Parents, please speak out about religious discrimination and indoctrination in your school.

Another account of religious discrimination in schools. This time from Northern Ireland in an integrated school. When they speak of integrated schools they mean either Catholic or Protestant and they simply don’t include secularists.

Atheist Ireland is starting a section on religious discrimination and indoctrination in Irish schools from parents’ perspectives. We want to hear from parents regarding access to schools or discrimination/indoctrination in the school itself. We will not publish your name or the name of the school if that is what you want. We can always post it anonymously.  

We are sharing two stories below (with permission) that were in comments on our facebook page.

If you would like to share your story about discrimination/indoctrination in Irish schools please contact

From J.

Living in the north of Ireland my son started primary 1 in September past.  I chose the only integrated primary school in the area thinking it would be a 33/33/33 split between catholic, protestant and other. This isn’t the case.  The brochure of the school states that it is a Christian school with a Christian ethos and it is simply a split between catholic and protestant.  How is this integrated?  Anyway, I was very aggrieved. 

I spoke to the principal about the selection criteria and how it didn’t cover us as a family.  He said it wasn’t a problem as they never have had to turn people away.  Nowhere near good enough in my opinion.

I stated that my son was not to take part in RE. 

After about 1 month of school I noticed a completed RE book came home in his school bag and that he was singing songs about god and how god made the world.  Livid!  Got in touch with the school they said they would sort it.  After they lectured me about how difficult it was to accommodate my situation because of staff commitments.  Made to feel like I needed a favour and I owed them.

My son now gets to play in the sand pit but is still in the same room as the teacher who is doing RE.  He is utterly confused and asks me lots of questions but I am worried at how the bold statement of ‘god made the world’ is really sticking with him.  He doesn’t know what to think.  I’m not making sense to him when I try and explain that what they are saying is just what some people believe.  I don’t believe in god etc.  There is no such thing as god and that is not how the world was made.  How do you explain it to a 5 year old?  I’m sure it can be done but I’m just not getting it.  To be honest as I’m writing this I think part of me is scared to boldly tell him that his teachers are wrong and not to listen to them.  It terrifies me how such a simple little statement like ‘god made the world’ has such a profound and lasting affect on a child who I wanted to protect from all that nonsense.

At lunch time he has to pray to god and thank him for the food.  He recites that verse frequently at home and again I notice it being ground into him

Upon reflection I think a big part of the problem is that all his peers and teachers are believers so why is his mummy saying that it isn’t true.

There is a definite annoyance on the teachers part when dealing with an atheist child.  They do get treated differently.  As if they are ungrateful for the life and opportunities they are given.  They should be thanking god!

J’s Story:

I have to laugh everytime I read in papers about efforts to toss a few “ecucate together” schools into the disaster that is schools in Ireland. Firstly, I’d be surprised if it’s educate together in anything but varieties of the Christian religion (my husband and I are atheists). Secondly, anyone who thinks the existence of such schools therefore provides a choice to parents is either delusional or ignorant.


The notion of moving your child to school B if you don’t like whatever is happening in school A makes me think of a dictator staging a “democratic” election: those who want to vote for him go do so in the blue tent, those against in the red tent beside it – the one flanked by armed soldiers, with rumours abounding that voters are led directly from the exit of the red tent to the labour camps. The dictator can then honestly say people had a choice, that his landslide victory shows how adored he is, while the whole world knows in reality, that’s just not true.


Competition for school places in Dundalk is already insane, and any idea of choice is an illusion. The only truly non-religious secondary school is the VEC, which draws the majority of its pupils from some of, let’s be plain, the “roughest” estates. The unspoken message couldn’t be clearer: if you want a religion-neutral ethos, there’s space for you over there in the pig-pen. My oldest son, J, was going through a challenging phase just as we were scrambling for a place in secondary school for him, and the principal advised outright to avoid this VEC at all costs. In addition, he is on the autism spectrum, so we had to be very diligent in choosing a positive environment for him. Several schools remained when the VEC was crossed off the list, all of which are religious.


Having been, as immigrants, unaware that you should put your child’s name on the waiting list for a place shortly after conception to have any hope of getting in, we were turned away by every single one of these schools. The only choice we saw open was to enrol J, our oldest, in another VEC 25km away, in a different town. We were happy with the school, at least it was not overtly religious. With J being a very strong atheist, this was important. Little did we know that he would have horrible experience of religious discrimination here.


