Pluralism in education with some prejudice against atheists: conference report

Last Friday, Michael Nugent and Jane Donnelly attended a conference in Limerick titled Towards Mutual Ground: Religious Pluralism in Educational Practice in Irish Schools. It was organised by the Mater Dei Irish Centre for Religious Education, the PDST, and hosts Mary Immaculate College. Catherine O’Brien from the Humanist Association of Ireland was also there, and one of the workshop speakers was Fionnula Ward from Educate Together.

Overall, we found the conference to be very useful, with a lot of information covered, and many people interested in sharing opinions with us both during and between the formal sessions. Unfortunately, we also heard some of the caricatures of atheism and defamatory statements about atheists that we have sadly become used to from some Catholic theologians, including the literally dehumanising claim that atheists are not fully human.

The first keynote address was by Prof Marie Parker-Jenkins from the University of Limerick. She discussed the overlapping identities that both children and adults have in terms of race, culture, religion and other characteristics. In particular, she described research that she had conducted on the expansion of Islamic schools, and the interrelationships between the schools, communities, citizenship and social identity.

Atheists Not Fully Human?

The second keynote address was by Prof Gavin D’Costa, a Catholic theologian from the University of Bristol. His three main points, speaking from a Catholic perspective, were: firstly, mutual ground with others means standing on our own ground instead of on neutral ground; secondly, the truth of revelation is to be found in the Catholic tradition; and thirdly, the best way to understand others is, a Catholic perspective.

With regard to his claim of people standing on their own ground instead of on neutral ground, we argued that he was conflating two different concepts. Individual people and religious and nonreligious organisations should stand on their own ground within society. However, in order to protect and vindicate everybody’s rights to do this equally, it is the state, and not the population, that should stand on neutral ground. The phrase that we use in Atheist Ireland to describe this distinction is that we want a secular state for a pluralist people.

Unfortunately, Prof D’Costa repeated the bizarre assertion that Cardinal Murphy O’Connor had previously articulated on BBC radio: the claim that atheists are not fully human. Had we not been there, it seems likely that this claim would have gone unchallenged. When we questioned him about this claim, and its appropriateness in a conference about pluralism, he repeated the claim, arguing that it is religious revelation that tells us what being fully human is, and he described atheists as being not fully formed.

He also argued that atheism is a religion, although he did at times describe it as a nonreligious position. When we questioned him about this, he acknowledged his inconsistent definitions, and said that his dilemma was that, in terms of dealing with others, we should respect the self-identity of others, and that atheists could describe atheism as not being a religion, but that if we did, we were just kidding ourselves.

96% of Primary Schools Denominational

There were six workshops in the afternoon, and the one that Jane and I attended was titled Imagining the Future: Religious Pluralism in Educational Practice in Ireland. The speakers were Dr Jones Irwin of St Patrick’s College in Dublin, Dr James Kapalo of University College Cork, and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove of Mary Immaculate College.

Dr Irwin outlined the imbalance of denominational schools in the Irish primary sector: 90% of schools are Catholic, 6% are Protestant, 4% and multidenominational, just two schools are Muslim schools, just one school is a Jewish school, and there are no nondenominational schools.

He said that St Patrick’s College had recently introduced a new optional comparative ethics programme as an alternative to the Roman Catholic religious education module that is required by the church in order to teach in Look schools. However, he said that only two students had taken up this option, because of the imbalance of job opportunities caused by the domination of Catholic schools.

Dr Kapalo Said that he supported an approach to religious education but was not anti-God, and he said that to study religion effectively you need to do so from within, with definable skills and interaction with people from the religions that you are studying. He added that you can do this using procedural neutrality, and a position of methodological agnosticism.

Dr Van Nieuwenhove argued that there is no neutral ground between Catholicism and secularism. He said that inclusiveness does not mean including everybody and everything, and that you should first be steeped in your own tradition before you can dialogue with other traditions. He said that multidenominational education cannot explore the richness of any single worldview, and that you cannot take the position that no single perspective is correct.

Like Prof D’Costa earlier, Dr Van Nieuwenhove raised the “not fully human” issue, this time from the more euphemistic perspective of arguing that Catholic education enables you to become fully human. When we questioned him on this, he used an analogy of atheists seeing a photograph in two dimensions and Catholics seeing the same photograph in three dimensions.

