By Shane Flanagan
You know times are tough for the All Mighty when someone like me has been given cause to defend him. This comes this week after a parent called for their child, a first year student at Castletroy College in Limerick to be exempt from religious education on the grounds of freedom of conscience. The result being that the request of the parent of the child in question has been acceded to. The student will now remain in class whilst religious education is being taught but will not be forced to participate. So the kind of limbo that most teenagers in Irish second level education find themselves in really.
To be blunt, I believe this to be a horrifically stupid decision. Although this is apparently well within the rights of parents to ask for, I believe it is a serious error of judgement. Religious education at second level has more of a chance of educating students than making them zealously religious. Even if one is opposed to Christianity or religion in any form, the syllabi that forms religious education throughout second level is deeply liberal and critical. Parents generally know what’s best for their children, however when it comes to education I think expert educators should have the final say as to what is and what isn’t taught in schools. Otherwise, short sighted self-interest could run amok. It would be different if the religious syllabus was designed as a tool for proselytisation, but it certainly isn’t.
It covers all major religions and important issues such as sectarian motivated violence in the North of Ireland. Christianity is the domineering religion on the course but to have it otherwise would be anachronistic to the cultural heritage of this country. The topics are also informed with historical contexts and are imbued with enough complexity that I personally believe the junior syllabus is even too difficult for students. I have no idea what the specific objection of this particular parent in question was with regards to religious education, but I am sure that it was misplaced. That the place of religion in our society and in general is often complex and troubling goes without saying, yet that is precisely one of the reasons why students deserve a critical examination of religion as part of a wide and varied education. Even arch-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens agreed as much. Religion is a large facet of life for many people in the world today, the culture of Europe extends to a large extent from a shared Christian heritage.
Religion has its critics and there are plenty of valid objections to faith. Yet, I feel that such objectors are like those who blame the violent actions of people on some film they have seen or some other various social trends. There are deeper reasons for the discords in our society other than the fact of religious belief. To extend the thinking that has resulted in the decision further in Castletroy could we have parents wishing their children withdrawn form chemistry because they could conceivably develop a bomb? Or have novels excluded from English because they don’t like certain topics that are examined by serious authors. Have “To Kill a Mocking Bird” removed because it contains scenes of racism, or because it is about (a specifically Christian) tolerance in the face of racism? We cannot devise education for children on the hop, nor can we tailor it to the specifics of every individual student. Rather we should let education professionals go about their jobs with as much help as we can give them.
There are many reasons to criticize our education system, and yes some of those detractions may be pertinent to religion. No doubt this incident will be used by those who seek to exploit such things for profit towards other ends. But there are deeper and greater scandals in schools than this ill-judged or ill informed objection to RE. So many of our students leave our schools without a word of the Irish language, or even a basic competence of English. Worse, some seem to distrust or despise the very idea of education itself because of our problematic and underfunded system. That is the real scandal and the real story.