The other Richard: Why Feynman not Dawkins provides a template for inter-faith dialogue

In an opinion piece in The Irish Times yesterday, I wrote about what I perceive to be a counterproductive and unnecessarily hostile tone to the debate between atheists and Christians, citing the recent discussions on the role of religion in education.

I’ve previously written about the question of school patronage in Ireland, and why the Catholic Church should abandon its “Catholic first” admissions policy not just on humanist grounds but on Christian grounds.

To clarify a few points, the article yesterday was not prescriptive – and nor was it designed to be – regarding the best approach to school divestment or patronage reform. It was a commentary on the nature of this, and similar discussions, where atheists and Catholics have clashed over issues of public concern. 

Many atheists appear to believe that the only way of debating religious believers is in the style of Richard Dawkins but I find Richard P. Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and fellow atheist), much more convincing on the matter. He noted that for centuries Christians argued bitterly over whether Jesus was of a substance “like our Father” or of “the same substance as the Father”. “Reputations were destroyed, people were killed, arguing whether it’s the same or similar. And today we should learn that lesson and not have an argument as to the reason why we agree if we agree.” For instance, Feymnan said he shared the viewed of Pope John XXIII in his encyclical on the duties and responsibilities of humankind even though “I do not agree with some of the machinery which supports some of the ideas, that they spring from God”.

I too am an atheist (I’m always open to persuasion, of course) but some of the most inspiring people I’ve met in life have been committed Christians “living the gospels”. Seeing good in Christianity doesn’t mean you are “doing down secularism”, or suggesting atheists can’t be good too, as some respondents seem to think.

Turning to the issue of school patronage reform, two broad approaches are being put forward, with varying advocates:

  1. Creating diversity of patronage:

This is the approach for which former minister for education Ruairi Quinn was the main cheerleader following the publication of the report of the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism. The Catholic Church notionally supported this, while Educate Together has been the main beneficiary in terms of new patronage. Four years on from the publication of the forum’s report, the “divestment” process is dead in the water.

The mean-spirited approach of the Catholic Church is exemplified by the fact that the only school building it has vacated to date to facilitate greater choice – an empty Christian Brothers school in Basin Lane, Dublin – was handed over once financial concessions were extracted from the Department of Education, and then only on a much shorter lease than normal, creating insecurity for the new patrons Educate Together.

Apart from the practical difficulties in changing school ownership, there are growing concerns among educationalists and others that the “diversity of patronage” approach is creating new forms of segregation. I share these concerns, and see as a retrograde step Educate Together’s demand that it be allowed to discriminate in favour of those supporting its “ethos” in the same way Catholic schools discriminate in favour of Catholics.

  1. Creating universal inclusivity:

Action in this area was also due to have taken place on foot of the forum’s recommendations. Again, however, the Catholic Church has dragged its heels, and has yet to produce any meaningful proposals on how it plans to accommodate children of no faith in Catholic schools. It did, however, publish a document last year restating current practice and reminding principals to “take care” not to exceed the 2½ hours reserved for faith formation in Catholic primary school timetables.

If the Catholic Church was in the business of winning hearts and minds it would voluntarily abandon its “Catholic first” admissions policy, and introduce an “opt in” arrangement for faith formation in schools, rather than an “opt out”. This would create a genuinely inclusive environment where people are invited to learn about and experience the Christian faith without duress. The church, or at least the hierarchy, seems determined instead to continue alienating those outside the flock.

I think Catholics themselves need to join the discussion here and say whether they are happy to stand over this type of discrimination, and what appear to be a conscious turning of the church’s back on “the other”/”the lost sheep”. I would like to think bridges can built between Catholics and non-Catholics to create genuinely inclusive schools.

In the absence of any shift in the church’s position, the only logical approach is legislation. The legal consensus (although not universally accepted ) is that this will require a change in the Constitution, and I for one would be voting “Yes” to any amendment ending discrimination on religious grounds in state-funded schools. For any referendum to pass, however, one must persuade a large body of Catholics that this is in their interests too. Here, I come back to the tone of debate.

Parents who are unconcerned about choice of patronage, or “opting out” of faith formation, in their own family set-ups are not engaged in this debate. They need to be convinced that this is a societal problem. It’s an issue of rights, yes, but it’s also an issue of Christian values. Of course, one would like to see leadership from the clergy too. Change can be sold as a “win-win” situation.

There are other factors that need to be worked out. Should minority faiths, for example, be given special dispensation if there is a genuine risk that their community is under threat from undifferentiating admissions policies? More importantly perhaps should faith formation be moved largely, or entirely, to the parish, and out of the school timetable? There are compelling reasons from a Christian/Church perspective to do this but people will need to be persuaded.

That’s not to say the Government should sit on its hands and wait for the Catholic Church to mend its ways. The proposed new Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics programme should be compulsory in all state-funded primary schools. We have a duty to teach our children about the diversity of world religions and belief systems.

It has already drawn predictable criticism from sections of the Catholic Church amid claims that religious devotion is being “banished” from schools. Well, yes, a compulsory ERB and Ethics programme would probably lead to faith formation (what’s misleadingly called Religious Education at primary level) being moved largely to the parish. However, is that not something the Catholic Church could welcome as a way of revitalising its increasingly elderly profile at parish level? Or perhaps of generating a new level of engagement among parents and children in the parish?

There is no suggestion of religion being banned from schools. Space can be made for religious practices, and the Catholic ethos can still flourish through the school’s example. But an already overcrowded curriculum can not accommodate two hefty religious courses when the likes of English and Maths also need to be taught.

Note, by the way, that the consultation on the ERB and Ethics programme closes this Spring. For more details visit the NCCA.ie website.

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