\"Questioning

Questioning anything in religion class will get you sent to the principals or worse. Photo by: Getty Images/Purestock

Religious growing pains in Ireland

\"Questioning

Questioning anything in religion class will get you sent to the principals or worse. Photo by: Getty Images/Purestock

If you’ve been through the Irish education system at any point in the last five decades you will recall that, in the main, it strongly discourages critical thinking skills. 

Very quickly you figured out that knowledge belonged to your tutors. Your task was simply to listen to them, repeat what they said, and after five years they would hand you a certificate. It was a system that was as regular and predictable in its way as sausage making.

Adult authority was unquestionable, religious authority was irrefutable. There was no need to ask any searching questions when every important debate had already been settled. This is how authoritarian cultures run things.

Generations of Irish were raised like this. Anyone who spoke up would quickly feel the disapproval of their community guardians and their religious elders. It was for your own good, of course. The last thing Ireland wanted or needed was questions, apparently. 

I remember with some tenderness the experience of an idealistic classmate whose earnestness was only matched by his naivety. He was forever engaging our humorless religious knowledge teacher in unasked for debates about Catholic teaching. 

“How can God be watching all 7.4 billion people on earth, all day and all night?” he asked. 

Our teacher, a tight-lipped, tweed-skirt wearing thirty-something from Co. Carlow, looked frustrated. 

“We cannot know the mind of God,” she replied evenly.

“Well, how can He know ours?” said my friend. “Imagine listening to the thoughts of 7.6 billion people all day long. You’d need a Panadol after that.” The class erupted in laughter, which was the last thing it was ever supposed to do. The teacher from Carlow looked like she had been slapped. Laughter was off the curriculum.

Most students would have noticed that their questions were unwelcome, but my friend was so fascinated by himself and by what he was being asked to meekly accept that he couldn’t contain himself. 

Soon he was at the principal’s door. Soon after that he was suspended. 

The injustice of that made him increasingly mutinous. Shortly after that he was expelled. 

It took him years to undo the academic damage of being thrown out of secondary school for showing initiative. For a long time he was socially radioactive. 

Eventually I heard he won a scholarship to UCD. He left the town and never came back. I don’t know where he is now, but I suspect he’s not teaching religious knowledge.

Not that he’ll be missed. The Catholic Church still controls 90 percent of Irish primary schools. Despite its doubtful fortunes in other areas the church’s grip on them has been remarkably tenacious. 

In fact as late as 2010 you still couldn’t train to be a primary school teacher in a state-funded teacher-training college without being either a self-described Catholic or a Protestant. 

As late as 2010 every student teacher in the nation was still required to pass the Certificate in Religious Studies (CRS). That meant if you were not a believing Christian and unwilling to pretend to be so, you were effectively debarred from the profession.

Recently, in response to outrage over these affairs, students have been given the option of taking a new course on ethical studies instead of the CRS. But on the ground having taken this course instead of the CRS effectively outs you as “non-religious.”

In a recent interview Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had a word of advice for such teachers. If they are not willing to teach the faith they “should be able to move to the type of school where they would be happier in accordance with their own conscience.”

There are a lot of euphemistic ways to say get lost, aren’t there? As always, when we talk about religious discrimination in Ireland, we find that the state is often a willing accomplice. 

As The Irish Times noted recently, on the website of St. Patrick’s teacher training college in Dublin (a state-funded college) the Frequently Asked Questions section deals with the CRS matter upfront. 

Question: “If I choose not to study for the CRS, are there any repercussions?” 

Answer: “As the vast majority of schools are under Catholic management, you will be limiting the number of schools where you can hold a teaching position. Also, although some people have secured employment in Catholic schools in the past without the CRS, many such teachers have found that upon seeking promotion… they are ineligible to apply.”

You’ll go nowhere. You’ll be out of luck. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. This is how authoritarian cultures still run things.

It’s nigh impossible for an adolescent to develop a true sense of themselves and their own capacities in a culture that has already decided for them who they are and what they will be. Perhaps that’s the intention. Perhaps that’s why so few of them ever seem to grow up. 

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