Irish people tend to be portrayed as religious and this State is often seen as being dominated by religion. Yet in tandem with an apparently deep interest in religious matters, there are some extraordinary anomalies. These include the fact that apart from Trinity College and the pontifical side of Maynooth, theology is not taught in Irish universities and there is no study of religion in a formal, academic manner in Irish schools. These anomalies stem from a variety of sources including university legislation, legal interpretation of the Constitutional ban on the State endowing religions and the 1878 Education Act which forbids State spending on the teaching of religion as an examination subject.
The news, therefore, that yet another attempt is to be made to introduce religion as a Junior and Leaving Certificate examination subject is particularly welcome. It was probably not the intention of the framers of the Constitution that obstacles be placed in the way of the academic, objective teaching of religion as opposed to denominational formation and the 1878 Act and the university legislation were drawn up in vastly different political and religious circumstances to the present. Hopefully, new general education and university legislation which the Minister for Education intends to introduce will clear some of the obstacles in the way of the teaching of these subjects in the meantime the High Court interpretation of the Constitution in the case of the employment of school chaplains may clarify the situation further.
The main churches have long recognised that for religion to be seriously studied by students in the competitive points dominated senior cycle would require it to become a full examination subject. This is an entirely reasonable approach and will allow the serious student of religion to be rewarded in terms of points. It does not mean that the non examination and in many cases very progressive programmes of religious formation which already exist in schools will or should be abandoned.
The draft Leaving Certificate syllabus of which details were published in this newspaper just before Christmas is a very wide ranging and liberal document dealing deftly with the main world religions while emphasising in particular the Christian tradition but also making reference to non religious interpretations of life. It is a syllabus which could prove very attractive to many examination candidates.
But most encouraging of all, perhaps, is the fact that the main churches could come together with educational experts and agree a common syllabus, a syllabus which deals with the Jewish and Muslim faiths among others as well as Christianity. One of the objectives of the proposed new religion syllabus is "the promotion of tolerance and mutual understanding" in the context of the peace initiative there can hardly be a better point in modern Irish history at which to introduce a school subject with such aims.