A news report in Saturday’s Irish Times has prompted me to return to the question of schools having a religious ethos *. While of course this applies to all religious schools in Ireland, the campaign in favour of fostering ethos ** is led by the Catholic Church.
The difficulty with addressing “ethos” is that it is never clear what is meant. If it means that any doctrine can be taught to children as long as it is said to be a feature of a religion, then ethos must be rejected. No responsible citizen would approve a rule saying that anything can be taught to a child as long as it is cloaked in religion. That would be a parody of religious tolerance.
In the short newspaper report a number of features of ethos – or more accurately Catholic ethos – appear. It is surprising, however, that no doctrines which appear regularly in public controversy are mentioned.
This news report suggests i) that teaching the existence of God and life after death is now threatened, ii) that if religious education is removed from the “public sphere” it could develop “in a more fundamentalist way”, and iii) that religious education is a part of the humanities and like other “creative subjects” is threatened by vocational/professional training as opposed to education.
Looking at these in order, it should be said at the outset that while there are those who oppose teaching about God and an afterlife to children – and they offer cogent argument against it – it doesn’t cause anything like the concern about teaching contentious opinion as fact. Ireland is a free and open society in which anyone may argue. However, teaching young children and arguing one’s case are entirely separate activities. All Irish children should be protected from noxious opinion presented as truth to be learned. To be blunt, any Catholic can and should argue the Church’s position on homosexuality, gay marriage, contraception, abortion etc. but all children must be protected from being taught those arguments as fact. It hardly needs to be added that this applies to all other religions which might want to teach in such a way.***
On the second point, it is accepted that there are many religious people who fear that their ordinary decency is threatened by extremists who wish to portray a particular understanding as the real or only interpretation. However, the fears of decent people for the future of their religion cannot be relieved at the expense of children.
The third point wants to pitch religious teaching in the camp of creative thought. It is true that religion and religious thinkers have contributed to the development, spread and maintenance of humane, decent values but to go on then to suggest that teaching a fixed doctrine to children is compatible with open debate and creative thinking is self-serving.
We want children to emerge into adulthood as thoughtful, iconoclastic and creative. We certainly don’t want them lumbered with cruel, divisive opinions held as doctrine. On the contrary, we want citizens ready and eager to debate the future of the republic. Whenever ethos is mentioned in relation to teaching children, the package must be opened and if necessary the bearer told that some of its contents relate to adult debate and not to children.
** I tried to find a plural for “ethos” and discovered a controversy. I was attracted to the view that it is a word that doesn’t have/need a plural but you might like to anglicise and use “ethoses”, “ethosses” or stick with the Greek and use “ethe” but if you opt for “ethoi”, it would appear that Greek scholars will be annoyed.