Atheist Ireland meets Irish Government Forum on Primary Education

Yesterday, Tuesday September 6, Michael Nugent and Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland attended the Department of Education’s Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector. We were there to elaborate on, and answer questions about, the written submission that Atheist Ireland previously made to the Forum.

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.

As we arrived early, we first had refreshments in a pub across the road from the Department called The Confession Box! With our consciences thus cleared, the following are our introductory comments to the Forum session:

Michael Nugent, Chairperson Atheist Ireland

As an overview, we’re approaching this from a secular perspective, and our position is that the state should fund a secular education system. We believe that if other people want a religious education system, then that should be their right to provide it for themselves, but the default position from the state’s perspective should be a secular education system.

We want to stress as well in that context the difference between a secular education system and an atheist education system. A lot of religious people sometimes merge those two concepts together. What we find useful to symbolise that distinction relates to the debate about crucifixes on classroom walls. We argue that their presence disrespects the rights of nonreligious parents, and religious people sometimes counter that removing the crucifixes disrespects the rights of religious parents. And our counter to that is that what would be required to disrespect the rights of religious parents is to have a sign on the classroom wall saying: “There is no God.” That’s actually the other end of the spectrum. You can have a religious education system, which many religious people want. You can have an atheist education system, which most atheists don’t want. And you can have a secular education system, which is neutral on the issue of religion or its absence.

The second distinction that we want to stress is that between religion and morality. A lot of religious people, particularly in educational terms, tend to equate religious education with moral education. If people do believe that, it is an understandable reason for them to be concerned about an education system that isn’t religious, if they believe that those two things are inextricably synonymous. Now I’m sure that you are familiar with the distinction in the Irish Constitution between religious education and moral education. It is the duty of parents to provide religious and moral education, and is the duty of the state to require a minimum level of moral education, but not of religious education. Currently in Catholic schools, even if the opt out provision was a practical one, a child has the option between a Catholic moral education and no moral education, given that the moral education in Catholic schools is conducted through religious education. And so the state is failing its constitutional duty to require that that child has a minimum level of moral education. We believe that this moral education should be based on empathy and compassion and justice and maximising flourishing and minimising suffering. These principles are consistent with belief in any religion or no religion. And we believe that by definition, a minimum level of moral education has to be a level that can be taught equally to all children. We also believe that the only way to effectively provide it is through a secular education system funded by the state.

However, we recognise that you as the Forum have to deal with a set of terms of reference that are about providing diversity in patronage. And 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”. We’re asking you to say that the answer to this question is that this cannot be ensured. It is impossible to provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all religions and none. And so you should be explicit that whatever recommendations you make are in the realm of compromise. And those compromises should not be simply about creating a numerical diversity of patronage, but they should also be about putting in place requirements on existing patrons as well as new patrons, based on human rights law and freedom of conscience, and on the need for a minimum level of moral education that is not transmitted through religion. And in circumstances where the ethos of a school or a patron clashes with these requirements, it is these requirements that must take precedence rather than the ethos of the school or patron.

Jane Donnelly, Education Policy Officer Atheist Ireland

Under Article 40.3.1 of the Constitution, it says that the state guarantees in its laws to respect and as far as possible by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen. Now, the right to respect for our moral convictions is a fundamental right, and it is a personal right of the citizen as an individual. We believe that the state has failed in that regard. They haven’t taken that positive obligation to respect our rights as moral agents, and our right to freedom of conscience in the education system. We also believe that they have actually undermined our rights, and they have failed in every regard, and I will go through some of that now and explain where they have failed in their duty to respect our moral rights under the Irish Constitution, and under international human rights law. Because the state, by ratifying the various conventions, have said that the Irish Constitution and human rights law are compatible with each other, and they are not.

First of all, let’s look at the right to respect, which comes under article 42 of the Constitution, for the religious and moral rights of parents. This is an absolute right under human rights law. It is not subject to the rights of others and it is not one that can be gradually achieved. There is human rights case law to confirm that. That does not mean that the state is obliged to fund a religious education for every family of every religion in the country.

We would like, then, to look at the education act, and see how that has failed to protect our right to respect for our moral convictions. Section 30, the opt out, says that we can opt out of any thing that is against our conscience. But we do not know, when a child starts school, what the ethos of the school is in practice. We are not given a written ethos that tells us in detail where, in the curriculum, that it is not teaching the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralist manner. I’ll give you just a small example. Say if you have a nature class or something, and the teacher tells the children that God made all of the birds and the bees, then that is not objective, and disrespects the rights of nonreligious parents, and especially if they say it’s the Christian God, then it disrespects the rights of parents of other religions. So it is our right to opt out of that, but the ethos of the school does not specify when and where throughout the curriculum we would have to avail of that right.

So it’s not just a question of saying “we respect all religions and none”. That really means nothing. There is a different interpretation of what constitutes respect in the Irish education system and what constitutes respect in international human rights law. There is a general principle of the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations. It says that the verb respect means more than acknowledge or take into account. In addition to a primary negative undertaking, it implies some positive obligation on behalf of the state. The term conviction is not synonymous with the words opinions or ideas. It denotes views that attain a certain level of cohesion, seriousness and importance. So the state has to respect our right that our children are not indoctrinated or disrespected in any way.

So in practice we cannot opt out of an ethos. First of all, we don’t know what it is in detail. When you look at the education act, and the debates in the Dail and Seanad about the Act, the Labour Party at the time tried to get the Fianna Fail government to write down exactly what an ethos was, and there was no specific reason for not doing that, other than Micheal Martin said that standardisation could lead to down a more difficult route and may be less desirable than local interpretation and that the perceived wisdom of all involved have brought us to this stage. So the perceived wisdom at that time was not to write down what an ethos meant, which means that individual parents around the country cannot identify the aspects of the curriculum that are not in accordance with their conscience, so they cannot ensure that the teaching of their children is in accordance with their philosophical convictions. That is a very serious point under human rights law, because the rights to respect means that a parent must be able to ensure that the teaching of their children is in accordance with their philosophical convictions.

