Contact Us

Religion: the Irish experience

30 November, 1999

From the Veritas ‘Into the Classroom’ series: J.R. Walsh surveys the country’s religious experience down the ages and in recent times. This series, edited by Eoin G. Cassidy and Patrick M. Devitt, is designed for teachers of the new Leaving Cert religious education syllabus.

122 pp, Veritas, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie 

1. Patterns of change
2. Pre-Christian Ireland
3. Christianity in Ireland


Belief in God has been a mainstay of life in Ireland since early times. Today, Ireland has the highest percentage of practising Christians in Western Europe. In Religion: The Irish experience, J.R. Walsh surveys the religious experience of the Irish people through the ages. Including a discussion of the influence of the monastic movement on the Church in ireland and the connections between land and religion, the author also explores the impact of Enlightenment thinking in Europe and in Ireland, and the development of a diversity of belief in modern Ireland.

Religion: the Irish experience is a stimulating introduction to a fascinating topic.

CHAPTER 1: Patterns of Change

1.1 Patterns of change in religious belief

(a)  Patterns of religious belief in Ireland today
The total population of Ireland, north and south, at the beginning of the third millennium is just over 5.6 million (N. Ireland = 1,685,267; Republic of Ireland = 3,917,336). According to the two censuses conducted in 2001 (N. Ireland) and 2002 (Republic of Ireland), in the country as a whole 74 per cent of the population profess to be Roman Catholic, 6.7 per cent Church of Ireland and 6.6 per cent Presbyterian. It is impossible to ascertain from these statistics the level of commitment of the members of these groups: many are churchgoers, others are nominal Christians and do not practise on a regular basis, still others are only notional Christians. The censuses figures speak volumes about the identities which people perceive for themselves; they are very inflated, however, when taken with the Churches’ own assessments regarding religious practice/actual religious allegiance. They must, then, be read with caution. They should be read along with the rather different statistics emanating from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) of 1998 and the European Values Study (EVS) of 1999 (see the section entitled, ‘The European Pattern of Religious Belief’, below).

Roman Catholicism denotes the faith and practice of Christians who are in communion with the pope. Catholics profess a continued tradition of faith and worship, and hold to the apostolic succession of bishops and priests since the time of Christ. The leader of the Church in Ireland is the Archbishop of Armagh, the Primate of All-Ireland, and is usually a cardinal. The Church has twenty-six dioceses and four provinces each under a metropolitan archbishop. There are 1,365 parishes, about 3,400 diocesan or secular priests and some 20,000 religious in the island. The Irish Church has a strong missionary outreach with 2,973 priests, brothers and nuns active in more than ninety countries across the globe. The number who profess themselves to be members of the Roman Catholic Church make up 88.8 per cent of the population of the Republic and 40.3 per cent of the population of N. Ireland.

The Church of Ireland is a self-governing church within Anglicanism and is therefore in communion with the see of Canterbury. The bases of Anglican self-understanding, preaching and doctrine include the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-nine Articles and the two Books of Homilies. The Archbishop of Armagh, the Primate of All-Ireland, and the Archbishop of Dublin, the Primate of Ireland, lead the Church. It has twelve dioceses, approximately 470 parishes and some 540 priests or ministers (who can be male or female). Up until 1869 the Church of Ireland was the state church and since then its chief legislative body has been the general synod made up of the bishops and representatives of clergy and laity. In the Republic 3 per cent of the population profess to be members of the Church of Ireland, while in N. Ireland it is 15.3 per cent.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is governed by ministers and elders through four interrelated bodies: (a) the session of the local congregation consisting of the minister and the elected elders; (b) the presbytery (of which there are twenty-one in Ireland), made up of ministers and representative elders from within a defined area, overseeing sessions, congregations and ministers within its area; (c) the synod consisting of the presbyteries of a larger specific area; and (d) the general assembly of ministers and elders elected by the presbyteries throughout Ireland. Within each of these bodies ministers and elders have equal voices and decisions are reached after a ballot. The Westminster Confession of Faith, drafted by the Puritan English Parliament in 1643, is the chief doctrinal standard of Presbyterians who believe in the authority of the Scriptures in regard to Christian living. The leader of the Church in Ireland is the moderator, always a minister, who is elected for a one-year term of office. There are some 560 active ministers and assistants in Ireland. The ministry was opened to women in 1972. In the Republic 0.57 per cent of the population profess Presbyterianism, with 20.7 per cent in N. Ireland.

Of the remaining 12.8 per cent of the population of the whole island, nearly half (5.7 per cent) prefer not to state their religious affiliation or claim to have no religion, being agnostics, atheists or Humanists. (The readiness of a small but significant percentage of Irish people to claim ‘no religion’ is seen as an indicator of a movement towards a more secular society. This supposed trend should be viewed, however, along with the Republic of Ireland’s ‘almost universal theism’ mentioned in Section c below.) Others belong to Christian denominations like Methodists (recognised as the fourth largest denomination in Ireland), Baptists, Congregationalists, Free Presbyterians, Christian Brethren, Non-Subscribing Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Evangelical Presbyterians, Pentecostals, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Moravians and Lutherans. Some of these Christians are members of the Orthodox Church or the Salvation Army. A number adhere to non-Trinitarian Churches like Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons). A tiny minority are members of sects or cults, some of which are discussed below, and there are small but increasing numbers of the other great world religions – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism – or of offshoots of these like the Baha’i faith. Judaism, the faith and practice of the Jewish people, with its acceptance of the idea of a single, unique, incorporeal God who will ultimately redeem the world through his Messiah, is long established in Ireland. Non-proselytising, it has some 1500 members in the island, mostly in the Dublin and Belfast areas. It is only in recent times and particularly in the last ten years that the other great world religions mentioned above have impacted on Ireland (see Section e below). According to the 2002 census in the Republic there are 19,147 Muslims, 3,894 Buddhists and 3,099 Hindus.  With 0.49 per cent of the population Islam is the fouth largest religious grouping in the Republic.

Christianity, then, is a vital force in Ireland, which has the highest percentage of practising members in Western Europe. Ireland also has a small but significant number of people who are committed members of other faiths. Very few Irish people do not believe in God.

(b) The changing patterns of religious belief, especially among young people in Ireland
Many young people in Ireland today believe in God and are committed to Christ; they pray daily and are regular attendees at church; they are prepared to witness to their faith by full participation in liturgies and by caring for the sick, lonely, aged, bereaved and needy. They seek, too, to live out their membership of the Church community by supporting, for example, initiatives for peace, civil rights and the protection of the environment. Some of them enhance their involvement by belonging to groups within the Church such as Search or Youth 2000. This attachment to the Church is all the more creditable because (1) the pressures to conform to the expectations of society – from parents, teachers, and neighbours – are much less than they were even a generation ago and (2) churchgoing is increasingly seen as an activity practised by the middle-aged or elderly and (‘all the more creditable’ for young males) by women.

Others view religion as a matter for the individual, as something private and personal. They do believe in God, and the person of Christ can be as real and important to them as to their churchgoing peers, but many feel that they must follow their own spiritual quest without institutions, that Churches are not necessary because, ‘people have God within them’. They may also say that their Church fails to connect with their lives, that rituals, sermons and catechetical teaching are irrelevant, and that they are bored by Sunday worship.

Some young people have become disillusioned with the institutional Church and despise the hypocrisy that they claim it displays. Its perceived wealth may have caused them scandal; the fact that so-called Christians fight each other in the name of religion (and do so in Ireland in particular) may have disgusted them. The conduct of some professed followers of Christ – especially that of ‘professional’ Christians, priests and religious – has proved a real stumbling block for them. Conversely, for a few humble but excessively scrupulous individuals, personal frailty may have led to decisions that a lifestyle was incompatible with membership of the Church. Others may have simply drifted away; leaving home, socialising at weekends, the burden of working on Sundays or other reasons may have distracted them and without consciously coming to a decision to cease practising they have simply lost the habit of going to church.

A number of young people join new religions or movements; some, unhappy with the world as they experienced it, adopt one of the ‘world-rejecting’ religions such as Krishna Consciousness in order to lead lives separated from conventional society; others seek membership of one of the ‘world-affirming’ movements which promise (as does Scientology, itself not actually a religion as such) ‘human growth’ leading to power, status and personal attractiveness.

Finally, there are those who deny that God exists or hold that He cannot be known. Humanists reject the supernatural and belief in a god and put human interests and the mind of man paramount. They often generously commit themselves to improving the lot of human beings. Agnostics (a term coined from the Greek agnostos – unknown or unknowable) hold that we can know nothing of things beyond material phenomena. Atheists (from the Greek atheos – denying the gods) claim that God does not exist and that religion is at best a silly preoccupation and at worst a mechanism by which man is misled and exploited.

(c) The European pattern of religious belief
Over the last 150 years, a period in which comparatively reliable records were kept, there appears to have been a decline in religious practice and in the overall significance of Christianity for individuals and for the societies in which they live in much of Europe. This process has been termed secularisation. Over the last fifty years many of the European nations have had to deal with the advent of ethnic minorities of other (non-Christian) faiths. The homogeneously Christian Europe of before the Second World War has disappeared.

Not only has there been a decline in membership and attendance in the ‘traditional’ churches but there also seems to have been a decline in the significance of religion in many ordinary people’s lives. (Civil marriages in registry offices, for example, have increased noticeably in the last two decades.) People seem less ready to take a moral lead from the Churches, and the actual influence of the Churches over governmental policy would appear to have diminished. This secularisation of Western Europe has occurred, according to some sociologists, for a number of reasons: (a) scientific explanations have diminished belief in supernatural explanations of events; (b) the social pressures which caused many people to attend church in order to be seen rather than to express sincere religious convictions have disappeared; (c) the break-up of the traditional family has meant that young people are no longer socialised into attending church; and (d) consumerism and materialism have provided seductive alternatives to Sunday observance. In France, in the years 1999 to 2000, 60 per cent of adults claimed that they never attended church. The French were closely followed by the East Germans (57 per cent), the people of the Czech Republic (56 per cent) and the British (55 per cent). The Republic of Ireland was one of five European nations that scored below 10 per cent (the others being Malta, Greece, Poland and Romania).

The supposition that Great Britain, for instance, is fast becoming a secular society has, however, been strongly contested. This diagnosis of the supposed secularisation of that society can be equally applied to most other European countries. ‘No religious affiliation’ rates have increased slightly in many European countries from the start of the 1990s to the end of that decade, notably, France, West Germany, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands and Belgium. The critics of the argument that Great Britain is becoming a secular society draw a distinction between attendance at church and belief in God. They point out that 72 per cent of the British claim to be believers in God. (The figures for other European countries are correspondingly high: 72 per cent of Belgians and 87 per cent of Spanish acknowledge God’s existence, for instance.) Furthermore many British still use the church for the rites of passage: baptisms, marriages and funerals. Sixty per cent of initiation rites, 70 per cent of first marriages and 80 per cent of funerals are still celebrated in church.

The critics of the secularisation thesis also point out that falling church attendance rates merely signify that those who go to church on Sundays do so voluntarily and because they believe, rather than out of social obligation or to underline their superior social status. They hold that nineteenth-century church attendance figures cannot be used for comparative purposes, as Victorian methods of data collection do not meet today’s standards of reliability. Nor, they claim, can we look back to some imagined golden age of religion with which to compare unfavourably present trends: the England of the satanic mills afforded little importance to religion (except for movements like Methodism) and the power of the Church in the middle ages may actually have been eminently successful secularisation rather than the triumph of the spiritual.

The modern Church’s targeting of specifically religious matters, then, may indicate a more concentrated form of religion, unadulterated by involvement with secular concerns such as politics. It may also indicate a shift in the focus of religion away from identification with the state, the economy and power towards the needs and aspirations of ordinary people and a concern for the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.

Insights into the European pattern of religious belief are to be found in the European Values Study. Tony Fahey discusses this in his article ‘Is Atheism Increasing? Ireland and Europe Compared’, in Measuring Ireland: Discerning Values and Beliefs (edited by Eoin G. Cassidy). The pan-European EVS provides data about (1) the attachment of the citizens of thirty-three countries to institutional religion as measured by three indicators (Church membership, church attendance and confidence in the Church) and (2) informal or privatised religion in these societies. The most recent EVS was conducted in 1999, an innovative venture as it included in its trawl data for former Soviet-bloc countries. The two earlier EVS surveys (1981 and 1990) had focused exclusively on Western Europe.

As regards Church membership, the most recent EVS finds that 9 per cent of the adult population of the Republic of Ireland claim no religious affiliation. This figure is very low by European standards. The highest levels of disaffiliation are to be found in the former Soviet-bloc countries of East Germany, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but the level for the Netherlands (55 per cent) is high and the levels for France, Belgium and Sweden are similar to many of the other onetime Communist societies.

The statistics regarding church attendance at least once per month put the Republic of Ireland in a group of three countries (the others are Malta and Poland) with rates of 75 per cent or more. Fourteen societies have rates of 20 per cent or less in this category.

Data relating to confidence in the Church as an organisation places the Republic of Ireland in the lower half of European countries along with Austria, the former West Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Sweden, but above Great Britain, the former East Germany, the Czech Republic and France. The figures confirm a sharp loss of confidence in the Churches as organisations – but especially in the Catholic Church – in the Republic of Ireland between 1981 and 1999. Scandals involving the clergy and the hierarchy have doubtless influenced this dramatic downward trend. Local clergy retain, however, a high level of credibility.

As regards informal or privatised religion it is surprising to note that atheism has not been assertively embraced by significant numbers of Europeans. The onetime East Germany (22 per cent) and France (15 per cent) have the highest proportions of people who define themselves as convinced atheists. Belief in God, however, is widespread throughout Europe. In eighteen societies the proportion of theists is above 80 per cent and in the Republic of Ireland, Malta, Poland, Portugal and Romania theism is almost universal. (A quarter of the European societies surveyed, however, have sizeable non-praying populations – a statistic that suggests a de facto atheism in many quarters.) It should be noted that the vast majority of European societies have large majorities who turn to religion at the three key transition moments of birth, death and marriage for the traditional rites of passage.

We leave Tony Fahey to draw his own conclusions:

…extensive detachment from churchly religion is the dominant position in many European countries, particularly in a number of former communist countries but also in certain Western European societies. Even in these countries, detachment is nowhere universal, in that no country is lacking at least a small minority with continuing regular participation in church activities. On the other side of the balance sheet, there are many European countries where church participation remains quite high, both in the east and in the west. Ireland, like Poland in the east, is one of these…

…Most European populations are similar to Irish people as far as [the] informal aspects of religiosity are concerned. Some countries with low levels of formal religious practice are somewhat weaker in these respects than others, but generally the persistence and prevalence of these religious orientations is the more striking. It is difficult to know how deeply these orientations impinge on people’s daily lives, or whether they are profound enough to merit being labelled as religious in any serious sense of that term. Nevertheless, they are there. They give comfort to those who would argue that religion is likely always to be with us, and that out and out secularisation is a figment of the social scientific imagination that is unlikely ever to be universally realised, either in Ireland or in any other part of the world. 

(d) Secularisation and secularism
Secularism is the view of life that limits itself to the human here and now (the Latin word saeculum means ‘this present age’) in exclusion of man’s relation to God here and hereafter. It is more than an abstract theory, rather a philosophy of life and a movement of thought. It is a rejection of religion and often follows after secularisation, a term that nowadays describes the decline both in church attendance and in the overall significance of religion for individuals and for society. In theory, secularisation could mean a fundamental respect for the autonomy of earthly realities. This positive form of secularisation could arise from the Jewish-Christian belief in a Creator God, who has created a good world, and rejoices in the fact that the entire world is thoroughly good. Secularisation, however, can sometimes become distorted and can then develop a more negative aspect. 

The negative process of secularisation can be seen in economic, political and religious changes in Western culture, from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment to the present century. At its minimum, secularisation means a diminution in the power and effectiveness of religious authorities like bishops, priests and clergymen. It involves the ending of state support for religious bodies, which may involve: the payment by the government of members of the clergy (as happens, for example in Sweden and Germany), the teaching of religion in school, religious tests for parliamentarians and certain government officials, legislative protection for the moral positions taken up by particular Churches (for instance, the prohibition of artificial methods of contraception) and the censorship of written materials and media productions in order to safeguard religious values. With basic secularisation individuals are in a position to deviate from religious dogmas or the ethical principles of specific Churches. All atheists and agnostics, and many religious believers are happy with this outcome. The constitution of the USA, for instance, separates church and state rigorously, and yet the majority of its citizens are members of one or other of the Christian Churches.

The term ‘secularisation’ can also mean, however, the decline of general interest in religion so that religious bodies no longer attract members or enjoy widespread respect and influence. At its maximum secularisation means the end of all interest in religion. Attempts were made during much of the twentieth century to terminate religion in the USSR. The official systematic suppression of religion has been tried frequently in communist China, Albania and Cuba over the last several decades. Yet there is little evidence that these attempts have worked.

