‘Choosing not to give your kids a religion is seen as weird and selfish'
Opting out of Communion is not easy in Ireland. We wouldn’t segregate children by their parents’ politics. So why are we segregating them by their parents’ religion, or lack of it?
In Ireland, to admit that your child won’t be making their communion is like saying you’ve signed them up as a junior member of a political party. Photograph: Getty Images
Some parenting confessions. I choose what my children eat and when they go to bed. I choose for them not to interact with people they don’t know on the internet. I choose to teach them right and wrong. I do not choose a political party for them. I do not choose who they will one day have a romantic relationship with. I do not choose their religious affiliation.
None of these should be controversial decisions – they’re simply pragmatic parenting choices, ones with which most people would agree. All except one. Choosing their diet and bedtimes: good. Choosing to set boundaries around their use of technology: good. Choosing to help them distinguish right and wrong: good. Choosing their political party: weird. Choosing their future partner: really weird. Choosing not to give them a religion: not just weird, but selfish and possibly negligent.
In Ireland, to admit that your child won’t be making their communion is like saying you’ve signed them up as a junior member of a political party, something that would – quite rightly – raise eyebrows. But I fail to understand why we’re so comfortable publicly nailing our colours to the mast, to our kids’ masts, when it comes to religion.
Maybe they think sending a message to children that doing something that runs contrary to your values, just because everyone else is doing it, is more damaging than a brief period of awkwardness at school
I’m a pragmatist. I appreciate the myriad reasons parents of all shades of faith, and none, are opting into communion. Perhaps they see it is a natural expression of their Catholic identity. Perhaps it is a meaningful spiritual celebration. Or a harmless tradition keeping them in a club which – for all its flaws – they’d rather remain part of. Or they want to do it because everyone else is doing it. Or because it’s easier to do it now and let the child decide later. Or they don’t want their child singled out as different. Or they just want to throw a party.
Orgy of materialism
I can also think of lots of reasons why parents might choose to opt their child out of communion. Perhaps they’re not Catholic. Or they are Catholic, but don’t believe that children should be labelled by their parents’ faith. Or they are lapsed Catholics who want no part in a church that won’t take accountability for its history of abusing children and controlling women. Or they see the sacrament not so much as an expression of spirituality, but as an orgy of materialism – of miniature brides and bouncy castles and bursting bank accounts. Or they think all religions are a dangerous delusion. Or they think sending a message to children that doing something that runs contrary to your values, just because everyone else is doing it, is more damaging than a brief period of awkwardness at school.
For the record, our reasons for opting were several of the above, but also one much more pragmatic one: it didn’t come up. We were living in the US where, although many people are intensely religious, the practice of it is kept out of the realm of public schools. We don’t go to mass, so it wasn’t an issue there. We had a discussion, made the decision, and carried on.
It’s a strange little country we live in. A country where Stephen Fry was subject to a criminal investigation for expressing the view that a God who would give bone cancer to children must not be a benevolent one
As far as I’m concerned every one of those reasons to opt in or out are valid, credible, understandable – and private. The thing is, though, that they’re not private. When you live in Ireland, and your children attend one the 90 per cent of primary schools run by the Catholic Church, religious privacy is not an option.
By allowing the preparation for sacraments to be carried on during school hours, opting out – as is our children’s legal right – becomes a public statement. It allows us to label children by their parents’ beliefs, and there’s a clear value judgment attached. If you’re Catholic, you’re on the inside. If you’re not, you’re on the outside: metaphorically and frequently literally, sitting in the corridor, or the library.
It’s a strange little country we live in. A country where Stephen Fry was subject to a criminal investigation for expressing the view that a God who would give bone cancer to children must not be a benevolent one. A country where legislators voted to uphold the practice of beseeching God for guidance in the Dáil. A country where non-Catholics baptise their children to secure them a place in school. A country where the bells of the Angelus peal daily at six. A country where children are segregated in school according to their parents’ religion or lack of it – and isolated if it doesn’t conform to the mainstream ideology.
This is not a cry for religion to be taken out of the classroom – just for the practice of it. Children do benefit from learning about other religions. That’s religions. Not a single religion presented as incontrovertible fact.
They benefit from science too, and from logic, critical thinking, philosophy and history. And if, after exposure to all of that, they grow up to believe that the Bible is literally true, or we are descended from aliens, or if they want to be a Catholic after all, or a Buddhist, or a Scientologist, that’s their right. At least they’ll be doing it from a place of education, and not one of indoctrination.