Surveying religious conviction is meaningless

DESPITE THEIR trumpeting by a media determined to jump on anything to “prove” its God-is- dead, long-live-the-media thesis, the…

DESPITE THEIR trumpeting by a media determined to jump on anything to “prove” its God-is- dead, long-live-the-media thesis, the findings of this week’s so-called religiosity index poll are all but entirely devoid of meaning.

A Red C press release summarising the results of the WIN-Gallup “global index of religions and atheism” announced on Wednesday that Ireland now rates as one of the world’s “least religious countries”, with fewer than half of us describing ourselves as “religious”.

But what does this mean? The main question of the poll, asked of 51,927 people in 57 countries, was: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”

The only vaguely reliable element of these findings as far as Ireland is concerned is that referring to “convinced atheists”, a category that has shown a three-point rise, from 10 per cent to 13 per cent, since the last such poll in 2005. Even this finding is ambiguous, since atheism Irish-style clearly embraces a wide spectrum of people, from existentialists to lazy-minded anti-Catholic bigots.

The core problem with the poll, then, has to do with terminology.

What does the word “religious” actually mean? What, indeed, does “religion” mean? How can anyone ask a question about “religion” with any confidence about finding consistency of understanding as to the meaning of the word? Religion is really the science of the total meaning of things, the word “science” having the same roots as the word “knowledge”. Religion is an attempt by man to fill himself with a knowledge of everything.

In this poll, however, it is clear that the question has a subtext relating to what we used to describe as “‘atin’ the altar rails”. This is reinforced by the inclusion in the poll findings of a “religiosity index” of countries worldwide, as well as liberal references to concepts such as “religiosity among the poor”.

But the word “religiosity” does not mean what the compilers of this poll appear to assume. “Religiosity” relates not to the concept “religious” but to “religiose” – the condition of being “excessively” religious.

This is not a semantic objection. It is obvious that the WIN-Gallup/Red C poll was conducted and published with a certain ideological agenda in mind. This is clear from the published details but would most likely have been clear also to many of the people surveyed, as they answered the questions.

This ideological context (detectable in statements such as “the richer you get, the less religious you define yourself”) can be summarised as follows: “Religion, being about fear and superstition, is a symptom of poor, uneducated societies.” This assumption drips from virtually every finding and turn of phrase in the published poll documents.

Asking people if they are religious is bound, as a matter of course, to ignite highly personalised meanings. Some people think of religion as referring to membership of a certain club or tribe, adherence to particular sets of rules, or simply to a belief, or “faith”, in something called “God”. But what is “God”? What is “faith”? The poll assumes these meanings are fixed and commonly agreed but they are anything but.

Unsurprisingly, then, there are many internal contradictions in the findings – for example, this grammatically rather challenged but just about comprehensible statement: “Most of the shift is not drifting from their faith but claiming to be ‘non-religious’ while remaining within their faith.”

This wording appears to assume that “faith” refers to membership of a denomination, but is this not also one possible definition of “being religious”?

Judging from media reports of the poll, it is clear the findings have been interpreted as having concrete meanings to do with a shift in Irish society away from transcendental understandings, in the direction of “rationalism”. This has been the subtext of every report or discussion on the subject I have encountered.

But an opinion poll is almost by definition incapable of addressing such a question, because opinion polling belongs to the three- dimensional, man-made construct of reality in which most of us nowadays live most of the time, whereas “religion”, properly understood, belongs to the greatest possible understanding of human possibility.

Opinion polls are really no more than measurements of the thinking of what Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at the Bundestag in Berlin last September, characterised as the “bunker” that man has built for himself so he can pretend to have dominion over all things.

A poll is not a naturalistic measure of the essential outlooks of human beings but of the conditioned responses arising from the imposition of bunker culture. Mass-media culture increasingly primes humankind with a constructed understanding of reality, and the “success” of this project is the only element that opinion polls can reliably assess.

These conditions, rather than objective reality, render plausible the conceit that we can divine the understandings of three-quarters of humankind (as this poll claims for itself) by speaking to a number equivalent to the population of Limerick.

Religion, understood with an open mind, transcends the bunker to an extent that defies measurement or understanding through media as limited and limiting as words and numbers.