Atheist Ireland replies to Minister for Education re VEC Community Schools

In April, Atheist Ireland wrote to the Minister for Education about Document No. 154 of material released to RTE under the Freedom of Information Act.

This document outlined how parents in a VEC community school were told that: “It is true that all morality is based on love – of God and ones neighbor. This will be a central theme in the Religious Education programme. However, moral values are taught within a religious context; we cannot divorce them from that setting.”

In June, the Department of Education replied, suggesting that these comments “are probably best considered in light of the Primary School curriculum”. We have now sent the following reply to that response from the Department.

Dear Minister Quinn,

Thank you for the reply from Ronnie Ryan on 7 June to our email of 3 April. This reply does not diminish our concerns about the Religious Education programme in the new VEC Community schools. Instead, it confirms that the State is failing in its duty to protect the Constitutional and Human Rights of those parents who seek a secular education for their children, and that your Department seems to be unaware of basic human rights principles.

The background

In our email of 3 April, we raised concerns about a memo called Document 105, sent in 2008 by Ian Murphy to the Dept of Education and the VEC, about a meeting with parents of children in Scoil Choilm CNS about the Religious Education programme being developed for the new VEC Community national Schools.

The two concerns that we raised were:

  • When parents asked whether the programme should be called moral education, they were told: “It is true that all morality is based on love – of God and one’s neighbour. This will be a central theme in the Religious Education programme. However, moral values are taught within a religious context: we cannot divorce them from that setting.”
  • When parents asked whether they may withdraw their child from this Religious Education programme, they were given an answer that did not include the word ‘Yes’, that did not inform them that this was a constitutional right, and that instead actively encouraged them not to withdraw their child.

We pointed out that this breached two human rights principles:

  • Teaching moral values within a religious context to the children of secular parents breaches their human rights under Article II of Protocol 1 of the European Convention: “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
  • As the Irish Human Rights Commission reminded the State last year, “The State must take sufficient care that information and knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner with the aim of enabling pupils to develop a critical mind with regard to religion in a calm atmosphere which is free of any misplaced proselytism.”

The primary school curriculum

Your reply on 7 June said that the above comments “are probably best considered in light of the Primary School curriculum”, which you said “makes specific reference to the importance of religious education as one of the areas of the curriculum (p.27) in supporting the spiritual development of the child. Reference is also made to the role of religious education in enabling the child ‘to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God’ (p.58).”

We have, as you suggested, considered these comments in light of the curriculum. Parts of the curriculum do indeed help to explain how the comments made in Document 105 came to be made. However, this does not justify the comments made in Document 105. Instead, it shows that the curriculum itself also breaches basic human rights principles, by failing to respect the rights of parents who want a secular education for their children.

For example, the concept of ‘spirituality’ is not defined in the curriculum, or indeed in the Education Act, and the curriculum simply assumes a definition of spirituality that not all citizens share. Worse than that, the curriculum acknowledges that it is doing this, when it states on page 27 that: “For most people in Ireland, the totality of the human condition cannot be understood or explained merely in terms of physical and social experience…” From then on, the curriculum ignores the human rights of any Irish parents not included in this category of “most” people.

Then, in one of the sections that you have quoted in your letter to us, page 57 of the curriculum states: “In seeking to develop the full potential of the individual, the curriculum takes into account the child’s affective, aesthetic, spiritual, moral and religious needs. The spiritual dimension is a fundamental aspect of individual experience, and its religious and cultural expression is an inextricable part of Irish culture and history. Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.”

The first sentence of this quote refers to spiritual, moral and religious needs as distinct concepts. The second sentence, in essence, says that religion is one expression of spirituality. And the third sentence refers to the concepts of “spiritual and moral values” (which are taught together in the context of religious education, despite them being distinct concepts) and “coming to a knowledge of God” (which expresses a subjective belief as knowledge, and which can be contrasted with a later reference to “the beliefs of others” rather than the knowledge of others).

