The three types of religious education in Irish schools
There is a lot of confusion among parents and students in relation to the different types of religious education and religious instruction classes in Irish school at primary and second level.
Here is a quick guide which we hope will give a better understanding of the basic principles in relation to the various religion and belief classes available.
- By Pluralism, the System Means Only Religious Pluralism
- Constitutional and Human Rights Standards
- Different types of Religion Classes in Irish schools
(a) Education ABOUT Religions and Beliefs, and Ethics
(b) Education ABOUT AND FROM Religion
(c) Religious Instruction or Faith Formation INTO Religion
1. By Pluralism, the System Means Only Religious Pluralism
The first thing to take on board is that the words ‘religious education’ and ‘religious instruction’ are not legally defined in the Education Act 1998. These terms means different things to different patron bodies.
In Ireland pluralism, in the context of religious education, means religious pluralism. It does not include non-religious beliefs or philosophical convictions. This is reflected in the ‘Key issues of the Primary School Curriculum’. One of the General Objectives of the Primary School Curriculum is to:
‘to enable children to develop spiritual, moral and religious values’
The result of this is that the State curriculum at primary and second level promotes religion over non-religious beliefs and philosophical convictions.
In the Introduction to the Primary School Curriculum, it states:-
‘The curriculum takes cognisance of the affective, aesthetic, spiritual, moral and religious dimensions of the child’s experience and development. For most people in Ireland, the totality of the human condition cannot be understood or explained merely in terms of physical and social experience.’
The State curriculum also states that:-
In seeking to develop the full potential of the individual, the curriculum takes into account the child’s affective, aesthetic, spiritual, moral and religious needs. The spiritual dimension is a fundamental aspect of individual experience, and its religious and cultural expression is an inextricable part of Irish culture and history. Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.’ (page 58)
At second level, one of the key aims of the State Religious Education curriculum is:
“The State assumes that religious education has something to contribute to the development of the student and the State is committed to ensure that ‘all students, in accordance with their abilities’ should have ‘formative experiences in moral, religious and spiritual education’, having due regard for the rights of the child and their parents to freedom of religion. It is this inclusive approach to the education of the person that allows for the inclusion of religious education as a legitimate activity of the State.”
To conclude, pluralism means ‘religious pluralism’. The State promotes religion over non-religious beliefs and philosophical conviction because ‘for most people in Ireland the totality of the human condition cannot be understood or explained merely in terms of physical and social experience’.
The State promotes religion in the common good, but it recognises that parents can opt their children out of this. How that opt-out works on the ground is another matter.
2. Constitutional and Human Rights Standards
The Irish Constitution does not oblige the state to promote the moral and spiritual education of all children through religion. It is merely a policy decision of the Department of Education to do this. This policy is stated in the ‘Introduction to the Primary School Curriculum’ and the second level Religious Education curriculum.
In fact, Article 42.3.2 of the Constitution only obliges the state to ensure that all children receive a basic moral education. It does not require the state to promote those moral values through religion.
Indeed the Constitution gives parents the right to opt their children out of religious education in school, and still obliges the State to ensure that those children receive a basic moral education. By definition, this moral education would have to be delivered outside of the religious education that the children are opted out of.
In addition to the Constitution, human rights law requires the State to take sufficient care that the information and knowledge included in the curriculum is delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, in order to respect the rights of all parents. This includes non-religious parents, who have the same rights as religious parents.
Contributing to the moral and spiritual development of students from non-religious backgrounds through religion is not objective, critical or pluralistic. It disrespects the philosophical convictions of non-religious parents and their children, by pursuing an aim of indoctrination. Parents have a right to opt their children out of any course that is not objective, critical and pluralistic.
‘Belief nurturing’ in schools puts parents in the position that they must reveal their philosophical convictions to teachers and the school community. This breaches their right to private and family life with undue exposure of their convictions. The Right to Private and Family life is linked to the Right to Education.
The European Court has said that that information about personal religious and philosophical conviction concerns some of the most intimate aspects of private life. Courses in school that ‘belief nurture’ put an obligation on parents to disclose detailed information to the school authorities about their religions and philosophical convictions. This constitutes a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention and, possibly also, of Article 9. Parents have a right to opt their children out of these courses.
3. Different types of Religion classes in Irish schools
Broadly speaking there are three different types of religion classes in Ireland schools at primary and second level.
3(a) Education ABOUT Religions and Beliefs, and Ethics
This would be a course ABOUT religions and beliefs, and ethics. It would be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, and in accordance with human rights principles. It is what Atheist Ireland has been proposing as the standard that should be introduced in all State-funded Irish schools.
There was a Recommendation from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism to develop a course on ERB and Ethics for all schools and students. The NCCA worked on developing this course, but it was ultimately scrapped because of the objections of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church argued that teaching about religion in this way was contrary to the philosophy of Catholic education.
The only schools in Ireland at primary and second level that come close to offering this type of course are Educate Together schools. Their Learn Together curriculum fits broadly into this category. This is recognised by the NCCA in their Document, ‘An Overview of Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics content in Patrons’ Programmes’.
However, Educate Together schools celebrate religions, which goes beyond teaching about religions in an objective manner. Nevertheless, Educate Together schools are currently by far the best available option in terms of fitting boradly into this category.
3(b) Education ABOUT AND FROM Religion
This is a course that has elements of category 1 above, but it is also learning FROM religion. It may not seek to promote any one religion, but it uses the traditions of faith communities as learning resources. This course is therefore not objective, as it seeks to contribute to the moral and spiritual education of all children through religion.
The State Religious Education Course at second level, which is an exam subject and Junior and Leaving Certificate, fits into this category. This is acknowledged in the NCCA document Religious Education Second Level Background Paper.
The Goodness Me Goodness You (GMGY) course in ETB Community National Schools is also in this category. This is recognised in the NCCA Document, CNS Overview Religious Education in Current programmes (page 33).
The GMGY course does state that teachers in Community National Schools nurture the beliefs of all students, including those from secular backgrounds, but in order to do that, parents must reveal their private beliefs, which is an issue under human rights law.
3(c) Religious Instruction or Faith Formation INTO Religion
Religious instruction or faith formation is learning INTO a particular religion. This is what is taught in the vast majority of schools in Ireland.
All religion and belief courses in Irish schools claim they are inclusive and respect children from all backgrounds. As you can see from the above, that can mean anything in Ireland.
The education policy of Atheist Ireland is based on human rights law. We have examined the various religion and belief courses in line with that policy.
If it is your philosophical conviction that you want your child to have a human-rights-based education then the only course available that broadly fits into this category is the Learn Together curriculum in Educate Together Schools.