Secular education: Avoiding the tyranny of the majority

On August 8 my letter ‘A right to education without indoctrination’ was published in the Irish Times. It was an edited version of my blog  ‘Original sin, a four-year old and state-funded education’

On August 11 the Irish Times published a reply from Rev Patrick Burke, below is my response, which, unfortunately was not published by the Irish Times.

Dear Editor,

If I may, I would like to address Rev Patrick Burke’s response (August 11th) to my letter of August 8th.

Defining Secular

When I wrote

“Running state schools on a secular basis vindicates the rights of all parents to freedom of conscience, religion and beliefs.”

I used the standard dictionary definition of the word ‘secular’ to mean ‘non-religious.

“Running state schools on a non-religious basis vindicates the rights of all parents to freedom of conscience, religion and beliefs.”

On this basis the school day could include education about a diverse range of religions, philosophies and world-views but would be free from religious indoctrination, faith formation, sacrament preparation, religious symbols and religious practices and prayers.

Minorities and Majorities

Rev Burke suggests that this secular approach gives pre-eminence to the belief of a minority over those of the vast majority. Rather than prioritising the beliefs of one group over another group this secular approach upholds the rights of all individuals by providing objective education about belief systems while delivering the wider curriculum in a non-religious way. Secular education is guided by international human rights law, the point of which is to avoid the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

According to the Central Statistics Office*, in 2011 the sum total of those with no religion, atheists and agnostics was 277, 237. In the same year there were 129,039 members of the Church of Ireland, 49,204 Muslims, 45,223 Orthodox Christians, 24,600 Presbyterians, 14,043 Apostolic and Pentecostals, 10,688 Hindus and 57,482 from other religions (Buddhist, Methodist, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Evangelical, Baptist, Jewish, Sikhism and Spiritualism etc.) In addition, 41,161 people gave a broad religious description of ‘Christian’.

In light of these statistics it is difficult to understand how non-Catholics or even just those of no religion can be described as a ‘tiny minority’.


Article 42.1

The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children. (Article 42.1)

While Article 42.1 clearly articulates the inalienable right of parents to provide for religious education it does not, as Rev Burke suggests, infer that parents have a right to a denominational education for their children.

Realistic solution

I am glad that Rev Burke feels that those who wish for a secular education for their children are entitled to it. I do not believe in ‘chest-thumping’ but I do believe that running state schools on a secular basis represents a realistic and equitable solution that embraces diversity and vindicates the rights of all parents.


* Profile 7 Religion, Ethnicity and Irish Travellers. Central Statistics Office, Government of Ireland (2012)

yours sincerely,

About sabinabrennan

I don't believe that we are any one thing. What and who we are at any moment in time is complex and context dependent. While labels are a useful shorthand that help us to navigate the world, all too often they play into people's prejudices and preconceptions. Here is a list of labels about me that begin with the letter 'p' Psychologist, Parent, Pro-Equality, Pacifist, Photographer, Perfectionist I could just as easily select another letter and make a different list of 'About me' labels. So try not to prejudge its just a list of labels beginning with 'p'
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1 Response to Secular education: Avoiding the tyranny of the majority

  1. Wow. I have to actually walk away from this one. I feel for you. This is a land mine! BOOM! So I guess he would rather have a bunch of bible thumpers instead of chest thumpers, eh?
    I have a great respect for peoples beliefs, I do. However, I also feel that any public education should be free of religion. It is far to personal of a thing to leave to interpretation of a public school teacher!


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