Catholic Church admits studying religion is a disadvantage, but wants the State to impose it anyway

The Catholic Church has acknowledged that studying religion in school, instead of other subjects, puts students at a disadvantage, and it is trying to insist that State-run schools make all students suffer that disadvantage.

This is revealed in an article in the Irish Times by Carl O’Brien today, based on a letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Catholic Bishops are trying to get the Minister for Education to withdraw a recent directive that enables students to opt out of studying religion in ETB second level schools.

That directive says that ETB schools have to ask parents and students, before the school sets the timetable, whether they want to study religion. It also says that ETB schools must provide an alternative timetabled curriculum subject for students who do not want to study religion.

In response, the Irish Episcopal Commission wrote to the Minister warning that students who opt out will receive an unfair advantage if they are allowed to take extra classes in examinable subjects, such as maths, Irish or English.

This is an extraordinary power-grab by the Catholic Bishops. Remember, this directive is not even about the majority of Irish schools that are run by the Catholic Church.

It is about the minority of State-run ETB second level schools, that are supposed to be the inclusive alternative to these denominational schools.

And the directive does not even remove Catholic religious instruction and worship from these State-run schools. It merely gives students the right to have a timetabled alternative to being indoctrinated into religion.

What the Bishops’ letter says

The letter is signed by Bishop Brendan Leahy, chair of the Irish Episcopal Commission, and Bishop Brendan Kelly, chair of the group’s council for education.

The Catholic Bishops say that “it is crucial that students are exposed to the religious interpretation of life.” But it is clear that, where they are running the schools, what they mean is the Roman Catholic interpretation of life.

This is what they promote in the majority of schools that they run, and they now want the State to impose it directly in the schools that the State itself runs.

Even the State course is not objective

The Bishops claim that religious education being taught in ETB schools is “not religious indoctrination” but a syllabus devised by the NCCA.

But documents obtained by Atheist Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act have shown that the NCCA syllabus is not objective and was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church.

In addition, many ETB schools combine the State course with the guidelines for the faith formation and development of Catholic students, and do not tell parents that they are doing this.

Many ETB schools also made this course a core subject, which was never the intention of the Minister, the Department, or the NCCA.

One of the main aim of the State religion course is to contribute to the moral and spiritual development of all students through religion. It only acknowledges the nonreligious interpretation of life.

This disrespects the human right of parents to ensure that the education of their children is in conformity with their philosophical convictions.

Can you imagine how the Catholic Bishops would react if one of the main aim of the State curriculum was to contribute to the moral development of all students through atheism, while only acknowledging the religious interpretation of life?

Bishops objected to previous NCCA course

The Bishops say that, even in these State-run ETB schools, they want students who opt out of religious education to be given a course in “religious heritage and values as well as ethics.”

They say that “such education is essential in respect of understanding our cultural heritage and in terms of harmony and understanding what is becoming a multicultural society.”

But when the NCCA tried to bring in such a course at primary level (a course that would teach objectively about Religions, Beliefs, and Ethics), the Catholic Bishops opposed that as well.

They said that: “These approaches require teachers to adopt and promote a pluralist approach to religion. This is an approach to religion that goes against the philosophical basis of Catholic religious education.”


The Catholic Bishops have again shown their disregard for the rights of atheist, minority faith, and secular parents and their children.

It is good that they have finally acknowledged that studying religion puts students at a disadvantage.

But the response should be to give all students the option of having that advantage, not to drag others back down into that disadvantage.


  1. Avatar
    Mary Davison July 18, 2018

    This article is not accurate. There is a religious education curriculum that his objective. Religious education as a leaving certificate subject is an excellent choice subject. It is not about indoctrination. My son who is atheist studies this and enjoyed its broad range that covers philosophy and cultural studies as well as world religions with no attempted conversion to any particular belief. I think the writer is confusing religious education as an exam subject to religious instruction which is definitely bias.

  2. Avatar
    Michael Nugent July 18, 2018

    Mary, the article is acccurate. You are correct that there is a State religious education curriculum prepared by the NCCA, but that curriculum is not objective and its preparation was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church.

    In 2016 Atheist Ireland produced a comprehensive report, based on documents that we got under the Freedom of Information Act, explaining how even the State curriculum breaches human rights.

    You can read that report here

    To make matters worse, many ETB schools combine the state curriculum with the Catholic Church’s guidelines for the faith formation and development of Catholic students, and do not tell parents that they are doing this.

    There is a quick summary here of how the State religious education course disrespects the rights of atheist and secular families.


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