There are many other examples of the curriculum failing to respect the rights of parents who want a secular education for their children. It includes many references to the concepts of (a) religion, god, belief and spirituality; (b) morality, ethics, equality and fairness; and (c) relationships, society, civics and pluralism. These are all distinct though related concepts, and the curriculum is not consistent in the way it assumes that they relate to each other.

We are preparing a more complete analysis of these aspects of the curriculum, and we will send this to you when we have it completed.

Overview of the problem

The term ‘spiritual’ in the primary school curriculum and the Education Act 1998 is not inclusive of all citizens. The Constitution does not refer to the words spiritual or religious in Article 42.3.2. It does not refer to ‘the children of religious parents’; it states ‘the children’. The state does not recognise or respect the philosophical convictions of those parents that seek secular education for their children and is failing in its obligation under Article 42.3.2. The state combines moral and religious education and obliges schools to promote moral and spiritual development of students having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school. The primary school curriculum claims that this type of religious education has a unique role in supporting the general aims of primary education. This is not neutral and impartial and cannot be considered as a pluralist position.

Constitutional and human rights principles are the starting point to ensure the fundamental rights of parents and children are respected in all schools and any new RE course. We note that at no stage in the action research for the RE course in the new VEC Community schools is the Irish Human Rights Commission asked to give input and advice on what is needed to ensure basic human rights. Despite the state claiming that these New VEC Community schools are inclusive and have respect for all beliefs and none there is no legal obligation on any board of management to interpret that respect in relation to human rights law.

The term “characteristic spirit” (ethos) is not defined in the Education Act 1998 and can be interpreted to mean anything. There is no obligation to ensure that the ‘Goodness me! Goodness you!’ RE course is in compliance with the Toledo Guiding Principles. Finally there is no legal guarantee that this Religious education course will be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner which is a basic human rights principle.

There are no secular or non-denominational schools in Ireland (page 51, Report from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism). The state is therefore obliged to ensure that the philosophical convictions of secular parents are respected in all schools regardless of their ethos. The religious education that is referred to in the primary school curriculum and the ‘Goodness me! Goodness you!’ RE course breaches the constitutional and human rights of those parents that seek secular education for their children. Consequently the obligation on the State is to ensure that parents can opt out their children from this course without discrimination, and while still receiving a moral education that is distinct from religious education.

What we are requesting

Document 105 states, as an explicitly ‘true’ fact, the subjective belief that all morality is based on love of God. It states that moral values are taught within a religious context and cannot be divorced from that setting. It shows that parents are not honestly informed about their constitutional right to opt their children out of religious education. And we are only aware of this because RTE received this document under the Freedom of Information Act.

It is clear from Document 105 (and it remains clear when Document 105 is read in light of the primary school curriculum) that the State is failing in its duty to respect the right of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions. The State is also failing in its duty under Article 42.3.2 of the Irish Constitution to ensure that all children have access to a moral education.

We request that you take immediate steps to ensure that the constitutional and human rights of those parents that seek secular education for their children are respected in all schools in Ireland. We also request that you inform us of what specific steps you will take to rectify the specific situation addressed in this correspondence. We are sending a copy of this letter to the Irish Human Rights Commission and also intend to raise the issue with the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Nugent
Atheist Ireland


  1. Avatar
    Jon Pierson July 12, 2012

    The odd thing is that the Minister for Education is an “out” atheist. He, personally, cannot possibly agree that indoctrination and leaving secular families out to dry are right.

    The problem goes deeper. Are the Minister’s hands being tied by Fine Gael? Is the Roman Catholic church exerting pressure to ensure that it can continue to indoctrinate children, especially by making it effectively impossible for parents to withdraw their children from indoctrination sessions by refusing to allow the children to be supervised?

    The real problem seems to be that most parents are prepared to ‘go with the flow’ and most certainly don’t want little Sean or Sinead to be Seen as being ‘different’.

    As suggested, the only way to achieve freedom from the evil of religious indoctrination for Irish children is by the continued pressure from international human rights bodies and for such criticisms to be as widely published as possible.

    With only 25% of Irish “Roman Catholics” actually believing in the church’s teachings, any presumed influence due to the church has long gone. It’s time the government woke up to these facts.

