As many as 16,000 Irish primary schoolchildren will begin coursework in atheism beginning in September of 2014. The Catholic Church has long dominated the school systems curriculum in Ireland and this move is certain to ruffle many feathers, as the teaching of atheism, agnosticism and humanism will mark an important departure from traditional Irish schooling. The new classes on atheism will be a part of Irish student’s introductory course in ethics and belief systems.
The Catholic Church is ever present throughout Ireland, but in particular, it dominates the Irish education system. Some 93% of Irish students are in schools that are run by the Catholic Church, and while the Irish taxpayers shoulder the burden of paying for the schools, the local schools are basically controlled by local bishops. Inevitably, it leads to a much closer relationship between the average citizen and the church, no matter what the citizen’s beliefs may be.
It may seem as though the system is rigged in favor of the Catholic Church because so many students attend their schools out of necessity, and not necessarily because they choose to do so, but even these have the ability to “opt out” of the religious education offered in these schools. Now these students will also get the “opportunity” to take courses that have been developed and planned by a group called Atheist Ireland, and their partners, Educate Together. Parents will be offered the alternative to allow their children to take the new atheism courses instead of the religious education provided currently by the Catholic schools.
Some parents may welcome the changes, as Jane Donnelly, a member of Atheist Ireland does. “I opted my two girls out of religious education classes and they were told to go to the library and find a philosophy book to read during RE instead. The range of philosophy books was very limited so I sent them into school each day with a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for them to read.”
But in a nation so closely tied to the Catholic Church, one wonders if the changes will be as welcome throughout Irish society?
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