(e) New forms of religion in Ireland – new religious movements
There has been a certain limited growth in Ireland in membership of some of the non-Christian world religions or of certain alternative religious movements (groups outside the mainstream Christian Churches) in recent years. The main recently introduced, non-Christian world religions represented in Ireland are Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sufism and the Bahá’í faith (the last two, now major religions in their own right, being offshoots of Islam).

Hinduism, the oldest of the great religions, stresses reincarnation. It has been brought to Ireland from the Indian subcontinent. It also has had a huge influence on eastern-inspired, neo-pagan religious movements that have attracted a small but highly committed following in Ireland. The Hare Krishna movement, for example, is a Hindu religious sect, Bhakti Hinduism (dating from c. 1500), packaged for Western consumption and imported into Ireland via the United States. It is officially entitled the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON).

Buddhism (dating from c. 500 BC) teaches that the cycle of penal reincarnation can be broken through meditation, moral living and the receipt of enlightenment, and that the state of nirvana (‘no-being’) can be attained. Zen Buddhism, a fusion of one of the main strands of traditional Buddhism and Chinese Taoist beliefs, has been very fashionable in the West since the 1960s. Syncretist itself, Zen Buddhism lends itself to accommodating other religious traditions.

Islam, the religion preached by Muhammad (c. 570-632), has as its central dogmas the absolute unity of God (Allah) and the definitive prophethood of Muhammad (who was preceded by several other prophets including Adam, Abraham and Jesus). Islamic doctrine is enshrined in the Koran (or Qur’an) and the Sunna (a body of tradition). The five pillars of Islam are: recitation of the Muslim creed (‘There is no God but God (Allah) and Muhammad is his prophet’), ritual prayer practised five times a day, almsgiving, fasting during the month of Ramadan (the ninth of the Muslim year, variable since the calendar is lunar) and pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina (the hadj) at least once in a lifetime. The two main modern branches of Islam are the Sunnites and the Shi’ites. Most of the Muslims in Ireland reside in the Dublin metropolitan area though there are other communities in Belfast (in particular), Galway, Ballyhaunis, Craigavon and Cork. Their number is growing and their presence is increasingly being felt throughout the island.

Originating in Islam but pantheistic, viewing God and the universe as identical, Sufism has been influenced by neo-Platonism, Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Christian mysticism and Gnosticism. It in turn has influenced many of the esoteric New-Age movements in the West with their emphasis on dance, the recitation of mantras and healing.

The Bahá’í faith, founded in Iran in 1844 by a Muslim merchant named Mirza Ali Muhammed (the Bab) and spread by the Bahá’u’lláh (the Glory of God messenger) has no priesthood and no set liturgy. Because of its belief in one God, the creator, it appeals to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Its search for peace and its emphasis on the equality of the sexes and of all races has an appeal to those interested in New-Age ideas. Its banning of alcohol and drugs is important for advocates of healthy living. There are twenty-nine Spiritual Assemblies or Baha’i congregations in Ireland at the time of writing (2002). 

In Ireland today there are also many modern religions and religious movements: Campus Crusade for Christ (an evangelical Protestant student movement); the Way (which uses the terminology of ‘traditional’ Christianity to convey totally different beliefs and which denies the divinity of Jesus Christ); the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International (an association – charismatic in orientation – of likeminded Christian laymen with ‘the same social, cultural or business interests’ intent on inspiring its members to be active in their respective churches); the Family or Children of God or Teens-4-Christ or Revolutionaries for Jesus or the Jesus Children or the Jesus Movement (a fundamentalist group with a powerful Second Coming message and an invitation to its members to practise sexual freedom); the House Church Movement (fellowships of non-denominational Christians who meet in the intimacy of private homes for spontaneous unstructured worship and who interpret the Bible literally); and the Unification Church (a movement founded in 1936 by Sun Myung Moon, a Korean millionaire, its members called familiarly ‘Moonies’, which propounds a radical reinterpretation of Christianity and seeks the amalgamation of all the denominations of Christianity with the other great world religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam). Some of these groups are sects (groups formed as offshoots of existing religions), others are cults (new religions).

Finally, we note that within the Catholic Church itself there are spiritual groups of great richness, many of them catering for the needs of young Catholics: the Charismatic Renewal Movement, the Christian Life Communities, the Focolare Movement, Marriage Encounter, Pax Christi, the Peace Corps, Renewal, Action and Youth (RAY), Search, Youth 2000, and the Young Christian Workers.

Tags: ,