News and Views

Opinion: Dismissing religious education is a poor lesson in tolerance

3 Jan 2018
Picture shows Dr Siobhán Dowling, UCC School of Education and Dr Fiachra Long, Head of the School of Education, UCC who have edited a new book on world religions. Image: Clare Keogh

Recent opinion about the place of Religious Education in Irish schools has demonstrated postmodern rifts in the fabric of Irish tolerance.

In some circles, religion is cast as the benighted remains of some kind of redundant arch-Catholicism. There is a feeling abroad that ‘no deal is better than a Catholic deal’. By extension, we see ourselves as having grown out of the denominational presentation of religion in schools. It is sad, however, to learn that we prefer ignorance to any in-depth knowledge of religion. Better have our children studying more Maths or English. However, it is ironically hard to hear educators argue for ignorance over knowledge in any context and to do so in the name of tolerance seems hardly bearable.

Maybe we need to remember that religion itself is not medieval. Of 7.6 billion people alive in the world today (2017), 7.1 billion are categorised as having some religion. There are 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.1 billion Hindus, 400 million Buddhists, 30 million Sikhs, 20 million Jews, 8 million Bahai’s, 7 million Confucian, 4 million Shinto and a smattering of other religions. What evidence is there based on these figures that ignorance of religion is what is required in our schools? And in the name of tolerance?

Recent profiles of young western ISIS recruits showed a common, rather disturbing feature. They seemed to lack any real understanding of Islam. Ignorance left them prey to clever fanatics willing to introduce them to a Ponzi scheme for brutality, a purely heathen philosophy shrouded in the trappings of black flags and beheaded corpses designed to determine who lives and who dies. Only a surface knowledge of the Qur’an could support such a worldview. The more serious attraction of this cult, however, is its ability to identify a human meaning for young people world-wide who have lost belief in their own cultures. ISIS propaganda offered meaning to these young recruits a sense of purpose and some relief from the emptiness of postmodern life-forms. However, it did not do what it appeared to do: reintroduce these young recruits to religious practice. Instead, it was Mars, the god of war, that controlled their every move.

Had these recruits studied the original texts in more detail and achieved knowledge of them, they would have rejected the butchery that their videos portrayed. They might have learned instead the meaning of tolerance, the meaning of peaceful coexistence.

A religious education should lead us back to original texts and to the recognition that there is a human meaning and that there are many ways to express this in practice.

Often we suppose that it is easy to tolerate difference and the less we know, the easier it is. Different customs, different views, different belief systems are all fine as long as they don’t have a feather’s impact on us. Views that don't seem to matter to anyone except to the people who hold them have little impact on the public space and can be easily tolerated. But what about ideas that do have an impact on the public space? A communist government might abolish private property. That would have an impact on everyone and to tolerate such a measure would require a lot of effort. The abolition of post offices, the decommissioning of railways, the closure of shops, all have an impact on people in the public space and all call for tolerance of a different kind. If we are asked to tolerate a halting site in the next field to our house, then this is tolerance indeed. Or if we are asked to accept the ritualised slaughter of animals at an annual religious celebration, then our tolerance is put to the test. We are asked to tolerate not just private ideas and the right of others to hold them but rather ideas that manifest themselves in the public space. And this is usually difficult.

It is usually difficult to tolerate public forms of behaviour that we do not share. A society, therefore, needs to learn how to be tolerant of different practices and different views of what it is to lead a human life. The religions put forward their understandings of this question in their practices, rituals, oral traditions and eventually in their scriptures and the cultures that express them and receive them into contemporary meaning. To tolerate is not to follow all these cultural differences (because that would be impossible since some contradict others on various points). To tolerate means to accept or take these ways of life as plausible, sincere attempts to answer the question about what is a properly human life. We are prepared to accommodate ourselves to them. Religious positions are always public positions. If we are sincere about tolerating them, we need to accommodate ourselves to certain public manifestations. The context is complicated if we, as post-moderns, don't hold any particular views at all or if we are mindlessly inconsistent in our practices. Then the very fact of supporting a well-integrated religious culture side by side with our own practices may appear strangely backward, perhaps even the antithesis of what we take to be required by tolerance in a liberal sense.

This collection of chapters, assembled under the title Reading the Sacred Scriptures explains the transformation of texts from their oral origins to their written form and further reception in subsequent cultures. It acknowledges the efforts of various religions to convey a living message about the meaning of human life as well as its most commendable behaviours. Taken together they offer a vision of a fulfilled human life in harmony with the natural world. Having stepped out of the butchery that still holds the human heart in its grip, many of these religions reach for the steadying hand of a deity; others suggest different paths. This is perhaps all the more reason why we should know something substantial about the religions of the world. Indeed the evidence of a world without this knowledge risks returning us continually to the violence we use as our default mechanism in all things, even in our ongoing re-definition of words like ‘tolerance’.

Contributors to this volume include Fiachra Long (UCC), P. Oktor Skjærvø (Harvard University, USA), Carmel McCarthy (UCD), Rabbi Stephen Wylen (New Jersey, USA), Seán Freyne (TCD), Thomas O’Loughlin (Nottingham, UK), Margaret Daly-Denton (TCD), John D’Arcy May (TCD), Jonathan Kearney (DCU), Oliver Scharbrodt (Chester, UK), Moojan Momen (Iran/UK), Roshen Dalal (Dehradun, India), Nikky–Guinder Kaur Singh (Colby College, USA), Lee Dian Rainey (Newfoundland, Canada), Ronnie Littlejohn (Belmont, USA), Stuart Picken (Tokyo/Scotland), John F.A. Sawyer (Newcastle & Lancaster, UK), Siobhán Dowling (UCC), Jukka O. Miettinen (Helsinki, Finland).


 Fiachra Long is Head of the School of Education, University College Cork

Reading the Sacred Scriptures: From Oral Tradition to Written Documents and their Reception is published by Routledge (2017) and is edited by Dr Fiachra Long and Dr Siobhán Dowling, School of Education, UCC.  It is available all good book shops priced £29.99. Ebook available at

Siobhán Dowling's previous book with John F.A. Sawyer, The Bible in Music: A Dictionary of Songs, Works and More (2015), was the recipient of an American Best Book Award (November 2017).

Read: Opinion article by Fiachra Long, Head of the School of Education, UCC in today's Irish Times here

Read more about courses and research at the School of Education in UCC here

Media: For more information contact Ruth Mc Donnell, Head of Media and PR, Office of Marketing and Communications, UCC  Mob: 086-0468950

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF