Schools should teach Irish values, which are historically Christian
Should young children be taught about world religions, rather than primarily about their own (or their family's) faith? That is what Government education advisers are proposing, and no doubt with the best of intentions. It sounds like a nice, inclusive, tolerant idea. But my own experience is that it confuses children.
My sons attended a Church of England primary school in West London some years ago. Most of the parents considered it perfectly inclusive just as it was. The religious aspect was lightly applied, but the children learned about Baby Jesus, and the Christmas Nativity play was particularly well-loved. There were children speaking 132 languages from all over the world, but parents accepted the basic Christian framework as 'the host culture'. Just as if you were in Japan, you would accept the practices of Shintoism.
But this wasn't good enough for the then left-wing Inner London Education Authority, and thus it was decreed that the school was to be more 'multi-cultural' and 'multi-faith'. Out went the Nativity play, and in came Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light. Out went Mary and Joseph, and in came the Goddess Kali, she of the many hands. Seven-year-olds became utterly confused. And what was perhaps worse - from the point of view of social cohesion - rivalries broke out among different factions from different ethnicities.
Muslims, who had calmly accepted the Church of England as 'the host culture', were furious that they were being outdone by the Hindus, who seemed to have more entertaining festivals. Kashmir's problems came to Notting Hill Gate.
Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the profound alienation of many young British Muslims began with this attempt at 'multi-culturalism' in schools. The divisions meant that some young Muslims failed to integrate, and to identify with that 'host culture'. David Cameron goes on and on about teaching "British values" in British schools - because he's so terrified of the breakdown of social cohesion in a society where immigrant fertility is soaring. Fair point - if 30 years too late.
By the same token, it seems to me that 'Irish values' should be taught in Irish schools - if we are to promote social cohesion for the future. And Irish values, historically, must mean an innate understanding of the traditions of Christianity, and most particularly of the Roman Catholic church. Not to teach about the primacy of Catholicism in Irish history is simply to wipe out the true facts of the past. You may, or may not, subscribe to the faith of our fathers - and mothers, indeed. But you're living in denial if you don't recognise how meaningful it was - and if you don't transmit to children, whether ethnically Irish or incomers, that fact.
Faith does not need to be taught in an arrogant or triumphalist way. It should be taught sensitively, intelligently, tolerantly - but affirmatively. The virtues of Christianity - more properly, Judeo-Christianity, since the Decalogue of the Ten Commandments comes through Moses - make for instructive social values. Our criminal classes might benefit from being taught: Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness.
The stories from the Bible, and the lives of the saints, are great narratives. And for young girls, there are scores of inspiring female saints whose life stories are full of grit and determination, from Joan of Arc to Catherine of Siena and Angela de Merici, who essentially founded women's education in the 15th century.
Yes, respect for other people's religions is vital, and should be embedded in Christianity anyway ("in my Father's house there are many mansions"). But the best way to start understanding the faith of others is to understand your own faith, or the faith of your historic background. A scholar in comparative religions once told me that "the deeper you go into religious traditions, the more you come to comprehend their affinities - but you have to do some hard study first".
Not coincidentally, one of the greatest scholars in comparative religion, and an outstanding specialist on Islam, is a former Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong. Her total absorption in her own faith for many years gave her the foundation.
Yes, parents should have the entitlement to choose whether their children are given religious instruction: but it's possible that people are missing a central dimension of human experience if they refuse such knowledge. It's difficult to understand the history of Western art without such knowledge; and the role of religion in the world today will be a closed book unless you have an intelligent grasp of what faith culture means, including, yes, the woeful aspects of sectarianism and fanaticism that also arise in religious conflicts.
But you must know what it feels like to light a penny candle for a sick friend; or to sing a hymn at full throttle at a wedding or a funeral; or to go through the rite and ritual of a child's First Holy Communion; to have been part of a Confirmation or a Barmitzvah.
To understand how the billions of people in the world who adhere to a faith feel, you must once have been part of it yourself.
Be kind, be tolerant, be inclusive: but in the early years, keep it simple. Don't expect seven-year-olds to take on a discipline fit for a mature scholar; and don't confuse them by giving them St Brigid one day and the Goddess Kali the next.