Contact – Campaign for Secular Education in Ireland

If you have concerns about the education system in Ireland and religion in Irish primary or secondary schools you can contact Jane Donnelly by email at


Atheist Ireland believes that a secular education system is essential to the building of an ethical and secular society. One of the most powerful ways in which religion maintains its hold on society is by teaching children fantastic tales as truth when they are at an intellectually formative age.

Atheist Ireland is an advocacy group that promotes reason and atheism over superstition and supernaturalism, and that campaigns for an ethical and secular Ireland where the state does not support or fund or give special treatment to any religion.

Why join Atheist Ireland?

  • You can help to build an ethical and secular Ireland.
  • You have a say in determining policy and electing officers.
  • You can attend members meetings and our AGM.

How do I join Atheist Ireland?



  1. Avatar
    Garrett January 27, 2011

    I see a basis for our collaboration. Show Racism the Red Card work to promote anti-racism and our work occurs primarily in education. Small but increasing numbers are using our racist incident report form and it would be useful if people feel they are experiencing racism that they have a place to report. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, would be considered a form of racism.

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      Michael Nugent January 28, 2011

      Garrett, can you please contact our education policy officer, Jane Donnelly at education (at), to discuss how we might collaborate?

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    Liam Mac Graith January 27, 2011

    There are two basic mistakes on your website The first is to do with the advice as to how to answer the religion question on the census form. Your aim should be to abolish the question altogether. A person’s religion is his or her business exclusively. There ought to no occasion when a person is required to make a public declaration as to what religion they belong to, or whether or not they have any religion, and the question should not appear on any official forms. I myself will be answering the question with “abolish this question”.

    The second mistake is in condoning the aim (held by some European group) that religious discrimination and racism should be linked. This is indeed a great pity. “Racism” is frequently used as a red herring, as a straw man, and as a stick which to beat the innocent. Let me give you an example that I have just thought up.
    If a person or organisation called for making it illegal for women to wear sheets covering their heads and faces in public, they are highly likely to be called racist even though their concern might be for secularism, road safety, equality of the sexes or bank security.

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      Michael Nugent January 28, 2011

      Liam, there is a reasonable argument for trying to abolish the question, but it won’t be abolished this time around. We’re advocating what we believe to be the best currently available outcome. We can decide between then and the next census whether we should try to get it abolished next time around.

      On your second point, the group that is linking racist and religious discrimination is the United Nations International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. They call it intersectionality, i.e. there is an overlap between the two rather than that all examples of one are also examples of the other.

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    Garrett January 31, 2011

    Thanks Michael- I have been in contact with Jane.

    Liam- What about Islamaphobia? What about anti-semitism and the holocaust? Or discrimination between Catholics and Protestants?

    Conventionally for example people tend to consider ethnic tensions in Ireland or Iraq for that matter as characteristic of religious sectarianism. We are used to thinking of the conflict in Northern Ireland for example as a sectarian dispute. Yes it is but at the same time would we look back in history and consider the holocaust as a sectarian issue.

    Racism is not only to do with with colour. The term ‘race’ is a scientifically unsound description which is next to meaningless. However there is something very real about the experience of racism. That is discrimination on the basis of colour, nationality, ethnicity/ culture, religion.

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    Carolyn April 18, 2012

    I have been reading your website and it is quite alarming what you are hoping to achieve.

    Yes, one may be atheist and not wish to have religion input in their child’s life and schools of that nature should be provided for those of you who wish to have a secular school system as an option. However, making it your “ultimate aim” to have a secular education system in Ireland totally denies the rights of all those parents who do have a faith and wish to have their children in a school that reflects that faith.

    Absolutely atheist parents in Ireland have not had a choice where to send their children in the past, and that has been unfair, however it is equally unfair that atheists are now trying to suggest how christian parents should wish to school their children.

    If in the future the whole school system in Ireland were to be paid for by the government and secular, what do you think may happen? Something similar to the American system perhaps? Where people who wish to send their children to a christian school have to pay for a private school and pay their taxes into a system that only pays for the secular or “value free” schools, as they are called. In that system, atheists win out and Christian parents are given no choice. Is this fair?

    In my opinion, yes Ireland needs to cater accordingly for all parents to make choices for their children, but by having a totally secular system, you are not giving that choice to parents. Ireland currently has quite a unique model of education, having the government pay for it (thus having a uniform standard of education) and having the patrons decide the ethos, whether catholic, COI or Educate together etc. This system is a good one and allows for choice, but the problem is that there is not always choice in each village, town or area. This is what you should be fighting for, fight for choice, not the abolition of choice!

