A secular state does not imply a secular society

Belief and faith are alive and well in our State’s traditional and evolving communities

In the Dáil last month Paul Murphy TD said: "We think the prayer should go. It is anachronistic that we start every day here with a prayer. We have an increasingly secular society. We want a secular society. We want a complete separation of church and State and in that sense we believe that the prayer does not belong here any more". Implied is a question: who are we now? We need to think carefully before answering.

Secularity is complex. We talk of a secular State where churches are separate from political structures as they are in most European states (with low-key exceptions such as Britain and some Scandinavian countries). Ireland is a secular state in this sense. No one seems to want to change that.

Religious practice

It is a different matter to speak of a secular society. In its usual colloquial sense, the word “secular means “non-religious”. Thus if a person self-identifies as “a secular person” they mean they have no religious affiliation.

So to speak of secular society is to speak of a society in which religious practice is an inconsequential sport, in which religious meaning has little or no relevance to who we are now, or how we should comport ourselves.


This meaning of “secular” seems to be, in Paul Murphy’s words, that: “we have an increasingly secular society. We want a secular society.” A concern for church and State separation seems linked to a wider agenda – the desire for a secularised society.

While there has been a lot of debate over the question about religion asked in the 2011 census – and repeated in the one last month – the free decision of such a massive percentage as 84.2 per cent to self-identify as Catholic in 2011 was impressive.

In no way turning a blind eye to the decline in regular church-going, one should not fail to remark on the quite strong numbers moving to and from churches throughout the country at weekends. One might also notice the energy and devotion immigrants are bringing to congregations.

Call to prayer

Census figures report Islam is the second-largest religion in Ireland in terms of participation at services. Friday prayers draw quite large crowds in some areas. As these spill out to the streets afterwards, it is important to recall (and rejoice) that many are now Irish as well as Muslim.

Other religions, including Hindus, Buddhists and Baha’is, make up 2.1 per cent of the population. There is a remarkable growth of new expressions of Christianity, (Pentecostal, Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, and others). And, yes, there is a major increase in the number of us who identify as non-religious – the 2011 census recorded a fourfold rise from 1991.

Which are we now? Pluralist? Post-secular? Secular? There is much new diversity, and in the diverse mix, much significant continuity.

Is a thoroughly secularised society a desired outcome?

Do we really wish to end up in a situation where Christian symbols, the Muslim headscarf or Sikh turbans are banned from public workplaces?

The cultural (and political) challenge of our times must surely be that we create ways to seek truth together.

In itself whether the Dáil prayer stays or goes is not a momentous issue. It doesn’t play any discernible role in Dáil deliberations or decisions. Its meaning is vestigial.

Formal separation of church and State can accommodate a restricted presence of prayer of this kind, if people so wish, as was evidenced in the prayer spoken by the Defence Forces chaplain at the commemoration of the Rising.

But larger questions loom. Where does the church stand in relation to the whole structure of modern civilisation? The question for the church is how it conceives its relationship, not with the State, but with society as a whole. There is a great deal at stake, for the church but also for western society as a whole.

Dr Cornelius Casey is an organiser of The Role of Church in Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence? forum in the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin, from June 22nd to 24th. loyolatcd.com/