More Thoughts on Why Ireland Needs a More Secular Educational System

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In my last article I began to explain why, as an Evangelical leader, I was quoted by the Irish Times newspaper as calling for a more secular educational system. The wider context behind my remarks was the recognition that secularism is not the bogey man that is portrayed by many contemporary Christian leaders.

Indeed, in religious cultures where Evangelicals are in a minority, and are suffering discrimination or even persecution for their beliefs from other dominant religions, secularism starts to look much more attractive. A secular society in Iraq or Syria, for example, would be vastly preferable to the living hell that is life as a Christian in an area controlled by ISIS.

The overall thrust of my argument was that it is fundamentally unfair and dishonest of Evangelical Christians to decry religious discrimination when it is applied against us, and yet, in situations where we might find ourselves in the majority or in a position of power, to try to cling onto our privileges and dominance by using the apparatus of the State to impose our views on others. The main area I explored in my previous article was that of education – whether we should have the right to impose our notions of prayer upon children in the classroom (some of whom may not share our own faith) in a State-funded educational system. My conclusion was that we should not, and that the same principle should apply in cases where we are in a minority – our children should not be compelled to participate in, or be ostracised by their non-participation in, Roman Catholic or Muslim religious activities conducted under the auspices of a State-funded school.

This principle does not just apply to education, but reaches to other aspects of society. For example, we are outraged when we hear of Christians in other parts of the world being forced to live under Sharia law. If Muslims want to believe that a woman should keep her head covered by a hijab then that is their religion – but most of us can see the injustice of that religiously-based practice being forced upon Christian women by the law of the land. Yet many Evangelicals seem to have no problem with demanding, in countries where Christians still have a strong influence, that the law of the land should express our own religiously-based morality. For example, in Uganda the government has enacted legislation that can condemn homosexuals to life imprisonment. Sadly, some Evangelicals (including ‘missionaries’ from the US) have been complicit in this. How can we condemn the activities of the Taliban if we ourselves act like the Taliban ourselves when given enough power and influence? If we say that it is wrong for other religions to use the law to impose their views, but that it is OK for our religion to do so, then we stand exposed as hypocrites who forfeit all right to expect any right-thinking person to listen to our message.

At this point it might be useful for me to stress again what secularism is, and is not. I am not using the term ‘secularism’ to refer to any kind of enforced discrimination against religion, or the ‘removal of religion from the public sphere.’ Rather, I am speaking of secularism as a view of society where all religions are treated equally, and religion is accorded neither any special privileges nor subject to any special restrictions or discrimination. In other words, a secular society is one where no religion is propped up by the State, but where the followers of every religion have the absolute right to worship, practice their faith, and loudly declare their faith to anyone who will listen. It is a level playing field – where our ideas and beliefs can be spread through peaceful persuasion, without either support or interference from the State.

My previous article dealt mainly with the area of education, and I outlined why Ireland’s educational system is manifestly unfair in the way it attempts to use the apparatus of the State to prop up the preeminent, but fading, influence of Roman Catholicism. This causes dilemmas for Evangelical parents. Some are forced to put their child in a Catholic school because there is no viable alternative in their geographical area. Then they have to decide what to do when large chunks of school time are devoted to religious indoctrination or the preparation of pupils for Catholic rites of passage such as First Communion or Confirmation. Do they allow their children to participate in activities that run counter to their beliefs? Or do they insist that their children ‘sit out’ these activities in an empty classroom – sometimes attracting bullying for daring to be different? I also mentioned how immigrant families can feel pressurised to allow their children to submit to such religious indoctrination, fearing that failure to participate might deny them the glowing character references they might require from school officials in order to apply for residency and citizenship in Ireland.

The response to my last article was, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive. I was quite surprised at this, as the portrayal of secularism as a bogey man that threatens to swallow up Christianity has been a fairly common motif in the speeches of leaders of denominations, particularly those that have benefitted over the years from their privileged positions in State and society.

However, some objected to my views on the grounds that Roman Catholicism is not the only religion that has the power to set up schools in Ireland. Any religious group can, if it wishes, set up a school and apply for State funding. There are at least two Islamic schools in Ireland, a number of Church of Ireland schools, and even a few schools run by Evangelicals. So where’s the problem?

The problem, in my opinion, is that such schools represent an understandable response by minorities to an unfair educational system. They do not represent a solution.

First off, the expense and organisation involved in establishing such schools means that they will always be few and far between. For example, the vast majority of Muslims in Ireland do not live close enough to either of the existing Muslim schools to allow for a realistic commute. In most towns and villages in Ireland there are insufficient numbers of Muslims to form a school. This would not be a problem if the State provided a proper secular educational system that provided education for all without discrimination. However, given that many Muslims do not want their children to receive Roman Catholic indoctrination, there will always be an incentive for them to relocate to be near one of the two Muslim schools. This will have the unfortunate effect of herding members of minority religions into one geographical area. Do I have to spell out how detrimental that could be to making Ireland an integrated and peaceful society?

There are so many different varieties of religion in Ireland today that it is manifestly obvious that setting up schools to suit each one in every area would be absurd and impossible. Is every small town in Ireland expected to have a Catholic school, a Muslim school, a Church of Ireland school, an Evangelical school, a Jehovah’s Witness school, a Mormon school, an Atheist school and a Hindu school? What if a Buddhist family arrives in town? Do we have to establish a Buddhist school? Or do we tell them that they are too few to merit giving their children the same human rights as those of other faiths? Once there are a few more of them, then they will qualify for the right not to have their children indoctrinated in another faith by a State-funded institution!

Let’s take the example of Evangelical schools. There are a small number of State-funded Evangelical schools in Ireland. I am quite sure that the administrators and teachers in those schools do a fine job of educating the children in their care and of sharing their faith. However, many, if not most Evangelical parents, do not live close enough to these schools to make it practical for their children to attend.

Setting up a few State-funded Evangelical schools in a country where the educational system is dominated by the Catholic Church is an understandable response to an unfair system. But it is not a solution. A solution would be to devise a better and fairer system that treats parents of all faiths, and those of no faith, with equality.

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Why on Earth Would an Evangelical Leader Call for a More Secular Educational System?

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Successive Popes, and some other religious leaders, have talked about secularism as if it were a dreadful danger that threatens to swallow and destroy Christianity. So why, if secularism is such a bad thing, was I quoted in the Irish Times newspaper as calling for a genuinely secular education system in Ireland?
First off, many people misunderstand what we mean by the terms ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’?

Secularism does not refer to a society where religious faith is repressed or excluded. Rather, secularism refers to where religion is treated the same as other beliefs and ideologies. In other words, in a secular society religion is given no special privileges or powers, but neither is it subject to any special restrictions or discrimination.

Think about the way Christians have been treated in the Middle East, and the horrors many of them are facing right now. If secular society existed in the Middle East then Christians would have the same rights as Muslims to meet for worship, share their faith openly, construct church buildings and to voice their opinions in matters of public policy. I think all of us would agree that such a scenario would be vastly preferable to the current situation where Muslims wield the power in the Middle East and use that power to make the lives of Christians miserable.

The problem is that human beings are inherently selfish. We can readily see the advantages of secularism in the Middle East, where it would greatly improve the lot of our fellow Christians, but when we are in the majority we tend to want society to give us a share of influence and power. So, we tend to fight culture wars that are often more about defending our privileged role in society rather than about bearing witness to the person and message of Jesus Christ.

For example, the Supreme Court prohibited public prayer in US schools in 1962, but many American Christians still talk about this as a bad thing and as a key step in the moral and spiritual decline of their nation. Yet many of them never seem to have asked the obvious question: Which prayer should be allowed and which prayer should be permitted in a publicly-funded school classroom?

Should the religious persuasion of individual teachers be the guiding factor? How many of my American friends would be happy, for example, if a Hindu teacher required their children to pray to Krishna at the beginning of the school day?

Or should the prayers be decided by demographics? For example, since Mormonism is easily the largest religion in Utah, should schoolchildren there be required to participate in Mormon prayers each morning?

