Breda O’Brien: Proposed changes to the way religion is taught make no sense
Apparently, learning about religion is fine but not praying
All schools teach a worldview. All schools have mission statements
Peter Berger, the veteran sociologist of religion, was among the first to formulate the secularisation thesis; that is, that religion would fade away as people became more enlightened. He then retracted it when the evidence contradicted him.
He likes to tell a joke to illustrate the attitudes of some secularists.
A man tries to enter a synagogue during the High Holy Days, a period when synagogues are so crowded that many of them allocate seats and even sell tickets for them.
The usher stops the man and says that only people with reserved seats may enter. “But it is a matter of life and death,” says the man. “I must speak to Mr Shapiro – his wife has been taken to the hospital.”
“All right,” says the usher, “you can go in. But don’t let me catch you praying.”
The latest reported proposals by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment – to curtail time given to faith-based religious education because the curriculum is overcrowded – is in the same territory.
Apparently, the council thinks that learning about religion is fine, but don’t let me catch you praying. The new Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB) programme explicitly states that it does not nurture the belief or practice of any one religion, but the council expects it to be taught in faith-based schools .
That afternoon, the pupils are told to keep a diary of what they eat, and then see what healthier options they could embrace. Not only that, but the school enforces a lunchbox policy banning crisps and junk food.
Or physical education – in a school in Kerry, for example. In one lesson, pupils are taught that some Kerry people love GAA, while others embrace different sports. The pupils learn about them as all being of equal value, but that the practice of them in school is inherently divisive, given the range of opinions.
Later on, a camán is put into a child’s hand, and she is trained in how best to use it, while the traditions of her people are retold and invoked.
Such utterly different approaches could only result in extreme confusion.
If you substitute “worldview” for religion, it may become clearer what the council is failing to grasp.
Everyone has a worldview. It is impossible not to have one. The people who designed the ERB lessons have a worldview, one where religion as well as atheist and agnostic worldviews are worthy of study, but not of practice in school.
The council is seeking to reduce the impact of one worldview, while promoting the impact of another worldview.
It is not a neutral worldview. There is no such thing because when you exclude something from a curriculum, you teach something about the value to be placed on it.
Educate Together schools, for example, teach about religions and beliefs, but do not teach children how to practise any religion. That is a perfectly valid expression of a worldview, and the popularity of the schools clearly shows that many parents want that option.
But to try to make all schools operate like this simply replaces one worldview with another, while not enhancing diversity one whit.
The fact that the council thinks that ERB can sit happily in the curriculum alongside faith- based education shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief. It is not just a hobby to be practised in your spare time.
It is something that should affect how you live every moment of your life. This week, we witnessed the brutal murder of a frail, elderly priest, Fr Jacques Hamel, when radicalised teenagers claiming allegiance to Islamic State cut his throat as he said Mass in a French church. Last November, he expressed the nature of faith as a worldview well.
Writing in the parish newsletter about Louis and Zélie Martin, the recently canonised parents of Thérèse of Lisieux, he said, “They experienced painful circumstances, but they stayed the course through their faith, which was nourished by the sacraments and prayer, the service of the poor and self-abandonment to a God who never ceases to support us.”
Fr Hamel could have retired 10 years ago, but he wanted to serve until his last breath. He was an active member of an interfaith group, and Muslim friends expressed grief and horror at his death. He was open and tolerant because he was so deeply rooted in his own tradition.
That is something that our cultural elites do not understand. Being willing and eager to question, and being open and tolerant, are characteristics of healthy religion. Such attitudes are an asset, not a threat, to education.