Study of Provision of Religious Education

Posted on: 21 October 2015

Religious education in Irish primary schools should not promote any particular religion over others and should also include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism, according to sociologists at Trinity College Dublin.

Growing secularisation of the Irish population and the arrival of new culturally and religiously diverse migrants are posing new challenges to schools in Ireland in terms of catering for the needs of all pupils and their parents, according a paper recently published in the British Journal of Religious Education. These challenges are particularly acute in Irish primary schools, the majority of which are under Catholic patronage.

The researchers points to the need for a more responsive, pluralistic approach to religious education in Ireland, according to Associate Professor Daniel Faas and Head of the Department of Sociology at Trinity who co-authored the paper.

“Rather than a challenge, religious and moral education, as opposed to indoctrination, should be seen as an opportunity to help younger people to understand and respect the increasingly diverse world and communities around them without compromising their own sense of self and their identity.”

The paper also outlines how Ireland has experienced growing secularisation over the last decade with a growing number of the population identifying as non-religious accompanied by an increase of the number of migrants with different belief systems. The 2011 Census revealed that the number of non-Catholics in Ireland has increased by over 130,000 since 2002. According to these figures, the number of Catholics in Ireland was at the lowest, representing 84% of the population.

In Europe, religious education in state-supported schools is broadly delivered in two ways: a denominational approach adopted by countries such as Poland, Spain, Bulgaria and Greece where the responsibility for religious education lies with religious communities, and a religious studies approach adopted in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the UK and Estonia, where religious education is the responsibility of the state. Denominational approaches usually provide an opportunity to opt out of religious education or provide pupils with alternative subjects such as ethics. Ireland adopts a denominational approach with the opportunity for opt-out.

Denominational approaches are delivered in cooperation between religious communities (e.g. representatives of the Protestant, Catholic and other churches in parts of Germany may deliver classes) and the state. The state does not have to influence the contents of the subject, but to be neutral in religions and worldviews. By contrast, the religious studies approach is carried out under the sole authority of the state. Instruction is not to be neutral in respect to values but must be neutral in respect to worldviews including religion, a demand which corresponds to the religious neutrality of the state. Religious education is not provided in state-supported schools in France and Slovenia.

In the paper, the researchers recommend that the subject of religious education should be for all pupils of whatever religious background or none, and should not promote any particular religion over others. It should also include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism.

Rather than limited to the provision of information about religious and non-religious traditions, the approach should enable students to think critically about religions and to be able to discuss religious and ethical matters in an informed way.

“As a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society, it is imperative that Ireland continues to strengthen a non-discriminatory perspective in education and promote religious pluralism. Recent developments in Irish policies show some encouraging trends – there are now more explicit guidelines in place with regard to school admission policies, making it more difficult, at least in principle, to discriminate against some students. In addition, diversification of the primary school sector is progressing, although at a slow pace. Only two schools have been divested so far,” Professor Faas explained.

“Issues still remain in some rural areas where there are not enough pupils to justify establishing different types of schools. In these cases inclusive practices that go beyond admission policy and acknowledging cultural and religious difference may be a way forward. Schools could also collaborate more closely with Churches and parents to provide religious instruction outside school hours.”

The research, published in the British Journal of Religious Education, was undertaken by Prof Daniel Faas, Associate Professor in Sociology, Beata Sokolowska, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Sociology, and Dr Merike Darmody Adjunct Assistant Professor in Sociology, Trinity.


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