Bishop’s statement confirms that religious opt-out system does not work in practice

Catholic Bishop Denis Nulty has said that only 1% of students opt out of religion in Irish primary schools. We don’t know the reliability of the survey he is basing this figure on. But, if it is accurate, it simply proves that the opt out system does not work in practice. Indeed, in 2009, Bishop Donal Murray, who was then Chair of the Bishops’ Department of Catholic Education and Formation, has already publicly admitted that the right to opt out of religion is not recognised in practice.

Bishop Murray said then that “the increasing number of pupils whose parents do not wish them to receive religious instruction that is designed for Catholic children” made it difficult for schools to recognise in practice the constitutional right to opt out of religion. He asked the Government to make funds available “to enable it to be recognised in practice.”

So as far back as 2009, Bishop Murray was talking about an “increasing number of pupils” wanting to opt out but being unable to. A year later, only 32% of parents considered teaching about religious faith to be a very important parental goal in schools, according to a survey by the Department for Children and Youth Affairs.

This was by far the lowest priority of any of the areas referred to. Parents considered the following to be very important: 94% personal moral values, 90% getting on with others, 88% self-control, 86% standing up for yourself, 80% practical skills, 97% independence, 72% obedience to parents, 70% academic/work skills, and only 32% religious faith.

By 2015, 46% of parents said they would not choose a Christian school for their child if they had a choice locally, according to a national survey conducted by Behaviour & Attitudes for Equate. So if two thirds of parents don’t think teaching religious faith is very important, and nearly half of parents don’t even want their children to be in a Catholic school, how could only 1% of parents be exercising their constitutional right to opt out of religious faith formation classes?

In reality, the Catholic Church has been very effective in placing obstacles in the way of parents who do not want their children to be evangelised in State-funded schools. In Atheist Ireland we receive many complaints from parents about this, and they inform us of the various reasons why they don’t opt out their children.

Why do many parents not opt their children out?

There are various reasons why parents do not opt out their children from religion in publicly funded national schools with a religious ethos. These include, in no particular order:

  • Some schools force children to take religion, and tell parents that there is no possibility of opting out.
  • Some parents do not realise that they can opt their children out of religion in a Catholic schools. Schools never inform parents of their right to opt out their children from religion, and parents think that just because they have sent their child to a Catholic school that they must take religion.
  • Some parents are informed that the religion in the school is for all religions and none, and that it is not devotional.
  • Some parents do not opt their children out of religion because they feel that their children will be isolated in the school. There is some evidence of this. See study below on Children’s Beliefs and Belonging, by Karl Kitching and Yafa Shanneik in June 2015.
  • Some parents do not opt out their children from religion because they believe that it is pointless, because religion is integrated into the entire school curriculum anyway, and they cannot opt out of that. See research below from Alison Mawhinney in 2008.

New ERBE Course is intended for all pupils

There is also another important point about Bishop Nulty’s 1% claim, which he made in a submission to the NCCA about the government’s plans for a new course of Education about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE). He added that the new ERBE course is not the approach required for the children who opt out of formal religious instruction classes.

But the new ERBE course is not intended merely for those pupils who are opted out of evangelisation. It is intended for all pupils, as part of the State curriculum, just like English, maths, history and geography classes. It is intended to teach all pupils about different beliefs and ethics in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

Indeed, the 2010 study by the the Department for Children and Youth Affairs shows that parents make a clear distinction between teaching personal moral values (which 98% of parents considered to be very important) and religious faith (which only 32% considered to be very important). That is precisely the distinction that the Ethics part of the proposed ERB and Ethics course is designed to address.

Children’s Beliefs and Belonging Study 2015

Some parents do not opt their children out of religion because they feel that their children will be isolated in the school. These are extracts from a study on Children’s Beliefs and Belonging, by Karl Kitching and Yafa Shanneik in June 2015. This research was funded by the Institute for the Social Sciences in the 21st Century UCC, and by the Irish Research Council Collaborative Research Project Scheme.

However, we observed a pattern across different case study sites where typically children of majority ethnic and religious backgrounds – namely white, Irish Catholic children – would position children of minority religious and non-religious background as ‘other’ or ‘not the norm’. Children presented interpretations of ‘other’ religious symbols, figures and practices in satirical/parodying manner at times, drawing on television and film, and the photos of religious practices we presented.

