Atheist Ireland meets Irish Government Forum on Primary Education Part 2

This is a summary of the questions and answers part of the meeting last Tuesday between Michael Nugent and Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland, and the Department of Education’s Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.

We were questioned by the Advisory Group to the Forum, which consists of Chairperson Dr. John Coolahan, Professor Emeritus at NUI Maynooth; Dr. Caroline Hussey, former Registrar and Deputy President, UCD; Fionnuala Kilfeather, former Chief Executive of the National Primary Parents Council; and the Secretary to the Forum, Breda Naughton.

See also our opening comments to this meeting, and our written submission to the Forum.

The Forum asked us our views on the community national schools.

Jane: Well, the system as it is undermines our convictions. And the way the community national schools are set up, nothing will change, because the legal framework which they are in has not changed. Section 15.2(d) of the Education Act is still there. And these schools are segregating children on the basis of religion. But if you look at freedom of expression, you have a negative right not to reveal your convictions, for the school not to do anything from which they could infer your religious or nonreligious convictions. So that is a human right. Every positive right also has a negative right. So if your child goes into the school and they are segregating children, they have to know, when they are saying you go off into this group and you go off into that group, what your religious convictions are. I have read their submission, and if you look at their submission, the school ethos recognises belief in a God. But we don’t want to bring up our children to believe that there is a God. We want to bring them up with the possibility that there might or might not be, but they can’t teach it as truth. So if they teach that this religion believes in this, and that religion believes in that, and some people don’t believe in any religion, then that’s fine. But they’re not going to do that, because they have guaranteed Catholics and other religions education on a denominational basis. And this means teaching as a truth the existence of a God. And how are we to opt out of that ethos generally, or without being segregated for specific classes? The problem with the Catholic faith, with regard to teaching about religions objectively, is that they believe that teaching about religions objectively is saying that there is no God. We do not object to any school that implements the Toledo guiding principles, and that says Catholics believe in this, Protestants believe in this, Muslims believe in this, and atheists don’t believe in this.

Michael: If I could go back to the point I was making earlier about this, using the crucifix as an example. We don’t want a crucifix on the classroom wall, but neither do we want a sign on the wall saying “There is no God.” Atheists believe that there is no God, or at a minimum don’t believe that there is a God; there is an almost theological distinction there, but that isn’t critical to the point I’m making! The point is that atheists believe that there is no God, but we are not looking for schools that teach that there is no God. It’s the religious people that are looking for schools that will teach that their beliefs about the supernatural are true. What we want are schools that teach, in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, that different people have different beliefs and that doesn’t take any position on the truth of those beliefs. Also, as I’ve said earlier, I think that your terms of reference will force you to be more pragmatic on this than I think the process should be, but even if you take it on the basis of pragmatism, the idea, in the current circumstances, that any new schools should also have a religious dimension just seems to be adding to the problem, rather than helping to resolve it.

The Forum asked us our views on the Educate Together schools.

Michael: They are far better than the religious schools, but they are still multidenominational rather than nondenominational. I’m trying not to be too critical of them, because they are as good as you will get today in Ireland, but they fail to make a distinction that we think is important, which is that they have a section which they call moral and spiritual education. So they are linking morality with spirituality, which is not as bad as linking it directly with a particular religion, but it is still a linkage that should not be made. Morality is something that individual people have, irrespective of where they believe that it derives. And, given that the state has a duty to require a minimum level of moral education, that should be done in a way that all parents can feel comfortable to send their children to those aspects of the curriculum.

The Forum asked us our views on the post primary religious education programme.

Jane: We’ve already complained to the Department of education and to the NCCA about the post primary religious education program in detail. It is not in compliance with the Toledo guiding principles. It could not possibly be. If you look at the purpose of it, it actually says that it is only looking for meaning through religion, and it only acknowledges the nonreligious interpretation of life. And, as I’ve said before, the verb respect means more than acknowledge or take into account. They are actually forcing parents into this course at second level, because I get complaints all of the time, and the Irish Human Rights Commission acknowledges that. And in their guidelines for other faiths, they actually say that the course is delivered through the eyes of the Catholic Church. Now the NCCA must have known, with the system that was set up, that that was going to happen: that they would combine the right to have a religious instruction class with this other class, that was supposed to be about all religions and none. And that is what they have done. The module may be optional, but it is happening in nearly all schools. And they never tell parents that they have done this. So in effect what is happening, for a child at second level, is that your child is being formed in the Catholic faith. And that is what is happening. I get so many e-mails of complaint about this. I don’t know if you read the guidelines, but one thing in particular about the state course is that they have us, atheists and humanists, in a section called “challenges to faith”, alongside materialism and fundamentalism. And then when they combine the section from the Catholic guidelines for the faith formation of Catholic students into that, that says that “atheists are running away from the ultimate existence that is God”. How can you even think all of that could constitute respect for our convictions? I mean it’s appalling, that course, absolutely appalling. We’ve done our best to complain about it, and were going to take it to the United Nations and to the Council of Europe.

