Teach Don’t Preach – The Politics of Irish School Religion

This website is published by Atheist Ireland as part of our “Teach Don’t Preach” campaign for a secular Irish education system based on human rights law.

Any religious topic is almost too hot to handle for Irish politics and the system has changed little in this regard for decades. Irish schools are allowed exemptions from the equality provisions in employment legislation so that teachers can be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. They are allowed to have sectarian admissions policies favouring children and parents of a particular religion. All of this is contrary to international human rights treaties and conventions that Irish governments have signed up to. For decades now governments, politicians, teachers and the churches themselves have talked about the changes that have to be made, about making schools more representative of Irish society today. But although many governments have changed, church leaders have changed and even legislation has changed the system on the ground remains the Irish politicians’ favorite: “an Irish solution to an Irish problem” which is essentially one that works for nobody:

  • children required to sit through religious instruction that means nothing to them,
  • parents signing up to religious qualifications not because they believe in them but because they want their children to get into a particular school
  • schools running classes in religious sacraments as part of curriculum which children and parents use for social rather than religious purposes
  • teachers required to be certified to teach religions they don’t practise in order to qualify for most of the job market for their main qualifications
  • churches who believe that schools, parents, teachers and children are not following the doctrine that controls the school
  • resulting in a society with over 90% of children in catholic schools, where over 80% tick the Catholic census box, less than 40% attend Catholic mass and the vast majority ignore Catholic teaching on many issues

This site includes information, resources and a discussion forum about secular education, the denomination school system in Ireland, education rights in the constitution, education and discrimination legislation and sample letters to help you to opt your child out of religious education classes in your current school whether primary or secondary.

Parents have a right to have their children free from indoctrination at school contrary to their own religious beliefs. In Ireland, in practical terms, most non-religious, atheist or secular parents are denied this right.

The history and politics of Irish education mean that we have a school system where the vast majority of the primary schools in the Republic of Ireland (approximately 3,300) are church controlled, over 90% by the Catholic church and about 6% by Protestant churches. The Irish State provides for education through the Department of Education and Skills and nearly all schools are publicly funded (teachers salaries, school operating costs, school transport, school repairs and building) but essentially privately controlled. The Irish Catholic Bishops say that “Catholic schools seek to reflect a distinctive vision of life and a corresponding philosophy of education, based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Irish State is legally obliged (by statute, legislation, the constitution and international agreements on human rights) to provide religiously neutral studying environments if it continues to ‘provide for’ the education in denominational schools. The state is also legally obliged to ensure that there is no religious discrimination in access to schools and in workplaces. Claiming that denominational schools are inclusive, while they still discriminate in access on religious grounds is absurd. Continuing to operate “religious integrated curriculum” (because of historic requirements such as Rules for National Schools Rule 68) is in breach human rights law (the right to freedom of conscience and the right to be free from discrimination).

The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism recommended that Rule 68 be removed. The Irish Human Rights Commission has recommended the Education Act 1998 be amended to ensure the curriculum is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. To date successive governments have taken no action: Rule 68 has not been removed and there are no plans to amend the Education Act 1998 to ensure that the curriculum as required.

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.


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