THE scale of the crisis facing the church in Ireland is laid bare today in a stark survey which reveals that religious faith is plummeting.
Irish people are abandoning religion faster than almost every other country worldwide, the massive global survey on faith reveals.
Only Vietnam has seen a bigger drop in people declaring themselves to be religious over the past seven years, a period when the Catholic Church in Ireland has been rocked by sex-abuse scandals and a crisis of leadership.
Red C interviewed more than 51,000 people worldwide, including just over 1,000 people in Ireland.
An overwhelming 69pc of Irish people declared themselves to be "a religious person" in the last survey conducted in 2005, but this has now plummeted to 47pc.
Last night the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said the results of the global index required "closer critical reading" but he acknowledged that it highlighted the challenges facing the Catholic faith in a changing Ireland.
"The Catholic Church, on its part, cannot simply presume that the faith will automatically be passed from one generation to the next or be lived to the full by its own members," he said last night.
There was a need for strong ongoing education in the faith, he said, with a growing need for adult religious education to stop people drifting from the faith as they got older.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Catholic Communications Office said faith was not a "numbers game".
And it said the latest survey contrasted sharply with last year's Census, which found that 84pc described themselves as Catholic, and just 5pc said they had no religion.
But according to the latest research, Ireland is now in the top 10 for the number of people declaring themselves to be "a convinced atheist".
Although this is still a minority group at 10pc, it puts us high in the global league table, and is a stark rise from 3pc seven years ago.
The poll asked people, irrespective of whether they attended a place of worship, if they considered themselves to be religious, not religious, or an atheist.
However, the nature of the question may have affected the results -- something the pollsters themselves admit.
They said that while there had been a 9pc drop globally in the number describing themselves as "religious", most people still felt part of the faith they grew up in.
However, it will still come as a blow to the Catholic Church in Ireland, and is the second survey in recent months to show massive alienation among the population.
A survey in February by market research group Amarach found the public at odds with the church hierarchy on a range of issues, including women clergy and married priests.
That survey, which questioned more than 1,000 Irish Catholics, found that 77pc believed women should be ordained.
Nine out of 10 said priests should be able to marry. It also revealed just 35pc went to church on a weekly basis.
However, the Irish Independent has learned that nothing has been done to address the crisis in the church in the six months since the Amarach survey was carried out.
The Catholic Communications Office was asked what actions had been taken by the bishops since the survey was published.
But a spokesman declined to comment, saying the study had been commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests, a group of 800 clerics who are critical of the hierarchy.
Asked about the new Red C poll, the spokesman queried the language used by the poll.
"The word 'religious', if left unqualified, is too general to be used as the keyword in a survey questionnaire -- especially in the Irish context -- where people prefer words such as 'spiritual'. Being 'religious' is a very subjective measurement," said a spokesman.
"For example, in the Catholic Church, someone who attends Mass on a daily basis may not describe themselves as 'religious', yet they are outwardly a person of deep faith."
Fr Brendan Hoban, a spokesman for the ACP, said the Red C results were "predictable enough" given the fall-off in Mass attendance and the drop in interest in the Catholic Church in recent years.
However, he said Irish Catholic numbers were "holding up markedly" and pointed to the Census figures and the 35pc attending Mass on a weekly basis.
He suggested that the Catholic Church was "almost traumatised" by the scandals of the last 10 to 15 years, and this was affecting its ability to take steps to address declining religious observation.
"It's so difficult for the bishops to provide leadership because, on the one hand, if they speak out, they are criticised, and if they don't speak out, they are also criticised."
Meanwhile, Michael Nugent of Atheism Ireland said the Red C poll showed people were rejecting the idea that atheism was an "extreme position".
He said the figure of 10pc of the population being atheists could be an under-estimation, as there were still people who did not believe in a God, but disliked the "atheist" label.
The Red C global poll also found that the richer you got, the less religious you defined yourself. Religiosity was higher among the poor, with people in the bottom-income groups 17pc more religious than those in the top-earning groups.