The Religious Education Debate: Does Religion Need the State?

Terror and wonder. Religious education has the power to instil such emotions in the young. Recent revelations have exposed the physical and sexual abuse that was rampant in many of the state-run, church-controlled churches on this island. On the other hand, in my own research in Northern Ireland I have spoken with people who cherish the religious education they received as a child, seeing it as a portal to creative self-exploration.

In today’s Irish Times, Dr John Murray argues that ‘separating religions and schools is not democratic.’ He is responding to an earlier commentary by Dr Ronan McCrea. The crux of Murray’s argument is that secular state schools are not really neutral. Therefore, if the state does not allow people to send their children to state-funded religious schools, it is undermining their democratic and human rights. Murray writes:

It is Ronan McCrea and people like him who wish on principle to deny any and all religious parents the choice of a religious school. How genuinely democratic is that?

How can anyone think he is favouring religious freedom by calling for religions to be excluded from State-funded schools, thereby forcing all religious parents to send their children to schools that exclude their most personal and deeply held religious values and beliefs (unless they have the money to send their children to fee-paying schools)? Does anyone really think this is religiously neutral?

I have some sympathy with Murray’s argument – at the theoretical level.

But my problem comes when we move from theory to practical reality. A wide body of social research in Ireland and the UK has revealed that religiously-based schools here have contributed to social divisions. This is most obvious in Northern Ireland, where religiously-based schools are one of the lynchpins of an unofficial apartheid system. In the UK, researchers have found that religiously-based schools perpetuate the gap between rich and poor.

Although McCrea’s main concern was the Saudi Arabian Government’s desire to establish a school in the Republic, Murray seems more agitated by criticism of Catholic schools. He also says:

Like many Irish parents, I send my children to Catholic schools, and do so happily. One reason I do so is that I want them to cherish their religious heritage and tradition, and to see it as a source of high moral ideals and patriotism. Catholics can be good citizens and good people because of their religion – and not in spite of it.

Again, I can identify with Murray’s stance. I don’t think all religions are viruses from which we need to protect the young. There are far too many historical examples of people utilising religious resources to promote transformative social change – like the ending of the slave trade or the American civil rights movement – to want to expunge it from the public sphere altogether.

But I think that insisting on religiously-based education in public schools simply ignores the divisive role religiously-based education has played in Ireland’s past, while at the same time betraying a lack of confidence in religion itself. Must religious people rely on state-run institutions – the schools – to promote their visions of ethics, morality and the good life?

One thought on “The Religious Education Debate: Does Religion Need the State?”

  1. As a student and later as a trainee teacher in the UK, I have experience of both Catholic and Anglican schools and sixth form colleges. I have taught in CofE schools with children of different ethnic and religious backgrounds; I have witnessed them praying together and attending assembly in church together. The outward appearance of harmony and of obedient children looks rather quaint from an adult’s perspective. Many parents like the idea of their children being taught “good values” at a faith school. It is indeed how faith schools are promoted in the UK. In addition to the evidence referred to above, however, anecdotal evidence from the experience of many of my peers who were educated in faith schools seems to be a major factor in them being turned off from religion, or even growing to resent the church institutions that once educated them. It throws into doubt the perceived benefits of a confessional education in schools, particularly when integrated into children’s secular education and school day.

    As a student at an admittedly very liberal Catholic college, I had the happiest two years of my life and was able to grow as a whole person. Religion wasn’t forced upon me, I was never made to pray, sing hymns or go to church at that time (although I do so now voluntarily). I was in an environment where the “Gospel values of love and freedom” were fostered, creating an open-minded, non-threatening, and safe environment where I could make my own choices and be supported in them. This is how I think faith schools could operate and be of most benefit to the localities they operate in. My belief is that faith groups should have every right to set up schools as a way of serving the communities they are based in. Such schools ought to be inclusive of all children regardless of faith group, if they are not already. Confessional religious education, however, should be the responsibility of the children’s families and fellowships.

    Schools should have an ethos which teaches young people to respect each other and aspire to high achievement, but this does not need to involve religious observance or acceptance of particular religious doctrine.

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