We specified he should opt out of religion class, which was accepted, though he had to “sit in” as there was no other option for supervision. His religion teacher used this arrangement as a weapon, making sometimes infuriating statements about atheists, and silencing him if he tried to defend himself with “You’re not allowed to speak, you’re not participating in this class.” She humiliated him in front of the whole class in one incident, then laid a complaint against him when he reacted with understandable anger. He was forced against his will to attend mass at a Catholic church, again with the excuse that there was no possibility of supervision for him if he didn’t go to church with the rest of the school. If he had been closer to home, I would have (as I did with my other two children) collected him from school and kept him with me during church attendance. As it was, this was simply not possible due to the distance between school and home. The “sorry, no supervision available” excuse is a tried and trusted passive-aggressive option for religious schools to deny children their rights without seeming to actively do so.


While I can only judge by his impression of events, not having been there myself, the attitude towards him was one of impatience and barely suppressed anger at his audacity to not be Catholic. Compounding the tragedy of this, I failed my son. Being on the autism spectrum, he struggled to communicate with me just how horrible things were for him at school. It was a difficult time for us as a family on other fronts, and I simply didn’t do what I should have done to coax out of him what was going on. Most of what I write here came out later, when it was all over and too late to take action.


This and other frustrations which escalated his behavioural problems led to us moving him to the local VEC we’d been warned against. I at first was heavily involved, teaching him some of his subjects myself in a cafe next door to the school so as to limit his time among challenging peers, to give him time to recover and reset (by now I’d started realising how close to complete despair my son had come, with the religion class nightmare part of a wider range of bullying and discrimination he had suffered daily). I totally understand the warnings we had been given: there is a stronger element of problem pupils in the school than average, which J finds extremely difficult to deal with sometimes. This is an academically talented youngster who can rattle off the population numbers of various African countries faster than you can Google it, while the majority of the school’s pupils are technically and manually talented, with little understanding for this cerebral boy. However, the staff at the school are first class, and these “rough” kids are more accepting and more understanding of J’s quirks than the pupils of the previous school had ever been. Clearly, the previous school’s religious teaching and forced mass attendance had done nothing to diminish the pupils’ meanness.


The respect and mature approach the staff have at the VEC he now attends worked wonders with my son. Opting out of religion was no problem. J was able, over months, to regain his natural tendency to positive, productive behaviour and earnest focus on his studies. He is now a prefect at school, in TY, and plans to do as well as he possibly can in Leaving Cert with a view to university studies in social sciences. We are prepared to deal with the constant challenges of fellow pupils’ behaviour rather than the aggressive attitude regarding religion which he had to constantly face at his previous school. It’s two years later, and he still sometimes needs to talk through what he experienced to try to make sense of it. 




L’s story:


As parent, you know your child. You know their strengths and weaknesses – at least better than most other people would – and you know what will work for them, what will likely be disastrous. I knew when we were looking for a secondary school place for L, my daughter, that to put her in the only option for non-religious education – the local VEC, drawing most of its pupils from “rough” areas – would probably cripple her for life. For her older brother, this school was a lifeline, a refuge we moved him to when treatment at his previous school became unbearable. I will defend it to anyone: the staff are world class and the facilities excellent. I will not argue, though, that the pupils are much more world-wise than average, confrontational, in-your-face. I knew my sweet girl would not do well there. The offer of a place at a Catholic school was, therefore, the one we accepted. With school places being like the holy grail in Dundalk, we could not be picky.


I was very wary of the religion element, but the excellent teachers assured me the religion class is taught more like an ethics class. This turned out to be true, and while the overwhelming Catholic statues and plethora of religious symbols in the school are annoying, I felt the situation was handled sensitively, and my daughter handled the very occasional religious services in the school chapel well. Her attitude is more agnostic than strong atheist, unlike her older brother, and she minds mild religious elements in events less than he does. For her, it’s an opportunity to observe, it’s a chance to talk through things with friends whose parents are more bound to Catholicism than we (immigrants who became atheist from an evangelical Christian background) are. To say that an event took place which shocked her is therefore saying a lot. 


L was told in school that a retreat, a fun event “with a religious element”, would take place on a certain date. By now we were not too fussed when a religious element was mentioned, it was pretty much par for the course. My children knew they could opt out if they wanted to, I’d simply discreetly snatch them from a row being marched to church or whatever, but L usually chooses to participate as she doesn’t want to be the odd one out. The retreat was held away from the school yet still in town, though we didn’t receive written notice – all this was conveyed to me by L, after the teacher briefed them. Again I didn’t take much note or make sure to know exactly where they were, she’d been in the school two years and we were very happy with how sensitively religion was handled so far. We were about to learn how dangerous acceptance of religious elements in school activities could be.


