Research rejects idea RE is indoctrination

Persistent claims that religious education is tantamount to indoctrination have been rejected as groundless by experts. Mary Immaculate College’s Dr Daniel O’Connell, one of the authors of the new ‘Grow in Love’ primary school course, says “children like religion because you can ask life’s big questions”, dismissing the idea that religious education is simply a form of indoctrination.

“There’s no evidence for this,” he told The Irish Catholic, “and what evidence there is points the other way”.

Lamenting how much debate “takes place in the absence of evidence”, Prof. Emer Smyth, head of social research at the ESRI, told The Irish Catholic that even young children are “not just passive recipients” of adult teaching.

Commenting on an important 2013 study she led on children’s agency and religious belief in primary education, Prof. Smyth said while she would not have been surprised to learn that children sometimes challenge their parents’ views, “it was interesting that the children developed their own engagement with religion – they had ways of making sense of religion for themselves”.

The study found that children in primary school tend to be broadly positive about religious education, and would take the subject even if they were not obliged to, with many saying they would like to spend more time on the subject. Children value religious education as a forum in which they can express their own views, seeing the subject as “a reflective space at both primary and secondary levels”.

Cora O’Farrell, Director of Religious Education at St Patricks College, Drumcondra, questioned the continued existence of the cliché that religious education is a form of indoctrination. 

“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 told The Irish Catholic, “but if they’re informing themselves that way their perception is wrong.”

“Very few schools are saying ‘you must believe that’,” Ms O’Farrell said, not least since divestment would be a far more popular idea if that were the case. “The charge of indoctrination is a very unfair one,” she said, adding that sometimes parents overrule their own children’s wish to take part in religious education. “Pupils have a right not to take part,” she said, “but often it’s adults making those decisions and the right of children to take part is often overlooked.”