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Opinion A religious education is vital for understanding our world

Religious education is vital because, for better or for worse, religious beliefs have played a formative part in the shaping of every human civilisation in history.

IN 2013 AN Irish primary school balloted parents on whether the school’s First Holy Communion day should be rescheduled due to a clash with a One Direction concert.

The story made for a playful headline, but it is indicative of an issue that has more serious implications: the role of religion in schools.

It has been several decades since Ireland was religiously insular, cocooned by Catholic beliefs and values, with an unwavering allegiance to the Church’s authority. In more recent years, this insularity was perforated by an influx of different beliefs and ideologies, both literally through immigration, and culturally, through the internet, social media, American sit-coms, and the like.

Ireland thus began a process of multiculturalism which diluted the once potent religious ethos, and, following harrowing sex abuse scandals, the once mighty bellowing voice of the Church became a quiet whimper. Ireland transitioned from parochial to cosmopolitan in a religious and cultural paradigm shift, and the Church’s previously dominant voice became one among many, now questioned and criticised as vigorously as any other.

A dramatically changing cultural and economic climate

Despite this evolving situation, Ireland – and even Dublin – is still some way off a truly multicultural city like London or New York. The remnants of Ireland’s religious history are still very evident, perhaps most prominently in our education system where the vast majority of schools are under Catholic patronage.

Recent years have been very interesting in Irish education and how it has responded to a dramatically changing cultural and economic climate. The role of the Church in education has come into question, as parents of children with other faiths and none struggle to find suitable educational alternatives, and teachers worry about how their lifestyle conflicts with the ethos of their school, and thus, their job security becomes uncertain.

Academically, too, we have seen interesting developments: a renewed emphasis on mathematics is apparent, and there has been a stark rise in demand for college courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) as these fields are more likely to lead to employability. This is fully understandable, even laudable, but we also need to ask ourselves questions about how we view education, what its wider goal is, and in an evolving religious/multicultural context, what of the place of religion in the classroom?

As it stands, although there is a renewed emphasis on STEM in Irish education, we still teach other subjects like history, English, literature, art, drama, and so on. Why not abandon all of these subjects and focus on producing waves of scientific geniuses ready to transform Ireland into a hotbed of innovation and technological advancement? Because we also acknowledge that education is about more than this: it is about raising a generation of value-laden social entrepreneurs ready to tackle not just the economic and scientific challenges that life will present, but also to build a better society.

A religious education is vital 

Education is about science, but also, social progression. It is here where religious education is vital, but not because Catholic beliefs offer the last word on social or moral questions. In fact, a too specifically Catholic education might leave our children wholly unprepared for the reality of life beyond Catholicism, a reality they will be faced with as soon as they ascend into the workforce, public leadership, or wherever.

Religious education is vital because for better or for worse, religious beliefs have played a formative part in the shaping of every human civilisation in history. It is impossible for education to achieve what we wish it to achieve without allowing students the opportunity to explore religious traditions, learning about their rich philosophies, moral codes, troubled histories, awe-inspiring art, and influential literature. The history of our own country’s disturbed past cannot be understood without reference to religion, nor can modern troubles in Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere.

The students we teach will be moving into an increasingly international and multicultural world. They will need to be equipped with an awareness of other cultures to thrive in that world. In our ever-shrinking global village, our successive generations will encounter in their work other religions and beliefs that they need to be cognisant of – why their Muslim business partners pause for prayer, or why they can’t serve steak when they have their Hindu colleagues for dinner. The education system is in need of perennial revision, as is of course, religious education. Though in our emergence through this process of secularisation and multiculturalism, let us not lose sight of the imperative for students to be offered religious education.

Education should offer students the opportunity to explore

There are, of course, many dimensions to these issues that will need to be debated: how can a Catholic-centred educational system deal with rising numbers of students of other faiths and none, and how can the State engage in fruitful dialogue with all relevant parties: churches, parents, schools, and citizens?

A religious ethos which lacks the openness to acknowledge the value of other beliefs, and indeed the value of self-criticism is no way forward: indeed it is offensive to the very nature of education. Education should offer students the opportunity to explore the world and learn without too much of our patronising. We don’t have all the answers, and as a society, we may very well be ‘doing it wrong’.

The students we teach now will likely be our saviours – curing diseases we couldn’t, solving engineering problems we couldn’t, and pointing out our social and moral failings. For this idea of education to succeed, a cautious approach to religion in schools is needed, but let’s never forget its importance for a full and proper education.

Dr Gary Keogh is a researcher at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter @g_keogh

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