Atheism in Ireland and the Decline of the Catholic Church


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It is generally considered a truism these days to state that from the foundation of the Republic, the Catholic Church has had a large part to play in the running of the country. Legislation was passed or defeated on the whims of Catholic interests, social norms and conventions were passed down from the pulpit to the worshippers in the pews, and most shamefully, thousands of women and children were forced into what was essentially slave labour in the country’s Industrial Schools and Magdalene Laundries. However, the attitude of many towards the Church has changed dramatically over the last twenty or so years, no doubt caused by the revelations of what went on in the Industrial Schools, Magdalene Laundries, along with the revelations of a vast conspiracy to cover up allegations of physical and sexual abuse of children being carried out by members of the clergy. The Church as an institution, for all its posturing statements over the last number of years, will have to do something drastic if it is to recover from the various scandals that have hit it and continue to do so. One can clearly chart its decline in some of the latest figures regarding religious worship in Ireland.

In the 2011 census, a total of 3,861,335 people, 81.4 per cent of the population, declared themselves as Catholic, a 4.9 per cent increase since the 2006 census, when 3,681,446 people identified themselves as such. Yet, regarding this increase, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) stated, “that while the number of Catholics overall increased by 179,889, or 4.9 per cent, since 2006 much of this increase came from the non-Irish (mostly European) national community.” On the other hand, those identifying as having no religion increased by 45 per cent, up from 186,318 in 2006, to 269,811 in 2011. When broken down further in a separate CSO document, 72,914 did not state their religion, or lack of, with another 3,905 and 3,521 people stating Atheist and Agnostic respectively as their religion. As anyone remotely familiar with the religious demographics of Ireland will tell you though, the number of “true Catholics” is likely to be far smaller than the 81.4 per cent noted in the 2011 census. This can be seen in a range of areas.

For example, in 2012, Red C published the results of a poll they carried out in which they asked the public whether or not “Same sex marriage should be allowed in the Constitution”. A total of 73 per cent of respondents were in favour of an amendment to the constitution that would allow same sex marriage, which is up from 56 per cent in 2008. Regarding sex before marriage, according to the Irish Times, 6 per cent of those asked in 2004/2005 said that sex before marriage was always wrong compared to 71 per cent in 1973/1974. In another survey commissioned, also in 2012, by the Association of Catholic Priests, it was found that 35 per cent of Irish people attend Mass “at least once per week”, 36 per cent attend “a few times per year”, with 27 per cent attending Mass “less often”. In contrast, 85 per cent of people in 1980 stated that they attended Mass at least once per week. On the issue of clergy, 87 per cent stated that priests should be allowed to get married, 77 per cent stated that women should be allowed to become priests, and 72 per cent stated that “mature married men should be allowed to be ordained”.  Everything mentioned here is at odds with basic Church teachings that anyone who has been raised Catholic would be well aware of.

This is why the number of “true Catholics” in the country is likely to be far lower than the 81.4 per cent who identify as Catholic. Peer pressure, family tradition, and social habit can explain why people identify as Catholic when their ideals are completely at odds with Church teachings. Despite the somewhat liberal nature, at least on the surface, of the majority of Irish society, there still exists a pressure to conform to some basic Church teachings which are now considered more tradition than anything else; christenings, confirmations, and church weddings. The Church as an institution however, is well and truly on the path of decline in Ireland if something drastic does not change in the coming years. According to a poll published in August of 2012 by WIN-Gallup International, Ireland is now rated as one of the least religious countries in the world, coming only second to Vietnam. Added to this is the very real fear that the rate of new priests being ordained in the country will not be enough to keep the Church alive, with only six being ordained in 2011.

Despite all of this, the Church and religion in general is going to remain a force in Irish politics and society for some time to come. The current struggle to take back patronage of the primary school system in Ireland from the Church demonstrates the power and obstinacy they still hold when their interests are threatened. Also, note the reaction of the various orders to the release of the McAleese Report; complete disregard and a callous indifference. In an interview that was broadcast on March 8th on RTÉ Radio 1, two nuns defended their role in the running of the Magdalene Laundries. When one of them was asked if they should apologise for the laundries she simply responded, “Apologise for what? Apologise for providing a service?” Answers like this should no longer surprise us, and neither should the anger that we feel at their utterance.

Even though the Church in Ireland is far weaker now than it was decades ago, it still holds sway. We must always remember that it has the power it has now, because of the power it had in the past.


2 Responses

  1. Eoin O'Mahony

    March 15, 2013 11:13 am

    Bryan, thanks for this. While I think this is a valuable contribution to an on going debate, I am not sure if you have a core argument here other than that the institutional and symbolic power of the Catholic Church in Ireland is waning, something for which there has been evidence since about 1980. For example, the number of those declaring themselves Roman Catholic means little beyond a tally of people who believe themselves to be Roman Catholic. When and if the number of Catholics in the census falls below 50.1%, what does that mean? What happens then? Declaring yourself a Catholic in the six counties means something very different from doing that on the rest of the island. Above all, measuring the strength or otherwise of the Catholic Church by sheer weight of numbers is the imposition of a market-based measure of success. Facetiously, if fewer people declare themselves to have a disability in the census, does that mean disability is ‘less successful’?

    Secondly, I’d take issue with your statement “Everything mentioned here is at odds with basic Church teachings that anyone who has been raised Catholic would be well aware of” because it assumes a homogeneity of knowledge of everyone ‘inside the Church’. One of the problems that I can see from here (because I am employed by them to work on this) is that being raised a Catholic does not ensure knowledge of teachings. It is akin to saying that everyone raised in Ireland should know the Government of Ireland Act or the contents of the last Banking Act. Plenty of people disagree with ‘basic teachings’ (social teaching? educational policy? canonical?) and part of that struggle is played out in forums far less widely watched than the fathomably shallow RTE coverage of the last week. In my work, one of the issues I have noted is the emphasis on the performative and not the catechetical – something which you also mention. ‘Doing’ communion is not the way a church operates. Religious belief is not only performative but cultural and historical and is intersected by power relations in much the same way as the rest of our lives are. I’m engaged currently with a project that at times feels more like community development and not faith development. Someone I spoke with recently thought that a PhD in theology allowed you to give out communion on Sunday.

    Thirdly, I would be happy to pass on details of my own work on the analysis of the European Social Survey and other larger surveys which shows that regular Mass attendance stands at about 40% of those who say that they are Catholics in Ireland (strangely higher than the 80% in the census). Regular attendance is falling among younger people as well as middle classes and working class communities all over Ireland. Concentration on declining numbers of priests has been a way in which some can continue to ignore more structural changes that need to be made.

    From a progressive perspective, I think we need to internationalize a critique of the abusive power relations that have existed between the institutional Church and the state, both too long in thrall to each other. Excessive focus on the peculiarity of (usually the Republic of) Ireland’s secularisation (as if that has happened already) is a political dead end. We need to focus on the power relations that exist within communities, both rural and urban.