Invitation not Indoctrination

Children like religious education because it allows them space to be themselves, Greg Daly is told

“It’s a contradiction in terms to ram religion down children’s throats,” says Dan O’Connell, lecturer in religious education at Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College, adding “Jesus Christ never did that.”

Rejecting the arguments of those who claim that religious education is simply indoctrination by another name, Dr O’Connell, one of the authors of the new ‘Grow in Love’ primary school course, says religious education is “not about imposing views but about giving access to tradition and allowing children to come to things in an age-appropriate way”.

“The style of the course is inspired by Jesus,” he explains. “It’s invitational, conversational, and linked with people’s life experience. Jesus never coerced people. His way of teaching was very attractive – no wonder Peter asked ‘where else would we go?’”

Stressing that “all we’re doing is giving children access to the Christian tradition,” Dr O’Connell says that children can engage with this, but that “if a child rejects it this must be respected”.

In such a situation teachers should ask the children what does make sense to them, he continues, pointing out that there can be any number of reasons why a child might think something to be nonsense. Crucially, he says, “a teacher must not coerce or do harm to the child’s own integrity,” which “must be honoured in the classroom”.

While younger pupils are perhaps less likely to challenge or disagree with a teacher, it’s not uncommon for pupils in fourth, fifth, and sixth class to say they don’t believe any part of what they’re being taught.


“A teacher must respect that,” he says, explaining that “a teacher has to have enormous regard for everybody’s views” and that education is in no small part about helping students discover their own identities and make sense of the world around them. Nonetheless, he adds, pointing out that the days when teachers could assume that all their pupils were Catholic are gone, “I hope we’ve written it in a way that will help others see wisdom in the tradition”. 

“Written to help students’ faith to grow”, the course should, according to Dr O’Connell, enable children to learn about the Christian tradition, learn from that tradition, and be formed within the tradition. All students, he hopes – even Muslims or atheists, for example – can learn from this, perhaps through “the dawning realisation of an alternative world view” or perhaps simply by recognising that there’s wisdom to be found in traditions that are not their own.

Recalling an Irish Times article that said “fairy tales have no place in the classroom” and asked why the “endemic indoctrination of the next generation” is allowed continue, Dr O’Connell counters that “children like religion because you can ask life’s big questions” – some of which, he says, teachers understandably shy away from “because they’re hard to answer”.

As for the trope that religious education is simply a form of indoctrination, he says “there’s no evidence for this and what evidence there is points the other way”.

Emer Smyth, research professor and head of the social research division at the ESRI, says that it is a constant source of frustration that “a lot of debate takes place in the absence of evidence”.

It was common in the past, according to 2013’s Religious Education in a Multicultural Europe: Children, Parents and Schools, for sociologists of religion to see young children simply as objects of adult concerns and recipients of adult values and beliefs, without any agency of their own.  

The Religious Education in a Multicultural Society (REMC) study, Prof. Smyth explains, deliberately took a different approach. “The motivation was to look at children’s experience,” she says. “That was really the focus. It’s very important to understand they’re not just passive recipients.

“There had been some work done internationally, bits and pieces, but it tended to focus on older age groups,” she continues, pointing out the relative lack of data on this issue for primary school children and stressing that REMC “was an exploratory study because there is very little cross-national research on religious education”.

For the Irish section of the study, researchers surveyed children, parents, teachers, and principals in five distinctly different primary schools, partly in an attempt to get behind the rather bald census information that, Prof. Smyth observes, “covers multitudes”.


“We were trying not to make generalisations but to understand processes,” she says, explaining how the children themselves were surveyed: group interviews were conducted with sixth-class children, and students were asked to complete short questionnaires and write two short exercises on ‘what is important to me’ and ‘what religion means to me’.

Among the findings of the study was that children in the surveyed schools tended to be broadly positive about their religious and moral education (RME), regardless of the form it took.

“They liked much of the content of the course (especially the ‘stories’) as well as the more active teaching methodology generally used in the RME class”, the study found, observing that: “Most of the children reported that their RME classes were interactive […] and allowed them to express their own opinions, in contrast to the ‘factual’ approach taken in other class subjects”

Another striking observation, contrary to those who claim religious education is an onerous obligation for most students, was that, “interestingly, students across the case-study schools did not comment negatively on the necessity of taking religion/values classes”.

