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
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.