How the Irish education system indoctrinates atheists and religious minorities

The Irish Constitution obliges the State to respect the inalienable right of parents to ensure the education of their children is in conformity with their convictions. The European Court of Human Rights has defined indoctrination in the education system as not ‘respecting’ parents’ convictions.

Despite this, Church and State in Ireland use a different definition of indoctrination, thus undermining the human rights of minorities under the European Convention, and the inalienable rights of minorities under the Irish Constitution.

In Ireland, Church and State believe that indoctrination only happens when you physically force a child again their will and the will of their family into religion classes, prayers or ceremonies. They also equate ‘indoctrination’ with teaching only one religion, and they refer to this as religious instruction.

The Catholic Church still has a lot of control and influence in teacher training colleges, so teachers are taught to view indoctrination according to the teaching of the Catholic Church and not human rights law. This view is reflected by the NCCA and in courses developed by them such as the Goodness Me Goodness You course in Community National Schools and the Religious Education course at second level.

Inalienable Rights under the Irish Constitution

The Irish Constitution does not mention the word ‘indoctrination’ but it does oblige the State to respect the ‘inalienable’ right of parents to ensure the education of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

The European Court has said that the right of parents to respect for their convictions, be they religious or philosophical, is an absolute right and not to be balanced against the rights of others. This right belongs to parents, not to the school, teachers, patron bodies, the Minister or the Department of Education or teacher training colleges.

You would think, because parents that have this inalienable right to respect under the Constitution, that  Church and State would accept that it is not reasonable to define ‘indoctrination’ and ‘respect’ according to Catholic Church teaching, especially when there are now many different religions and philosophical convictions in the country.

The High Court cited the rights of Catholic parents, guaranteed under the European Convention, to support State funding for Catholic Chaplains in Community and Comprehensive schools. There is no justification for denying the same rights, guaranteed under the same Convention, to minority parents.

The State recognises and protects Constitutional and Human Rights when they are protecting the rights of Catholic parents, but won’t recognise and protect the same Constitutional and Human Rights when it is minorities who are seeking their protection.

What the European Court says about indoctrination and respecting parents’ convictions

The European Court has stated the following in relation to indoctrination and respecting Parents’ convictions. These are their General Principles and cited in every case, including cases over multi denominational religious education.

“The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. That is the limit that must not be exceeded”

The Court has defined ‘respecting parents’ convictions as:-

“The verb “respect” means more than “acknowledge” or “take into account”. In addition to a primarily negative undertaking, it implies some positive obligation on the part of the State. The term “conviction”, taken on its own, is not synonymous with the words “opinions” and “ideas”. It denotes views that attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance (see Valsamis, cited above, pp. 2323-24, §§ 25 and 27, and Campbell and Cosans, cited above, pp. 16-17, §§ 36-37).

“The second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 implies on the other hand that the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. That is the limit that must not be exceeded (ibid.).

“In order to examine the disputed legislation under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, interpreted as above, one must, while avoiding any evaluation of the legislation’s expediency, have regard to the material situation that it sought and still seeks to meet. Certainly, abuses can occur as to the manner in which the provisions in force are applied by a given school or teacher and the competent authorities have a duty to take the utmost care to see to it that parents’ religious and philosophical convictions are not disregarded at this level by carelessness, lack of judgment or misplaced proselytism.”

Church and State agree that Parents’ convictions must be respected, but their view of what constitutes respect and what constitutes indoctrination are not in accordance with the rights guaranteed under the European Convention. Their standard of protecting the rights of parents only kicks in when they are protecting the rights of the Catholic majority.

The view of Church and State on indoctrination

Teachers and schools simply won’t listen to parents who complain that their children are being indoctrinated. Parents are simply dismissed out of hand, notwithstanding the fact that it is the parents that have the inalienable right not the teacher, school or patron body.

The Guidelines for the Inclusion of other faiths in Catholic Schools states that:-

The general programme of the school will be considered as a form of pre-evangelisation. This promotes a human development that focuses on the emotional and aesthetic, thus enabling the young person to experience God at a deep and spiritual level.

Human Rights law sees pre-evangelisation as indoctrination. The school is pursuing an aim of indoctrination by not respecting parents’ convictions. How can you claim to respect parents’ convictions when you are pre-evangelising their children into a particular religion, promoting religions, or promoting morals through religion?

The purpose behind pre-evangelising is a mission to convert.  The Department of Education or the Minister have never complained about this, or taken action to ensure that schools stopped what they referred to as pre-evangelisation.

Learning outcomes that require students to respect and celebrate beliefs is not respecting some parents’ convictions, as they teach their children to challenge beliefs instead of respecting and celebrating them, and particularly beliefs that are not in accordance with human rights and the dignity of the human person.

The Education Act 1998 obliges Boards of Management to have regard to the principles and requirements of a democratic society and have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life in society.

We now have an education system that accepts that pre-evangelisation is part of a democratic society, and that it respects all beliefs and promotes them.


In Ireland many nonreligious parents see the NCCA Religious Education course at second level, the GMGY in Community National schools and Catholic Grow in Love course as indoctrination because it does not ‘respect’ their philosophical convictions.

It doesn’t matter whether it is classes in one religion or many religions; it is still indoctrination if it does not respect their right to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

It is not up to the State, the Catholic Church, the NCCA, patron bodies or some parents to decide for other parents whether or not a particular course is indoctrination. It is indoctrination if it does not ‘respect’ parents convictions be they religious or philosophical.

Atheist and minority belief parents do not just have ideas or opinions. We have convictions. Refusing to do more than acknowledge or take into account our convictions, is indoctrination.

Putting parents in a position whereby they must reveal their religious or philosophical convictions in order to take part in any multi-denominational religion course is a breach of human rights and also a breach of GDPR.

Atheist Ireland will continue to assist minority parents who are fighting for their inalienable right to respect for their convictions under the Irish Constitution and Human Rights Law.


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