Skip to content

Denominational schooling and the manufacture of victimhood

Once again the Catholic Church has converted an important question about the nature of religion in education into an inverted witch-hunt

The US is a nation obsessed with what they relentlessly call the ‘N word’ (and with good cause given the country’s racial history). The word, its implications, its multiple meanings (including its reclaim by black Americans) and so on is extremely complex. In Scotland we don’t have a single word which captures the legacy of religious intolerance shown to an Irish Catholics and their descendants. But there is another word – the ‘B word’ – which is becoming more a part of every day life. Bigot.

This weekend SCVO lobbyist John Downie suggests that separate schooling might have something to do with religious intolerance. In return the Catholic Church brands him intolerant and inappropriate (and this is probably a fairly gentle paraphrasing). But this is manufactured victimhood. To conflate the debate about the place of religion and ideology in education with a question about religious freedom is unjustifiable. No-one is suggesting that Catholicism should be banned or proscribed. But surely it is OK to discuss whether society as a whole benefits from taking children and dividing them up on the basis of what their parents were (or what their parents felt their children should be).

I do not believe that religion should be ‘taught’ in school at all; only comparative religion. And I am wholly opposed to ‘schools of ideology’ of any sort – whether they are specialist academies for the middle classes to indoctrinate them into the idea that they are somehow special by dint of going there (thankfully English academies have not made it here) or a state-funded education that tells people there is Only One True God. Or for that matter a Marxist-only school, a school for fascists or indeed any education system which doesn’t expose children to competing philosophies with the weight given to any one of them related to the level of academic agreement.

The Catholic Church wants us to read these sorts of comments as a suggestion that it is intentionally malevolent. It also wants this debate to be read as if the ‘blame’ is on the ‘victim’. This is simply using an emotive issue to redefine the debate. The ‘victim’ being talked about here is wider society. The claim is that society as a whole is a victim of dividing and separating people by religion. The suggestion is that this must surely affect tolerance, and that it will infect the young minds of all sides – those included and those excluded. And it doesn’t even matter which side you see as included and which as excluded, which is the point of the argument. Separate education is one of those factors which damages all concerned – the private school pupil and the state school pupil and their views of each other, the suspicion of an Islamic education and the suspicion of those receiving an islamic education. And these are not bolt-ons, Sunday schools or evening classes. These are the entire educational backgrounds which will inform the lives of young people during their most formative stages.

So for the Catholic Church virtually to argue that the only people who should be entitled to a view of denominational education are those in Catholic schools is offensive and bluntly falls a long way short of my own interpretation of tolerant. If you are so confident that there is no harm to society in dividing children according to the ideologies of their parents, why the furious attempt to close down debate with accusations of intolerance and bigotry before the debate can even be had?

Isolation and diversity are not the same things. Can’t we talk about it without being branded as abusive and beyond reason?

Robin McAlpine