Atheism to be taught in Irish schools

Some days most of the news is about atheism vs. faith, and I suppose today is one of those days.  But this time the news is good. According to the Guardian, mandatory lessons that include instruction in atheistic thought will soon begin in Irish primary schools:

In a historic move that will cheer Richard Dawkins, lessons about atheism are to be taught in Ireland’s primary schools for the first time.

The lessons on atheism, agnosticism and humanism for thousands of primary-school pupils in Ireland will be drawn up by Atheist Ireland and multi-denominational school provider Educate Together, in an education system that the Catholic church hierarchy has traditionally dominated.

Up to 16,000 primary schoolchildren who attend the fast-growing multi-denominational Irish school sector will receive tuition about atheism as part of their basic introduction course to ethics and belief systems, including other religions.

From September 2014 children could be reading texts such as Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality, his book aimed at children, according to Atheist Ireland.

Do note the gratuitious mention of Dawkins. He’s not the only person who will be cheered!

Well, I suppose this is good news, although I’m in favor of this only if it avoids indoctrination, that is, if such instruction is part of a general course in the diversity of religious belief. And that’s what it appears to be. I know Dan Dennett is enthusiastic about such courses, but I’ve always worried that it would be difficult to teach religion even in a “survey” course, for believers could easily squabble about how to present the the “essential doctrine” of their faiths (imagine Sunni vs. Shia Islam, for instance).  But if they’re teaching religious thought, then they should teach nonreligious thought as well. On balance, it’s good.

Now before you get all excited, note that 93% of all primary schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic Church, where this curriculum won’t apply. Nevertheless, according to Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland (who, along with his organization, deserve kudos for pushing this through), even Catholics will have access to the materials:

But Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland’s co-founder, stressed that all primary-school pupils, including the 93% of the population who attend schools run by the Catholic church, can access their atheism course on the internet and by downloading an app on smartphones. He said these would be advertised and offered to all parents with children at primary schools in the state.

I doubt that the Catholic nuns and priests who teach in these schools, or Catholic parents, will rush to make the materials accessible to who are offensively called as “Catholic children.”

Here’s how the system will work:

“There will be a module of 10 classes of between 30 to 40 minutes from the ages of four upwards. It is necessary because the Irish education system has for too long been totally biased in favour of religious indoctrination. And if parents whose kids are in schools under church control want to opt their kids out of learning religion (as is their right these days) then they can use our course as an alternative for their children to study,” he said.

Nugent added: “Religion isn’t even taught properly as an objective subject with various religions and their origins examined and explained. The teaching is to create faith formation first, not objective education. We see our course as a chance for young Irish children to get an alternative view on how the world works.”

The upshot: it’s a good start, though the opportunity for de-brainwashing “Catholic children” will be limited.  What surprises me is that this is taking place in Ireland at all.

Here are some fun facts about Ireland’s schools from the Guardian piece (my emphasis):

  • The Catholic church’s near monopoly of influence in education means that the ultimate power in each school is the local Catholic bishop.
  • In Dublin the city’s archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, is patron of about 470 primary schools. He is responsible for the management of the ethos of those schools, for senior appointments and is the one who can be sued when legal action takes place.
  • The Irish taxpayer, and not the church, pays the bills for all the schools the hierarchy controls.

There will be a palliative cat later.

h/t: Rev. Al


  1. gbjames
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink


  2. peltonrandy
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I can imagine the gnashing of teeth and howls of protest such a move would engender if attempted anywhere in the United States.

  3. Merilee
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Not sure what’s to teach except negatives??? Basically good gnus though, I guess.

    • Rebecca Harbison
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Well, one could introduce that non-theistic cosmologies* and ethical systems exist, and talk about the more common ones.

      Sometimes just mentioning that alternatives exist is helpful, and, while ‘atheism’ is a broad term, things like ‘secular humanist’ and so on are less so. Most theists, after all, would describe their beliefs as far more than ‘at least one god exists’, which sounds more like a mathematical proof than a religion.

      * In the senses that some folks don’t even require the ‘God created the Big Bang’, let alone a more interventionist deity. One can let science cover the details after that.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        Agreed. I have a friend who wants to teach her children about different religions but I wasn’t asked to provide my view. 🙂 She may be open later & I’ll have to bring it up.

      • Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        “I’m a ∃!G-ist.”


    • eric
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      History of freethought, and how prominent freethinkers have impacted their societies. You could, for example, discuss how it has been used as an accusation to try and silence people (everyone from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes). How many other social movements included freethinkers (women’s suffrage springs to mind). Hume and Russel and a bunch of others, all the way up to Hitch.
      You could use the atheism unit to discuss how atheists have responded to arguments for the existence of god(s), and so on.

