Atheist Ireland response to Mater Dei/DCU appeal to talk about Religious Education

In an article in the Irish Times on the 11th March Dr. Sandra Cullen, Director of the Mater Dei’s Irish Centre for Religious Education at DCU’s Institute of Education, suggests that “It’s time to talk about Religious Education.” Atheist Ireland has written to the Mater Dei/DCU seeking a meeting to initiate this discussion. This article outlines some of the issues that we intend to raise.

1. Atheist Ireland is always willing to discuss religious education
2. The ICRE is effectively the Mater Dei Institute for Catholic Education
3. The incorporation agreement between DCU and religious bodies
4. The Roman Catholic influence on teacher training in DCU
5. The Forum and the proposed ERB and Ethics course
6. Understanding the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief
7. Atheism and secularism are philosophical convictions
8. Atheists and secularists have positive rights, beyond just opting out
9. Mater Dei privileges religious beliefs over philosophical convictions
10. State courses must be delivered in an objective manner
11. The State second level course does not respect human rights
12. The non-religious interpretation of life is merely acknowledged
13. The State course is combined with Catholic faith formation
14. The Roman Catholic Bishops’ submission to NCCA on ERBE
15. Conclusion

1. Atheist Ireland is always willing to discuss religious education

Atheist Ireland has been talking about Religious Education for many years, but few people were even listening never mind wanting to talk to us. Our education website, Teach Don’t Preach, is a reflection of all the talking that we have been doing over the years.

We found that our Constitutional and Human Rights did not matter, and that the right to opt out was a theoretical illusion and not operative in practice. As long as schools could continue to force our children into Religious Education, they didn’t want to talk to us about it.

While we are skeptical about the timing of this desire to talk publicly about religious education, coming just as pupils have a realistic way of opting out, we always welcome the opportunity to talk.

We have written to Mater Dei/DCU to initiate such a discussion. We also wish to include in this discussion the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, two religious minority groups who also support secular education.

2. The ICRE is effectively the Mater Dei Institute for Catholic Education

The neutral-sounding Irish Centre for Religious Education is effectively the Mater Dei Institute (now Centre) for Catholic Education, now a college of Dublin City University.

The Mater Dei is a Roman Catholic organisation, and it has brought that ethos with it into the supposedly secular environment of DCU. Mater Dei hosted the Irish Centre for Religious Education when it was founded in 2011.

There are two sections within the DCU website, that create the impression that the Irish Centre for Religious Education and the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education are distinct entities. But that hides the reality of the links between the two.

  • Gareth Byrne, who is the ICRE’s Coordinator, is also the Director and Head of Religious Education at Mater Dei. He is also a member of the National Faith Development Team of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
  • Sandra Cullen, who wrote the Irish Times article as a Director of ICRE, lectures in Religious Education at Mater Dei. She is or was on the board of Mater Dei and of CEIST (Catholic Education – an Irish Schools Trust).
  • Sandra Cullen wrote a submission from the ICRE to the NCCA in 2016. This submission gave the ICRE’s postal address as the Mater Dei Institute of Education in Clonliffe Road, with a Mater Dei at DCU email address.
  • The ICRE’s web page within the DCU website includes a prominent photograph of an ICRE banner with the Mater Dei and DCU logos, and the web address icre.materdei.ie/. That link no longer works, and the web address materdei.ie brings you to the website of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin.

So when Sandra Cullen from DCU writes in the Irish Times about religious education, she is writing from a Roman Catholic understanding of the issue. She is interpreting the Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief from a Catholic perspective and not from the case law at the European Court.

3. The incorporation agreement between DCU and religious bodies

The Catholic Church through the Mater Dei Institute has huge influence over the training of Religion Teachers for a State Religious Education course that is supposed to be for all religions and none.

From the Incorporation Agreement between DCU, Mater Dei, St. Patrick’s College and the Church of Ireland:

“Towards this end, two Denominational Centres will be established within the new Institute of Education at DCU in order to ensure that the distinctive identity, values and learning of Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland/Reformed Christian traditions are maintained and promoted in teacher education.”

In addition to the above they also got a seat on the Board of a secular University.

“There will be representation of each of the three incorporating Institutions on the Governing Authority of DCU.”

The aim of the Mater Dei Centre within DCU is:

“To ensure that teachers and other educators, graduating from DCU programmes, will have a deep appreciation of the Catholic understanding of the full development of the human person which informs every aspect of work in a Catholic setting.”

4. The Roman Catholic influence on teacher training in DCU

In the incorporation agreement between DCU, the Mater Dei and the Church of Ireland there is a core curriculum for the training of Religion teachers, with add-on Catholic Modules. These quotes are from the DCU incorporation programme.

“The core curriculum for teacher preparation will be denominationally neutral and common to all but will, as required, allow for the delivery of modules to prepare teachers appropriately for employment in denominational schools.”(page 4).

Denominationally neutral does not mean that the core curriculum is objective. It was never meant to be objective. It was always meant to be formative.

The Incorporation Agreement guarantees that the distinctive identity, values and learning Roman Catholic traditions will be maintained and promoted in teacher education. DCU as part of that Agreement is now assisting the Catholic Church with their evangelising mission and enabling them to undermine the Constitutional and Human Rights of minorities.

The Catholic modules for training Religion teachers are not just confined to those teachers that seek employment in Catholic schools. All the ETB second level schools have Catholic Religious Instruction as well.  This means that the Catholic Church has control over the training of teachers for a State Religion course that is supposed to be for all religions and none.

If a student from a minority background wants to teach the state Religion curriculum course then they must take Catholic modules or they will find it extremely difficult to get a job as all schools are obliged to have Catholic religious instruction.

The Catholic Church had a huge influence on the roll-out of the State Religious Education course at second level. This has meant that the purpose of the Religious Education curriculum is to indoctrinate and evangelise, rather than being based on a human rights framework.

5. The Forum and the proposed ERB and Ethics course

Atheist Ireland took part in the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. We highlighted the Constitutional duty of the State to provide a basic moral education for pupils who opt out from Religious Education. Based on this, the Forum recommended a new course at primary level on teaching about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics.

The Forum recognised that children had a right to such a course, that it should be suitable for all, and that the human rights of all children and their parents should be recognised and guaranteed.  The Forum also consulted children by meeting and listening to them.

Atheist Ireland supported this recommendation, because we support teaching about religions and beliefs. We engaged with the NCCA who were developing the proposed course. That course on ERB and Ethics course is now effectively gone, because it was based on pluralism and didn’t evangelise enough to satisfy the Catholic Church.

The UN has said that:

“UN Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 22 concludes that the freedom of religion or belief “permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way.”

6. Understanding the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief

Most people running Irish schools do not understand the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. The ‘or Belief’ part of the right protects atheists and secularists and the non-religious in general as well as the unconcerned. We have exactly the same right to respect for our convictions as religious parents. The European Court has said:

“85. Further, the Court reiterates that freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as enshrined in Article 9, is one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it. That freedom entails, inter alia, freedom to hold or not to hold religious beliefs and to practise or not to practise a religion (see Kokkinakis v. Greece, 25 May 1993, § 31, Series A no. 260A, and Buscarini and Others v. San Marino [GC], no. 24645/94, § 34, ECHR 1999I).(Grzelak v Poland )

The Toledo Guiding Principles state:

“There is no generally agreed legal definition of a religion or of a belief, but it is accepted that these are broad concepts, embracing not only traditional and long-established religions found in the world today but also less well known and less well understood systems of belief. Nor is a form of belief excluded from the scope of protection because it is not “religious” in nature: the protection offered embraces both religious and non-religious systems of belief in equal measure, without according a priority to any.”

7. Atheism and secularism are philosophical convictions

Atheism and secularism are regarded as Philosophical Convictions protected by Article 9 (Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief) of the European Convention and Article 18 of the ICCPR. This means that atheist and secular families have the same rights in the education system that religious families have.

The European Court has stated that:

“58. Secondly, the Court emphasises that the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the “level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” required for them to be considered “convictions” within the meaning of Articles 9 of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1 (see Campbell and Cosans v. the United Kingdom, 25 February 1982, § 36, Series A no. 48). More precisely, their views must be regarded as “philosophical convictions”, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, given that they are worthy of “respect ‘in a democratic society’”, are not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental right of the child to education (ibid.). “ (P. 58 Lautsi V Italy  March 2011)

The European Court has even outlined what ‘respecting parents convictions’ means in relation to Article II of Protocol 1 (the right to Education), in conjunction with Article 9 (the Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief) of the European Convention. The Court has said that:-

“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).” (p. 84(c) CASE OF FOLGERO AND OTHERS v. NORWAY 2008)

8. Atheists and secularists have positive rights, beyond just opting out

Respecting the Philosophical Convictions of atheist and secular families implies “some positive obligation on the part of the State”. This Right to Respect is not just a negative right; it is also a positive right.

Many people recognise that atheist and secular families have a negative right in the education system, to be free from religion (the opt out clause). What they don’t recognise is that in addition to the negative part of this right, there is also a positive obligation to ‘respect’ parents’ Philosophical Convictions. This does not mean that you can contribute to the moral education of our children through religion.

This positive obligation to respect is recognised and protected in the case law at the European Court. But this fact is not reflected in our education system for atheist and secular families, including specifically in the Religious Education course at second level.

It is clear to us that the Mater Dei/DCU do not understand this positive obligation to respect our Philosophical convictions.  Their understanding of the Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief is a reflection of the teaching of the Catholic Church. They are a Catholic organisation , they have taken that ethos with them into DCU, and they have been given a seat on the Board of what is supposed to be a secular university.

9. Mater Dei privileges religious beliefs over philosophical convictions

The Mater Dei in its Submission to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism stated that:-

“Children, teachers and patrons in regard to freedom of religion and belief in denominational and multi-denominational schools can only be appropriately responded to by developing a shared understanding about the nature of full human development and the contribution that religious education makes in this regard.

While acceptance of a diversity of religious faiths and secular convictions, and of their contribution to society, is essential within the pluralist character of a modern liberal democracy such as the Republic of Ireland, a shared understanding about the nature of full human development and the role religious education can play in this regard in all Irish schools should be developed.

The case can be made that in the socio-cultural environment of Ireland today, religion has the potential to provide a necessary counterbalance to the tendency in a secular age to situate public discourse only within an immanent frame of reference. In privileging the other, otherness and transcendence, religious education provides a very important service to societal well-being and offers a corrective to reductive tendencies in the increasingly dominant materialistic ethos of our day.”

The Mater Dei Institute respects the diversity of religious faiths and secular convictions, and speaks about a shared understanding. Their shared understanding means privileging a particular religious understanding of the world over other religious and non religious, secular world views.

We see that position as the State privileging religion over philosophical convictions. That is not a neutral and objective stance on behalf of the state and it is not based on our understanding of our secular convictions on the role of the state in these matters.

10. State courses must be delivered in an objective manner

In its Submission to the NCCA on the proposed ERB and ethics course the Centre for Religious Studies (with a Mater Dei address on its submission) suggested that ERB and ethics could be delivered through patrons’ programmes. As the Catholic church control most of our schools then the Mater Dei were suggesting that the Catholic Church teach minorities about Religions, belief and ethics.

At this stage the UN and Council of Europe had already raised concerns about the human rights of minorities in Catholic schools. Those rights were, Freedom of Religion and Belief, Freedom from discrimination, the right to equality before the law and the right to private and family life. Human Rights were not something that the Irish Centre for Religious Studies took on board here.

“If it is designed to ensure that those who are not participating in a patron’s religious education programme are given a grounding in what religions, beliefs and ethics contribute to personal and societal flourishing then this should be addressed in addition to and in dialogue with patrons’ programmes.”