The Forum asked us our views on the argument that every child has a right to a broad-based education, and if they are opting out of the religion part, they are being left with a vacuum in terms of ethical and moral development within the education system.

Michael: What should be happening is that the state should be ensuring the requirement that all children get a minimum level of moral education. And, as per the Constitution, that is a distinct issue separate from religious education. So there should be, however it is incorporated into the curriculum, a mechanism whereby children can have a moral education class that is not based on religion but on universal principles, like justice and compassion and empathy. Then you have religion, and there are two aspects to religion. There is education about religion, which children should have access to, and then there is education that a particular religion is true and that is what they should have the right to opt out from. There is also a further Constitutional distinction between religion and morality. In the Constitutional section on religion, it says that the profession and practice of religion is guaranteed subject to public order and morality. So morality supersedes religion in the Constitution. It’s not even that they are distinct but on the same level. It is that the practice and profession of religion is subject to morality. So morality should be the main focus of the type of education that you’re talking about there. And then religion should be taught, within the subject of morality, as one of the ways that people believe that they get morality. But it shouldn’t be on a par, and it isn’t, either in terms of human rights law or even in terms of our own Constitution.

Jane: We don’t have any problem with our children being taught about religions and beliefs if it is done consistently with the Toledo guiding principles. But that is against Catholic church teaching. They object to those. They have rejected them, because it is not their conviction. If you look basically at what Catholic teaching is, it must permeate the whole school day. That’s what they’re saying. It has to integrate with other subjects. And that’s coming from the Vatican. It is the state’s responsibility to provide an objective curriculum. But as it is, maybe the state doesn’t understand its obligations to us. It’s looking at ethos in a different way that human rights law looks at it. There is an incompatibility between the two, and a misunderstanding of the two, because if you are delivering the curriculum, or a specific subject under the curriculum, through the eyes of the Catholic Church, that cannot respect minorities.

Michael: If you look at the teacher’s guidelines for the first year of the Alive–O program, it says things like “some children won’t have had the advantage of learning about God in their home”, and that is the role of the teacher to give them that information. And whatever may happen in practice in different schools, that is what the teachers are being given to teach. Teachers are not taught to teach the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, because that is not Catholic church teaching. Another problem is that the Catholic Church uses language where words that mean one thing to us means a different thing to them. And so it can seem at times as if you’re on common ground, but then you discover that in fact they mean something entirely different.

Jane: If you look at submissions from Catholic groups to this forum, and to the human rights commission, they all seem to have a problem with the word objective. They complain about even using the word objective in connection with religious instruction and education. But the words objective, critical and pluralistic key human rights terms. The Human Rights Commission use those words because those words are the basis of what constitutes respect for our convictions. Indoctrination also mean something different under human rights law than the Catholic Church seems to believe that it means. For them it seems to mean sitting somebody down by force and teaching them that Catholicism is true. Actually, influencing children to believe Catholicism is true, in a way that disrespects the philosophical convictions of the children’s parents, is indoctrination.

The Forum asked us our views on the argument that it is not just the schools, but also parents, churches and other communities that people belong to, that actually all cooperate together to give children their beliefs.

Michael: Well, the schools have a particular role. And state funded schools have an even narrower role. The whole wider area of cooperation between different groups in society is really a civic issue, rather than a state issue. The state’s minimum role is to provide a minimum level of moral education. But in order to referee that wider cooperation, to ensure that, as it is happening, everybody’s fundamental rights are respected, the state has to be neutral. If the state, or state funded institutions, are in effect playing in the game as well as refereeing it, by identifying with one of the belief systems, it makes it impossible for the state to ensure that everybody’s rights are respected equally.

The Forum asked us our views on the pragmatic reality that we are starting with an existing embedded system and not a blank sheet.

Michael: Obviously we understand that we live in the real world, and that things are not going to happen overnight, but I think that the tone of whatever you produce as a report will be important. Your report could either say “this is what we think should be done”, or else it could say “it is impossible to do what you have asked us to do, so as an interim compromise we are suggesting that this should be done”. And in pragmatic terms, that second option is a far more honest response to the task that you have been given. And it would also set a tone that would enable people to realise that this is all going to continue to evolve as society evolves.

The Forum asked us if we had any final comments we would like to make about any relevant issues.

