Teaching from within religion is an influential force for good

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

MINISTER FOR Education Ruairí Quinn promised that in return for some Catholic schools transferring patronage to other bodies, denominational schools would be free to teach from a faith-based perspective.

Yet the Minister is proposing far-reaching changes that will have an impact on all faith schools, but particularly the “standalone” schools where there are no alternative schools nearby (that is, more than half of all primary schools).

He proposes to completely revise the rules for primary schools, which makes sense, but also to simply delete rule 68, which allows for an integrated educational approach to faith. If rule 68 is deleted, all other subjects will be taught in an integrated manner, except religious education (RE) in denominational schools. So much for not telling them what they can and can’t do!

One of the most puzzling suggestions from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism is that all schools must teach education about religion and belief (ERB) and ethics. ERB looks at religion as merely a cultural phenomenon. The teacher must remain neutral.

The strange thing is that the forum report understands denominational RE very well. It says denominational RE “means education as ‘formation’ in a belief system. It involves learning how to live a life according to religious guidelines and learning modes of thinking, values formation and moral action in the light of religious beliefs . . . RE also incorporates a dimension of critical thinking and is opposed to the indoctrination of pupils.”

The logical conclusion is while ERB and ethics is a wonderful alternative for children of non-believing parents, the approach it demands is at variance with faith-based education. Yet the odd suggestion is made that it should “supplement” faith-based RE.

Many denominational schools already teach about other religions. But they do so from immersion in their own tradition, which teaches children about respect for the traditions of others. Teaching about religion as an interesting cultural phenomenon, or a potentially divisive one, is a completely different approach.

Therein lies the rub. ERB grew out of a post-9/11 world where religion re-emerged on the global stage but was not viewed as a positive force. It was often viewed as a source of conflict and violence to be managed. (For more on this, see Eamonn Conway’s excellent article in the current edition of the Furrow.)

The forum report says ERB must conform to the Toledo Principles, and the REDCo (Religion, Education, Dialogue, Conflict) Project. However, the Toledo Principles emerged from a body under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Commission funded REDCo.

The subtext is religion as a force for division to be overcome by teaching about religion, not teaching from within a religion.

Mr Quinn seems to share that view, saying recently that ERB was vital given the history of our island and that of the Middle East. He then quoted Hans Küng. “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.”

The irony is that Küng sees the world religions, particularly Christianity, Islam and Judaism as having a unique contribution to make to world peace, simply because they are such positive forces. In Küng’s search for a global ethic he finds both science and philosophy lacking.

Küng would never be so crass as to suggest that a non-believer could not be moral, but he says religion has a binding, communitarian force that is hard to replicate. Religion provides meaning, can guarantee “supreme values and unconditional norms”, creates a sense of community and encourages “protest and resistance against injustice”.

Robert Putnam, best known for Bowling Alone, makes a similar point in a more recent book, American Grace. Religious people are three to four times more likely to be active in their community. Being part of a religious community, and not just practising private devotion, is an important factor in this civic participation. Failing to appreciate this aspect of faith communities and schools is shortsighted indeed.

The Minister has announced a consultation process on the Report of Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, leading to a White Paper. Faith communities need to make their voices heard.

Primary schools have a raft of problems, from cuts in special needs provision to decaying school buildings. Examining the consequences of changes in approach to denominational education could seem very abstract in comparison.

But the proposed changes, if implemented clumsily, could reduce Irish education to a one-size-fits-all, secular model.

Perhaps the least controversial proposals stemming from the forum concern the “divesting” or transfer of patronage in areas of stable demographic growth.

It is unfortunate that the Minister has decided consultation on this issue must all happen online, and has ruled out “town hall” meetings.

The most democratic option would have been large-scale meetings where the different patron bodies of schools could set out what they do and clarify any misunderstanding. Education and educational change require more democracy, not less. The internet-savvy can’t have a monopoly on democracy.

The forum report is a wake-up call. If handled well, divesting will bring new vigour to the primary sector, and that includes denominational education – but only if the powers that be see that religion as a lived reality is an influential force for good and should not be undermined.

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