Irish poll shows parents no longer want to force religion on to children

A new poll in Ireland shows that eighty two per cent of parents intend to let their children choose their own religion rather than force them to join the Catholic Church. Thirty years ago only 7% of parents felt the same way.

The MRBI/RTÉ poll also found that 12% of Irish people no longer believe in God (up from 1% in 1977), and 22% do not think there is an afterlife. Just over half claim they attend mass weekly – in 1977 it was 90 per cent. A majority of modern respondents say they would welcome an atheist or agnostic into their family now. Three decades ago one third of Irish homes would have shut the door to non-believers.

The results of the poll comes as the leader of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), John Carr, called for a new approach to the teaching of religion in schools to reflect the changing face of Ireland. He said the new primary school being opened by County Dublin Vocational Education Committee (CDVEC) in September 2008 should be used as a model to explore the idea.

In a radical departure, CDVEC has been approved as patron for a community national school in Diswellstown, Dublin 15, where immigrants make up at least 10 per cent of the fast-growing population. The school will be “faith neutral”, said CDVEC chief executive Pat O’Connor, but the detail of how it will work in practice has to be teased out.

Most of the State’s 3,300 primary schools are church run — about 97% by the Catholic Church — which, Mr Carr said, clung to the concept of “ethos” to dictate what religious education children were given. He said he respected the right of churches and groups to establish schools, but in the context of a changing Ireland it was time to explore the possibility of a new model of religious education. The sort of issues that needed to be addressed were whether someone from outside would come in to teach, for instance, Islam, or whether teachers would be expected to do it.

Mr Carr said the INTO favoured a broad religious education programme for all schools on, perhaps, four days a week, with the various churches coming in on the fifth day to “add their own stamp”, in accordance with parental wishes.

Ireland had become a multilingual, multicultural and multi-faith society but many primary schools gave little or no formal knowledge or understanding of relationships with some Christian and non-Christian religions, he said. “Children in many cases are not afforded the opportunity of exploring the beliefs and practices of other faiths”.

Mr Carr said that even within denominational schools, different patterns of religious adherence were emerging, with some parents not wanting their children to participate in religious instruction. “We have to find a new way of addressing the needs of all children within our education system. The State cannot continue indefinitely to build different types of schools to accommodate diversity in every part of Ireland, and the education system has to work out a modern approach to deal with diversity, inclusiveness and respect.”

He said the Diswellstown school proposal presented an opportunity to meet the challenges that a changing Ireland posed for parents, policymakers, teachers, school management authorities and pupils.

The Department of Education is about to open consultation with all the education partners to discuss the issues relating to the governance of the Diswellstown school which, for the INTO, includes the employment conditions of teachers.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “This is a very small step in the right direction, but it still seems beyond the imagination of most educators in Ireland – even the ones who recognise there are problems with religious influence – that a secular school system that requires pupils to leave their religion (if they have one) at home would be the answer.”