Certainly, children could interpret their own traditions, religious and otherwise, in a playful manner that they knew would not, and perhaps should not be taken seriously because they had not reached society’s age-related benchmark of being religiously ‘knowing’. However, regardless of a playful intention, those who did not correspond to school ideals of what a ‘good’ child was were at times considered ‘other’.

This appeared to be a product of the children’s peer group positioning but also the influence of the school setting. It was implicit in many children’s language in second class in Catholic settings that being non-Catholic was a ‘failure to live up to the norm’. While below, Colin’s comments about Dean cannot be assumed reducible to his non-religious status, Dean was conscious of being ‘different’, and school life could be difficult for him at times.

Colin: Well Dean (non-religious child) gets extra homework every single year.
Karl: Why?
Colin: Well he’s really always bold, messing, stuff like that.

Dean told us that he was ‘always the odd one out’; the exchange below reflects how he was constantly reminded of this, particularly around the intense time of Communion:

Dean: I feel left out. I’m literally the odd one out in second class.
Mairead: You don’t believe in God, you didn’t get your Communion, you haven’t been baptised…
Dean: I know, that’s the whole point of not getting, when you’re a baby you don’t get baptised

In Catholic settings, it was clear that a number of children felt that Baptism was the normal way to mark one’s birth and that non-baptised peers were ‘not holy’ and lacking in this regard. Part of the issue here was that children, within their school contexts, did not have a language to talk about non-religious and non-Catholic children’s ethical beliefs and values.

For example, children in one Catholic school suggested that those who were not baptised ‘forgot to do it’, and did not think outside of this view. Some children were more aware than others of the limits of their knowledge in this regard, and it appeared that the interview space allowed them to explore these issues for the first time. Again, Chloe refers to Dean (in his absence) below:

Chloe: There is a boy in our class who doesn’t believe in God that, so he is not having his Communion… they (non-baptised, non-religious children) don’t like God so they em, don’t pray to him, and talk to the devil.
Karl: So they just don’t talk (to God)?
Chloe: No.
Yafa: And they talk to the devil then?
Chloe: I suppose, I’m supposing. Like if they don’t believe in God they obviously don’t talk to him.
Adam: What do you mean by ‘they talk to the devil’?
Chloe: Obviously they probably believe in the devil so?
Adam: Devil?
Karl: So they have to believe in something Chloe is it?
Chloe: Yeah
Mairead: I don’t believe in him!

Freedom of Religion in Schools Study 2008

Some parents do not opt out their children from religion because they believe that it is pointless, because religion is integrated into the entire school curriculum anyway, and they cannot opt out of that. Here are some extracts from Dr Allison Mawhinney’s study in 2008 titled Freedom of religion in the Irish primary school system: a failure to protect human rights?

Neutral and objective?

When asked whether they believed that the religious knowledge put across through
the integrated curriculum was conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner,
parents were of the opinion that this was not the case:

‘How can that be possible to integrate doctrinal beliefs in an objective, critical and pluralist manner?’
‘No allowance is made for those who may have had a different perspective. It’s not presented with any balance – it’s presented as fact.’
‘It couldn’t be objective and pluralist as long as these really pure Catholic Virgin Mary prayers are being used. It is definitely not pluralist or objective, not at all. It is specifically Catholic.’
‘It’s only one religion [that is taught], not the subject of religion. A big difference.
Not integrating a multi-denominational approach to religion. They’re being anti all those things.’
‘It’s taught as fact . . . it’s taught as something that definitely, obviously, really happened. God is this, Jesus did that, instead of saying some people think this or that . . . They teach it only in its most simplistic, narrow form. It’s not taught in a broad ethical or philosophical way.’

Aim of indoctrination?

With respect to the aim of indoctrination, parents were adamant that the lack of objectivity and neutrality in the teaching of the integrated curriculum combined with its compulsory nature resulted in the involuntary indoctrination of their children into a particular religious faith:

‘If you’re only steeped in one religion – is that not indoctrination? It is all indoctrination simply because adults have the influence to children at a very basic level at an early age without perhaps understanding that they are [indoctrinating], a child absorbs.’

‘My problem would be the indoctrination part of the religious teaching and the acceptance of it as a school subject, an educational pursuit. These are issues kids are not aware of.’