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      Gavin McBride April 18, 2012

      The point of schools as I see it is to teach children what is true, or what we have good reason to think is true, as part of an education curriculum.

      There is no reasons, arguments, data or evidence on offer to suggest there is a god entity, therefore no I do not see it as “discrimination” to try for a school system that does not teach this stuff. If a parent wants to teach their children Christian thought then in my opinion they should be doing it on their own time.
      Let them set up their own extra curricular schooling options in my view. The actual core schooling a child gets however should conform to the state standards on education and curriculum.

      I do not see such Christian parents as losing out or being treated unfairly in such as system… as you paint it… any more than I would see people who think homeopathy works losing out because none of the path ways to becoming a Doctor in this country teach it. Poor homeopathists have to go and finance their own education on the subject? Good, that is how it should be… as the curriculum to become a doctor should be teaching fact based medicine not fantasy… and that is how it should be with teaching children about gods in schools too. Such education simply should not be on the curriculum because there simply is nothing on offer to suggest any of it is true.

      The concern should be with teaching the societies children what there is good reason to teach them. Not helping and pandering parents who want state assistance in teaching their own children what they themselves have decided is true in the absence of any evidence.

      • Avatar
        Carolyn April 18, 2012

        So your viewpoint is that everyone should conform to your viewpoint…

        Your main argument is that there is no evidence of a God and so you are an unbeliever, however scientifically it is impossible to either prove or disprove. People look at the facts and interpret them in different ways. Many eminent scientists, mathematicians and philosophers see no contradiction between their field of study and belief in a God, but rather find evidence there which supports their belief. Others see no need for a God and are perfectly happy with an atheistic viewpoint, so surely the issue is not as cut and dried as you make it out to be. Many people far more intelligent than most, fall on differing sides of the argument. This diversity of opinion exists not only in the scientific community but also in the the general population, surely then both points of view should be respected.

        Our discussion is about the Irish education system and whether parents should have choice in sending their children to a secular or christian school according to their own beliefs. Both of these school types will have an ethos and the ethos will be determined by which type of school it is. You can’t create after-school classes to compensate for what a child misses out on in ethos, if a child is going to a secular school. Classes which specifically teach the bible are not the only thing that gets lost when a school system becomes secular. Faith is not something that is purely intellectual (I know your standpoint is that it is not intellectual at all) but Christians see it as something that defines their life and something that is reflected in a persons attitude, character and outlook on the world. It is obvious that this is not just restricted to one lesson but something that spills over into the life of the school. I don’t expect you to agree, but this is my viewpoint. Should we both not be respected?

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          Heather Smith April 21, 2012

          Christ is risen. He is alive and the father has sent his Holy Spirit to be with us….a counsellor, a comforter, a creative power in the world. Those who go to secular schools are like spectators at a match. The know the rules, know the players, criticize and applaud, but they never get to play the game, never get to feel the wind in their hair, the ball in their hand. They have knowledge without experience….like window shoppers who never get to purchase, like children knowing how to read but never being allowed to read a book. I am saddened that children in secular schools will learn about world religions but never be allowed to experience the love of God.

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      Janice Craig February 20, 2014

      Surely that is what church is for? Send your children to church for their religious education and the school for the rest of it.

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    Lisa Brennan September 03, 2012

    As a christian but a non catholic, I’d like to be able to send my child to a non denominational school.
    Currently their school day starts with morning prayers & hymns over the intercom & participated by the whole class, except her. So she gets to feel isolated rather than the inclusion she should feel in being part of a class with her peers. Then on top of that their is the religion lesson itself,some of which has nothing got to do with religion but just fun inclusion games for personal growth and development but mashed in with religion & stared & ended with hymns/prayers.

    Its very difficult for a kid to be in that setup everyday and I was excited about the new Educate Together schools announced for Sept 2012. However on looking into Educate Together I found out while they don’t have catholic religion classes, they practice Halloween, put on Christmas plays, do Easter egg treasure hunts etc etc. So even if they had on in my area for the class my kid is in (which they don’t) religion would still be an issue, might be even worse as would have to stand out as different in a place that is suppose to accept all denominations.

    Happy to send on the email I sent to the minister for education & the response I got back if you feel it would in anyway help going forward to remove religion from the classrooms, or at least highlight the need for change.



