Unthinkable: Do you need faith to give your life meaning?

There are ‘few indications’ that God matters to the Irish, says sociologist Tom Inglis

The future of faith-based education in Ireland continues to be hotly debated. Fr Paul Connell, president of the largest secondary-school management body in the State, has claimed that young people "may be left without a moral reference point and in danger of despair" unless instructed through religious belief.

"The alternative is a vacuum that can express itself in nihilism and the growing phenomenon in our schools of self-harm," he told the annual conference of the Joint Managerial Body/Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools last April.

The possibility of developing a comprehensive moral system independent of faith is well documented. But there has been less serious scrutiny in academia, let alone in the Catholic Church, of the association between faithlessness and loss of meaning, or despair.

Enter the sociologist Prof Tom Inglis, of University College Dublin, whose latest book, Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland, tests the long-standing church theory that you need faith to provide ballast, or a purpose, to your life. He interviewed 100 people for the book, exploring what gave their life meaning, and while he doesn't claim the study is representative, he says it is illustrative of the way in which Ireland is going.


“One of the main findings of the study was how little not just the Catholic Church but religion in general was part of the cultural repertoires of the everyday lives of the people I interviewed. There were few indications that God was in their minds and hearts and on their lips, that religion provided them with either a model or explanation of life, or that it was a model for how they should live their lives,” he writes.

“When I asked them how they decided what was right or wrong, very few mentioned religion or the teachings of the church or the Bible.”

Nonetheless, he found many of his interviewees to be influenced by Catholic indoctrination, to which he attributed, for example, their downplaying of money or material gain as important in their lives. The result, he says, is that “we are somewhere in between the Catholic culture of self-denial and that other culture of self-fulfilment, which is the main message of market capitalism”.

How important is religion really to Irish people?
"I would say the majority of Catholics are moving from orthodox Catholics to what I would call cultural Catholics.

“Cultural Catholics are quite happy to send their children to Catholic school, they are quite happy to have communions, marriages, births, deaths, in the auspices of the Catholic Church.

“But in terms of their everyday lives – in their home, work, leisure activities – the church, and indeed religion, seems to be a background that didn’t even preside in its absence.

“I would say the vast majority of people have been colonised by the market, that we live – or they live – as good consuming capitalists.”

Is it possible to detect changes over time in how people's sense of meaning has shifted because of market forces?
"I think the market penetrates everyday life, and in particular it penetrates family, intimate and loving relationships. That has always been the case.

“But the church used to be able to make ‘family time’ relevant to religious time and space. That’s not happening any more.

“But I would say if one of the fundamental values of religious teaching is the family, then that is definitely there. Family life is the cornerstone, the linchpin, of meaning in everyday life. The family is undoubtedly the most important institution, particularly as regards meaning . . . and it gives rise to other meanings.”

What do you make of Fr Paul Connell's suggestion, then, that absence of faith leads to nihilism and despair?
"I think that's scaremongering, and political, and it's about maintaining control of Catholic education. No, I would say the exact opposite: I would say Irish people have become much more creative in the way that they use church teachings to develop their own meaning, their own ethics of moral responsibility.

“To say that they have no fundamental values, or have a propensity for self-harm, is to say that no secular society can develop an ethic, or a way to have a good life, and at the same time a more metaphysical explanation for what life is about.

“Part of what it is to be human throughout history . . . is that there is not one answer.”

Were you surprised sport featured so prominently as a source of meaning?
"Much as we talk about the weather, sport has become an international language for strangers to meet and talk about themselves.

“Yes, I discovered sport was again an important thread in the webs of meaning, but then I suspected that. What I might have suspected but didn’t actually put it into my questioning was the important role of pets, the amount of people who spontaneously said: ‘Ah well, if it wasn’t for old Rolf there in the corner, I’d be lost’ . . . And I wouldn’t let that pass. Sociologists might write about pets, but not in the context of meaning.”

It was interesting you found people had little need to develop "a strong, coherent explanation of life". Do Irish people lack a curiosity or compulsion to rationalise meaning?
"That, for me, would be a key finding. One would have the impression that it's necessary to work out the meaning of life. The reality for most people is that they live with a high level of ambiguity, a high level of scepticism, a high level of contradictory beliefs and values. So they don't sit down and say, 'Now I'm going to have to rationalise the way I think about how I'm going to die [and whether there's an afterlife]' . . . People have decided there is no answer to these questions and they are not going to be bothered trying to find answers to these questions."