  4. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Hmm, I’m all for it, but can’t help smiling a bit and thinking…how are we going to teach atheism?

    • gbjames
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Seriously? There are countless books on the subject.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        Yup. But is it supposed to be about the history of atheism and atheistic thinkers or is it more like a contemporary philosophic idea of what atheism is?

        As we all know, atheism is simply the lack of belief in any gods so I’m a bit skeptical about the potential philosophical approach. In short, I’m hoping it won’t be anything like the A+ idea.

        • gbjames
          Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

          “The lessons will be based on the Toledo guiding principles and will be taught in an objective, critical and pluralist manner. They will teach about atheism, not teach atheism.”

          “Description of content.
          1. The variety of world views in modern culture, including their origin
          2. The scientific world view – at odds with religion? The question of creation
          3. The technological view of the world and the person
          4. Challenges to religious experience (such as materialism, individualism, etc.)
          5. Apathy and religious indifference.”

          There is more if you want to click that link.

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

            No, that sounds very good. My small quibble was with the “teach atheism” phrase. “Teach about atheism” works much better for me.

            Atheism is a huge and broad term that includes all sorts of people with different views on different subjects. As long as the course will reflect that, then good on them.

            • Grania Spingies
              Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

              Atheist Ireland as well as Educate Together are very clear that the course only intends to teach *about* atheism as part of a Comparative Religion course. It’s the newspapers that are deliberately skewing the truth (and adding a picture of Richard Dawkins) to maximize page clicks.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

                Thanks Grania( Oh and gbjames too ). My lazybone is getting the better of me today. 🙂

        • Notagod
          Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          Maybe that’s because you think about atheism in terms of wanting or needing belief.

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted September 28, 2013 at 2:44 am | Permalink

            I doubt it.

  5. Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    This is good news! I remember when I was in public school in New York City back in the early 90s, we had these special “religion” classes I think in the 5th or 6th grade. The teacher taught us about all of the world’s major religions, and their important tenets, and it was done in an objective, responsible manner – no religion was the “true” religion. I also remember how she made it all very interesting. I knew very little about Islam before this, so I gained a lot of knowledge about it. I can’t remember though if atheism was discussed. I was still “Christian” at the time, but it didn’t bother me that the teacher(who was most likely Christian too) didn’t say Christianity was the only “true” religion.

    I don’t remember one bit of controversy surrounding this. Just about all the students in my school came from Christian families, with a few kids from Jewish families and maybe one or two Hindus. There were no fundamentalists; I can only imagine how difficult it would be to have a class like this if there are children of Christian or Muslim fundamentalists in the class.

    Like you, and like Dennett, I believe all schools should have classes like this. Religious people who are opposed to this are showing their true colors as the bigoted totalitarians that they really are. They will protest for sure, or demand their child be exempted from taking these classes, and they will win for sure. But this doesn’t mean their children won’t get exposed to other religions in countless other ways.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted September 28, 2013 at 4:39 am | Permalink

      I can only imagine how difficult it would be to have a class like this if there are children of Christian or Muslim fundamentalists in the class.

      Indeed, just yesterday there was report of some BS in the Hollyrood government (Scotland) where the God Squad were trying to negotiate opt-out clauses for children to avoid being educated about the existence of same-sex marriage, homosexuality, etc. They were making un-veiled threats that lots of schools are going to be sued by parents if their children are taught about the existence of same-sex marriage etc in classes.
      Same day, better news from Scotland : the 2011 census compared to the 2001 census showed over 1 in 3 of the population reporting no religious identification at all, and self-identified Christians down by 10% over the decade to only 54%. So, hopefully, in a decade the Christians won’t even be a majority, and quite possibly will be outnumbered by those of no religion.

  6. John Hamill
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Ireland is worse than The Guardian suggests. Primary schools here have 1 hour per week of science and more than 2.5 hours of religion.

    I have four kids and no option but to send them all to Catholic primary schools. 😦

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Congratulations Ireland! I knew you had it in you and that the Irish people would help change their society!


    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted September 28, 2013 at 4:53 am | Permalink

      Replies #6 and #7 above are an excellent contrast of how far Ireland has come, and how far it has to go.

  8. eric
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    “There will be a module of 10 classes of between 30 to 40 minutes

    Initially, I thought that was too long for it to be a unit in a general religious studies class (i.e., the type of class JAC supports, as would I).

