Richard Dawkins is right: children need secular education, where all rights are respected

We should never forget that within living memory on this island, religious institutions held an unaccountable grip on public institutions

Speaking in Dublin this week, Prof Richard Dawkins weighed in on secular education, stating, "Children do need to be protected so that they can have a proper education and not be indoctrinated in whatever religion their parents happen to have been brought up in". While religious conservatives may dismiss Dawkins as a firebrand, his sentiment is especially pertinent in Ireland.

Last year, an Oireachtas committee heard that religious and racial segregation was all too frequent due to the subdivision of schools between religious patrons. Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan’s characterisation of Rule 68 (in the department’s rules for National Schools) as ‘archaic’ is too kind; Rule 68 insists “. . . Religious Instruction is by far the most important [of all the parts of a school’s curriculum] . . . and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school”, a naked directive of religious dominance.

Ireland is perhaps unique in having a patently absurd system where despite most schools being entirely State-funded, religious patrons impose their own teachings and admission criteria, subverting education as a vehicle to evangelise and indoctrinate at taxpayers’ expense. This bizarre situation elicited concerns in July from the UN Human Rights Committee, which questioned how the State could be compliant with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights while allowing religious patrons a “near monopoly” on vital public services. Worse again, they noted the current Irish set-up allows these patrons to “openly discriminate in admissions policies between children on the basis of parents’ registered convictions”.

This is in no way solely a Catholic issue. In September Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic cultural centre criticised the Catholic dominance of schools, calling for “a revolution of inclusivity”. Yet Selim’s insistence schools operate different policies for Muslim students is equally problematic. He took issue with relationship and sexuality education, claiming it defines sex outside wedlock as normal despite this being prohibited in Islam. This highlights an extremely questionable understanding of the purpose of education – the RSE programme does not seek to tell people what to do in their sexual lives nor make judgments on the ethics of sex outside marriage, it exists to help young people obtain non-judgmental and vital information about issues relating to sexuality and relationships.

In addition, Selim bemoaned the fact that females might be obliged to remove their headscarf during PE, and sought strict gender segregation during PE, asserting “they should also not be visible to men while at play”.

These religiously mandated restrictions on education seems less a plea for inclusivity and more an insistence that Islam is extended the same odious stranglehold over education that Catholic schools have unfairly wielded for years. The language of inclusivity may seem progressive, but the mind-set it conceals is anything but.

Trying to cater education to all religions has some superficial appeal but in reality leads to segregation and discrimination. It is detrimental to students, potentially denying them crucial information on topics such as sex, contraception or science solely because they offend the religious sensibilities of the patron. Finally, acquiescing to religious segregation of taxpayer-funded schools is not only ethically dubious, it is hugely wasteful and inefficient.

The solution is to simply make all State-funded schools entirely non-denominational. A truly secular educational experience where everyone’s beliefs are respected but none mandated for would benefit children, ending needless discrimination and squandering of precious resources. This needn’t mean jettisoning religion; if parents wish their child to receive religious instruction, then this can be provided outside of classroom hours. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. The only right that matters is the right of children to an education and there is quite simply no reason potentially odious axioms of faith should influence the admissions or syllabus of any public school.

We should never forget that within living memory on this island, religious institutions held an unaccountable grip on public institutions. An undue, uncritical deference to religious authority has left us with the spectre of Magdalene laundries, facilitated the widespread abuse of children and even infected our Constitution. The possible removal of Rule 68 should be welcomed, but this alone isn’t enough – our entire State education system needs to be consistent for all students, guaranteeing everyone a decent impartial education free from the whims and dubious influence of religious patrons.

David Robert Grimes is a science writer and a physicist at Oxford University. He blogs at davidrobertgrimes.com

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