That afternoon at around lunchtime I received a panicked text (this is not verbatim, it’s more or less what I remember as I no longer have copies of the texts): “This thing is insane, it’s plain scary.” I texted back, not sure if it would be safe to call: “What’s up?”  The reply came: “These people are nuts, it’s a complete religion thing, I’m in the bathroom. Will have to go back now.” I texted a reply, but got no response – as to be expected as the kids are not allowed to use their phones in class, it would of course be the same at a school event. I knew my daughter, and there was a note in her brief texts which I found very disconcerting. It dawned on me then that I had no idea exactly where she was, I could not simply go there and retrieve her. For a few moments I considered finding out from the school exactly where the kids were and going to get her, but L is sensitive, and will go to some lengths to just blend in, to avoid a scene. I felt most likely she would not appreciate me causing one. Knowing what I do now, I should have dropped everything and gone to fetch her.


She was in a state when she got home. The retreat with a religious element turned out to be an outright indoctrination session. She described something that would be right at home in an outline of some cult’s recruitment drive. The group had to shout out things about how God is good at random intervals. They had to write a prayer, among many other things. A mass was held, and two of L’s friends, whose parents are culturally Catholic but left the choice of religion to their children, opted as usual not to participate in communion. The teacher who had organised this whole abomination felt she had a right, as the kids left, to confront these two girls and demand to know why they didn’t take communion. One was in tears, phoned her mom to confirm what she already knew: communion or not was her choice. She went back to the teacher to tell her this, and this teacher had the audacity to be all surprised that the child was upset enough with her interrogation to phone her mother. 


I was one of a veritable queue of parents waiting to see the principal to complain the next day. Yet we had to consider the teacher’s feelings: she was heavily pregnant, about to go on maternity leave. It’s just her personal enthusiasm for her faith that got a bit carried away. Now, I’m all for being patient with people, and especially being considerate of their circumstances. Yet where was the consideration for my child? She was shaking with emotion and shock when she came home from that mess of a “retreat”. I felt we had been tricked into it, our sentiments regarding religion had been made abundantly clear to the school, yet a heavyweight indoctrination session was deliberately described in misleading terms to get my daughter to attend. I still believe that teacher was deliberately devious, and continue to be vigilant that she doesn’t get anywhere near either of my kids in that school ever again.


If religion had not been allowed in the school, such a retreat could have been organised for those who want their children exposed to such crap outside of school hours. The sensitive teacher would not have had to be shielded from furious parents by a brave principal, who by the way had to spend hours dealing with the fallout from this mess. The children would have been spared a lot of trauma, and many other parents and I would have been spared a lot of stress. Yes, religion class can be used by the right teacher as more of an ethics class, as L has been fortunate to experience. Yet with that door open, if the teacher happens to be a fanatic, what do you do? And if someone is fervent about their religion, how can they be sure where the boundaries are if these boundaries are unspoken understandings rather than clear, unambiguous, written guidelines?


Schools can and should concentrate on education without religion. This will not harm anyone’s religious views, they will be free to practice what they believe in their own time, without forcing it on others who don’t see the world the same way. Arguing that Catholic parents should have the right to have their kids in Catholic schools just doesn’t hold water. You can absolutely choose to teach your child your religion outside of school. What about the child’s right to religious freedom, anyway? What if they disagree with their Catholic parents, why should they have this belief forced down their throats even when they’re not at home? And how do you know the teacher will teach the version of Catholicism you agree with? Go look at recently reported statistics, being Catholic doesn’t point to an unambiguous set of beliefs any more. Would you be okay with it if a teacher tells your child’s friend their father, who committed suicide, is going to hell? Religion in school opens the door to that. They could say this, and it would be in line with Catholic teaching. Would you be okay with a teacher telling your child that being gay is a sin? That using contraceptives is a sin? Do you really think that a majority of even Catholic parents would be completely fine with each and every one of the RCC’s views on life issues being taught to their children?


Ireland’s education system has violated my and my children’s right to religious freedom, and our experiences have been very mild compared to many other parents in this country. We need to get with the times, and make education secular rather than carry on with this lame duck effort to make education “inclusive”. I believe a large part, if not the majority of the Irish nation has grown up. It’s time for the government to catch up.



Finn’s Story

When the time had come to choose a school for our son we looked at Drumlease NS in Dromahair, County Leitrim.  It was the only local school and all his friends were to go there. At first we were a bit worried as we are both atheist, but the enrolment form was very welcoming talking about inclusion and how they were welcoming all religions and non.

