Leenheer’s insistence on opting his son out led to his family being ostracized in his community, he said. He pulled Finn out of the Catholic school, moved to a new neighborhood and enrolled him at an Educate Together school in Sligo.
At the 2 percent of primary schools run by Educate Together, religious education looks a bit different.
Inside Dublin 7 Educate Together School—one of the 31 Educate Together schools in the Dublin area—teachers and parent-volunteers are performing Irish folk tunes on guitars, fiddles, and elbow pipes as first and second-graders clap along. This celebration has no precise religious overtones. The wall behind them is decked out with an array of colorful sacred symbols—from the Christian cross to the Sikh Khanda.
Multi-denominational schools such as this one are in demand among non-Catholic immigrants, a burgeoning contingent of atheists and agnostics, and Catholic or Protestant parents looking to expose their children to something new.
School principal Aine Sotscheck admits that even Educate Together has never really ironed out the meaning of her school’s “multi-denominational” moniker.
“For some people, it means that their religious affiliation is stamped on their forehead, they are a percentage of the school community, all religious beliefs are discussed and taught and each one is given approval as being fine,” Sotscheck said. “For me, it’s about acknowledging belief systems, while recognizing there are so many aspects to a person’s identity that aren’t based on religion.”
Educate Together teachers spend their required 30-minute religious education period teaching about different religious practices and moral issues, endorsing no particular creed. The group recently even introduced atheism, agnosticism, and humanism into its curriculum, alongside other belief systems.
“Schools are finding that difficult,” said Fionnuala Ward, Educate Together’s primary education officer. “You’ll always be able to find lovely material on Diwali, Eid, Christmas or Hanukkah, things that really lend themselves to the classroom. But teaching atheism is a bit more difficult.”
To improve this part of the curriculum, Educate Together recently enlisted the help of Atheist Ireland, an association dedicated to “promoting atheism, reason and an ethical, secular state.” The group will raise funds and hire education experts to develop lesson plans about the tenets of atheism—and will pilot the curriculum in several Educate Together schools next year.
“They don’t have any materials to teach about atheism, so it’ll fill that gap,” said Atheist Ireland chairman Michael Nugent.
Nugent notes that his group is not pushing for atheist schools, but rather pluralistic, objective alternatives to religious ones.
“We’re not looking for schools that actively teach there are no gods,” he said, but contended that essentially, atheist students currently face the opposite phenomenon. “But, hypothetically, if there was even just one atheist school in the country that was actively teaching that there is no god, and even one set of religious parents were forced to send their child to that school—and their child was being taught there was no god and chanting incantations about there being no god, they’d just freak out completely.”