“In fact,” the study found, “the vast majority of those interviewed indicated that they would still take RME class if they did not ‘have to’ and many children suggested that they would like to see more time devoted to this subject area.”

That pupils should value religious education as a forum in which their own beliefs can be expressed tallies with other research, Prof. Smyth explains, describing it as “a reflective space at both primary and secondary levels”, continuing “at secondary level because the curriculum is broader they get to talk about issues that matter to them”.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the study, she says, was how it revealed that children form their own religious identity. “I wouldn’t have been surprised that children would have challenged their parents’ views at times,” she says, “but it was interesting that the children developed their own engagement with religion – they had ways of making sense of religion for themselves.”

Some might be suspicious about whether five schools can really tell a nationally meaningful story, but while Prof. Smyth is loath to make extravagant claims she points out that the study’s general findings “gel with other aspects of national data,” observing that, “there’s a relatively consistent story across different data sources”.

Even anecdotally, Cora O’Farrell, Director of Religious Education at St Patricks College, Drumcondra, points out, there’s plenty of evidence that “people do have fond memories of their time in primary school learning religion”. 

Maintaining that the vast majority of students at St Patrick’s – who she describes as “a broad spectrum of students from the general population” – would look back on it with fond memories, she observes that “something that struck me in the summer was a Twitter hashtag #growingupirish, where a good few hundred people named things from the ‘Alive-O’ programme”.


Ms O’Farrell, who is, like Dr O’Connell, an author of the new ‘Grow in Love’ programme, takes issue with those who would claim that religious education in Irish schools is tantamount to brainwashing. 

“Recently I was watching an Atheist Ireland video about the damage religion can do in schools, where a man from the States was describing evangelical Bible-thumping,” she says, “but if they’re informing themselves that way their perception is wrong.

“Very few schools are saying ‘you must believe that’,” she continues, pointing out that if that were the case, “people would have been up in arms”, with there being far more support for the divestment of schools than has in fact materialised. 

“The charge of indoctrination is a very unfair one,” she says.

Indeed, far from schools subjecting unwilling students to religious indoctrination, parents can sometimes overrule their own children’s desires in terms of religious education. 

“Pupils have a right not to take part,” she says, “but often it’s adults making those decisions and the right of children to take part is often overlooked.”

Children, she says, can appreciate a form of religious education that is “invitational not indoctrinal”, insisting that while ‘Grow in Love’ is rooted in the new curriculum, this aspect of religious education won’t change.

“The Christian tradition has to be honoured, and content of Catholicism has to be taught,” she says, “but the course is invitational: it says ‘here is the Christian message’ and invites people to react to that”.

Crucial to this, Dr O’Connell explains, should be emphases on family life and the intellectual credibility of the Faith. 

Religious education has long entailed children using a workbook in class, he says, but ‘Grow in Love’ recommends that children bring that book home once a week, “so parents will see what they’re learning, and will know what’s going on at schools” adding that “this might even help parents learn from their child’s work, so they’ll think to say grace before meals, or to talk about care for the environment, for example”.

Describing this as “inevitably more transparent” than religious education has previously been, he says “most parents have no idea what’s done in religion class, but the book hopefully will begin to build a relationship between family and parents and school with religion”.

As for the intellectual credibility of the Faith, he says that Catholic schools offer space for lots of world views, but that “you’d like to think belief in God as revealed in Jesus Christ whose power is revealed today is something that it makes sense to believe”.


Explaining that each part of the course has been written with introductions that seek to point out why it’s worth spending time on them, Dr O’Connell says that the course “has to be reasonable to teachers as much as students, and must stand up to science and psychology as well as other world view”. 

“I don’t accept that the atheist worldview is more scientific than the Christian one,” he continues, pointing out that “every view is perspectival”, and adding that the fifth- and sixth-class stages of the course “will have to be almost more apologetic in the old sense – stressing the reasonableness of Christian tradition more than other outlooks”.

Religious education, he says, “must stand up intellectually, not just emotionally”, adding, “I don’t think that faith is blind”.