Education: It's a question of faith


With 97 per cent of primary schools under religious patronage, education is a big issue for those who want a religion-free system

WALK INTO any church on a Sunday morning and the chances are people aged from about 15-30 will be conspicuous by their absence.

Increasingly, young people in Ireland drift away from organised religion as they become independent of their parents only for some to trickle back when they become parents themselves. The arrival of a baby tends to bring matters of faith back into focus.

Whether it is family and friends’ expectations of a baptism or pragmatic planning for choice of schools, a reawakening of spirituality after one of life’s great events or a desire to give a child a religious grounding, the chances are discussion of religious adherence, or none, will be on the agenda.

Many do the minimum they feel is required of them in what is still a predominantly Catholic country. But what about parents who want to tread a God-free path with their children? Are they under pressure to stand up for their rights and to justify their non-religious beliefs? And what do they tell their children?

The results of the 2011 census are expected to show a marked increase in the percentage of the population with “no religion”. Five years previously, 4.2 per cent ticked the “no religion” box, making it the second-largest census grouping after Roman Catholic.

Despite the emergence of this significant minority, atheist Sinéad Benn still feels it is “a little bit taboo” to say you are “no religion” and is reluctant to discuss it with other parents. “I’m careful; I don’t want anybody to view my children differently because of it.”

She thinks people respect different religions, but “when you don’t have a belief that revolves around a deity there is a bit more wariness about you. I think there is a sense that maybe you’re not quite as moral as somebody who has religion.”

Raised in a traditional Irish Catholic household where the family went to Mass every week, it was in her mid-20s, when she was doing a course that involved a lot of self-analysis, that she forced herself to be honest about what she believed.

“I realised I was holding on to a lot of beliefs that were just part of my cultural tradition, that I didn’t actually believe in,” explains Benn, who is the mother of two children, aged three and one, with a third on the way.

Although she and her husband had a humanist ceremony to mark their marriage, family and friends were still surprised when they did not have their eldest child baptised.

“We did not come up against opposition but just surprise and a little concern as regards education and the child being left out.” There was an attitude of “maybe you should do it, as it would not do any harm”.

Schools are the big issue in Ireland for children who are not affiliated to any church. With 97 per cent of primary schools under religious patronage, parents are forced, says Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland, “to make a choice between a religious education for their children or no education at all”.

Last week’s interim report from the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in primary schools indicates that promised change to the current set-up will be slow. Although the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, said last June that about 50 per cent of the 3,000 Catholic schools could be transferred to other forms of patronage before long, in fact the feasibility of divesting just 258 schools, in 18 dioceses across 47 areas, will be examined initially.

Benn lives in the catchment area for a large Catholic national school in north Dublin, but she has also put her eldest son down for the local Church of Ireland school, “because they don’t do First Holy Communion and we could maybe postpone some of the bigger questions”. She believes it would be better for them as parents dealing with their children “feeling a bit left out when they are 12, rather than when they are eight”.

However, they are way down the list of enrolment criteria for that school and think it unlikely he will get a place. So if her children do go to the Catholic school, she knows they will be sitting through religious classes, as no alternative supervision is offered, and she can’t see herself or her husband going down to take them out of school at those times. But they would not let them participate in religious ceremonies.

Lapsed Catholics Jennifer Purcell and her husband Gerard Crawley, now an agnostic/humanist and atheist respectively, were “kind of stumped” when they started investigating schools for their children, Ethan (4) and Lorna (3). They had put Ethan down for a multi-denominational school in Dundalk, Co Louth, when he was three months old and only later realised it has a Presbyterian ethos and holds morning prayers.

“They will try to cater for your needs, but they can’t promise that your child won’t hear about whatever they’re learning,” says Purcell. They investigated other options and found that of the 30 primary schools in and around Dundalk, every one was religious, mostly Catholic.

Then they heard about Educate Together, the patron body for 60 multi- denominational national schools around the State, and ever since they have been campaigning to have one set up in Dundalk.

Educate Together operates schools that provide equality of access and esteem to children “irrespective of social, cultural or religious background”. Children learn about all religious belief systems as part of a broad moral and ethical curriculum, but “no articles of belief are taught”, explains a spokesman.

Purcell believes there is still negativity towards people like her who profess to no religion. “In the words of my brother, it would be easier to be part of some club rather than no club.

“I find people feel a little bit sorry for us – ‘You haven’t got God in your life, what have you got?’ kind of thing. I find that a bit patronising.

“I don’t want to upset anybody,” she stresses, “but just because we don’t believe in God does not mean we can’t raise our children to be good people.”

Death is a challenging concept to deal with and Purcell, who lost a brother three years ago, says, “I would like to believe there is still heaven”. It is the one aspect of religion that she finds comfort in.

“I said to my husband, ‘If ever I die when we have young children, please don’t tell them there is no heaven’.”

She adds: “We have goldfish who have gone to heaven and they are with their uncle. If it makes it a bit easier for them, I don’t care.”

