Religion in Ireland today – my debate with David Quinn on RTE Radio

This is my debate on RTE this morning with David Quinn of the Iona Institute, about religion in Ireland today. It covers the census results, the prayer at the start of the Dail day, the Angelus on RTE and the education system.

As always, people on all sides will listen to such debates through the filters of their own beliefs, and in particular will be more receptive to hearing ideas that they agree with than to ideas that they disagree with.

I’ve summarised below the factual assertions that we both made during the debate. While there are of course grey areas, I’ve tried here to leave out our opinions about what should be done based on our assertions.

You can hear our opinions about these assertions by listening to the video.

What do people believe?

David Quinn

  • ‘Nones’ (no religion) are 9.8% in United States, 10% here, 48% in Britain.
  • 14% of voters in last election said no religion, 5% said they were atheists or agnostics (RTE exit poll at last election).
  • In the US, 60% of ‘nones’ believe in God, and 20% pray every day.

Michael Nugent

  • Asking ‘what is your religion’ gives higher religious answers than asking ‘Do you have a religion?’ (Surveys in other countries)
  • Most Irish Catholics don’t believe in key tenets of the Catholic Church (Survey by Irish Catholic Bishops during Eucharistic Congress)
  • 8% of Irish Catholics say they don’t believe in God (Survey by Irish Catholic Bishops during Eucharistic Congress)
  • Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have described Catholics who don’t follow the word of God as Catholic Atheists or Practical Atheists.
  • People who self-describe as atheists is a small percentage of the number of people who don’t believe in God (e.g. nearly 300,000 Irish Catholics don’t believe in God)

Parliamentary prayer

David Quinn

  • Parliamentary prayer is common in parliaments with Westminster tradition e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA. Tested in US Supreme Court in 1983.

Michael Nugent

  • Reading Dail prayer is a religious test for Ceann Comhairle contrary to Article 44.2.3 of the Constitution: ‘The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.’
  • Religious oath is another religious test for Ceann Comhairle, but is protected by being in the Constitution. (Article 31.4)
  • Parliamentary prayer in US is said by a Chaplain, not by an elected representative.
  • Parliamentary prayer in Britain is said by a Chaplain, and is also said in private.


David Quinn

  • On Prime Time some years ago a member of the Jewish community and Gordon Linney of the Church of Ireland wanted the Angelus to be kept. (but no atheist on the panel)

Michael Nugent

  • Old Angelus was what it said it was, the Catholic Angelus. Now it is a Catholic prayer being reinterpreted by a broadcasting authority into something general for everybody.

Education system

David Quinn

  • United States is the only Western country that provides no funding for faith schools.
  • In Netherlands, 50% of primary schools are State funded and church run. In Britain, about a third.
  • Vast majority of Irish schools have enough places to accommodate everyone.
  • In Britain, there is wholesale address falsification to get around admissions criteria.
  • In Britain and America, people want to get their children out of State schools, because State schools are often seen as not good enough.

Michael Nugent

  • The Irish school system is different to others, in that faith schools are the basis of the system, not an optional part of the system.
  • The United Nations Human Right Committee, and ten different UN and Council of Europe Human Rights bodies, have told Ireland that Irish schools are breaching human rights of atheists and minority religions.
  • Church of Ireland schools discriminate against Evangelicals, and the two Islamic schools discriminate against Ahmadi Muslims.
  • Catholic Bishops have recently told Department of Education that the purpose of Catholic schools is essentially to create Catholics, and they are opposed in principle to a pluralistic approach to teaching about religion (Submission to Department of Education consultation process) *
  • Churches have exemptions that allow them to not only to discriminate in access to schools, but also to integrate their religious ethos throughout the whole school day (Section 7.3.c Equal Status Act)
  • Schools are acting unconstitutionally by having school policies that force children, including explicitly Muslim children, into Catholic Liturgy, contrary to the Constitution (RTE news report last week)
  • Schools are also allowed to discriminate against teachers on the ground of religion (Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act)

* For clarity, as I paraphrased this during the programme, the exact quote is: “The Catholic school exists to educate children in Catholic religious life and in Catholic religious beliefs which are normative for them… [The NCCA] approaches require teachers to adopt and promote a pluralist approach to religion. This is an approach to religion that goes against the philosophical basis of Catholic religious education.” (Submission by Commission for Education and Formation of the Irish Episcopal Conference to Department of Education consultation process 2016.)

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