Development & Education

In religious Ireland, at least a few kids will learn about atheism in school

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Chris Keane/REUTERS

Well-known atheist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins. Dawkins' book "The Magic of Reality" is a key text in the first-ever atheist curriculum for Irish schoolchildren.

In spite of the striking headlines about exposing kids to atheism in the public schools of Ireland, it turns out the new rule only affects about 16,000 elementary school-age kids. Those are the ones attending special multi-denominational schools.

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The other 93 percent of Irish children attend public schools controlled by the Catholic Church. These aren't parochial schools; these are the majority of Ireland's public, tax-funded elementary schools.  

In the United States, this mixing of church and state would be a no-no. But in Ireland, the Catholic Church hs been the overlord of the public school system since the country was founded in 1922.

"To some extent they were providing resources that the state didn't have," says Peter McGuire who reports on education for The Irish Times, "But they also wanted to consolidate their power."  

Now that's changing. McGuire says that as Ireland has become more secular since the 1990s, the control of primary education has become more and more controversial.

Enter the so-called multi-denominational schools. They started about twenty years ago and there are now 68 of them in Ireland. "There's huge demand for these multi-denominational schools, but like any large institutional system, change happens slowly", says McGuire. 

The group that oversees the multi-denominational schools is Educate Together, a nongovernmental organization. Educate Together and Atheist Ireland joined forces to create the new secular belief systems curriculum, which includes atheism.

McGuire says, "It's not so much about teaching kids to be atheists as teaching about atheism and teaching them it's another option."  Parents can opt out if they want to, but the classes in atheism will be available online. The new curriculum will be introduced into Ireland's multi-denominational schools in September 2014. 

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