Benn also had a dead goldfish to discuss with her son, but she does not think his three-year-old mind quite grasped the concept. For a while he expected the goldfish to come back; then he wondered was his pet lonely now he wasn’t with the other fish.

“Death,” she adds, “is one of the harder questions to answer from a naturalistic world view because it’s quite harsh.”

‘Very stressed’ by what is going to come after primary school

Religion was a big part of Marina Fleeton’s early life and, even as a teenager, she went voluntarily every Sunday to her Church of Ireland parish church in south Dublin. But when she was 16 she heard her rector say that if you aren’t a Christian, you can’t go to heaven. “I just remember being really shocked by that, thinking ‘that can’t be right’.”

From that moment she started to question religion. Studying natural sciences to become a microbiologist and “seeing evolution in practice, literally in front of you on the bench, made me think a bit more. Then I really realised that I didn’t believe in God at all.”

Having met and married Roland Doyle, a non-practising Catholic, they are now raising their three children, Sam (7), Sophie (5) and three-year-old Faith (that name is “kind of ironic”, she concedes) without any religious faith.

The two oldest attend Monkstown Educate Together and she is quite happy to leave education about other people’s religions to the “utterly fantastic” school. She does not discuss religion with them, because “I am probably not as tolerant as I should be [or as] I want my children to be”.

She is “very stressed” by what is going to come after primary school. “I would love if there was an Educate Together secondary school, but to be honest I would be okay sending my children to a non-Roman Catholic secondary school.”

She also worries her children’s education might be lacking if they do not know enough about Bible stories. She recalls being in a Spanish art gallery with an atheist friend and being shocked, when viewing a painting of John the Baptist’s head on a platter, that her friend “had no clue as to the background of that picture and the story behind it”.

Fleeton’s other fear is that her stance will drive them to religion. “I am quite seriously contemplating getting my child baptised and taking him to church a few times because I am genuinely scared that he will rebel.”

Like other parents interviewed, she finds explaining death a little difficult. “Children go through a stage when they get a bit panicked and say, ‘I don’t want you to die mum’, and I have never been able to say, ‘Oh, I will be looking down on you’. I have totally resisted that.”

She misses the community side of the church. “Because I was brought up C of I and in a minority it does feel a little bit disloyal to deny the C of I aspect because there are so few of us around,” and, as she catches herself saying “us”, she adds, “You see, I still kind of include myself in that”.


When Martijn Leenheer went public at the beginning of this year about his dispute with a national school over religious “indoctrination” of his son, he was unprepared for a backlash within the community.

“I didn’t expect it with people I knew. I was really surprised by the reaction and the anger they felt,” he says.

At that stage, he had already withdrawn Finn, now aged six, from Drumlease National School in Dromahair, Co Leitrim, and moved him to an Educate Together school in Sligo 20km away. But he was still pursuing the school for answers to his grievance.

Hostility towards his family went so far that children would be taken off the street when he arrived home, says Dutch-born Leenheer. His Scottish wife, Amanda, “had people shouting at her in the streets in front of my two-year-old daughter. It got quite bad.”

So they moved to Sligo town last July. “My wife lost a lot of friends in the village.”

Changing schools was not upsetting for Finn, says Leenheer, but having other children being made to walk away from him was.

“It took a good while before he was over that. I think it was unfair because they were punishing my son for what I did. It was an issue between me and the school and it was nothing to do with them, yet still they saw fit to attack my family in a certain way.”

The Leenheers had chosen the local Catholic school because their son’s friends were going there and it says it welcomes children of other faiths and none. They were told there was no problem Finn opting out of religious classes, but that he would have to remain in the classroom during them, and they accepted that.

Leenheer thought all was fine until, nearly three months later, when his son came home and told him he was reciting prayers. He says he went to the school and asked his teacher to tell his son he did not have to participate in the prayers at the beginning and end of the day, thinking that would sort the matter.

However, he was taken aback when the teacher said she would not discourage the boy from saying prayers. For him, this was the kernel of the dispute – that a teacher was not upholding school policy, as confirmed by the school in a statement afterwards, that “pupils who don’t partake in the religion programme are not required to participate in these prayers”.

Leenheer says a complaint he made to the Ombudsman for Children has been dealt with but both sides are asked not to disclose the outcome.

Drumlease National School was probably unfortunate in becoming the focus of what is a national problem – a conflict between the rights of parents seeking education free of religious teaching for their children and the rights of churches to uphold their “ethos” in schools they are running and, crucially, the current lack of an alternative ie schools without religious patronage.

Leenheer is critical of the fact that schools, funded by the State, are not required to spell out what their ethos entails.

“What a lot of parents in Dromahair said to me is, ‘Why don’t you just put up with it?’, and that is what everybody is doing.”

When it is time for Finn and their younger child, Fenna, to start secondary school, the family plans to move to Dublin.

“I love Ireland,” he stresses. “People often say to me, if you have such a problem with this why don’t you go back , but it’s only one thing. And there are solutions to this problem.”