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Introduction Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church, has

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Introduction

Without doubt, society
has completely transformed in the last few decades. We can see this on the
surface of society as the face of Ireland has changed drastically also. Ireland
is now an extremely diverse country that is home to a plethora of
nationalities, races and religions. This cultural transformation, combined with
the secularisation of Irish society and a host of other issues, such as
scandals within and a lack of trust in the prominent religious institution in
Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church, has led to the decline in the role of
religion in society. While many of these changes have been positive steps
forward, the question has arisen within society whether religious education has
a role in society or if religious education really matters? While many question
the value of religious education to us and the current generation, such as
Tilson (2011) who suggests that the subject “ought to be replaced by a subject
based in philosophical argumentation, called ethics”1, I believe that religious education holds a pivotal
position in a school syllabus and is a unique subject that can provide truly
valuable lessons and growth that other subjects simply cannot. This essay will
explore the various aspects of the subject that are invaluable to a student’s
educational experience, as well as their personal growth, and highlight the
many reasons that religious education does in fact matter.

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A New Ireland

   In recent decades, it is no secret that Ireland has
undergone a cultural transformation. Traditionally an almost entirely Irish,
Catholic country, Ireland has now become a pool of various peoples of diverse
nationalities, ethnicities and religions. This influx of diverse people is
largely due to the rapid modernisation and growth of the Irish economy, as
people from around the world arrived in Ireland in search for a better life.
Ireland has invariably become a better place because of this transformation as
it has benefitted the country in almost every way. However, at times the
country has struggled to cope and move forwards alongside these culture
changes. With the influx of foreign people into our society, it is our
responsibility to aid the integration of these people into society and our way
of life. This is where I believe education, in particular religious education,
has a central role and purpose. All schools in Ireland, including the Catholic
schools, acknowledge the need to “inform ourselves about these different religious
traditions and approach them with sensitivity and understanding”2
while encouraging students to “grow in their own faith or spirituality, whether
it is Catholic or not.”3 In
most cases and issues, Ireland proudly considers itself a multicultural
society. However, is being a multicultural society enough? Multicultural, by
definition, is ‘relating to or containing several cultural or ethnic groups
within a society’. Is it sufficient to simply ‘contain’ diversity within
society, in terms of ethnicity, nationality and religion? Is enough being done
to welcome and integrate into society the people coming into our country?
Multiculturalism as a concept is wonderful, but once we delve a little deeper,
we start to see that the diverse people of Ireland are not being immersed in
Irish society, they simply exist on the outskirts of it, leading to isolation
and tensions.

   Religious education can play a pivotal role
in addressing this issue. By adopting an intercultural approach in our RE
classrooms, we can begin to truly integrate and immerse people of other faiths
or nationalities into our society from a young age. The intercultural approach,
by definition, ‘takes place between cultures’ and allows for the intertwining
of our culture and the various cultures that exist in our country today.
Religious education allows a space where both the native Irish and people of
other nationalities, cultures or faiths to engage with each other in a way that
no other subject can, in “the fostering of a dialogue between cultures that
respects difference, acknowledges diversity and values the other”4,  facilitating mutual learning and the fostering
of better understanding and tolerance. Only through this intercultural approach
can we truly understand people of other cultures and allow them to feel part of
our society and community, which can only benefit the people of Ireland in
future generations. In the words of Dermot Lane (2008), “This particular
responsibility of course belongs to several different agencies, both voluntary
and statutory – but one of them must surely be education and in particular,
religious education.”5 For
this reason, religious education is of paramount importance to both the
inhabitants of this island and to the state for the future of our country.

Secularisation

    Throughout
previous decades in Ireland, personal faith and religion were intrinsically
linked with the state and society as a whole. Religion played a pivotal role in
society and people’s personal lives and sense of meaning. Thus, religious
education in turn also held a much more prominent role than it does today.
Ireland has experienced a significant transformation in terms of the role
religion and faith holds in society since the turn of the century. This has
occurred as a result of various factors, such as the modernisation of Ireland,
the growth of the economy, the advancements of science, as well as the scandals
in the Catholics Church. Irish society is becoming more and more secular as
many people are turning to science or spirituality for a sense of meaning and
feel that religion, and therefore religious education, has no place in society.
Secularisation attempts to remove religion from the public sphere altogether,
which is a very real threat that all religious educators are facing. Of course,
we would not be the first country to follow this path as we can see in France,
which has completely eradicated religion and religious expression from the
public sphere, arguably at the expense of the religious freedom of its
citizens. Tilson (2011) argues that a secular subject along the lines of ethics
should replace religious education, stating that “religious and non-religious
views ought to be taught alongside each other, but that non-religious views could
not sensibly be discussed in a subject called ‘religious education'”6.
However I would argue that non-religious views can and are taught within
religious education. For example, ethics is heavily incorporated into both the
junior and leaving certificate syllabuses under the section of morality, which
is an integral part of the syllabus. As well as this, non – religious
worldviews are also explored in section A of the leaving certificate syllabus
as students explore philosophical questions and answers regarding the meaning
of life and its grounding, the existence of God and the nature of divine
revelation.