The Mater Dei in their Submission to the Irish Human Rights Commission stated that:-

“We do not as a society agree fully on what is “objective” regarding religious or moral matters. For example the Catholic Church teaches as a matter of faith that knowledge of God’s existence is not exclusively a matter of faith, but one of reason to. Obviously what one makes of this  will affect how one educates. But our society does not agree fully on this. One cannot teach about this in a neutral way (without denying it), if one teaches that the Catholic Church says that God’s existence can be know by reason, but one refrains from taking a stance  on the truth of this claim  one is in effect saying it is untrue.” ihrc john murray mater dei reledsub49

In addition, the Mater Dei/DCU fails to recognise and promote the Right to private and family life in the education system.  The European Court has stated that:

“87. The Court reiterates that freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs comprises also a negative aspect, namely the right of individuals not to be required to reveal their faith or religious beliefs and not to be compelled to assume a stance from which it may be inferred whether or not they have such beliefs (see, Alexandridis v. Greece, no. 19516/06, § 38, ECHR 2008…, and, mutatis mutandis, Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, no. 1448/04, § 76 in fine, ECHR 2007XI). The Court has accepted, as noted above, that Article 9 is also a precious asset for non-believers like the third applicant in the present case. It necessarily follows that there will be an interference with the negative aspect of this provision when the State brings about a situation in which individuals are obliged – directly or indirectly – to reveal that they are non-believers. This is all the more important when such obligation occurs in the context of the provision of an important public service such as education.” (Grzelak v Poland 2010)

11. The State second level course does not respect human rights

The Catholic Church and the Mater Dei Institute had a huge influence on the formulation of the State Religious Education Course at second level. They support it and promote it because it reflects Catholic Church teaching on the issue.The Mater Dei Institute undertook to produce the teacher guidelines for each section of the syllabus for the State Religious Education course.

The Centre for Religious Education in DCU is not a neutral body in the discussion on Religious Education. They are seeking a new humility to the discussion from a position of power, privilege and influence and where they are not a  neutral agent. Their record and history has disregarded our Constitutional and Human Rights.

After examining hundreds of documents that we got under Freedom of Information, Atheist Ireland has shown how the State Religious Education course was developed, how much it was influenced by the Catholic Church, and how minorities were deliberately ignored. You can find our Report here AI-State-Religious-Education-Course-Report(3).

Dr Sandra Cullen in her Irish Times opinion piece states that:

“Such practice is based on various perspectives of how RE can contribute to the religious, spiritual and moral development of a person, how RE can develop a basic religious literacy about religions and beliefs, how RE can encourage people to be sensitive to, know about, and understand religion and the religious dimension of life, how RE as an interreligious and intercultural activity can be tolerant and respectful of the variety of existing religious and non-religious convictions, traditions and worldviews.”

You cannot respect the Philosophical Convictions of atheist and secular families through a course that aims to contribute to the moral development of their children through Religious Education. If, for example, it was stated that the course contributed to the moral development of all students through Atheistic Education, then the Mater Dei/DCU would rightly point out that this breached the right to Freedom of Religion and Belief of those students from a religious background.

The Constitution obliges the State to ensure that all children receive a basic moral education. It does not say that all children should receive a basic moral education through religion, as that would undermine parent’s right to respect for their convictions.

12. The non-religious interpretation of life is merely acknowledged

The non-religious interpretation of life is merely acknowledged in passing, alongside materialism and fundamentalism, in a section of the course called ‘Challenges to faith’.

This is not a neutral and objective stance and does not constitute ‘respect’ for the rights of atheist and secular parents under human rights law. Again, imagine if the State course was titled ‘Atheistic Education’ and if the religious interpretation was merely acknowledged in passing, in a section of the course called ‘Challenges to atheism’.

The European Court has stated that:

“(h) 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.).”(Folgero v Norway 2008)

The Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission has recommended that the Education Act 1998 be amended to ensure that the curriculum is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. We have not heard anyone from the Mater Dei/DCU supporting that human rights principle. Not respecting our secular conviction is persuing an aim of indoctrination. We see the second level RE course in that light.

13. The State course is combined with Catholic faith formation

The State Religious Education course at second level has been combined in all schools with Catholic faith formation. Parents were never informed that this was happening and their children were forced to take religion. The new Directive obliges ETB schools to inform parents and their children that this is happening. A Directive was needed from the Dept of Education, teacher training was insufficient as teachers and schools believe that they do not need to communicate this fact to parents and their children. There was no one willing to discuss Religious Education when we were raising this issue.