    • Avatar
      Jane Donnelly September 05, 2012

      Dear Lisa,

      Thank you for your comment.
      I really appreciate how you feel about the situation. We get many complaints from parents about how isolated their children feel when opting out of religion in schools.
      We would be grateful if you could let us have a copy of any correspondence between yourself and the Minister. It keeps us up to date with exactly what the Department of Education is saying to parents and it also helps us when making submissions to various bodies such as the UN and Council of Europe. We are working hard to challenge the system and at all times highlighting the fact that parents want to opt their children into an education that is objective, critical and pluralistic and not opt them out.

      best regards
      Jane Donnelly
      Education Policy Officer

  6. Avatar
    Sara O'Riordan October 08, 2012

    I just spent the following email to the minister for education.

    Dear Minister,

    I am writing to you as an Irish parent of 2 young children, who does not subscribe to any religion. My older daughter recently started in Junior Infants in a local primary school. I have encountered number of issues, which I would like you to answer. I know you are a busy man, but I feel these are important issues which do not only affect me, but a significant number of people.

    1) The first issue I encountered when choosing a school for my daughter: I found that there are NO non/multi-denominational primary schools within a reasonable distance of our home in Kinsale, Co. Cork.

    2) After looking at the religious schools in the area, I found that the local church of Ireland school would be preferable to me, because less time overall would be spent on religious education, and they do not prepare students for religious sacraments during school time. However, when the school sent me the enrollment policy, it became clear that the policy discriminated against my child. The 5 religion based enrollment criteria(see attached, note that catholics are taken in preference non-christians even though every other school in the area is catholic), meant that my daughter would be last on the list of applicants. More importantly the school would not guarantee a place for siblings. Therefore my second daughter would again be at the bottom of the list of applicants. I could not take the chance that even if my first daughter got a place in the school, that my second daughter would not. I know that this situation has occurred in this particular school.

    3) From the remaining schools(all catholic), the local community school seemed the most inclusive. The enrollment criteria takes siblings first, then the community, then religion. Therefore we chose this school for our daughter, along with 35 other sets of parents! Now I am faced with the issue of what to do about the religious education in the school. Although in theory I can opt her out, and I have discussed this with the teacher, in practice this means her sitting in the class where the religious instruction is going on, and trying not to pay attention to it. This leaves me with several more issues:
    a) If I do opt her out she is marked as different in the class. During the year, and the years to come there will be several events, within the school (nativity plays, religious carol services, school mass, communion, confirmation), which she will be left out of.
    b) Will there be any benefit to opting her out – she will still hear the religious instruction.
    c) By opting out a child, telling them they can’t do what everyone else is doing, is it more likely to make her want to do it.
    d) Where I choose to opt her out at this stage, or later, I am forced into a position where I have to contradict the teacher…..while in the process of trying to get her to listen to the teacher and do what she says, how confusing for a 4 year old.

    4) I think it is most important for children to learn how to think critically. It should be part of their education. The religious indoctrination that goes on in our primary schools is contra to critical thinking by definition. The time spent on religion, could be so much better spent. Little children have such inquiring minds, they are interested and fascinated in everything in the world around them. Shouldn’t our primary schools be nurturing this interest in science and the natural world rather than indoctrinating our children. (1 hour per week on science/nature compared to 2 hours for religion, not including preparations for sacraments, and never minding that everything else is taught with a “catholic ethos”). I’m having to teach science at home (though not qualified to), while religion is concentrated on in school. There is something wrong with this picture.

    We are the only modern developed country in the world that insists on spending taxpayers money to religiously educate our children in schools. In a world where Ireland wants to be counted as having a well education population that can compete in a multinational market for jobs, it does not do us any favours to persist in wasting our precious education time on religion.

    I am writing this email to make you aware of the difficulties faced every day by parents who just want their children to be educated well, without prejudice, and without having them religiously indoctrinated. This is not currently possible for the most part in this country. I would like to know what you plan to do to address this.

    Looking forward to hearing from you,

    Yours respectfully,
    Sara O’Riordan.

    • Avatar
      David O'Shea November 10, 2012

      I would love to know what reply, if any, you received from the Ministers office.


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        Sara O'Riordan November 12, 2012

        Hi David,

        See below the further correspondance between Ronnie Ryan ( private secretary) and me.

        What I took from this is that if I want to opt out my child, I will have to take her out of the class when religious instruction is ongoing.

        I had a short discussion with her teacher already, and got the impression that religion is not a major part of the day in Junior and Senior infants, that it was more about family and loving each other etc. She said that she could give my child something else to do while religion was going on, but that she can’t stop them from saying the prayer, which they do each morning and just before the end of the school day.

        Yesterday my child asked me if I wanted to hear her prayer from school, and she recited it perfectly!!! It really brought home, how quickly ideas can be planted into little brains. I intend to have a more indepth meeting with the teacher to discuss what we will do opt out/or not.

