A return to paganism or disillusion with the church?
Ireland’s Christian churches blame paganism for the decline of their congregations, but the real reasons are more modern
It meant that in 2011 there were more agnostics, humanists, atheists and nonreligious in the Republic than there were Church of Ireland members, Presbyterians and Methodists combined.
The 2012 Global Index of Religion and Atheism, a survey conducted by the Gallup International Association, showed that of 57 countries in five continents studied, only Vietnam was losing interest in religion faster than Ireland. It found that 44 per cent of Irish surveyed said they were not religious and 10 per cent said they were “convinced atheists”, up from 3 per cent in 2005. Significantly, the report also said that “most of the shift is not drifting from their faith, but claiming to be ‘not religious’ while remaining within the faith”.
This would appear to support the view of the Association of Catholic Priests that people are turning not so much against faith as against the institutional church.
Change felt in North
The change is being felt in Northern Ireland too. Its 2011 census found that, at 48.4 per cent, Protestants numbered 875,717, while Catholics accounted for 45.1 per cent or 817,385. But one-sixth (17 per cent) of the population stated they either had no religion or no stated religion.
In the North, too, the common experience of the four churches is the absence of young people. At the recent Presbyterian General Assembly in Derry, the outgoing moderator, Rev Dr Roy Patton, lamented that, while the church was growing in the developing world, “here the story is more likely to be one of decline”.
It is a topic discussed at Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, and Methodist church get-togethers every year. In Dublin the Catholic archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, has repeatedly commented on the absence of people between the ages of 16 and 34 from church liturgies.
Writing about the phenomenon for this newspaper in November 2000, the late Fr Andrew Greely, formerly of the University of Chicago, said, “Humankind (in Europe) will continue to believe, perhaps hesitantly and not without doubt, in God. Belief in life after death will survive. Faced with an alternative between Macbeth’s ‘tale told by an idiot’ and Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘something is afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth’, humankind will continue to tilt, however uncertainly, towards the latter option.”
He continued, “The churches will no longer be able to control the private behaviour of their members. People will decide their own terms for affiliation. Eventually – heaven knows when – religious leaders will learn that it is no longer enough to give orders. They must also learn to listen.”