I think it’s safe to say that the majority of humanists don’t support the teaching of religion in public schools. While one may argue that it’s important to have structured classes dedicated to learning about world religions, the problem is that teachers, both theists and nontheists, are human and therefore naturally approach the class with their own biases. Sometimes the teaching turns into preaching, which creates an uncomfortable and exclusionary environment for students. It’s also the curriculum that tends to be exclusionary and often omits atheism, agnosticism, and humanism from the conversation.
And so while the American Humanist Association would rather public schools not teach religion courses at all, the organization realizes that’s highly unlikely in this current political climate and therefore supports school curriculums that give equal time to all world religions and philosophies. This is just the approach taken last week by an independent nonprofit in Ireland called Educate Together when it introduced humanism lessons plans into the “Ethical Education” curriculum taught in eighty-one Irish public primary schools. This revolutionary and progressive decision marks the first time that humanism has been included as part of the curriculum in public schools there.
All Irish primary schools are required to provide thirty minutes a day of “religious education.” Despite this requirement, there is no national curriculum for religious education and instead “the subject’s provision has been left entirely up to the patron bodies.” Being a nondenominational patron body, Educate Together decided to go a unique route and offer ethical education courses in place of the traditional religious education courses. Although it’s a comprehensive curriculum focused on moral and spiritual development, equality and justice, belief systems, ethics, and the environment, Educate Together teachers noticed a lack of teaching resources and lessons dedicated specifically to humanism, atheism, and agnosticism—a clear gap considering the steady increase of nonbelievers in Ireland. To close this gap, Educate Together turned to the Humanist Association of Ireland to create Irish-produced lesson plans specifically dedicated to humanism and other philosophical outlooks that don’t recognize a deity.
“These lesson plans address humanism in a matter-of-fact way and were developed in order to enhance children’s confidence in engaging with differing world views and religious beliefs,” says Philip Byers, head of education at the Humanist Association of Ireland. Almost all of the coverage in the Irish media about the humanist lesson plans has been supportive and positive. Fionnuala Ward, Primary Education Officer at Educate Together, said there has been “no negative feedback from any of the teachers and students.” Looking to the future, Educate Together is hopeful that other Irish primary schools follow suit and begin to incorporate differing world views into their curriculums.