        Received October 9th
        Our Ref: 1207035

        Dear Ms. O’Riordan,

        I refer to your recent correspondence to the Minister for Education and Skills, Mr. Ruairi Quinn T.D. regarding Religion in schools.

        The place of religion is enshrined in the Constitution of Ireland, in that Article 44 provides for a specific commitment to respect and honour religion, to provide for freedom of conscience and free profession and practice of religion for every citizen, subject to public order and morality. Article 44.4 specifically provides for the right of a child to attend a State-funded school without attending religious instruction.

        A new syllabus for Religious Education at Junior Cycle was introduced on an optional basis in September 2000. Religious Education is an academic syllabus and is concerned with understanding religion as a phenomenon in the world and deals with the foundation of religious belief through a study of major world religions. It is designed to be studied by students of all religious faiths and of none. It seeks to promote an understanding and appreciation of why people believe, as well as tolerance and respect for the values and beliefs of all. It was examined for the first time in the Junior Certificate examination in 2003.

        For the students taking this course, a syllabus for Religious Education can play a key role in promoting a respect for personal dignity and that of others, positive attitudes towards other cultures and ethnic groups, a commitment to the democratic process, and an awareness of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. There is also a academic Religious Education syllabus for the Leaving Certificate.

        Under section 30 of the Education Act 1998, no student can be required to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student, and students have the right of withdrawal from religious instruction where it is sought. Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution provides for the right of any child to attend a State funded school without attending religious instruction in that school but it is also important to note, under Section 15 of the Education Act 1998, that school boards of management are required to uphold the ethos of their school (Section 15.2 (b)) and also to have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life in society (Section 15.2 (h)).

        A document which may be of interest to you would be ‘Guidelines on the Inclusion of Students of Other Faiths in Catholic Secondary Schools’ which can be accessed at .

        I hope this information is of assistance to you.

        Yours sincerely

        Ronnie Ryan
        Private Secretary

        Sent October 9th

        Ref: 1207035

        Dear Mr Ryan,

        Thank you for replying to my email. However, you did not really address the issues that I raised. You refer mainly to the secondary school Junior cycle below. My daughter has just started junior Infants in primary school.

        I understand that it is the right of a child to opt out of religion in state funded school ( as you refer to article 44 in the constitution below), but as far as I understood it, the school does not have to provide for a separately supervised activity while religious instruction is going on. Can you confirm whether this is the case?


        Received October 17th

        Ms. Sara O’Riordan

        Our Ref: 1207035

        Dear Ms. O’Riordan,

        Thank you for your further e-mail to the Minister for Education and Skills, Mr. Ruairi Quinn TD in relation to the teaching of religion in primary schools.

        At primary level, the Department recognises the rights of the different church authorities to design curricula in religious education and to supervise their teaching and implementation. This right is enshrined in the Education Act 1998. Consequently, although religious education is part of the Curriculum for Primary Schools, and schools are obliged to allocate 30 minutes per day for religious instruction, the content of the religion programme is determined by the Patron of the school.
        The Revised Curriculum for Primary Schools espouses the importance of tolerance towards the practice, culture and life-style of a range of religious convictions and states explicitly that the beliefs and sensibilities of every child are to be respected.

        In accordance with Section 30 of the Education Act (1998), no student can be required to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student.

        The position regarding Religious Instruction in Primary Schools is also contained in Rules 68 and 69 of the Rules for National schools. These rules state, inter alia, that:

        – No pupil shall receive, or be present at, any religious instruction of which his parents or guardians disapprove.

        – The periods of formal religious instruction shall be fixed so as to facilitate the withdrawal of pupils where above applies.

        – Where such religious instruction as their parents or guardians approve is not provided in the school for any section of the pupils, such pupils must, should their parents or guardians so desire, be allowed to absent themselves from school, at reasonable times, for the purpose of receiving that instruction elsewhere.

        In the event that you remain dissatisfied with the Principal’s response you should raise your concerns with the Chairperson of the Board of Management and/or the Patron of the school.

