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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One thought on “More Thoughts on Why Ireland Needs a More Secular Educational System

  1. “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?”

    Having spent the last decade following the Anglican Communion, I can tell you that the Africans need little external prompting in their attitude re homosexuality. If there’s an external force in this situation, it’s Islam; Christianity would lose a great deal of “street cred” if it softened its stance on this issue. The current court case in the US re the “missionaries” may play well to the American conceit that everyone in the world is waiting for us to tell them what to do, but it isn’t reality.

    It’s interesting to note that the whole Catholic school system here in the U.S. (and the Irish were at the forefront of this) was started to provide Catholic youth with an educational environment where their religion wasn’t under attack, either by Protestants or more secular types. That experience was familiar to many who founded the Irish state, since much of their leadership (including of course Eamon de Valera) started in the U.S. One wonders whether that experience helped to guide the structure of Irish education, in addition to the general poverty of its early years, as you mentioned.

    The problem with a more secular school system is that the line between secular education and state-enforced atheism isn’t as clean as one would like. I think your idea is great on paper but, as we say, the devil is in the details.

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