In a country where over 84% of residents identify as Catholic, primary-school students for the first time will learn the basic tenets of atheism.
The Guardian reports that all students who attend multidenominational schools — currently about 16,000 pupils — will receive instruction on the secular belief systems starting next September. The new curriculum, which also includes humanism and agnosticism, is being designed by Educate Together — a nongovernmental organization in charge of 68 multidenominational schools — and Atheist Ireland, a five-year-old group dedicated to “promoting atheism, reason, and an ethical, secular state.”
On its website, Atheist Ireland explains that it has not yet been decided which age group will be the first to receive the lessons on atheism, but in the long term the organization hopes to offer a version for children ages 4 to 13. In all, the group plans to produce 10 lessons, each between 30 and 40 minutes long, and hopes to make the entire curriculum available on its website and via smartphone apps.
The lessons will be based on the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools developed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
While the groundbreaking program is a win for secular-education advocates, it will only affect 7% of Irish schoolchildren. That’s because the other 93% of students go to schools run by the Catholic church. Despite being religious in nature and controlled by the local bishop, these Catholic schools still receive public money and are funded by taxpayers.
For Atheist Ireland’s co-founder, Michael Nugent, it’s this religious monopoly on education that makes his new lesson plan so important. “It is necessary because the Irish education system has for too long been totally biased in favor of religious indoctrination,” Nugent told the Guardian. “And if parents whose kids are in schools under church control want to opt their kids out of learning religion (as is their right these days) then they can use our course as an alternative for their children to study.”
In the U.S., where public education is legally required to remain religion-free, classes on atheism are all but unheard of. However, on the college level, an increasing number of institutions have started to offer classes on the secular movement. The University of California, Irvine; San Diego State University; the University of Chicago; and even Regis College, a Jesuit theology school at the University of Toronto, now offer classes on atheism and the ideology of nonbelievers. Pitzer College, part of California’s Claremont College system, recently began offering an entire major in secular studies.
One reason behind this increasing interest in secular study in the U.S. might be the increasingly large number of Americans who no longer identify as religious. According to a 2012 Pew Research report, one-fifth of U.S. adults have no affiliation with any religion, and 6% of the public — about 13 million people — self-identify as atheist or agnostic.
Even in Ireland, a longtime stronghold of Catholicism, the times may be changing. This January, the Community Foundation for Ireland released a survey asking Irish citizens about their top priorities. Of the 119 options presented, religion and spirituality came in last.