Religious education is not all Catholic and Protestant
Schools should give children tools to find their own truths in their own way, says Brian McClinton
In her article in the Belfast Telegraph celebrating 30 years of integrated schools, Marie Cowan claimed that they seek to create an inclusive environment for those 'of all faiths and none' while, at the same time, she constantly emphasises their Christian roots and ethos. It is difficult to see how these two widely divergent characteristics are in any way compatible.
Marie Cowan is right about the benefits of integrated education. Studies clearly indicate that it curbs entrenched attitudes and dilutes sectarianism.
Pupils who attend an integrated school are more likely to reject traditional identities and allegiances than those who attend a segregated school.
But she is wrong to imply that this can only be achieved in a 'Christian' environment. Arguably, a religion-neutral, or secular school is better suited to creating a sense of community where all are treated on equal terms, regardless of creed, and where children have no reason to consider their own religion superior to all others.
In Marie Cowan's view, integrated schools are happy there is a statutory place for RE in the curriculum. Yet here is a perfect example where schools, whether integrated or not, fail to cater 'for those of all faiths and none'.
The present RE syllabus in Northern Ireland is largely Christian indoctrination. Recent reforms which, as a result of pressure from non-Christians added the study of two other world religions at Key Stage 3, are wholly inadequate.
A comprehensive programme about the range of world faiths and philosophies should cover all key stages and all main belief systems.
According to the last census, 14% of Northern Ireland's population were non-Christians and that is likely to increase.
Simply allowing non-believers, or those of other faiths, to 'opt out' of RE is wholly unsatisfactory and creates the feeling of difference and isolation which schools ought to avoid. It is not showing children the respect they deserve.
Here is the nub of the matter. An education system which ignores the rights of the child is fundamentally flawed. Some of these rights are outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is a legally-binding document.
Article 13 affirms the right of the child to freedom of expression, including freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. Article 14 affirms that states must respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
And Article 29 states the education of the child should be directed to preparation for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendship among all peoples.
It is immoral, therefore, to have a child labelled as 'Christian', 'Muslim', 'Protestant', 'Catholic', 'Humanist', or whatever. In a pluralist, multicultural and democratic society, the state has a duty to promote the tolerance and recognition of different values, religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs.
Similarly, a school has a moral duty to 'educate', which means to lead out, to widen a child's horizons.
Northern Ireland languishes behind other parts of Europe and the UK in this respect.
Thus Humanism is now studied by pupils throughout the UK and Europe. Why is there no Humanism on the RE curriculum here?
Humanists are not opposed to teaching religion in school, but we think it should be confined to the classroom and taught along with Humanist and other world-views.
Moral Education and Philosophy should be taught from both religious and secular perspectives. A secular state does not promote religion nor atheism.
It gives children the tools to think for themselves and find their own truths in their own way. Children have to be educated, but they have also to be left to educate themselves.