Religious education encourages critical thinking

Contrary to caricature, it does not mean force-feeding children fantastical claptrap

Secular Ireland remains profoundly interested in religion. I have occasionally wished that more of my parishioners were as interested in matters of faith as many journalists and writers appear to be.

Some of the very people who most insistently demand that religion be pushed out of the public square are oddly effective in keeping it there, at least in print. This is an irony that brings the occasional moment of pleasure in the face of the unremitting tedium of secular misunderstandings of faith.

In the area of religious education such misunderstanding is particularly widespread. One can, I think, be forgiven the impression that misunderstanding is deliberately and carefully cultivated, often in the face of clear, readily-available evidence that might dispel it.

For instance, we should all be well persuaded by now, if we have even the most rudimentary faith in the pundits, that Catholic schools spend far too much time teaching religion. The consequent neglect of core subjects is evident . . . isn’t it?


However – and this is by way of a tentative proposal – the case against Catholic education could be made even stronger if the facts which are already known to the world and his mother were accompanied by statistics.

It ought to be just a matter of commissioning someone to make an objective, statistically-based comparison between the standard assessments conducted in faith-based schools, in which time is spent on religious education, and those conducted in schools that save this time for core subjects.

Statistical survey

If there is any question that faith-based schools are wasting time that could profitably be spent on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), then surely a statistical survey will leave the matter beyond doubt. As they say in certain quarters, it’s not rocket science.

The only surprise is that it hasn’t been done already.

Commentators know, of course, that there is a dearth of statistics that might support their argument. And there’s not much succour from abroad, either, as Catholic education, whether publicly or privately funded, is held in very high regard in very many countries.

Yet the argument does not end there.

Even if, by some miracle, schools that give time to religion compare favourably with those that do not, is it not the case that the imparting of religious beliefs weakens children’s capacity for critical thinking?

I haven’t recently heard anyone regurgitating the dogma of Richard Dawkins et al, that the teaching of religion is a form of child abuse. That notion has had its day: in addition to being transparent nonsense, it is also a spectacular instance of rhetorical self-harm.

However, pundits love to peddle the image of children in denominational schools being force-fed with fantastical clap-trap, and then being told that it’s all beyond discussion.

In the surreal, Father Ted-like universe inhabited by not a few commentators, this view of religious education is held to be self-evident. But the reality is that religious education encourages critical thinking.

Now this last statement is so frankly heretical, so completely at odds with secular dogma, that it demands to be supported immediately, in so far as the present limitation of space permits.


Religious education encourages critical thinking, within a framework of openness, enquiry, love and trust. Two observations can be made here. First, all critical thinking is done within a framework.

Those who are unencumbered by considerations of epistemology may cling to the view that critical thinking is unfettered, entirely reference-free; but that is simply not the case. Every criticism, every rejection, every doubt, rests on fundamental beliefs that are being neither criticised nor doubted.

Second, while mention of love and trust might appear to introduce a note of subjectivity, the essential role of love and trust in the acquisition of knowledge has been convincingly highlighted by a number of eminent thinkers – including some scientists – in recent decades.

The late Cardinal Martini once observed that the distinction between thinkers and non-thinkers is more fundamental than the distinction between believers and non-believers.

The role of faith-based schools in a multifaith and secular society calls for serious discussion, based on sustained, informed thinking. I am not suggesting that it is only secular opponents of denominational education that need to broaden their thinking: some if its proponents may also have a journey to make.

Let’s hope that all concerned might steer clear of unthinking caricatures, including the kind that would automatically identify believers as non-thinkers and non-believers as thinkers.

Fr Chris Hayden is a priest of Ferns diocese. Catholic Schools Week takes place from Sunday next, January 29th to February 4th. Details of #CSW2017 are available in the 'Resources' section of There is also a dedicated 'Catholic Schools Week' Facebook page.