The separation between church and state is now widely accepted as integral to the status of any democratic republic. The provision of special schools, entirely secular in their ethos, disavowing any religious creed, or under the patronage of any church, is also accepted for those who wish to follow an exclusively secular education.
The Archbishop of Dublin has already said that he would welcome the re-allocation of patronage from some of the Roman Catholic schools in his diocese, even if, as seem deducible from what he said, that this means the patronage of any other religious persuasion, or of none.
The new Minister for Education, Mr. Rory Quinn, has grasped this challenge of the secularisation of education with what seems like a missionary zeal. (It is interesting that the now fashionable leap into agnosticism or atheism, as propounded by people like Professor Dawkins, should be characterised by the same strident fervour as they themselves would, rightly, ascribe to a proselytizing religion).
There was the same fervour in Mr. Quinn’s announcement that he would like to see the division of Irish schools on a fifty-fifty basis: fifty per cent under religious patronage and fifty per cent entirely secular. And it has to be asked if this proposed division is based on some Socialist ideal, or on demand by the people of Ireland.
If it is a Socialist ideal, then the Irish people have not voted on it, and in the recent election Mr. Quinn’s Labour Party did not receive an overall majority, nor a mandate for such a dramatic change in education, even though it might be dear to the Minister’s heart. Its place in the hearts of Irish people is something else - something on which they should be consulted, something which requires thought and examination, discussion, even maybe some constitutional changes.
While, in justice, concessions have to be made to the secular, does a fifty-fifty division accurately reflect the wishes of ordinary Irish people? After all, most of us have come from a background which had at its core religious teaching, given to us by teaching Sisters and Brothers and like-minded lay teachers. Their contribution to Ireland has never been accurately, nor fairly, assessed. (Eaten bread is soon forgotten). It was a contribution which has taken ignorant, poor, starving, raggy Irish children from the destitution of the late 18th century into the Celtic Tiger, where, some would say, we lost it.
Many of us, in a callow youth, may have railed against the constancy of religious instruction, but we also railed against what we saw as the tyranny of Irish grammar and Latin’s irregular verbs. But there can be few of us who are not truly grateful for exposure to one of the most influential books in the world’s literature - the Jewish/Christian Bible.
There we found all human life, good, bad and indifferent: the retribution of over-ambition, the folly of pride, the devastation of war, pity for the down-trodden and oppressed, the goodness of good people, the beauty of the psalms, the prescription for a decent life in the Ten Commandments and the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes. Was all of that such a bad thing?
And was the natural progression from that instruction to prayer and meditation, or to the appreciation of the great works of art and architecture, inspired by it, not enriching on our lives?
In fact, it can be seriously asked if an education completely devoid of any study of any of the great religions of the world (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) can truly be classified as education at all.
It is indeed impossible to read the classical works of literature, Shakespeare, or the great English novelists, without locating them within the moral code of Christian beliefs. There is the conflict between God and Mammon, good and evil, actions and conscience. It is even impossible to study the prescribed Irish course without meeting Dia agus Mhuire.
Therefore, before Mr. Quinn pursues complete secularity in education, does he not have to define secular? How secular is secular? Does it exclude the great philosophers and thinkers, and even ordinary humankind, who, from recorded history, have been asking: Why are we here? Where have we come from? Where are we going to? Questions to which the world’s great religions, with a surprising commonality, proffer answers.
Will it be necessary to have a mass censorship of texts, to exclude any reference to religion, or to the transcendental, so that children in our schools will be spared from any contact with a religious belief? And will Ireland be a better place because fifty per cent of our children will be saved from such contact?
It seems to me that these are the issues which Irish people, especially young Irish parents, should be engaged in by the Minister, before he makes the decision on his desired fifty-fifty division. He himself may be ideologically driven in his onward march to the secularisation of Irish education, but does the majority of Irish people, even fifty percent of them, share his ideology?
After all, before we throw the baby out with the bath water, we need to find out if the infant is really dead, or if it is still alive and kicking and has a future. That would seem to be a no-brainer.