  2. Avatar
    Eoin Gough July 12, 2012

    Although I am no longer living in Ireland, I am very appreciative of your hard work on this issue. As it stands I would not want to send any future children to a state school in Ireland. Your work is undoubtedly an uphill struggle and I wish to express my admiration for your diligence.

    I remember the strange feeling of guilt I experienced as I took the communion and confirmation. Even as a boy I could recognise religious education was teaching us fairy tales. At that time in my life I had no understanding of science of the philosophical issues at work but I had read children’s versions of classical texts Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts and so on and realised that if this was made up so were the stories in school.

    It was a long time before I realised I wasn’t alone in this understanding of the world. I am thankful for people like you who will change this. It may seem difficult but sooner our later your voice will be heard.

    Kind Regards,
    Eoin Gough
    Istanbul, Turkey.

  3. Avatar
    kieron o reilly July 13, 2012

    You mention “Human Rights” infringement of secular parents, ie teaching God to parents who are non believers is a breach of their human rights. Can we not embark on a major case for tehir defense in the international Court of Human Rights? Norris did it for Homosexuals.. Is Norris an Atheist? Any Atheist Senators out there????

    • Avatar
      William July 15, 2012

      No, David Norris is a practising Anglican. Ivana Bacik is an atheist and an ally of Atheist Ireland, tho as Labour leader in the Seanad, she doesn’t quite have freedom of movement. I’m not sure if there are any openly atheist Independent Senators who would take such a case, but secular parents would be the test case you’d be looking for.

  4. Avatar
    kieron o reilly July 14, 2012

    In the current climate is it appropriate to have “Atheists in the Pub” discussions? I noticed this on your Youtube page….Is this not further promoting drunk Irish stereotypes and devaluing whatever critical and intellectual value may be gained from these discussions? Perhaps in the search for reason and knowledge, a college or hotel meeting room would be more appropriate? A Gallery or Library… anything but a pub! Spirits and Atheism don’t mix.

    • Avatar
      Jane Donnelly August 15, 2012

      If you are aware of any hotel room or estabishment that does not require payment for giving us a room for the night we would be most greatful if you could give us the name. It is not a requirement to drink alcohol while attending ‘Atheists in the pub’. Of course people do drink alcohol but others do not.

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    Maureen Meleady July 15, 2012

    Every attempt to provide for a secular education within a denominational school will run into a brick wall unless the ‘integrated curriculum’ approach is challenged and brought into line with Human Rights legislation.

    Aine Hyland put it together very well in the following paragraph: form

    “Taken together, the Rules of 1965 and the provisions of the 1971 curriculum created a new situation. The State now formally recognised the denominational character of the national school system and made no provision for, nor even adverted to the rights of those children whose parents did not wish them to attend exclusively denominational schools. It had removed the requirement for teachers to be sensitive to the religious beliefs of ‘those of different religious persuasions’. According to the curriculum guidelines, all schools were expected to offer an integrated curriculum where religious and secular instruction would be integrated. While the rule under which parents were allowed to opt their children out of religious instruction still remained, the rule became effectively inoperable since religious and secular instruction would now be integrated. Even if religious instruction were separately timetabled, it could be assumed that a specifically denominational ethos would ‘permeate the school day’.”

  6. Avatar
    steve white July 15, 2012

    one day you’ll learn to link to the relevent documents

  7. Avatar
    Feardorcha July 21, 2012

    “Spirits and Atheism don’t mix.” True but there’s always beer and those atheists in the pub are not all drunken and Irish.

  8. Avatar
    Mick March 20, 2013

    Are you not denying the basic right of every family to have their children educated in a religious manner free from the immoral “there is no God, so anything goes” mentality that has increased in popularity in parallel with the rate of crime and murder in Ireland?
    Have you no intellect to see that this is where secularism is taking us. The love of our neighbour is now simply “make love to your neighbours wife and its ok as long as you get away with it. No God ergo nobody to answer to for misdoings. It makes no sense except its a cop out. Sorry lad, you will change your mind on your death bed.


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