Teaching Religion Objectively

The conference ended with a keynote address from Dr Anne Looney, the Chief Executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. From our perspective, her most significant argument was that you cannot teach religion objectively because it is important to get children excited about the subject in the same way as you try to get them excited about history and reading and music and other subjects.

Our closing contribution from the floor was to thank the organisers, and particularly Dr Patricia Kieran, for such a useful day. We accepted the good faith of the organisers in seeking to discuss pluralism, but we pointed out some blind spots in the religious perspective from which they were working.

For example, the title of the conference was Religious Pluralism in Educational Practice. This assumes that the nonreligious perspective can be subsumed within the category of Religious. We said that a more inclusive title would have been either Religious and Nonreligious Pluralism, or else just simply Pluralism.

Also, the information packs for the conference included a leaflet promoting a Symposium on Catholic Education and the New Evangelisation, and there was a book stall hosted by Veritas. We said that many Christians attending a conference on the subject of Pluralism would have been surprised if the information packs had included adverts for a Richard Dawkins conference, and the book stall was hosted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

And when two separate speakers listed the 2006 Irish census figures for the question on religion, neither of them included the figure for ‘no religion’, which at 186,000 was the second largest category after Roman Catholic.

We accepted that these were not deliberate attempts to alienate atheists who may have been attending the conference. They merely show the need for us as atheists to raise consciousness of the different perspectives that we bring to public discourse, in the same way that women and gay people have had to raise consciousness of the different perspectives that they bring.

Overall, the conference was very worthwhile. We heard and took part in useful discussions about pluralism in Irish education, we met interesting people with whom we will maintain contact, and we were there to ensure that some of the common yet strange prejudices against atheists did not go unchallenged as they otherwise might have done.

Atheist Ireland


  1. Avatar
    Joe O'Regan March 25, 2012

    They should bring up the “not fully human”argument in Denmark or Sweden and ask them if they would like to take this country,its politicians and the health-care system and the Roman Catholic dominated education system ,which helps to make the Irish people “fully human” to replace their “not fully human” system.
    Prof D’Costa and Dr Van Nieuwenhove obviously have issues with reality but then reality never enters the equation when having a discussion with wing nuts.

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    Brian Rees March 25, 2012

    There seems to be an awfully long way to go to bring Ireland into this new century. It amazes me that people who believe in Myths and Fairy Tales can get doctorates in the same Myths and Fairy Tales and that these people have recognizes titles. All children’s education should obviously be without any dogma from a broken organisation run by males without a real purpose in life.

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    Seamus McKenna March 25, 2012

    Full marks to Jane and Michael for having the patience to put up with the ignirant comments, the catholic leaflet in the conference pack, the Veritas bookstall and still maintain their composure so that they could challenge all this.

    The religious will pay lip service to pluralism but only deal with it on their terms, which always amounts to a negation of pluralism.

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    Gavin D'Costa April 10, 2012

    I would like to defend my comments at the conference regarding atheism as being ‘deficient’ and the notion that the meaning of full humanity is found in Christian revelation. First, it is obvious to me that a proper atheist would have to describe Christianity’s vision of being human as being deficient (as some of the other posts indicate) as it is involved in error about the nature of reality. This is right and proper and no insult I assume is being intended. Second, it is thus obvious and logical, that from Christianity’s viewpoint, the reality described by atheism is in a metaphysical sense ‘deficient’. It simply fails to take proper account of God etc. Again, no insult in being intended, but this is simply a discussion about what two groups think about the nature of reality. None has a privileged position viz. self-evident claim to truth. This Christian claim is not a statement about particular atheists as being in some way sub-human. It is simply a statement about the differences in world view. Third, making such a statement does not in any way inhibit or cause, logically, Christians to treat atheists in any detrimental fashion. If Christians did that they should rightly be criticised. My experience at the conference was that Michael and Jane were rational people and we could discuss issues together and have a proper conversation. Likewise, I have lots of friends who are not Christians and this never stops me fully respecting them, learning from them, and being challenged. Conclusion: it is right from the point of view of world view comparison to recognise that one world view might find another deficient. If this leads to persecution and contempt, then there are real problems. However, in my comments, I was doing world view comparative analysis, so I really cannot understand why there is so much fuss.

    I cannot speak regarding Cardinal O’Connor’s comments, but simply speak for myself as a Christian theologian.