And the Catholic church has admitted, in the guidelines for second level education, to what they call pre-evangelisation. That involves influencing children into a religious belief, and that is against human rights law because it does not constitute what I have just outlined as respect. How does pre-evangelising our children respect our convictions? This is a very important point. It means that Catholic education and human rights law are incompatible in this context.

Another area which we would like to bring up is the rights of the child, and freedom of conscience of the child. That is a very significant area for nonreligious parents. Section 30 of the Education Act only allows a student to opt out when they are 18 years of age, and we believe that this is completely wrong, because we see our children as having a right to freedom of conscience. They have that right under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we want to respect that right, and it is part of our convictions to recognise their right to freedom of conscience. That is why we want our children to have an education that is objective, critical and pluralistic. That does not mean that they cannot learn about religions and beliefs, but they should learn about them in an objective critical and pluralistic manner. So we would like to see that section of the education act amended to take into account the rights of the child, and the evolving capacities of the child. That is also one of the recommendations of the Irish Human Rights Commission. We and they would also like to see section 15 amended as well to include respect for our rights and convictions.

Also, section 7.3 of the Equal Status Act, and the Employment Equality Act, allow religious discrimination which is contrary to our philosophical convictions. In practice, we often have no other choice than to send our child to a school that can legally discriminate on religious grounds. We believe that that type of discrimination undermines the dignity of the human person. We also believe that discrimination against teachers, or firing a teacher because they were living in a same-sex partnership which is legal in the state, undermines the dignity of the human person. And we do not want to be coerced into sending our children to schools where that type of discrimination is part of their ethos, part of who they are and of what they do. It should be easy to understand that if you understand where we are coming from, because we are secularists, and we believe in the separation of church and state.

Ethos, or characteristic spirit as they sometimes call it, presupposes that one could learn about Christianity and the Catholic faith without being subjected mentally to what might constitute unwanted influence or indoctrination. They accept that that religious education permeates the whole school day but they do not see it as having any influence on children of nonreligious parents. But there was a Supreme Court case involving the campaign to separate church and state in which Barrington J said that if you did choose to send your child to a school with a religious ethos, the child could not help but be influenced by the religious ethos. So the state is recognising that our children are going to be influenced, but this influence is not respecting our philosophical convictions. And, if you don’t respect our philosophical convictions, then the state is effectively pursuing an aim of indoctrination.

Questions and answers

The above our introductory comments to the Forum session. A later post will include a summary of the questions and answers part of the session.


  1. Avatar
    rob carew September 07, 2011

    Good one Mick, you’ve got to keep the pressure on, we can’t let it skip back into the way it was years ago
    Keep all religion out of the classroom, I say

  2. Avatar
    Martina O'Brien September 07, 2011

    Just wanted to say I thought the submissions were excellent, the first one in particular was very clear in its language, hit all the key points on the head, and was very readable. Please keep going. Ruairi Quinn’s remarks in the media recently, about parents taking up places on boards of management – while the support is greatly appreciated – this is going to be much harder than it looks on paper, speaking from my own experience. YOu would nearly have to have a group of like-minded people organized in advance, in order to be put forward to get on to the Board of Management. BOA’s are strongholds that are closely defended by the powers that be, and ‘subversives’ will not easily make their way in. But then, that just means being organized. It can be done.

  3. Avatar
    Andy September 07, 2011

    Thank you Michael and all involved for this contribution on behalf of us all. The sooner ALL educational establishments are required to RESPECT their charges in all circumstances, the better.

  4. Avatar
    Brian Murphy September 07, 2011

    Well done to Jane and Michael! Well said! Looking forward to the questions and answers!

  5. Avatar
    Aileen Treacy September 07, 2011

    Well done, Those of us with children currently in primary schools, Having no practical recourse to nondenominational schools appreciate all your efforts.

  6. Avatar
    Paula Bradley September 07, 2011

    Thanks Michael and Jane for all your efforts. Any changes made will be too late for my grown up children but their future offspring will benefit.

  7. Avatar
    Martijn September 07, 2011

    Well done Mick and Jane. Can’t wait to see what questions they were asking.

  8. Avatar
    kristine byrne September 07, 2011

    How many atheists are there in Ireland…? Is there many in your group for instance ?And how strong is Opus Day …in Ireland’s governing constitution in 2011 ?

  9. Avatar
    Jon September 07, 2011

    Well done Jane, the preparation is great and you and Mick have done us proud.

  10. Avatar
    Brian Rogan September 07, 2011

    Excellent work Jane & Michael, keep up the good work!

  11. Avatar
    Cyril Butler September 07, 2011

    Well done to all involved.

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    Peter Kerry September 08, 2011

    A well written and well thought out presentation, Those of us who can only choose to “go with the flow” within the present system should be right behind you. I don’t raise issues at school, mostly because I would not want my child to be the odd one out, but also because I would see it having no effect at that level beyond upsetting people who I like (parents and teaching staff) to no good effect and to be honest i would worry about that small minority found everywhere who may make life difficult for our child. The Religious ethos runs through the whole day and into the home, where we are currently learning prayers as homework. It is very demoralising to have to teach your child to pray and impossible to counter unless you set him at odds with the teacher you want him to respect. This can only reasonably be handled at a national level. I would happily let the school know my views if I thought it would work as part of a national plan to properly secularise our education system.

  13. Avatar
    Jen September 08, 2011

    Huge thanks for working on our behalf. You give us hope!


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