The faith of our fathers is not enough for our kids
We are no longer a State of one faith, or even any faith, writes Sarah Caden, and yet we fear the kids finding out
If they were paying attention last week, our primary school children would have received their first lesson in the place of religion in the world. The introduction to the curriculum of Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics is only at consultation stage and already there is war about it.
Teachers, who already fit the standard, allocated 30 minutes of religious education into the school day questioned what would suffer in the name of this new, additional module. Parents agonised over what matters more: what our children believe, or what's coming up, ultimately, in the exams. And some others questioned whether teaching about all religions is an unwelcome dilution of education in a child's own religion.
Different subgroups, for different reasons, all unsettled by the idea that the proposed ERB is a threat to primary school education as we know it. But what harm if it is? There's nothing particularly great about what we have at the moment. It pleases neither the old guard who hark back to the days when one's church was the word and law of the community, nor the new, who have to a great extent eschewed that while finding nothing of meaning to replace it.
Last week, the Department of Education proposed that in addition to the current 30-minute religious allocation, Irish primary schools should teach this ERB programme. It would educate children on religions of the world, it would explore ethics and morals, tolerance and discrimination.
It would, basically, teach religion in a less singular, one-truth style. Which is the ultimate threat to those who see this as an undesirable first step towards secularisation of our schools, even though it is actually extra time spent dwelling on the significance of religion rather than less.
The problem with religion in Ireland, however, is that it's an "our way or the highway" attitude. And in many ways, "their" way has lost a lot of the generation under 50. A lot of these would be the parents of today's primary-school children and what they are presented with, in particular in rural areas, is little or no choice in where they send their kids to school.
Many remain what you could call culturally Roman Catholic and they send their kids to Roman Catholic schools because they still believe in God if not the Church or because they don't see an alternative. They're the ones who get lambasted as a la carte Catholics; but they're the ones actually keeping these schools going, whether their hearts and souls are in it or not.
Is it too much to ask that our hearts and souls should be in the formation of our children's hearts and souls, though? If the parents aren't keeping the faith, then surely the teaching should be coming at the faith in a different way. Because we haven't lost the human desire for greater meaning, we've just lost a lot of faith in the one-truth way.
The problem, however, is that we have found nothing to replace it satisfactorily. Ethically and morally in Ireland, we remain fundamentally Christian, but we fish around fruitlessly for the comforts originally afforded us by the Church. Some turn to angels, some turn to self-help books, to liking and disliking on Facebook, to RIPing strangers online in order to feel part of a community. We seek meaning and connection everywhere and nowhere.
And, interestingly, we have found no satisfactory way of giving meaning to the vicissitudes of life for our children. Or, rather, none that consoles and comforts on matters of life and death like notions of heaven and the afterlife. Even if you think that heaven and hell and eternity are mumbo jumbo, you can't deny that they are part of a story with many variations that humanity has dealt in since the beginning of time.
What the ERB model proposes to teach is that all these efforts have validity, and are open to question, and herein lies the problem for some. If you teach them that there are lots of truths, then how can you teach them that one faith, their faith, is the truth? But maybe we've moved past needing such absolutes.
In teaching our children, as the proposed ERB might, how humanity has always struggled with notions of a greater power, a greater meaning, a greater purpose, we might well be doing them a greater service than was done for us in our early education. It might teach them what it means to be human, rather than what it means to be a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim or even an atheist.
I have two children in primary school, and to a great extent, across the religious board, a lot of parents of Irish primary school children are play-acting at holding tight to the faith of the chosen school, and this is particularly the case in rural areas, where there is no choice of school to send your child.
In the cities, thanks to faith-based enrolment policies, parents are baptising children in a certain faith in order to secure primary school places, and performing first communion and confirmation in order to hedge their bets for secondary school.
It's not often that you hear a parent discussing the religious rituals from a belief point of view, but more commonly as a pragmatic move. Is that any lesson to teach our children, by example, about faith and the meaning of life? Or for that matter, ethics and morals.