The Toledo Guiding Principles state that:

“B. Framework for Teacher Preparation

Due to the specific challenges associated with teaching about religions and beliefs and the potential for exclusion and conflict, any basic teacher preparation should be framed in democratic and human rights principles, as recommended throughout this document. Other considerations are of course important, such as national curriculum standards and demands, the place of religions and beliefs in society and in the education system, and the openness of the education system to change. But a human rights framework is the best guarantee for the development of a fair and balanced approach to teaching about religions and beliefs. It is also a powerful tool for combating negative stereotypes and discriminatory practices. A commitment to freedom of religion or belief and sensitivity to issues relating to human rights education and education for mutual respect and understanding should be a prerequisite for all future teachers of religions and beliefs. Such commitments and sensitivities should be strengthened during their pre-service and in-service education.”

The Mater Dei/DCU reflects a Catholic understanding of Religious Education. It is Religious Education taught through the lens of the Catholic Church and their mission to evangelise. They believe that teaching religious education through a faith lens is compatible with human rights (their understanding of human rights).

14. The Roman Catholic Bishops’ submission to NCCA on ERBE

From the Submission of the Catholic Bishops to the NCCA on ERB and ethics.

“Indeed, the first and most important guidelines provided for teachers engaging with the CPPRECI, is that “Catholic primary religious education entails true freedom”. Therefore, while taught through a faith lens, like all good education, the Catholic school and Catholic religious education respect and support the freedom of children in the classroom, and indeed the rights and freedom of their parents.”

This is the reason that second level Religion Teachers never informed parents that the State Religious Education Course was combined with Catholic Faith formation. It is the reason why the new Directive obliges Religion Teachers and schools to now inform parents that the Religious Education course serves to meet the needs of the Catholic Church. The new Directive states that:-

“5. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) Developed Curriculum for Religious Education The NCCA developed curriculum for Religious Education currently also serves to meet the religious instruction requirements of the Catholic Church and schools can continue this arrangement for pupils whose parents elect for Catholic religious instruction or other parents who wish to follow the NCCA curriculum, and where that is the case it is important in the information provided to parents that they are made fully aware that the curriculum is not necessarily confined to learning about religions.”

The Mater Dei/DCU wants to continue to promote the aims of Catholic Religious education. Those aims are not based on a understanding of human rights in accordance with the treaties that Ireland has signed up to.

15. Conclusion

Any understanding of our right to respect for our Philosophical Convictions must take into account our basic Constitutional and Human Rights. The article in the Irish Times was fascinating in this regard as it outlined a misunderstanding of the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief, and consequently undermined the rights of those parents and children who do not fit into that misunderstanding.

The article in the Irish Times states that:

“The starting point for this conversation must be based firstly on a respectful acknowledgement that people have a legitimate right to freedom from religion as well to freedom of religion and, secondly, that education in schools is a partnership between students, parents/guardians, teachers, patrons, and the State.”

We ask the Mater Dei/DCU to recognise the positive as well as the negative right of atheist and secular parents and their children to Freedom of Religion or Belief. These are the families whose rights are ignored, and their children forced into religion.

We include religious minorities who support secularism in this as well. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland also seek an objective course on Religions and Beliefs based on human rights law. Atheist Ireland works with these two groups in promoting this outcome.

The Mater Dei/DCU suggests that a starting point to a respectful conversation must be based on an acknowledgement of the right to be free from religion as well as freedom of religion. We would appreciate if the Mater Dei/DCU could examine their understanding of the Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief. They have a legal obligation under Section 42  of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission Act 2014 to:

“(c) protect the human rights of its members, staff and the persons to whom it provides services”

We welcome the opportunity to discuss Religious Education with the Mater Dei/DCU. We hope that we can persuade them to recognise and respect our rights based around a framework of human rights law.  We look forward to meeting with the Mater Dei/DCU to discuss these matters further.

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