        Yours sincerely,

        Ronnie Ryan
        Private Secretary

  7. Avatar
    Jane Donnelly November 12, 2012

    Reciting prayers is the manifestation of religious belief and if your child is being taught prayers and cannot opt out then he/she is being indoctrinated.
    The Irish Human Rights Commission in their Report Religion & Education: A Human Rights perspective state the following about prayers (page 101 para 304):-
    “Manifestation of religious beliefs did not arise to a significant degree in the Consultation although some minority parents did complain that their children were being taught prayers in denominational schools (which practice could in any event be regarded as indoctrination). “
    I am horrified that the Dept of Education would suggest that you look up the Guidelines for the Inclusion of Students of Other Faiths in Catholic Secondary schools. This document speaks about pre-evangelising which breaches the human rights of minorities. As the UN Human Rights Committee have already raised concern about the right to freedom of conscience of secular parents in denominational school it would seem that the Dept of Education is suggesting that you look at a document which clearly disrespects the human rights of minorities. It is really shocking that the Dept of Education is showing such disregard for the human rights of minorities.
    I notice that neither the Dept of Education nor the school refer to the religious integrated curriculum. That it is not a major part of the school day is incorrect as why would there be any need to legally protect the ethos of schools if it was an insignificant part of the school day.
    My advice to you would be to contact the Irish Human Rights Commission at
    Ask for Mr. Gerry Finn who will give you advice on how to proceed. You should give them a copy of the letters that you have received from the Dept of Education. Let us know how you get on.

  8. Avatar
    Catherine Dixon May 27, 2013

    I have just had a very upsetting experience with my sons (catholic) primary school. We opted out of RE and I could really do with some advice on how to handle the situation. I would prefer not to post in a public place, is there an email address I can use please?

  9. Avatar
    Tom Kyne October 15, 2013


    I want to send my daughter to a secular school in Galway but I’m new to all this and I was going to send her to a local VEC school in Galway City until I came across the following advertisement recruiting a Chaplain for the school on their website:…le,1066,en.pdf

    Am I seeing things ? or maybe I don’t understand enough about secular, non-denominational education in Irish second level schools !

    Help ?

    • Avatar
      Jane Donnelly October 20, 2013


      Unfortunately you are not seeing things. There are no non-denominational secular schools at either primary or second level in Ireland. All VEC schools – non-designated Community Colleges, designated Community Colleges and Community Schools are obliged to teach religious instruction. Community schools and designated Community Colleges are basically religious schools and have a religious ethos. Denominational in nature is what the Supreme court said about them. Designated Community Colleges and Community Schools are legally obliged by their agreements to have a Chaplain.

      As far as I can make out the school that are hiring the Chaplain are a non-designated Community College which means that they are not legally obliged to hire a Chaplain but are doing so anyway. They are not legally forbidden to do so and the Board of Management must have sanctioned it. You might be interested in reading this by the Aodhan O’Riordain (Labour Party) on the cost to the state of hiring Chaplains

      best regards
      Jane Donnelly

  10. Avatar
    Inna October 23, 2013

    It seems that schools’ policy is «Not denying. Not supporting» so far. Parents can try and exploit their right of opting their children out of religious instruction. Schools have their right (and exploit it) to ignore such parent’s needs of providing supervision for their children during religious instruction and worship services. They say such a child must be taken away from school for the duration of such class or service by his/her parents, and that is the only option if the child is not “physically present” in the classroom where religious instruction is taught. We find it a bit difficult to provide «not attending» (See Section 30 of the Education Act (1998), saying that no student can be required to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student) some classes while being “physically present” there. In fact, we find it impossible. So, speaking honestly, it is just a legitimated way to say «we are not going to meet your needs since you belong to a tiniest minority». Imagine dozens of parents forced to take their children out of school for 40 min, right in the middle of the business day, 4 times a week, and imagine this is declared as “single option” by the school. Nobody would deny this looking weird. But somehow it is ok for our school and many others while dealing with parents preferring to use their rights (quite clearly stated by law).
    The question is whether we have a chance to change this situation globally? Children which are “opted out” should be respected, not just ignored and isolated, and there should be some legally provided extra activities within school curriculum.”

  11. Avatar
    Emer January 30, 2014

    I have read through your website and I agree with the central premise. My husband and I are atheists and wish are daughter to receive a secular education.
    The majority of the posts seem to be concerned with ‘opting out’ of RE, i am more concerned at the moment with getting my child in, into the school. I was hoping to find more information regarding the application/entry process to primary school. If anyone could point me in the right direction or have the answer to a couple of questions.
    For example; are schools allowed to ask our religious affiliation? can they request proof like a baptismal cert?
    I am concerned that if i do profess my atheist views my daughter will not get into a school.
    I would appreciate any help, i am the first of my friends/family to not baptize my child.
    btw i apologize if this is not the appropriate space for this discussion

    • Avatar
      Jane Donnelly February 17, 2014


      Unfortunately the majority of schools in Ireland are under religious patronage. Religious schools have exemptions under the Equal State Act and can refuse your child in the event of a shortage of places. In other words they can give preference to the children of Catholic parents in schools with a Catholic ethos. They can and do ask for your religion as they could not discriminate if they did not know what religion you were.

      Jane Donnelly


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