Sex, sin and society

Sat, Sep 18, 2010, 01:00

LIVE AND let live. The Irish Times/Behaviour Attitudes Social Poll has this week painted a picture of a more liberal, less judgmental Ireland than we have known in the past and perhaps than we might have expected. It reflected a clear generational shift in those under 55 on a range of issues, from attitudes to homosexuality, to sex outside marriage, to women priests. In most cases majorities for more inclusive, tolerant views were overwhelming, from two-thirds to four-fifths.

And the poll also revealed a new openness to revisiting and challenging conventional wisdom on difficult moral questions such as abortion and doctor-assisted-suicide where agonising real-life dilemmas have tested black and white moral absolutes and certainties. Indeed, the question asked on abortion – whether one would help a friend who was seeking one (49 per cent said yes) – does not actually reveal pro- or anti- abortion sentiment, but is an insight into the extent to which people are far more willing now to accept and support others’ rights to make such choices for themselves. That shift in thinking, and on far more issues than abortion, is profound.

The decline in the centrality of the Catholic Church, and of its moral authority to the lives of the 89 per cent who say they are Catholics has been clear to all for some time, not least in the evidence of empty pews on Sundays – only a third say they attend religious services weekly and only 13 per cent admit to being “strongly religious”.

But the decline in religiosity has been accompanied by an even more dramatic shift over a generation in terms of willingness to take stands opposed to church teaching. Strikingly, this is even true, though to a lesser extent, among those who see themselves as strongly or moderately religious – 83 per cent of the latter believe priests should be allowed to marry. And while two-thirds (63 per cent) of those who describe themselves as loosely or not at all religious would help a friend obtain an abortion, even a surprisingly large 39 per cent of the strongly or moderately religious would do so. For the hierarchy such gulfs between orthodoxy and the views of its most committed must give pause for thought.

Reflecting widespread anger at the political class the poll also showed a prioritisation of what could be termed “civic virtue” over more private conduct. In a venality league sins like lying under oath, financial fraud, tax evasion and making misleading public statements came out in the top five, well above such activity as sexual infidelity, driving without a licence, or illegal downloads.

Most remarkable, partly because the question has not been asked before, was the finding that 55 per cent would support the legalisation under strict controls of doctor-assisted-suicide for the terminally ill, a reality in several EU states. One-third of those surveyed were opposed, although that figure rises to a majority (46-40) among over-65s. The latter reality, and the timidity of the Irish political class, make it most unlikely the issue will become subject of legisaltion in the near future. But the evidence of such a widespread openness to the idea should at least prompt a needed discussion on the dilemmas of terminal care and the rights of the dying.