There was an option to opt our child out of Religious Education classes, which we did. We were straight away informed that our son would have to sit in the class while the class was given or that it would be our responsibility to supervise our child if we did not him to attend the class.

Naively we thought that everything was arranged until our son one day told us that he was reciting prayers at school. This happened at the start at the school day, before and after lunch and at the end of a school day. We confronted the teacher and told her our concern. Her reply stunned us; she stated that she would not discourage a child to recite prayers.

Not satisfied we took it to the principal. Here we were met with the response that we knew it was Catholic school with a Catholic ethos. He also told us they were in their right to teach him prayers as these were not part of the religious education class. They were part of the integrated curriculum.

The Board of Management where we took our complaint next had the local priest as chair and just ignored our letters. We kept the pressure on for the school to answer our letters but we were completely ignored. We ended up taking our son out of that school and he is now attending the Educate Together School 20km further away.

“From Diane Ni Cheallachain

Jayzus at the amount of time spent arguing with the local primary school to no avail re parties for those who ‘sang at yesterdays’ communion, mass’ etc. when the ‘school’ specifically stated it doesn’t discriminate: explain to me why X goes home in tears because s/he was excluded from the party because of not being Catholic Enough. It’s also blatantly hollow to encourage/reward children with treats to gain religious brownie points. Shouldn’t the reward be implicit by having the One True Religion? (I was calm, honestly, and this is FB so an abbreviated version of events.

That wasn’t appreciated by the principal. *cue mumble mumble back-pedalling drivel*

Having a solicitor willing to help resulted in “well, if you want a pupil to be admitted to Y school later, best not to have a record of ‘incidents'” i.e. keep yer gob shut. Using a child as a ping-pong ball is wrong from both ends of the spectrum but it was gawdawful to see the four children- not catholic- being ostracized after class lessons about Inclusion. Allowing the pupils to skip RE is one thing; to punish them for it later is feckin horrendous.

From Gene McKinney.

A trend indeed, but autism is a funny thing – and not funny haha. Different minds work in different ways, and I see it on a daily basis. Both my boys have autism, one of them being an Aspie. They both attended Catholic schools, as state schools did not have places for them, and it has been interesting to see how religion affects their reasoning.

The worst case scenario was when our eldest boy was told the story of the Resurrection at Easter in his first year at school. He’s rather more compliant than his Asperger’s brother, which is always a worry on so many levels. This is the gist of the conversation that we were faced with that evening with an overly-trusting 5 year old.

Him: (Bright with excitement) I am going to kill myself.
Us: What! Why?
Him: So I can see my granddad again. (Reference to my father who died when our son was a week shy of his 3rd birthday.) But don’t worry, I will come back in three days.
Us: But where did you hear this?
Him: In school today. Jesus died and came back to life after three days.
Us: Well, yes, but according to that story, Jesus came back because he was God’s son.
Him: But the priest said we are all God’s children.

We spent about three nerve-racking and infuriating hours trying to convince him that what he had been told was not literal truth. We then got in contact with the school and relayed the events of the evening before to a horrified staff, with explicit instructions not to allow any kind of proselytizing in his presence ever again.

On a lighter note, a friend of my son, who also has autism, was asked by a teacher in the very same school to write what he knew about prayer. He handed over his notebook at the end of the class, and there on the page were written the words: “Prayers. Blah blah blah blah.”

And that was it. The school contacted his family to say that he was being excluded from religious studies as he was a disruptive influence in the class. While I could have cheered his summation of what prayer was, I was upset that he had been excluded – it seemed to me that the subject material had been of greater importance to the teacher than the boy’s well-being and education.

Jane Donnelly


  1. Avatar
    Nadia Williams February 17, 2014

    Is there an email address to which we can send our tales of woe?

      • Avatar
        Nadia Williams February 18, 2014

        Thanks, Helen, will send along what I can contribute.

        • Avatar
          Nadia Williams February 19, 2014

          Oh, gah, sorry I just saw the address was in the article!

  2. Avatar
    Gwen February 17, 2014

    I am so glad others feel the same. It is so difficult to teach children your beliefs without feeling that you’re undermining the “system”. How can a child respect a teacher when you tell them that their teachers are teaching something which is incredible to their parents?

  3. Avatar
    Frank L. Ludwig February 18, 2014

    The ‘I am going to kill myself’ episode clearly shows how harmful and dangerous religion is on all levels. It reminded me of a (certainly not isolated case) in which a girl ran in front of a car to meet her cat in Heaven.


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