Proposed world religions course is a response to a problem that doesn't exist
One would be forgiven for thinking that this Government has little time for religion, and even less time for the Catholic Church.
It would protest very loudly against such a notion, of course, but consider the fact that it closed our embassy to the Holy See. It introduced our first abortion law. It redefined marriage and the family.
In passing our first abortion law, it told Catholic hospitals that they must perform abortions under its terms, regardless of ethos. Even countries with more liberal abortion laws than ours rarely do this. Spinelessly, the hospitals complied.
Our new version of marriage affords no protection whatever to those who do not wish to facilitate same-sex marriage on grounds of conscience.
The attacks on conscience rights and ethos are particularly obnoxious and are the mark of a State intent on imposing a particular vision of morality.
Add to this the continual attacks on the ethos and identity of denominational schools, whether they be Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Muslim or of some other religious stripe.
The admissions policy of faith schools are under continual attack. Faith schools are told they cannot serve their own faith community first at enrolment time, even though they were set up to serve their own faith community in the first instance.
The employment policy of faith schools is attacked. Their right to employ teachers who will not undermine the ethos of the school is being severely curtailed in the name of 'non-discrimination'. This, of course, can only make it much harder to maintain the ethos of faith schools. It attacks the rights of parents who want to send their children to a school with a given ethos.
The latest threat to the ethos of faith-based schools appeared this week and, as usual, it came disguised in the colours of 'inclusion', 'tolerance' and 'diversity'.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is to oversee the development of a new programme for primary schools called 'Education about Religion and Beliefs and Ethics' ('ERB and Ethics' for short).
The NCCA has invited submissions on the proposal. The Catholic bishops have encouraged people to take part in the consultation process.
The NCCA website tells us that the aim of the ERB portion of the course is to help children "to know about and understand the cultural heritage of the major forms of religion, belief traditions and worldviews which have been embraced by humankind."
This seems perfectly sound and sensible at first glance but several lines of objection come to mind.
Take ERB first. The NCCA website also informs us: "It (ERB) does not nurture the belief or practice of any one religion; instead it focuses on fostering an informed awareness of the main theist, non-theist, and secular beliefs, including key aspects of their cultural manifestations."
This causes an obvious problem to schools espousing a particular religious faith.
In one class, the pupils, in accordance with the wishes of their parents, will be receiving an education and formation in the faith of the school, but in their very next class those same pupils will be taught about religion in a completely different way.
That completely different way teaches them to distance themselves from their own faith. It teaches them to view religion from a sociological perspective and can easily teach pupils, even without intending it, to be agnostic about faith, to see the various faiths as equally true, or equally false.
To put it another way, in one class children will be learning about their religion in a way that assumes it is true. In another they will be learning, in effect, that it might or not might be true.
Some people might argue that this simply teaches them 'critical thinking'. In fact, it teaches them an implicit agnosticism. It teaches them implicitly that religion is purely man-made.
This badly disrupts the ability of a faith school to impart the faith as it chooses and as parents who take their own faith seriously would want.
From the point of view of a Christian school, Jesus is transformed from "the Way, the Truth and the Life", into "a way, a truth and a life".
As for the ethics section of the course, the purpose of this, according to the NCCA, is to encourage the "formation and the promotion of a personal commitment to the dignity and freedom of all human beings, the importance of human rights and responsibilities, the place of justice within society, and the service of the common good."
Why does the NCCA and the Department of Education assume this cannot be done in religion class? All religions worth their salt are extremely concerned with moral questions. The very concept of human dignity is primarily a Christian concept, or at least a religious one. Atheism would have us believe that human beings are mere "meat machines", to quote MIT scientist Marvin Minsky.
There is also another, more practical issue to be considered: what subject should be sacrificed to make way for the new course? This newspaper has flagged that the time for the proposed new course will likely be carved out of the 30 minutes a day currently set aside for education in the specific religion of the school.
A final objection: the proposed course is a response to a problem that doesn't exist.
The implication behind the programme is that denominational schools do not properly respect children who come from other faiths or no faith. This is a terrible and unjustified calumny against those schools.
Denominational schools already do an excellent job respecting children who come from other faith backgrounds and none.
A recent report by the Department of Education's Chief Inspector says that 96pc of schools inspected "were found to be managing their pupils by, for example, fostering respectful pupil-teacher interactions (and)by cultivating an inclusive, child-centred ethos".
The Department of Education should not be seeking to transform denominational schools into de facto multi-denominational ones. Instead, it should be doing more to encourage faster divestment of selected faith schools to other patron bodies. This would hopefully satisfy whatever level of public demand there is for alternatives to denominational schools.