    The I did some math. Assume the class is one semester (18 weeks for a typical US elementary school), meeting for 45 minutes per day. That’s 18×5=90 total classes in the semester. Assume 5 days off for holidays (there’s 10 Federal holidays per year), =85 classes available. So with units this size, you could cover 7 other major ideologies in the same depth, or 4-5 others in this depth and have 1-2 unite dedicated to a bunch of minor ideologies. That sounds about right. Cover Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, “None,” African tribal/animism and that covers probably over 90% of the religious beliefs of humanity, with 15 days left for other beliefs, tests, etc.

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Ireland has been rapidly becoming vastly more secular even if the Catholic Church holds much of the political prestige and power.

  10. Kieran
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Well it isn’t that bad, went to a parish primary school, a Christian brothers secondary school and then UCD which is technically the catholic university of Ireland.
    The early stuff was indoctrination, learn your catechism etc. But in secondary school it started with world religion. By the time I was in 5th and 6th year the classes had turn to debating ideas from how to tell your parents you got the girlfriend pregnant or you’re gay etc.
    College the closest thing to religion I had was the international church of christ tried to recruit me, luckily all that catholic doctrine came in handy when I had to pretend to be opus dei to get rid of them.

    All in all I have a very good education, so does Daragh O brian and many other Irish people. We inherited the church control of the schools at the birth of the country and like today we were broke. Church provided the buildings and of course the political system was hand in glove with the church.

    It will take a generation before we have a choice independent schools like educate together and that will take money.

    We have a huge issue with cultural catholics in Ireland, people who continue in the traditions but don’t actually believe in most or any of it. Until they just admit to themselves that they don’t believe and don’t support the church it will be very difficult to break the death grip of the church on our schools and hospitals

    Sorry about the long post.

  11. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of atheism, here is Stengers take on new atheism:


    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Well, it’s more about the anti scientific ideas of the American religious right than it’s about new atheism, but he ends with this beauty:

      “I have an urgent plea to scientists and all thinking people. We need to focus our attention on one goal, which will not be reached in the lifetime of the youngest among us but has to be achieved someday if humanity is to survive: That goal is the replacement of foolish faith and its vanities with something more sublime–knowledge and understanding that is securely based on observable reality.”

      He’s fucking brilliant.

  12. jdhuey
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    One of the key events when I was a kid that led to my rejecting religion was a two page map in my World Civilizations class. Placed on a world map were blocks of text describing the basics of the primary religion of that region. What struck me was just how absurd all the other religions sounded and then it hit me that Christianity probably sounded just as absurd to them. This essentially became my own ‘Outsider test of Faith’.

  13. Posted September 27, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    To all those concerned about the curriculum or the possibility of indoctrination or whatever…Atheist Ireland is behind this. Nothing to worry about. They’re good, smart folk; they’ll get it right, I’m sure.



  14. Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Because I appreciate you, I nominated you for the “Awesome Blog Content” Award.

    More about the ABC here:

    Thanks for all you do!

  15. Posted September 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    To comprehensively cover Atheism they would do best to make non-cherry picked Bible study mandatory. The Bible has been credited with producing the most Atheists for good reason…

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted September 28, 2013 at 5:21 am | Permalink

      Damn, I broke my post checking an ISBN.

      non-cherry picked Bible study

      What do you mean? Making some look-up tables then using some of the Lottery draw’s numbers to select the book, then the chapter, then the verse, and then having to explain the theological sense of that text the next morning. That would be a good test for your pastor too!
      Of course, to be fair you’d also have to use one of the random numbers to select the religion and “holy” book to be looking at. Including the Book of Mormon, some of the higher-level Scientology Thetan stuff. Oh, and of course, the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (ISBN 0812976568 ; get your copy before it’s banned!).

  16. Scott
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    The mantioning of Dawkins and the photo of him that accompany the guardian piece are absurd.
    It seems impossible for some to write about Atheism with mentioning Dawkins.

    There are very few nuns and priests actually teaching in Primary schools now. I remember we did have about 30 minutes or so each day for catecism, which was bible studies for kids with an illustrated book and list of hymns to be learned. My parents had written to the school and told them that I wasn’t to recieve religious instruction so I was always allowed do my homework while the catecism was going on. Even then I can remember thinking that it was all bollicks anyway.

    The parish priest would come in about once or twice a month but I can’t really remember what he talked about. And we were all marched down to the church at least once a month for choir practice and to mass on the religious holidays. Ash Wednesday and such days were always a big deal.

    How much influence the church actually has in the day -to-day ruuning of school affairs these days I don’t know

%d bloggers like this: