Saturday 25 October 2014

David Quinn: The divide in Ireland is not one between various faiths -- but between religion itself and secularism

Published 08/08/2012 | 17:00

THE result of the latest Red C poll is not surprising given what Ireland has been through with respect to the church and religion since the last survey was conducted in 2005.

In that time, we have seen the publication of the Ryan report into institutional abuse, the Murphy report into abuse in the Dublin archdiocese and, last year, we had the publication of the Cloyne report.

It is notable that the Irish section of the opinion poll was conducted in December of last year. This was only a few months after the publication of the Cloyne report and Taoiseach Enda Kenny's famous speech attacking the church, and the Vatican in particular.

That speech -- whatever criticism may be made about some of its details -- spoke for many people across the country.

A poll conducted by Amarach Research on behalf of the Iona Institute -- (which I head) and which was also carried out in the aftermath of Cloyne -- found that a quarter of respondents would be happy if the church vanished from Ireland completely.

Therefore, when you combine the findings of the Red C poll with those of the Amarach survey, what is revealed is a significant amount of hostility towards institutional religion.

It is interesting to contrast this latest poll with last year's census, which found that 84pc of Irish people are still willing to call themselves Catholic. It seems a lot depends on exactly what question is asked and the frame of mind people are in when they are asked it.

The census showed that even people who never go to Mass are still willing to self-identify as being Catholic when filling out a form. But when they're asked by a pollster if they consider themselves to be religious, that number plummets. This may be connected with a person's understanding of what it is to be religious.

A lot of people associate religion with rules and regulations and with organised religion. So, when they are rejecting religion they are rejecting the rules and regulations and the institution.

However, if they were asked did they consider themselves to be spiritual, they would probably be much more likely to say 'Yes'.

This is because it is now commonplace for people to say "I'm not religious, but I am spiritual." Spirituality appears to be religion without the institution in the minds of many people today.

Another factor that is encouraging people to say they are not religious is the rise of the new atheism. This is best represented by famous proponents such as Professor Richard Dawkins, who have introduced a polemical brand of atheism to the public.

This is evidenced by the huge sales of books such as Dawkins's 'The God Delusion', and 'God is Not Great' by the late Christopher Hitchens.

These books have been popular in this country and they began to sell in big numbers around the time of the last Gallup/Red C poll in 2005.

But it is not just Ireland that has seen a sharp drop in the number of people who say they are not religious. The poll shows this is happening in many parts of the world, especially the western world. It is notable that in America, 30pc of people now say they're not religious.

What appears to be happening is that people, who had previously been non-practising, are for the first time in many cases beginning to self-consciously identify as, not just non-practising but non-religious and, also, sometimes as atheists.

However, we have to be careful not to exaggerate the findings of the poll with respect to Ireland. For example, one finding is that Ireland is now less religious than Iceland. But Iceland, in common with other Scandinavian countries, has for a long time been one of the most secular countries in the world.

By no stretch of the imagination is Iceland a more religious country than Ireland. In countries such as Iceland, Sweden or Norway, levels of weekly religious practice are a lot less than 10pc. In Ireland, by contrast, roughly a third of people still go to Mass every week, and another 15pc go every month. In other words, the percentage of people who are still regularly practising is still about half the population.

Measured in this way, Ireland continues to rank as one of the most religious countries in the western world.

It would be interesting to see what the poll findings would be if it were conducted again today, instead of last December when feelings were probably still running high after the publication of the Cloyne report.

Overall, what the poll seems to have revealed is a deepening division within Irish society between those who are religious and those who are not.

Increasingly, it appears to be the case that people are self-consciously identifying as either religious or non-religious in the same way they would have once been self-consciously either for Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.

The new split in Ireland is not between the different religions -- but between religion itself on the one side and secularism on the other.

Irish Independent

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