LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland – Ten students from the Oakgrove Integrated College here mused one day recently about the role of religion in their lives. Here are some of their responses:

“It’s not expected of us to go to church.”

“Religion is not really practiced anymore.”

“Some of my friends that go to all Catholic schools would attend church, but it’s not a massive part of their lives. They still find it important and have strong beliefs about a united Ireland. They’re not opposed to being friends with Protestants, but they were brought up that way.”

As the voices of these young people attest, religion is becoming more and more irrelevant in Northern Ireland these days, a far cry from a generation ago when religion held a firm grip on both Catholics and Protestants here.

The extraordinary stripping of the church’s power in Northern Ireland in recent years has ripple effects across the country, particularly in the area of education. While the country becomes more secular, and immigration introduces minority religions, public schools grapple with their Christian-based curriculum, and outsiders wonder if schools contribute to the broader societal divisions or simply reflect those divisions. The fastest growing groups in census data are the ‘None’ (no religion) group (2.7% of people in 2001, 5.6% in 2011 and 9.3% in 2021) and the ‘other religions’ group (.4% of people in 2001, .9% in 2011 and 1.5% in 2021). Both groups have nearly quadrupled over two decades pointing to the increasingly diverse and secular nature of the country.

When asked about religion’s role in determining which school one attends, 17-year-old Bobby Skeggs said, “It’s more about where your dad went [to school] than the religion.”

Anna Hamilton, also a 17-year-old student at Oakgrove, said, “It depends on where you grow up. Some places are more pushy on their religion. The way you grow up affects your opinions.”

Segregated schooling based on religion is still the status quo in Northern Ireland. Catholic education is regulated by the Council For Catholic Maintained Schools, while the Controlled Schools Support Council manages Protestant schooling. Integrated schooling, which here means bringing together Catholics, Protestants and those of other faiths, has the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education. Parents can choose between the three systems for their child, and religious education is part of the curriculum at all three. While integrated schools welcome participation from different religious groups, a Christian ethos still runs through the curriculum. 

Because the integrated schools aren’t entirely secular and operate on basic Judeo-Christian principles, religious education at each school differs based on the ethos of the school, according to Ken Cathcart, the director of the Integrated Education Fund, a nonprofit that supports the integrated schools and steps in where the government falls short. Cathcart said that the schools are “a bit Christian, but quite open,” and some parents wish the schools were entirely secular.

One such parent went to High Court in 2022 when he and his seven-year-old child sued the Department of Education on the basis that public schools’ faith-based Christian religious education and collective worship violate education entitlements protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. While parents have the right to exempt their child from religious education, the father argued that exemption is not protective enough and alienates and isolates the child from other students.

A Northern Ireland High Court judge ruled in favor of the father and daughter, arguing that the exclusively Christian-focused religious education taught at primary schools in Northern Ireland violates the freedom of religion and is in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Department of Education appealed the decision, and the outcome of the appeal, which took place last fall, has yet to be made public. Experts expect the results any day now. 

It’s been 25 years since The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended the turbulent Troubles, a 30-year conflict between Catholics who wished for a united Ireland and Protestants who were loyal to Britain. Many expected society to integrate much faster than it has. Dr. Norman Richardson, a researcher at Queen’s University in Belfast, said the integrated movement is growing much slower than expected. 

“There’s a process of intergenerational change, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Richardson said. “People go where they know, where their family went, and they don’t think much about it.” 

Richardson said the High Court case itself affirmed that a confessional approach has undermined the concept of learning about religion in schools.

In December, an independent review of education in Northern Ireland said, in a less legal way, the same thing that the Court said: education in relation to religious issues should be much more inclusive and should affirm Northern Ireland’s diversity.

“We’ve never only been Catholic or Protestant,” Richardson said. “The numbers of people from other backgrounds has very much increased over the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, so for that reason alone, religious education programming does need to be more inclusive.”

Societal shifts and a growing desire for reconciliation will help move Northern Ireland forward, which is, in many ways, still stuck in its past with the perpetuation of sectarianism. While integrated education represents an ideal, the integrated schools only educate about 8% of Northern Ireland’s children. However, other catalysts for change take a more realistic approach, like the shared education model, which is a step short of integrated schooling, where local schools share facilities. More than two-thirds of schools are involved in shared education. 

Joanne Hughes is director of the Centre for Shared Education at Queen’s University, where she researches the role of education in divided societies.

“We’ve had integrated education since 1981, but it hasn’t taken off in the way we thought it might,” Hughes said. “In an ideal world, all would be integrated, but we don’t live in an ideal world.”

Hughes grew up in a Protestant neighborhood in Belfast and said that she didn’t meet a Catholic person until she went to university. She said that partner schools want to learn about each other’s religion, and clergy often visit schools to say what is unique about their branch of Christianity. 

The core syllabus for religious education in Northern Ireland was devised by the church without the involvement of others from other faiths or backgrounds. There’s a struggle between those who want religious education to be taught just as math and geography are taught and those who believe faith formation teaches students how to live and grow in the world. 

“We aren’t as bigoted as people on the outside think,” Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown said. “We don’t want to be removed from the public sphere like the sectarians want.” 

McKeown is a former teacher and current head of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. He believes faith formation is critical in today’s secular world where suicide rates are the highest they’ve ever been, and he sees a Catholic education as a helpful way for kids to grow in the world. 

Whether one is for or against faith formation in schools, the results of the High Court case will underscore the appropriateness of faith-based teaching in a diverse society where many believe The Troubles are far in the past and that there is perfect social cohesion today. Reality looks a bit different.

Maybe Bobby Skeggs at the Oakgrove school put it best when asked about the religious affiliation of his friends.  “It’s not something we discuss,” he said nonchalantly.