are no rules against teaching about religions, only in religion. Rather, teaching about religions is strongly emphasised in the national curriculum to promote democracy in society.

‘Ignorance fosters an aversion to practised religion, and this implies a serious risk. Studies show that some of the religious education in Swedish schools is anti-religious. This is extremely serious. We know that we have freedom of religion, but this tends to be misinterpreted. It’s about freedom to subscribe to and practise a religion of choice; not a right to completely avoid exposure to religion.’

As an example, Aldrin mentions that the Swedish school system sees it as important that all children have the right to participate in swimming instruction, yet tends to forget that there are groups that for various reasons cannot participate on equal terms.

‘It's a good intention, but it excludes certain groups, such as Muslim women, a group that faces a lot of friction anyway. When a group is excluded in this way, there is a risk that they become radicalised, and that’s dangerous.’

Victor Aldrin is not afraid to vent his opinions in the public debate or break the silence in stigmatised domains. In fact, he sees it as his duty.

‘The way I see my job as a researcher, I should give something back to society. I’m paid by the taxpayers, which means I should give something back to them. Besides, I really enjoy taking about various religious issues in society,’ he says.

One example of this is that he commented in the media on the pope’s visit to Sweden in autumn 2016.

‘The pope has a bit of a rock star status. It’s similar to how Germans love the Swedish royal family because they do not have their own. We understand the pope as a phenomenon, but most of us don’t understand the deeper religious meaning [as a sacred symbol of practicing Catholics].’

Speaking of Hot Topics in the Public Debate, What Do You Think about Religious Non-Public Schools?

‘There is an EU law that can be interpreted to mean that people are entitled to some denominational teaching. It was introduced in 1995 and can’t be removed because doing so would violate the EU law, which supersedes the Swedish Constitution. An interesting discussion, though, is how many denominations should be allowed to run their own schools. After all, not all groups can be granted permission. But it is important that we are exposed to different religions and that those in the school system are not only fed the skewed view that religion mustn’t be visible in society. There’s obviously a risk that a denominational non-public school ends up a bit narrow in terms of content and attitudes, but that’s true for any small school in a homogenous community. The Swedish Education Act is very clear in this respect, but just like the topic of graduation ceremonies in churches, this issue is very tricky and complex. What we know for certain, however, is that we need to figure out how to support and protect young and excluded groups.’

He keeps coming back to the importance of daring to let religion be visible in society and approaching prejudices with knowledge. Lately, he has helped kick the ball in the desired direction by developing new teaching material in religious studies for upper secondary students. The material is published by Nationalencyklopedin and is based on facts about what it is like to be young and actively practising religion in today’s society.

‘By tradition, when you write teaching material, you base it on something that already exists. You change a little here and a little there instead of starting over completely, and consequently, the schoolchildren get new versions that in fact are old. This makes the teaching material very slow. It takes about ten years before new research becomes available in textbooks and other material. I wanted to do it differently, so I started from scratch and based the material on the guidelines in the national curriculum and tried to integrate the latest research. I ended up with something completely new and the result has been very appreciated,’ says Aldrin.

In the Swedish school system, religious studies must cover the five largest world religions. Aldrin chose to begin each chapter on a religion with a section about a student who describes his or her daily life. He has also had the featured youngsters proofread the chapters.

‘Sometimes they corrected me and then I made the necessary changes. Of course I generalised a lot, but my intention was to give presentations that people practising the religion could relate to. And I want non-religious students to find the information interesting without any need to become religious.’

 

‘I Was a Nerd Who Asked on the First Day How to Become a Doctoral Student’

 

The teaching material follows the life cycle, from birth to death, through ceremonies and traditions, weddings and funerals. There are also chapters on non-religious beliefs, such as secular humanism, and the chapter on Buddhism has a section on Buddhism from a Western perspective.

‘I don't want to change anyone’s view of religion, but only make students aware of the differences between different views of the world.’ 

Aldrin’s interest in religions started early. When given the opportunity to study at the university, he immediately felt at home. In 2010, he completed his Doctor of Theology degree in religious studies at the University of Gothenburg, from which he also has a degree in education and a teaching diploma. Today he teaches mainly education students.

‘I was a nerd who asked on the first day how to become a doctoral student. And they responded "then you need to study both widely and deeply, Viktor" – so I did. I taught religious studies and history at the upper secondary level for a while. Working in the classroom with upper secondary students greatly benefitted my teaching in the teacher education programmes, and it was valuable to talk with younger people who often disagree on things; at the University level, students are already so streamlined.’

Driven by an Urge to Understand People

The concert preparations in the church we are in are over and everything is quiet with the exception of the quiet mumbling of some other visitors. The light shining through the large windows is beautifully reflected in the many gilded ornaments. Aldrin sticks his hand in his pocket and picks up a small box.

‘I was thinking maybe you can take a picture of me with this,’ he says while lining up several small wooden blocks that together form a simple but symbolically powerful nativity scene: Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the three wise men and baby Jesus.

‘I’m very interested in graphic design, photography and design. These are areas that lie close to theology; they too are about symbolism and shapes that convey something larger. Just think of churches, with all their symbols. They symbolise our history, they offer great, big rooms with excellent acoustics for concerts and are also places where many people find peace and tranquillity. But for practising Christians, it is a religious act just to be in a church. Thus, it gets a bit complicated when we borrow the church for various other purposes. We have to be respectful of the fact that churches are part of an active religion. We can’t just walk in there and play around because we think "it's so cute with Jesus".’

The issue of how religion operates in a secular society in which most people still get married and baptise their children in church is a strong driver of Aldrin’s research.

‘I’m very interested in the complexities of humankind and how we have practised Christianity over the last 2 000 years. I also want to understand what motivates other people when they teach. As for my teaching, I want to convey hope. I want to train young teachers in looking at their students with happy eyes and instil hope for the future.

Read more about Viktor Aldrin.

Read more about the project Non-Confessional Ceremonies at Compulsory Schools in Church Buildings – Perspectives on a Debated Phenomenon.

Read more about the research at the University of Borås.

Written by: Gabriella Fäldt
Photo: Anna Sigge
Translation: Debbie Axlid