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.