Religion should not be taught in schools as a ‘history of superstition’

Hostility towards Catholicism blinding us to how much we depend on the Christian faith

“Religion is the best means human culture has contrived to develop a sense, at both personal and collective levels, of the absolute and infinite dimensions of existence.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

“Religion is the best means human culture has contrived to develop a sense, at both personal and collective levels, of the absolute and infinite dimensions of existence.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Fri, Mar 15, 2013, 11:45

Recently I addressed some classes of graduating religion teachers in a teacher-training college. My theme was what I called the de-absolutisation of Irish society, arising from a continuing breakdown of collective reasoning, which reduces our perspective on the human journey to an understanding of functional citizenship, passivity and unquestioning consumption.

Following each of two lectures, I was approached by several students, all of whom separately asked me: how would they, as teachers, avoid “indoctrinating” their students with Catholic ideas?

I was interested in the construction of the question, which pursues a secularist impulse. The word “indoctrinate” is of its nature pejorative, having a connotation closely related to that of conditioning, of inculcating an uncritical acceptance.

But why does this word pop out so readily in relation to religion? It is also possible to speak of “scientific doctrines” or “philosophical doctrines” or “political doctrines”, and yet few nowadays worry that students, by virtue of learning about Darwin or Nietzsche or Marx, are being “indoctrinated” with sinister ideas they will be unable to contextualise and interrogate.

Indoctrination vs teaching
I asked the students what would be the difference between what they were characterising as “indoctrination” and teaching what they themselves had come to believe in. I suggested that teaching involves a symbiosis of two elements: tradition and freedom – the teacher presents the tradition, and extends to the students the freedom to interrogate it. “Indoctrination” is simply a hostile way of describing this process. You might say that these young teachers had successfully been indoctrinated with the idea that teaching religion was somehow wrong.

Such sneaky insinuation nowadays permeates virtually every public square discussion of these topics in this society. Each new development in the field is presented as through a despatch from a warzone, in which something called “progress” is insinuated as the hoped-for victory, and this “progress” is implicitly identified as equating to the waning of faith and the osmotic recession of the religious impulse.

A minor symptom of this syndrome could be observed in a report in this newspaper last Monday, concerning the contents of an Irish National Teachers’ Organisation survey on religion in primary schools. The report was headed “Less than half of teachers teach religion willingly”.

On the contrary, a brief perusal of the survey indicated that, in addition to the 49 per cent who answered a straightforward “yes’ to a question about whether they taught religion willingly, a further 10.2 per cent said they would teach a broad religious education willingly but would prefer to teach religious instruction in a particular faith. An additional 20 per cent said they were not opposed to teaching religion. In fact, just 7.7 per cent of the respondents said they’d prefer not to teach religion, and 2.2 per cent said they would like to opt out of teaching it, fewer than half the number indicating this desire in the last previous survey in 2002. Every day, these outwardly subtle tweaks and distortions of the actuality become self-fulfilling ordinances, gradually sucking the spiritual life out of our culture.

Because of escalating cultural hostility towards Catholicism, we are becoming blinded to the fact the specificity of the Christian faith is a necessarily particular code upon which Irish society depends for many quantities essential to human functioning. What is taught as religion is in effect a history of superstition. “Here”, the teacher tells our children on our behalf, “is what these people – or those people – or your antecedents – believe(d). Isn’t it fascinating / quaint / absurd!”

There is the world of difference between this and educating a child in his/her own absolute subjectivity – the historical function of religious education, but now at an advanced stage of eradication.

To confuse teaching “about religion” with the idea of educating an infinite subjectivity in the process of unlocking the meaning of absolute reality is like confusing an outline knowledge of the theory of aerodynamics with the ability to fly an aeroplane. Hence de-absolutisation – the fatal reduction of human beings to functionaries in man-made systems. Our children learn “about” many things, but not to comprehend their place in reality.


[CROSSHEAD]Human condition
[/CROSSHEAD]Religion is the best means to develop a sense, at both personal and collective levels, of the absolute and infinite dimensions of existence. It educates not just in respect of what is demonstrable and provable, but what is possible, conceivable, imaginable, what can reasonably be deduced from aspects of the human situation which are unknowable but yet implicit in the defining questions of the human condition.

Even if these questions cannot be definitively answered, an awareness of their scope is essential to human functioning, providing a working hypothesis which allows questions and tentative answers to be accommodated symbiotically in the psyche of both individual and the human community to which he or she belongs. Thus, what we call “religion” is, yes, infinitely more important than any other “subject”, because it fills out the speculating and marvelling elements of human subjectivity.

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