MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Reduce teaching of religion? God forbid

Spare a thought for the gay agnostic teacher.

I thought of her last week after the hullabaloo over Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s comment on the teaching of religion in primary schools.

Quinn was attending the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principles Network when he was asked about the amount of teaching time given to maths and literacy.

Quinn responded that the time allocated to religion could be better used on maths and reading. The comments drew a quick rebuke from the bishops’ conference and the Association of Catholic Priests, along with a slew of negative comment in the media.

Quinn was cast as anti-religious, a man determined to send the Church scurrying from the secular temple of a mythical republic.

I wonder what the gay agnostic teacher would think of such high dudgeon? She is starting out full of the energy and enthusiasm that are required for good teaching.

The profession she is entering demands that practitioners give of themselves to the task, not unlike the demands of performing, or acting. A teacher going through the motions — and, yes, there are some — will not do a good job.

A teacher who approaches the classroom with passion will awaken a love of learning and discovery in her pupils. This is the vocational element of teaching.

So our gay agnostic teacher wants to get stuck right in. Yet, most likely, in the interview for a job, she must suppress two of the most primal instincts known to humans — sexuality and spirituality.

If lucky, she may be going for a job in a multi- or non-denominational school, where she can bring all of herself to the task. However, the chances are she will be applying to work in one of the 92% of primary schools controlled by the Catholic Church.

Here, her sexuality can get her fired. Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act permits religious groups to deny employment to anybody who undermines their ethos. Somebody who is openly gay could fall under this provision, as the Church has issues around homosexuality, but, under the current Pope, apparently gay no longer equals evil.

While the Church has been careful not to invoke the provision, since it was introduced 15 years ago, it still hangs over gay teachers like a sharpened mitre of high-grade steel. Teachers who happen to be gay now know better than to be open about their sexuality, and they put up and shut up because their job may be at stake.

As far as having a private life, precious few would post an open invite in the staff room to their civil-partnership ceremony.

Then, there is the issue of spirituality. The agnostic, in the strictest sense, is in a small minority in this country, but when coupled with the lapsed Catholic, he/she represents a sizeable proportion, possibly the majority, certainly among a younger cohort.

This prospective teacher is obliged in an interview to say that she will teach children the Catholic faith, even though she believes much of it to be little short of hocus pocus.

How can such a teacher bring all of herself to the subject of faith formation? She can parrot the catechism — but can she instil belief where she has none herself? Things get really hairy when preparing for the sacraments. Then, she must patiently explain to children of seven years of age that when they receive their First Communion it is the body of a man named Jesus Christ.

A child with a flair for logic might take issue with that. A squeamish child might recoil at the thought. Here, of course, is where the committed Catholic teacher can explain the rudiments of the religion, the mysteries that form the core of existence, and how Christ was reputed to have been the personification of goodness.

The agnostic or lapsed teacher may parrot that stuff, but she would surely be unable to do anything more than that. Can you really fake the tenets of transubstantiation? How could these teachers impart religion with any passion or belief?

Yet, that’s the way things, to a large extent, go in the primary education system in this country.

Ultimately, it’s all about feeling the width, rather than examining the quality. An OECD study in 2012, entitled Education At A Glance, found that Irish pupils spent 10% of their class time on religion. This is twice the average time for developed countries, and is surpassed only by Israel, which is a state founded on a religion.

In theist theory, all that inculcation of religion, at a young age, should result in a far healthier nation, in terms of morals and even spirituality, in adulthood. We all know that hasn’t happened.

Instead, in most cases, teachers are merely imparting the stuff as best as possible, while trying to keep a straight face.

Quinn’s suggestion makes perfect sense. Why not leave religion to those best-equipped to impart their own beliefs? Why not move towards religion being taught outside of school hours, as it is in a number of the Protestant denominations? The answer, my friends, is that it’s too damn convenient for everybody to maintain the shambolic status quo. Religion is, to a large extent these days, sub-contracted out to schools by parents who either don’t practice it or can’t be bothered.

First Communion is a stand-out example of this. Whatever about Quinn’s broad suggestion on the teaching of religion, surely there is a case for undertaking the time-consuming preparation outside of core hours?

Better still, hand it all over to the parish, where parents would have to take major responsibility.

This type of approach is gaining currency among some who take their religion seriously. Fr Gerry O’Connor is a parish priest in the Dublin suburb of Cherry Orchard. Speaking on Today FM’s The Last Word last week, he spoke in favour of the parish coming to the fore, but said any time it was mentioned there was resistance from parents. In his area, the rate of regular practice is 2%, among a population that claims to be 80% Catholic.

The hierarchy are naturally wary of forcing greater involvement in the alleged spiritual health of their children. Form suggests that the end result would be further depletion of the young flock. Parents simply wouldn’t bother.

Instead, it’s far more likely the morass will continue. A watered-down religion will continue to be taught in 92% of primary schools. The Church can sit back and enjoy the power.

While its influence is waning in other sectors, it can take comfort that the breadth of its each continues in education. Parents can continue to relax, secure in the knowledge that their offspring are receiving some instruction in a moral compass, albeit one they have little interest in practising themselves.

Nobody needs Ruairi Quinn meddling in this arrangement. It’s simply too convenient.


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