   While I am under no illusion that religious
education is in any way perfect or should be immune to review and reform, I
feel that a subject such as ethics or an equivalent would not be able to take
the place of religious education in this country. I believe that religious
education is a vital component of our syllabus and should remain as such as it
provides students with a unique learning and growth experience that no other
subject can. Religion and faith has always been central to Irish culture, and
despite the growth of secular ideas, remains central. Religious education
engages students in a truly unique way that fosters and allows the growth of
the personal faith of students that believe, while also providing essential
insight and knowledge of all faiths, including our own, to all students,
regardless of their worldviews. This insight and knowledge is essential for
everybody as it is impossible to attempt to understand the world without a
knowledge and understanding of the various religions. Good religious education
provides this understanding and goes beyond just learning about the various
religions, encouraging engagement with all faiths resulting in tolerance and
understanding, which will benefit the student throughout their lives. I
wholeheartedly agree with Gareth Byrne (2013) in saying the “introduction of
ERB and Ethics … should be seen in the context of reviewing and contributing to
the development of religious education rather as something in opposition to
it.”7

Development of the Person

   Religious education also plays an important role in
the development of each student. As I have previously discussed, the subject
has a pivotal role in approaching the increasingly diverse Irish landscape but
also is a subject that is irreplaceable to the personal development of each
student, which is a core aim of religious education. The subject provides a
‘safe space’ in which students to find one’s own identity, reflect on various
experiences of faith,  and to mature and
develop as a person as students undertake the search for meaning in their
lives. As Gareth Byrne (2013) quite rightly states the value in religious
education is in “fostering an awareness of the human search for meaning”8
and identifying “understandings of God, engagement with religious traditions,
and in particular the Christian tradition, and how religion, and non-religious
interpretations of life, have contributed to personal development and to the
culture in which we live.”9
Religious education facilitates and encourages this personal growth and journey
in a way that no other subject can and to deny students this space is to deny
them an invaluable experience that will shape their outlook on life itself.

   One of the core aims of religious education
is to “contribute to the spiritual … development of the student”10.
This is another aspect of religious education that is at times unfairly seen in
a negative light. It is the role of the religious educator to help foster the
faith that exists within a student that believes and to nurture and contribute
to the growth of one’s faith throughout their time in school, thus achieving
the aim of religious education. While many believe this is the sole intention
of religious education, regardless of the students own beliefs, it is not the
job of a religious educator to convert or instil faith into any student. It is
of paramount importance to avoid isolating students in religious education due
to their faith or worldviews. Religious education incorporates students of all
cultures, faiths and worldviews and engages every student with a variety of
religious traditions, as well as secular worldviews, and provides students with
knowledge and skills that will benefit them as they grow into the diverse world
in which we live, promoting respect, understanding and tolerance, while
simultaneously contributing to the spiritual and faith development of those who
believe. Therefore, the subject adds significant value to the development of
every student. In the words of Gareth Byrne, “To neglect RE is to neglect the
future.”11

Conclusion

   For the various reasons I have discussed above, it
is evident that religious education is a unique subject that provides an
invaluable learning experience to each student. While many wrongly presume that
religious education is rigid religious study, the reality is the subject is so
much more than that. Religious education facilitates students’ engagement with
a variety of religious traditions, cultures and philosophical worldviews. As
well as this, religious education provides students with the opportunity to
grow within their own faith and develop their own worldview while fostering an
appreciation, understanding and respect of all traditions. For these reasons, I
truly believe that the subject is invaluable to the curriculum and should
remain an integral component of it.

1
Tillson, J. 2011. In Favour of Ethics Education, Against Religious Education. Journal of

Philosophy of
Education. Vol. 45(no.4), P. 686/687.

2
Mullally, A. (JMB/AMCSS) 2010. Guidelines
on the Inclusion of Students of Other Faiths in Catholic Secondary Schools
(Online) Available from: https://www.jmb.ie/publications.
P.24

3
Mullally, A. (JMB/AMCSS) 2010. Guidelines
on the Inclusion of Students of Other Faiths in Catholic Secondary Schools
(Online) Available from: https://www.jmb.ie/publications.
P.25

4
Lane, D. 2008. Challenges Facing
Religious Education in Contemporary Ireland. Dublin:

Veritas. P.19

5
Lane, D. 2008. Challenges Facing
Religious Education in Contemporary Ireland. Dublin:

Veritas. P.19

6
Tillson, J. 2011. In Favour of Ethics Education, Against Religious Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education. Vol.
45(no.4), P.687.

7
Byrne, G. Kieran, P. 2013. Toward Mutual
Ground: Pluralism, Religious Education and Diversity in Irish School. Dublin:
Columbia Press. Ch. 15 Pg unavail.

8
Byrne, G. Kieran, P. 2013. Toward Mutual
Ground: Pluralism, Religious Education and Diversity in Irish School. Dublin:
Columbia Press. Ch. 15 Pg unavail. 

9
Byrne, G. Kieran, P. 2013. Toward Mutual
Ground: Pluralism, Religious Education and Diversity in Irish School. Dublin:
Columbia Press. Ch. 15 Pg unavail. 

10
Department of Education and Skills, Junior
Certificate Religious Education Syllabus. https://www.curriculumonline.ie/getmedia/c0c1f394-79c8-4455-bea5-c9e014a9945d/JCSEC22_religion_syllabus.pdf
(accessed 23rd December 2017)

11
Bryne, G. (Irish Times) 2014. Why
religious education has an important role to play in our society. (Online)
Available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/why-religious-education-has-an-important-role-to-play-in-our-society-1.1853105
(accessed 23rd December 2017)

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