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

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Marco Werman: The headline for this next story could be "Atheism Added to School Curriculum in Ireland". In fact that is the headline and in a country where the Catholic Church controls most public schools that's big news. Now here's the rub. The Irish elementary students who will now be taught about atheism are only those who attend multi-denominational school and they're just seven percent of Irish schoolchildren. The rest go to public schools funded by taxpayers, but run by the Catholic Church. Peter McGuire reports for The Irish Times. He's in Dublin. We need a little background here first, Peter. How is it that the Catholic Church controls more than ninety percent of public elementary schools in Ireland? I mean here separation of Church and state would just make that a no-no.

Peter McGuire: Well, Ireland is definitely becoming more secular because the Church, since the Irish state became independent in 1922, did gain control of the primary school system. To some extent they are providing resources that the state didn't have and they also kinda wanted to consolidate their power. As Ireland has become more secular from about the 1990s, the Catholic Church control of primary school education has become more and more controversial.

Werman: So where is that influence felt? I mean how much does Catholicism exert itself on say the curriculum in these elementary schools?

McGuire: Catholicism exerts itself hugely on the curriculum. Just earlier this year, the Minister for Education pointed out that Irish elementary schools spend two and a half hours per week on religious instructs. This compares to one hour for science and one hour for P.E. So in Ireland we spend about double the amount of time that other countries do on religion and we spend much less time on science. So this is seen as something that really does need to change and I think that the government's intention is to change this. It's also felt, I suppose, in the Communion and Confirmation which generally, the preparation for that is given in schools, while I suppose in America they might have Sunday School where children are making their Catholic community and Catholic [??], that preparation is done outside school hours. Here it's done inside school hours.

Werman: How new are the multi-denominational schools? And did they come about in response to the change in demographics in Ireland?

McGuire: There have been multi-denominational schools for I'd say over twenty years, but they have grown massively over the past decade, particularly over the past number of years.

Werman: Is there a lot of competition among kids and parents to get into these multi-denominational schools?

McGuire: Yes, there's a lot of competition to get those places. A lot of parents have to put their kids' names down early. There's huge demand for these multi-denominational schools, but like any [??] system, change happens slowly.

Werman: So what's the motivation behind this new instruction in atheism in those multi-denominational schools? Is it about kinda teaching children that God does not exist or is it educating them about what options are there, atheism being one of them.

McGuire: It's very much about educating them about the different options that are out there and it's not so much about teaching them to be atheists as teaching them about atheism and teaching them that it's another option. Like every Irish primary school, they have to include religious instruction. They just tend to probably include more about Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Atheism there as well. So it's a new module. It will be optional for some schools, not all schools are going to have to take it.

Werman: Has there been any opposition to the teaching of atheism?

McGuire: Not particularly, no. I suppose from the Church's point of view, the educate-together multi-denominational schools are free to do as they wish. If parents don't want their child taking part, well, then the parent can opt out. There's mixed feelings. There's some indifference, a lot of anger at the Catholic Church, particularly over the past couple of decades given the abuse scandals. And then of course you have some people who do still want their kids to have a Catholic education. So no, there hasn't really been any opposition at all.

Werman: Peter McGuire reports on education for The Irish Times in Dublin. Thank you, Peter.

McGuire: OK.