Teachers confirmed the inherent aim of indoctrination in the integrated curriculum in Irish primary schools:

‘It could vary from individual to individual. More conservative teachers could be teaching in a way that is indoctrination, mightn’t even be aware of it. Others may be more objective. Once something is integrated it becomes difficult not to indoctrinate people by sheer dint of its integration . . . And where do you put the children who do not want to be exposed to that religion?’

‘The school’s role is to indoctrinate. That is its purpose.’

‘That is what I think people have interpreted as ethos – that they have the freedom to indoctrinate. They have every right to indoctrinate. It’s people’s working definition of ethos. It’s almost a licence to do so . . . Part of the religious programme is to teach them a prayer before lunch, after lunch and a prayer in the morning. It leaks into the school day. Definitely indoctrination. Definitely directed at a god.’

This account of the aim of the integrated curriculum would most certainly suggest that its teachings are aimed at advocating a specific religious view.59 Schools are not simply facilitating the study of religion but are pursuing an aim of indoctrination by seeking to impose a particular religious belief through a devotional rather than academic approach to the teaching of religion.

‘[The integrated curriculum is] very real. Religion is integrated into other subjects which is why it is impossible for a child who is a non-believer [to avoid it]. There’s no question of that. Christmas cards, songs, if you were in third class you might become the choir for the communion children . . . Obviously it’s integrated, of course it is.’

‘Generally, assembly is religious. The drama is a dramatised bible story with the song and the prayer, eg thank you God for trees, God keep us safe. And on a practical level, you practise [for assembly] in the hall and you may not be able to practise in your official [religious education] half-hour. So if you had a child using the opt-out clause, can you say to the Mum well today don’t bring them in at 12 because that’s when the hall is free. It would be very, very difficult . . .’

‘It would be near nigh impossible [for a child to opt out of the integrated curriculum].’

‘[Minority-belief children] can’t be taken out of morning prayers, they can’t be taken out if a religious issue comes up in a reading . . . To my way of thinking this is practically unworkable . . . I would say that in 99.9% of cases where a child is not practising the religion of the school they are attending it is a very alienating experience for them . . . And that’s one of the reasons why I feel there shouldn’t be something in schools that’s going to reinforce in children feelings of alienation, you don’t belong to this community. We’ll tolerate you here to do your maths but we won’t tolerate you for being essentially different.’ Furthermore, parents reported that the pervasiveness of such an integrated curriculum and the impossibility of opting out failed to respect their philosophical and religious convictions:

‘I’m unhappy with the way that the Catholic religion is playing such an important role in the whole curriculum. It is blended in . . . They pray before the lessons start in the morning, they pray before every break and they pray before school finishes. You couldn’t possibly avoid it. Even if we took him out of religious classes . . . he would still constantly be confronted with religious Catholic belief . . . there is no way that you could possibly avoid it.’

‘[The school authorities] objected to me withdrawing my child from Christian drama: they told me that he cannot be excused from this. [They were] very, very unsympathetic, very dogmatic.’

‘I asked my daughter what happened [in morning prayers], just to see if she did get the opportunity not to do it and whether other kids don’t do it. She was saying “I can’t do anything about it”. She was saying sometimes she doesn’t want to but she has to do it every morning.’

‘On Ash Wednesday they put ashes on his head. They knew my views on religion but I came to pick him up one day and he had ashes on his forehead. I asked the teacher about it, she said “ah sure all the children were having it, it’s not that much of a big deal”.’

‘It is an important issue [the integrated curriculum] but I don’t know what I can do about it . . . No one complains about it . . . there is no where else to go.’

‘There weren’t any alternatives, there were absolutely none. Home education would have been the only alternative.’

‘You feel impotent as a parent.’

Summary

Catholic Bishop Denis Nulty has said that only 1% of students opt out of religion in Irish schools. If accurate, this proves that the opt out system does not work. In 2009, Bishop Donal Murray already publicly admitted that the right to opt out of religion is not recognised in practice.

Two thirds of parents don’t think teaching religious faith is very important, and nearly half of parents don’t even want their children to be in a Catholic school, so how could only 1% of parents be exercising their constitutional right to opt out of religious faith formation classes?

In reality, the Catholic Church has been very effective in placing obstacles in the way of parents who do not want their children to be evangelised in State-funded schools. In Atheist Ireland we receive many complaints from parents about this.

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