Influence of religion may be waning, but this is far from a secular paradise

The real headline is not the decline of Catholicism but the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our society is being shaped by the object of veneration that is replacing it - capitalism

The headlines have been predictable in response to the CSO Census 2022 summary figures. Most focus on the 10 per cent fall in those identifying as Catholic. A headline declaring that Christianity in all its forms is still by far the biggest religion in Ireland would probably not be as exciting.

The CSO warning that the apparently sharp drop may be accounted for in part by the question about religion being framed differently in this census is not as eye-catching a headline, either. Be that as it may, it is faintly astonishing that so many still are willing to declare membership of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and Orthodox traditions.

Identifying as Christian may be just a cultural remnant for many, but it remains at the centre of the lives of a significant minority. Presumably when a more detailed breakdown is available, it will show that the younger the person, the less likely she or he is to identify with any religion.

My father-in-law, Lord have mercy on him, often used a quietly devastating phrase. He would ask, “Is that good?” when some truism was trotted out. The subtext of the headlines trumpeting the decline in adherence to Catholicism is that it is indeed good, an indicator of progress towards a better, kinder, freer society.


The narrative has always been that once the shackles of repressive Catholicism were removed, a civic morality would emerge organically in its place.

It turns out that civic morality is not so easy to foster. While there are well-documented reasons for the decline in Catholicism, including egregious cover-ups of criminal sexual abuse of children, another tranche of figures from the CSO in April concerning sexual violence demonstrates that we are far from some kind of secular paradise.

While the definition of sexual violence used by the CSO is broad enough to encompass everything from a teenager persuading a friend to watch a pornographic video on their phone when they didn’t want to see it to non-consensual sexual intercourse, the figures remain stark and worrying.

If you are a young female, you are more likely to have experienced sexual violence than any other category of person.

“Women were more likely to have experienced sexual violence (52per cent) compared with men (28per cent). Young women (aged 18-24) reported the highest levels of sexual violence experienced in their lifetime at 65 per cent compared with 17 per cent for men aged 65 and over. For non-consensual sexual intercourse, defined as sexual intercourse where the person was coerced, threatened or forced into having sex, women experienced four times the level (21per cent) in their lifetime compared with men (5 per cent).”

Anyone with a vestige of empathy should be shocked and concerned by those statistics.

The notion that some kind of progressive civic morality is the natural alternative to a Christian worldview is beginning to look astonishingly naive.

Tom Holland has demonstrated in Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Re-Made the World that much of secular morality now taken for granted, such as the intrinsic value of every human person, did not exist in pre-Christian times. Why should we presume that it will continue to hold sway in a post-Christian world?

The most powerful worldview at the moment is shaped, formed and reinforced by capitalism. Having come across a thought-provoking interview with him in The Plough, I am slowly reading Eugene McCarraher’s 800-page tome, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. It is impossible in a short article to do more than skim the surface of this work, which took 20 years to write.

Max Weber was one of the first to articulate what is now a commonplace position. Before the advent of capitalism, the world was perceived as enchanted, full of the activity of gods and spiritual beings. With the advent of the Reformation and later industrialism, the world became disenchanted. The material world is the only reality and scientists and industrialists are best placed to explain and sometimes exploit it.

McCarraher believes Weber was wrong. Capitalism did not disenchant the world but instead created its own enchantment, or rather, misenchantment. As McCarraher says in The Plough, “Capitalism is fundamentally enchanted because we treat it with this sacred awe and veneration ... money actually does become an arbiter of what’s good – or even what’s real.”

Housing is the perfect example of this. It should be seen as a public good and once was in this country at a time when we had far less wealth as a nation. The lack of affordable housing means that people in healthcare and education cannot afford to live in our cities. People are having fewer children so our average age is older, with all the pension and care problems that will bring. The lack of housing gives the far right a toehold in public consciousness, allowing them to poison people’s minds against migrants and displaced people.

The real headline is not the decline of Catholicism but the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our society is being shaped by the object of veneration that is replacing it – capitalism.