Don’t let secularists own philosophy and free speech

The teaching of religion could be so much more than simple catechism, says Sarah Carey

Last year as my eight year old son approached his First Holy Communion, he made a confession to me one night.

He announced solemnly that he didn’t believe in God. When I asked him why, he said that reflecting on Augustinian theodicy had created severe doubt in his mind. Well, those weren’t his precise words. He said if God existed, he wouldn’t have allowed Hitler to be born. This neatly sums up the problem of evil, a conundrum that many great philosophers, most notably Augustine himself, grappled with. If one believes in an omnipotent, interventionist God, then why is there so much suffering? Why does he allow it to happen?

He clarified that Satan clearly existed, because of the prevalence of evil in the world. But added that this meant that, “Jesus was just a regular story teller”. I suggested that while this may be the case, Jesus was nevertheless a good person, and living one’s life according to the morals of his stories was a good idea, irrespective of his status. He agreed this was a reasonable approach but was adamant that there couldn’t be a God who was an alleged father of the Son. Firm in his conviction now, having tested the theory on his mother, he expressed a determination to share his philosophical discovery with his older brother.

Having maintained what I considered to be admirable calm to this point, I became a little alarmed. When he had previously questioned the existence of a mythical figure, in that case, Bigfoot, there was a terrible scene.  “But you haven’t seen the Johnson Tapes!” wept his more compliant sibling. But my caution only spurred him on and the brother was duly sent for to be informed of this shift in the foundation of their world.


Before the news was broken I told them the subject under scrutiny was a matter of opinion and without proof either way, there should be a respectful conversation. I authorised the new atheist to proceed on the basis that all sentences began with “in my opinion”. It seemed to go well as the elder sibling looked impassive as the younger explained his logic.

There was a slight wobble when the opportunity for refutation was offered to the senior sibling who began well with “In my opinion” but concluded, “you’re an idiot”. I intervened to insist that there be no name-calling. He then attempted to draw on moral support observing that “teacher says there’s a God” and furthermore “millions of people believe in God”.


“But millions don’t” retorted the atheist. At last the believer was forced to think more carefully and presented the problem of creation. A scholar of evolution, he felt confident in suggesting that its perfection could not be attributed to mere accident and the work of a Creator had to be acknowledged.

At last was the atheist’s conviction rattled, though he did not break and suggested that he shouldn’t really get his Communion if he didn’t believe. I said, “Well, if you don’t get your Communion now, you can never get it – and you might change your mind about God. If you get your Communion now, you’ll always have a choice”. He was persuaded by this, and between that and the prospect of losing a good day out, he went ahead.

I was very proud that he had the independence of mind to articulate his own discovery of an ancient philosophical problem and together he and his brother had learned how to debate without falling out.

But their imagination and ability to think independently and deeply about faith made me sorry that there is little scope for this method of enquiry and learning in school. The teaching of religion, the object of scorn, by secularists, could be so much more than simple catechism and the logistics of receiving and learning prayers.

Lively debate

The children are clearly well able for philosophical enquiry. A lively debate would not only teach them how to debate, a key skill for any person, but would encourage rather than restrict reflection on the Big Issues. It would open up the possibility that ‘religion’ doesn’t necessarily equal Mass and confession and being bored, but a quest to work out an ethical system of living and the mysteries of life. Faith could then be an answer to a problem, rather than an imposed solution to be rejected.

Politically, I think it would be smart if open debate in school came from the Church. It would show that Catholics are open and unthreatened by discussion and indeed, the perfect riposte to those who think being part of a Church is all about indoctrination and hierarchy.

Don’t let secularists and atheists own philosophy and free speech. We can have it too.  Pondering the mysteries of life is great at any age.