Atheism, religion and a changing Ireland

Census 2022

Sir, – “Without parishes and shared activity like church-going, society may become coarser, more atomised, preferring individuality over community”, writes Finn McRedmond (“Ireland, of all countries, shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate the decline of religion”, Opinion & Analysis, June 1st).

Communities and shared activities are essential to the health of a society and the individuals that comprise it, but they need not be religious. There are myriad examples across the country, which provide people with a sense of togetherness and connection to each other. Moreover, they do not involve segregation along religious lines.

She acknowledges that “Mass attendance has collapsed”.

If her hypothesis were correct, surely society would have already become “coarser, more atomised”, yet she offers no evidence that the collapse in Mass attendance to date has caused a coarsening or atomisation of society.


She contends that “atheism is as doctrinaire an idea as any traditional faith”. Atheism is simply an absence of a belief in a god, or gods. It is not doctrinaire at all. There are no atheistic equivalents of Catholic doctrines or dogma, for example.

She alludes to the many dark chapters in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Irish citizens: it “inhibited the passage of gay marriage for so long”; “women locked out of the top levels of the institution”; and “religious orders who were primarily responsible for perpetrating the institutional abuse of unmarried mothers”.

One can add the following to the list: the institutional cover-up of child sexual abuse, the adversarial approach to victims seeking justice and reluctance to contribute to compensation; the industrial schools; Catholic teachings on homosexuality, contraception and divorce; fostering a culture of guilt and shame; and terrorising generations about hell for non-believers and limbo for unbaptised babies.

Religion can also foment tribalism and division. Look at Northern Ireland’s history, for example.

And yet, apparently, “Ireland, of all countries, shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate the decline of religion”.

It is possible to have vibrant communities and shared activities without appeals to the supernatural or clinging onto something which has caused so much harm.

You do not need to be religious to have a sense of morality. In fact, history is replete with examples of people who used religion to justify committing immoral acts.

If religion is a sine qua non for a sense of morality, on what basis do people decide what religious teachings are moral and which are immoral? It is something innate within us. “Of all countries”, we should know that. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 16.

Sir, – The reported number of Catholics may have fallen by 10 per cent since the last census; many of us may have chosen to lapse or disavow our religion, but deny it as we may, our Catholic upbringing shaped us in critically formative years. Still relevant is the old Jesuit maxim: give me the child till he is seven years old and I will show you the man.

We may believe we have left the church but the church hasn’t left us. – Yours, etc,



Co Donegal.

Sir,– The release of the latest census data provides further evidence of a dramatic change in Irish society. Over one million people did not indicate a religion in 2022, while one in seven indicated that they had no religion. The detailed census breakdown is likely to show that the figures for younger age groups are starker still.

Meanwhile, a new poll commissioned by Education and Training Boards Ireland found strong support for multidenominational education, with just 9 per cent of adults expressing a preference for a religious body to provide education.

Given the mounting evidence of the need for reform, one might by now have expected to hear a clear statement from Minister for Education Norma Foley conceding that religious control of our education system is no longer appropriate in an increasingly pluralistic and secular society.

No such statement has been forthcoming. Indeed, the Department of Education is probably the least likely to comment on demographic changes with respect to religion, despite the fact that 95 per cent of our primary schools are run by religious bodies.

The department’s policy in this area is characterised by deference, delay and denial: deference towards the churches, delay in implementing reforms, and denial of children’s human and constitutional right to attend their local school without attending religious instruction.

In light of these latest census figures, Education Equality urgently calls on Minister for Education Norma Foley to convene a citizens’ assembly on the future of education without delay, as promised in the Programme for Government.

Ireland has changed – our schools must too. – Yours, etc,


Communications Officer,

Education Equality,


Co Dublin.