Michael: I would like to conclude with an analogy. We have a default situation in Ireland where people are used to Catholic schools, and they are seen as the norm. But to put it into perspective, can you imagine hypothetically, if there was even one school in Ireland that had an atheist ethos? And imagine that that school’s ethos was explicitly to produce good atheists, and the entire curriculum was permeated by the belief that there is no God, and children regularly had to learn chants and incantations about there being no God? Can you imagine if even one Catholic parent was forced by circumstances to send their child to that school? We would never hear the end of it from the Catholic Church. And it would constitute disrespect for the convictions of the Catholic parents.

Jane: I’d like to say one other thing about the manifestation of religion. That is about the school uniform. Children can be forced to wear a religious symbol on their school uniform. It is like sending children to school with “there is no God” emblazoned on the uniform. My own children had to wear a religious symbol to get an education, and I found it very offensive. In the Lautsi judgment, the European Court of Human Rights appeal court found that it was permissible to have crucifixes on the walls of classrooms in Italy. But the context in which it made that judgement was that the crucifixes were not accompanied by denominational religious education. They said that it was okay in the particular context of the Italian secular education system. So that does not mean that religious symbols would be okay in an Irish context, where they are accompanied by denominational religious education.

Michael: Finally, I was saying earlier that I felt that your terms of reference were unhelpful. In particular, your first term of reference is to advise the Minister on “how it can best be ensured that the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all religions and none”. And I think that that encapsulates the problem with the way that people look at this issue. Because the purpose of the education system is not “to cater for religions”. The purpose of the education system is to cater for the education of children. Yet that is your number one term of reference. And I really think that you should highlight that in your report: that you have to follow the terms of reference that you were set, but that if you had been given terms of reference asking you to advise the Minister on “how it can best be ensured that the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all children and their parents”, that you could have come up with a much more useful report.

See also our opening comments to this meeting and our written submission to the Forum.


  1. Avatar
    Paula Bradley September 09, 2011

    Thank you so much for all your efforts. Future generations will be in your debt!

  2. Avatar
    jaynie September 09, 2011

    it’s so nice to see you guys actually do the work out there, keep it up! 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Feardorcha September 09, 2011

    Thank you!
    You both deserve full marks and your homework off for a week.

    Wouldn’t it be great to have a YouTube video of your comments, particularly the final comments in which you make the case so clearly.

  4. Avatar
    Helen O'Shea September 09, 2011

    That was great – Thanks for all your work – I thought this quote was excellent
    “Because the purpose of the education system is not “to cater for religions”. The purpose of the education system is to cater for the education of children.” Well done.

  5. Avatar
    Martijn September 09, 2011

    Thanks for doing this you both!!! We know how much work is involved and we appreciate it very much!

  6. Avatar
    Emer September 09, 2011

    Fantastic responses. Well done. Particularly appreciate the comments surrounding the religion course at second level. My son has just started 1st year and I am furious that he has to not only do this course but also is required to do a junior cert exam in the subject! We can only hope that one day maybe my grandchildren will live in a more equal and fair society.

  7. Avatar
    Tomk September 09, 2011

    Thank you Micheal and Jane, the analogy about a catholic child attending an atheist school is spot on, we don’t have the privaliged voice/power of the church, but now you have given us a chance to voice our concerns.

  8. Avatar
    steve white September 10, 2011

    who actually asked each question

  9. Avatar
    Feardorcha September 10, 2011

    Emer, your son does NOT have to take this subject or sit a Junior Cert Exam in it. Please look at the AI forums for debate and advice on this issue.

  10. Avatar
    Oisín September 16, 2011

    When I went to enrol my first child in a school in north Dublin, I asked whether they push religion on the kids, pointing out that as an atheist, I’d rather they not bother with the normal Christian indoctrination process.

    The principal responded that “we respect your right to religious freedom, but furthering the Catholic ethos is the primary responsibility of the school”.
    When I answered “oh really? I thought education was the primary responsibility of a school”, she continued “no, all other aspects are of secondary concern”.

    So I didn’t put my child into that school… She’s enrolled in another school which seems less forceful, but it’s hard to tell.
    The few other parents I’ve spoken to about the issue seem to be of the opinion that if I didn’t want my child to attend religious classes and say prayers, I should have sent her to a different school. However, since I insist on her going to an Irish language school, there appear to be no other options for avoiding religious dogma.

    I hope we can finally get past this publicly tolerated superstitious indoctrination of children. Until then, it’s important to be informed. So thanks for your work on this!

  11. Avatar
    Jonathan Maycock November 19, 2011

    Fantastic responses. So glad to have you fighting our corner. Keep up the good work.

  12. Avatar
    steve white February 23, 2012

    is this on video still want to know who asked each question


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