Whatever way you look at this, it is fundamentally unfair to object when other religions inflict their prayers on your children, but then to expect the civil authorities to give you the right to force other people’s children to listen to your prayers to your God. We cannot have our cake and eat it. The fairest and most reasonable solution is for parents to have the right to pray with their children in whatever way they choose before their children catch the school bus, and then for schools to stick to their primary business – which is not prayer, but education.

I must add a personal observation at this point. Over the years I have visited the US on many occasions, sometimes staying in hotels, but at other times I have been hosted by some extremely kind and gracious families. Some of these families have been extremely devout, praying with their children in a meaningful way over the breakfast table. Yet I have observed others who pack their children off to school each day without any prayer or even a passing reference to God, and yet these same parents will then wax lyrical about how dreadful it is that their children no longer have to pray in the classroom at the beginning of lessons. Why, I wonder, is prayer in schools such an issue for people who can’t be bothered to pray with their own children each morning? Is their concern really for the wellbeing of children, or is it more a case that we want to preserve our own brand of religion’s cultural dominance in society?

It should also be pointed out that US courts have repeatedly stated that there is nothing to prevent students voluntarily gathering for prayer, just so long as such prayer is not officially sponsored by the school, and providing that others are not unduly hindered from going about their studies or work. So the Supreme Court’s decision was not anti-prayer or anti-Christian, it was rather based on the principle that official activities in schools should neither promote nor inhibit any religion, and that it is not the place of the State to promote or favour any one religion over any other.

Coming back to an Irish context, Evangelical believers have often had issues with the Roman Catholic Churches control over most Irish schools. Indoctrination in the Catholic faith has been conducted in school time as part of the curriculum, with children from Evangelical families often feeling pressurised to participate. Yes, we have the right to insist that our children be exempted from such classes, but think back to your own childhood and how important it was to ‘belong’. Imagine how it isolates a child when they are made to sit in a separate classroom on their own while the rest of the kids receive their religious indoctrination.

Several years ago, in a school in County Louth, I had to intervene when a child of Evangelical parents was told by her teachers that she had no choice in the matter and must attend a Catholic Mass as part of the school’s Christmas programme. One teacher told her, “You will be at that Mass, even if I have to drag you there by the hair.” I had to visit the principal of the school and read to him Article 44:4 of the Constitution which states that legislation providing State aid for schools shall not “affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.”

Furthermore, a significant number of Evangelical Christians are the ‘New Irish’ who have migrated into this nation during the last fifteen years. Some parents have confided to me that they felt pressurised to go against their beliefs and allow their children to participate in religious activities in school because, in their applications for residency and citizenship, they may need references from teachers or principals. They were afraid that to be seen not to fully enter into the ritual of First Communion, for example, would brand them as uncooperative and adversely affect their applications.

Some Muslims in Ireland are calling for a ‘revolution of inclusivity’ where schools avoid offending any Muslim sensitivities, but this does not provide a reasonable or coherent solution. Once we start changing school curriculum and practices to suit one religious minority, then where will we stop? Can we honestly ask educators to bend over backwards to avoid upsetting the sensibilities of every single one of the thousands of varieties of religious belief that exist in the world?

A much more rational and sensible solution is for Ireland to have a genuine secular educational system. Most of us would agree that the State has a responsibility to provide education for all children. But it is not the State’s responsibility to carry out, or to fund, religious indoctrination. Parents should have the freedom to provide the religious instruction of their choice to their children. The United Nations recognises this to be a basic human right. But no religious group should have the right to insist that the taxpayer should fund such instruction, or that it should be carried out in schools that cater for an increasingly diverse population.
Those parents that wish to send their children to religious schools should have the right to do so, but they should be prepared to fund such schools themselves. That should apply alike to Catholics, Muslims, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists or any other religious group.

I can appreciate why, given our nation’s history, our schools have developed in the way they have. It was easier for a financially-strapped newly-independent State to allow the Church to run education rather than to embark on the massively expensive construction of a State-run educational system. Given that the majority of the population were practising Catholics, few people were likely to question that decision. But times have changed dramatically. It is time for Ireland to have a genuinely secular educational system that caters for the children of parents of all religions and also for those with no religion.