Being religious is now a countercultural identity

Christianity is no bulwark against new tribal identities dominating discourse

“In comparison with the rest of Europe, Irish people are still far more religious.” Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

At a recent Irish Association conference, Belief in the Future: Religion and Changing Identity, Rev Prof Anne Lodge, director of the Church of Ireland Centre at DCU spoke about religion and education. She said that her response to the question as to whether faith schools are a good thing was: 'Yes, but. . .'

If faith schools promote independent thought and real dialogue with society, she believes they have a great deal to offer but that our school system, which was shaped in a pre-secular Ireland, is no longer fit for purpose.

Prof Lodge humorously described how in pre-secular Ireland everybody was presumed to be Catholic and if you were not, you were lumped in with the Protestants even if you happened to be Jewish.

Several of the speakers, including former minister for education Jan O’Sullivan, outlined what it was like to grow up as a Protestant in a pre-secular Republic.


She vividly described living on a road in a small village with a Protestant church at one end and a Catholic church at the other. On Sundays, she travelled in one direction while her Catholic neighbours went in the opposite direction. She said she was shaped by that experience in mostly positive ways but rightly railed against the pre-secular idea that to be Irish is to be Catholic.

Changes in the religious landscape since that time both North and South were crisply summarised by Gladys Ganiel of Queen's University. Unsurprisingly, the picture is one of decline in religious practice.

Mass attendance

Take Mass attendance, which has fallen from 91 per cent attending weekly in 1972 to 36 per cent attending monthly in 2017. She also summarised research that shows that Irish people generally rank many things ahead of religion as components of their identity. But in comparison with the rest of Europe, Irish people are still far more religious.

In addition, Karen Brady, secretary to the Irish Council of Churches, mentioned a study, Being Christian in Western Europe, by the Pew Research Centre. The majority of even non-practising Irish Christians believe that the church plays an important role in helping the poor and needy. So despite decades of scandals, the good that churches do is still recognised and acknowledged.

The changes in the Irish religious landscape include a growing, active minority of Muslims. Dr Amanullah De Sondy, who is a senior lecturer in contemporary Islam in UCC, challenged any perception of Islam as a monolithic tradition and highlighted how complex identity in the modern world can be.

The son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants to Glasgow, he grew up in a largely Scottish Presbyterian environment with a mother who wanted only Punjabi spoken at home and a father who remained faithfully Pakistani but wanted his children to be Scottish. Part of the diversity within Islam includes those who are allies or members of the LGBT+ community.

Several speakers suggested that the rise in Islam across Europe would pose interesting questions, including Rev Dr Niall Coll from St Mary's College in Belfast, who quoted Damian Howard SJ. The latter queries whether the fact that Muslims have no hesitation in declaring the reality of God may provoke Christians in a constructive way to return to their own traditions.

I am not so sure about that. In fact, I am not so sure that even Muslims will be able to maintain a strong religious identity in the face of the universal solvent of individualism, which is now the dominant western ideology.

Some of the speakers spoke of how good it was that people are no longer blindly accepting doctrines.

Again, I am not so sure. Have we just accepted different tribal identities that impose a high level of conformity instead? Being burned as a heretic (in a metaphorical sense) is a strong possibility for those who do not conform to the doctrines of shiny, progressive Ireland.

For another speaker, David McConnell of the Humanist Association, the answer to the search for meaning lies solely in faith in humanity and science. But our world is choked with pollution and facing extreme climate challenges.

Along with human greed, scientific discoveries that allow us to exploit the Earth’s resources ever more ruthlessly have driven the choices that have brought us here.

Long-term good

Both Rev Trevor Sargent, former government minister who is now a Church of Ireland minister, and Justin Kilcullen, former director of Trócaire, gave barnstorming critiques of the ways in which the search for individual profit and comfort conflict with the long-term good of individuals, families and the planet.

For me, the conference reinforced my belief that polite, Enlightenment Christianity is no bulwark against the new tribal identities that dominate public discussion. Those identities, whether on the left or the right, are deeply shaped by the indoctrination of a global capitalism that thrives on making us feel that we are all primarily autonomous individuals.

For those who take their faith seriously, as Dr Niall Coll pointed out, deep roots in a living religious tradition are essential as they give us the security and strength to be humble and learn from others while maintaining a distinctive identity that has some possibility of countering the current dominant ideologies.