The precipitous decline of religion in Ireland is a defining moment in the country’s history.
Census 2022 recorded that 14 per cent of the population is now irreligious, the second largest group after Catholics. Those who identify as Catholic have fallen from 79 per cent in 2016 to 69 per cent in 2022. It is not just in the figures. There are no longer many devoutly Catholic public intellectuals; Mass attendance has collapsed; theological literacy is certainly waning. And this is not just an Irish story. Britain and the United States are seeing the once colossal influence of religion – Christianity, mainly – ebb. A study from King’s College London found just 49 per cent of Brits believe in God, down from 75 per cent in 1981.
In 2023, only 39 per cent of Americans said religion was important to them, compared with 62 per cent in 1998. The West is no longer God’s kingdom.
But it is unlikely that we are barrelling headfirst to a secular utopia. For a start, such a thing can only exist in our imagination. The architecture of religion is too embedded in our daily lives to deny its presence: that we observe weekends is evidence of an unavoidable holy framework. The fact that every presidential inaugural address ever made in the US contains a reference to God is another example of a potent civil religion. The President of Ireland swears a religious oath upon entering office.
And public faith can hardly be counted by census numbers; it is more elusive than that. The very fact that we so carefully track religious identity in this country is testament to the enduring legacy of that faith. True secularism – if even attainable – is long away. Religion is hard to eschew no matter how much we might want to.
But should we even want to? It may seem an obvious desire for a country that has undergone as vertiginous liberalisation as Ireland. It was the Catholic Church, after all, that inhibited the passage of gay marriage for so long; religion that informs much of the antagonism to legalising abortion; Catholicism that sees women locked out of the top levels of the institution; and religious orders who were primarily responsible for perpetrating the institutional abuse of unmarried mothers. The general sense, then, is that the less religious a society the better. It is freer, probably fairer to women, hopefully rid of the abuses of power that so often come with enormously influential organisations like the church. It is easy – too easy – to see religion as a monolithic and malign force.
The sea change in Ireland over the past two decades has encouraged that mode of thinking. It isn’t entirely fair.
A vibrant civil religion need not preach fire and brimstone nor seek to exclude and harm the vulnerable
The church may have a lot to atone for. But when we lose religion, we risk losing good things too. Christianity, argues Ross Douthat in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, “has frequently provided an invisible mortar for our culture and a common vocabulary for our great debates”. He is right.
The language of morality we use to praise and censure is entirely derived from a religious lexicon. Even the worst throes of modern cancel culture adopt concepts like exile and puritanism to frame its arguments. Society relies on structures provided by religion to communicate. Humans have always sought the ephemeral, an organisational force outside of themselves. It is unlikely that we will be the first category of people in history to rid ourselves of the need for some kind of larger, common thing to believe in. It is arrogant to think so.
Civil religion – a communal religious value not tied to any particular denomination – is as relevant and necessary as ever. And more, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that without parishes and shared activity like churchgoing, society may become coarser, more atomised, preferring individuality over community. In fact, we know society is atomising – we need look no further than the census data on the increase in home working (now approximately a third of all workers). It may seem a frivolous comparison. But work, like religion once did, sits at the centre of life. It makes a difference when we spend that time at home rather than with each other.
There are plenty of traditionalists who see the inherent conservatism at the heart of the church as crucial to maintaining a religious society. But I do not believe that is true. A vibrant civil religion need not preach fire and brimstone nor seek to exclude and harm the vulnerable. A shared set of values needn’t come with the mandate that we all adhere to every letter of the New Testament. We can spend hours relitigating all the harms the church has wrought, and lamenting the deeply entrenched fissures introduced across the world by religious extremism. But we must remember that atheism is as doctrinaire an idea as any traditional faith. And that an atomising society – where self-interest reigns – is as unpleasant as it is dangerous.
Ireland more than anywhere understands the ugly consequences of overbearing doctrine. So, we should not be quick to celebrate the decline of religion. Who knows what might replace it.