Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality is a key text in the first ever atheist curriculum for Irish schoolchildren. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
In a historic move that will cheer Richard Dawkins, lessons aboutatheism 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.
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.
“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.”
Jane Donnelly, a member of Atheist Ireland and a parent of two children in an Irish secondary school, welcomed the creation of an atheism alternative for Irish pupils.
“I opted my two girls out of religious education classes and they were told to go to the library and find a philosophy book to read during RE instead. The range of philosophy books was very limited so I sent them into school each day with a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for them to read.”
Religion, education and the Irish Republic
• God is omnipresent in the 1937 Irish constitution, with article 6.1 stating: “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people”; and article 44.1 noting: “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.”
• Since the foundation of the republic, the Catholic church controls up to 93% of the state’s 3,200 primary schools.
• 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.
• The Irish education minister, Ruairi Quinn, has promised “the most radical change in primary education in Ireland since the state was founded in the 1920s” by taking the power of the church from running almost all schools in the state and putting it into the hands of elected governors. So far his reforms have not begun in earnest.
• This article was amended on 27 September 2013 to clarify that pupils in multi-denominational schools will learn about atheism as part of the wider curriculum covering ethics, beliefs and religion. Atheists will not be teaching children that God does not exist, as originally stated, rather, children will be educated about atheism, including the atheist belief that God does not exist.