The Impossibility of Neutrality – or the ideology of non-ideology

A religiously-identified school accommodates the secular. The same cannot be said of a secular school system with regard to religion.

“They are inclusive and welcoming. They are non-judgmental of people’s beliefs” said a mother with whom I was discussing types of schooling recently. She was an avid proponent of Ireland’s secularist Educate Together movement and their new school slated to be opened in an affluent Dublin district. The secularization of society in Ireland today, along with a perceived over-subscription of schools (and the admission criteria for dealing with it) has prompted a demand for a secular teaching programme devoid of religious identity.

According to a Department of Education survey, there are currently around 3,000 primary schools in Ireland. Of these only a small minority are actually over-subscribed. The building of a few more schools would alleviate the over subscription problem. It is difficult not to conclude that many are using this issue as a pretext to push for a divestment of the Catholic Diocese from school ownership and a removal of the so-called “baptism barrier”. 

Theoretically the management authorities in Catholic schools currently can give preference to children baptised in the Christian faith over non-baptised children when there are not enough places in a school to accommodate all applicants.  In reality, this excess of demand over supply occurs in only 48 of the 3000 schools. Of those, 16 are located in the South Dublin area.  Nevertheless, the secular movement is pushing for a transformation of the entire system.

This seems to be promoted without taking cognizance of a democratic desire for the status quo to be preserved. In most cases where the divestment from ecclesiastical control of parish schools is put to the people (where there is a putative need for such), parents indicate that they want the school to remain under Catholic patronage. 

Clearly, when a school is over-subscribed, some criteria must be invoked to reach a decision on who should get first preference. This may be based on whether there is a sibling in the school or whether the child lives within the catchment area – or on religious belief if it is a school with faith education as one of its objectives. But you don’t hear about the ‘sibling barrier’ or the ‘geography barrier’. Is this because many see religion as something about as arbitrary and meaningful as a town-land border? They cry discrimination (unjust discrimination, presumably) when a small number are refused on denominational grounds, but not when the greater number are refused on grounds of geography. A few vociferous opponents of faith schools want local divestment and assume everyone else should want it too.

The nearest school to me is under the patronage of the Church of Ireland (protestant) and I am not at all alone in accepting that their ‘Anglicans first’ policy is valid and just when the pressure of over-subscription bears down. Recent government regulations recognise this and have conceded this right to them. The fact that there are fewer protestant schools in Ireland schools does nothing to change the nature of the argument against religious admissions policy. It is merely a matter of degree. Why should rights granted to the followers of one faith be denied to the followers of another?

The reality is that if secular parents seek to send their child to a Church of Ireland school or to a Catholic school, they will not, under normal circumstances be turned away and their child will be exempt from religious studies. This was the case with a friend of mine who attended the local national Catholic school with me. His parents were of the Ba’hai faith and he and his family were sojourning in Ireland for the school year.

There is a modern notion that we should have a secular school system because “it’s high time we had one”, that it is the way of all modern democracies. “We are after all living in the year 2017”, they might say. It’s as if what we ought to be doing is determined simply by looking at the calendar.

Many say that the teaching of religion is a private matter and that the teaching of religion should be confined to the home. However, secularism – an ideology which has the marginalization or elimination of religion as a core objective – consists of a worldview with its own set of values, including a view on religion. Should not this belief system be confined to the personal and private spheres as well? There is no such thing as a neutral education. The questions at the heart of man’s existence and on the lips of every child must be answered, at least tacitly. Religion, or whatever replaces it, is imprinted upon the school’s identity, rules and culture. When secularists take over a school their convictions replace whatever was there before. Where living and thinking human beings are involved there is no such thing as an ideological vacuum chamber.

The secularisation of a public school system would make religion inaccessible to the ones who would probably need it most – those with no religion taught at home. In the United States, – where I lived for a number of years – the secularisation of the public schools has been going on since the early 20th Century. The parochial school system is now all but extinct. What is in its place is an ailing and underperforming secular public school system, representing the only option for many. Only the wealthy can send their children to highly sought-after and expensive religiously-affiliated schools.

As modern and progressive as the Unites States is, it would appear that many who have money use it to fund their children’s education in the timeless or at least time-tested values of religious education.

An acquaintance of mine recounted that one of his teachers halted the practice of saying a prayer at the beginning of class. He recalled one girl rising and saying the prayer automatically anyway. The teacher’s response to this was that such “automaton-like behaviour” was the reason he chose to stop saying the prayer.

The argument was false and failed to see and understand the nature of prayer. Habit does not kill prayer. In fact it provides a vehicle which allows prayer to happen. If the practice of habitual prayer is in place in a school we can hope that those from a home where religious faith is vibrant will pray with fervour and conviction. Those who are from homes with a weaker faith will at least see the example of the stronger and know that their school takes faith seriously. We cooperate with God when we give some room for his grace to work in. School authorities with moral and religious convictions will try to aim high and not to the lower common denominators. We can only hope that Ireland is not heading towards a secularist world where schools will be named after some wealthy and generous humanitarian who just points horizontally to his fellow men as exemplars of ideals, but after a saint who also points beyond – to Heaven and to God.

After graduating from UCC in physics and applied mathematics, Mark Hickey undertook postgraduate studies in physics at Cambridge and went on to work in Leeds, MIT and the University of Massachusetts. With a young family to support, he exchanged the atoms and electrons for the bits and bytes of the software industry. He is married to Karen and is father of three.