With Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn attempting to reduce the number of church-owned schools, Fionnán Long examines the role of religion in the classroom
Controversy has erupted within the UK over state-funded Muslim schools. One school, Al-Madinah School, requires girls to sit at the back of the class and female staff members to wear headscarves. By contrast, in Ireland, Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, has spearheaded initiatives to remove Catholic patronage from church-owned schools.
These actions mark two different approaches of multicultural societies seeking the appropriate role of religion in education. It is worth pausing to consider what exactly religion’s place in the classroom ought to be.
The Department of Education reports that 90% of Irish schools are under Catholic patronage; meaning that they are owned by the local Diocese, but the state pays for the upkeep and the staff of the schools. The present primary school curriculum in these schools is Catholic with a decisively small ‘c’. Catechism and dogmas have been abandoned in favour of vague spiritualism backed up by parables. The aim is faith formation.
Even though Catholic faith formation may seem relatively harmless, it is problematic to fund it. Single denominational schools alienate adherents of minority religions. There are entire lessons that are not intended to educate these students. The alienation is particularly acute during preparation for Communion and Confirmation, which take a large portion of class time.
This educational process explicitly isolates non-Catholic students. Moreover, it highlights the differences between students. This can lead to upsetting outcomes in the schoolyard.
Additionally, if the state supports à la carte Catholics, by what token can it legitimately avoid funding the dissemination of religious beliefs that are repugnant to the values of our society?
Consider a community of extremist Wahhabi Muslims that want a school that supports their beliefs for their children. What basis do we as a society have to say no to them? If the state is in the business of funding religious education, it has to give them their school. To do anything other than give them the school amounts to religious discrimination.
By funding all other religions except the ones we deem to be too extreme for our tastes, we are directly interfering with their right to practice their religion. Furthermore, it should not be the state’s place to decide which religions are valid.
A western liberal democracy that supports religion in the classroom is left with the ultimate political Catch-22. Does it support movements that seek to dismantle the values of the state, or does the state go against its own values by curtailing the religious freedoms of extremist groups? The only escape from this ethical conundrum is to not support any religion in the classroom.
A central question to consider is what should education try to achieve? Firstly, education ought to ensure the social and emotional development of students. Secondly, education should give students the means to reach their own answers.
This is achieved by ensuring every child has a minimum level of literacy and numeracy. The next step is to develop logical reasoning and to foster an appetite for enquiry. These skills should be used as tools for evaluating questions and allowing students to find their own answers through critical thought.
This understanding of education avoids the dangers of imposing a “correct” worldview. Like any good philosopher or scientist, it does not assume anything is right or wrong.
Metanarratives like religion impose their worldviews onto readers. Children and young adults are more vulnerable than any other group in society to becoming victims of ideology and dogma. They do not have the intellectual tools to defend themselves. History is not short of episodes where education has been deployed to exploit that fact.
That is not to say that religion should not be discussed in the classroom. A non-denominational approach should be adopted and religion examined critically. An awareness of the customs and rituals of each religion should be developed, but no one religion should dominate the discourse.
The curriculum should be tailored to the community that uses each school so that students develop an understanding and awareness of the religions that surround them. This should never be done with the aim of proselytising children.
Any integration for a new community of immigrants must begin in the schoolyard. To allow religion to come between students exacerbates cultural tensions that already exist, which society should strive to remove. Many minority groups have failed to integrate in the UK, Germany and France. Integration is not an easy process. The state ought not to allow religion to come between children.
Parental autonomy is a biological and social reality of the human condition. Irish legal institutions recognise that parents should be given the space to decide their child’s best interests. Many parents may have a vested interest in giving their child a religious education. They rightly perceive their religion as part of their cultural identity.
This is equally true for immigrants and natives. Some argue that the state should respect parental autonomy by providing a faith formation education if parents believe this is in the best interests of their child.
The state, however, must operate in the best interests of society. A secular education, as set out above, does not undermine cultural identity or parental autonomy. It is not a violation of freedom to practice religion if no other religion is supported by the state.
Parents are free to educate their child however they please in their own free time. They are also free to opt out of state schooling and give them a private education that supports what they believe in. Most religious communities provide some form of free religious education to children. A secular education does not raise obstacles to these options.
It seems strange to think now but there was a time that cosmopolitanism was a radical idea. It held that behind superficial differences of culture, language and race lay a shared common humanity. For a multicultural society to survive it must focus on what we share; not what divides us.