    About describing atheism as a religion, I mean this in the following way. Religions have a world view, agreed sets of practices, communal forms of identification, and a shared sense of possible destiny. In this sense, atheism is a religion in my view. My reason for ambivalence is a respect for the self-description of atheists who may not wish to be seen as religious. But again, this is a perfectly legitimate question about how to define religion and who is doing the defining.

    We all deal with pluralism in our own terms and the most important issue is that we are open to challenge from another position regarding those terms. Atheism is no different from religions in dealing with the question of pluralism.

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    nozzferrahhtoo April 10, 2012

    Not sure that is an impressive “out” at all from the comments. It comes across like saying “If you look at anything from the perspective of anything else then it will appear deficient from that perspective”. Yet if one were to say, for example, being “black” is deficient if you take a “white” perspective then you certainly would not get away with that excuse in that context.

    The move to, on ANY level, dehumanize the opposition by calling them in any way unformed as humans or not fully human is simply an abhorrent approach and not one that is going to be magically excused by back pedaling or excuse making. Nor is feigning surprise that such comments might lead to one group treating another poorly.

    We are all human here, we just have different views about whether there is sufficient reason to think there is a god or not.

    As for the atheism is a religion nonsense, your comparison does not fit at all. Take the first point in it: “Religions have a world view”. Atheism does not have a world view. It is simply a position of not having YOUR world view. There is no world view inherent in being an atheist and an atheist can be anything from a nihilist to a republican. Your comment makes as much sense as saying Football is one view of sport, therefore not playing football is itself a sport. Meanwhile not collecting stamps is a hobby.

    The rest of your comparison fails on the same points. There is no “agreed set of practices” related to atheism at all. There are no “communal forms of Identification”.

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    Paul Moloney July 02, 2012

    “In this sense, atheism is a religion in my view. ”

    *sigh* It’s depressing to see a professional theologian promoting this false idea. There is no equivalence. Recently converted atheist Leah Libresco was an atheist who happened to be a dualist Platonist. I’m a materialist atheist. The idea that our worldview was similar enough to define it as a religion is absurd. Atheists do not believe in a god; that’s it.


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    ElToten July 02, 2012

    “not fully human” is a demeaning assessment of a group of people, that cannot be disarmed by being patronizing. If that is the currently accepted catholic view on atheists I’d rather refrain from talking to any catholic cleric again because they might look at me as if I was somewhat disabled and they’d need to be very patient with me.
    Would you, Mr. D’Costa accept that you’d be looked upon as a delusional person in need of rational enlightenment because you believe in a supernatural creature of unimaginable power for which there is not a single shred of evidence other than a collection of ancient stories? By the way, I accept you, even though you are below the evolutionary level of those who have come to realise that religion is pure fiction.

    And no, atheism is not a religion because it lacks all the hallmarks of a religion. Darwin is not our Messiah and The origin of Species is not our Bible, nor is evolution our dogma. No matter how often you repeat that ludicrous claim, it doesn’t make it any more true.

    Dr Anne Looney’s argument that “you cannot teach religion objectively because it is important to get children excited about the subject in the same way as you try to get them excited about history and reading and music and other subjects” is complete nonsense because you do not need to be a musician to appreciate music and you do not need to be an ancient Roman to understand the ancient Romans and you do not need to be a catholic to understand catholicism and you certainly do not need to get children excited about religion to teach them about it. Getting them excited about it makes them more susceptible to indoctrination and they are more likely to loose their objectivity.
    I wonder if she’d also would like to see our children become excited about fascism so they’d learn about it.

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    Sebastien Garcia July 02, 2012

    The reason why I love and actively promote our version of Laïcité (otherwise unproperly translated by “Secularism”), is that we do not have to suffer anymore the kind of muddy explanation from Mr D’Costa and that our 1905 law split Church and State (by extension: the School became “public” by opposition to “confessionnel”). All religions can be taught in private schools but most of the children will access free public schools. Religion remains a private matter and the public sphere a place where they can all discretely coexist. For what my own explanation is worth…

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    John Treacy October 28, 2012

    Many humanists and atheists sound like the bishops they condemn! There is a great irony in this. Some media commentaries sound exactly like the old church they are so happy to demonise. For me, alas, the pot calling the kettle black.