Is Ireland Abandoning Religion?

A headline in today’s Belfast Telegraph announces: ‘Republic of Ireland Abandoning Religion Faster than almost any other Country.’

Breda Heffernan and Colm Kelpie report on an international poll conducted by Red C, which found that:

An overwhelming 69% of Irish people declared themselves to be “a religious person” in the last survey conducted in 2005, but this has now plummeted to 47%.

According to the data, only Vietnam is experiencing a faster drop in religiosity than the Republic. The Red C poll is based on interviews with more than 51,000 people worldwide, including 1,000 respondents in the Republic.

The Telegraph article attributes much of this recent decline to the impact of the child sexual abuse scandals in the Irish Catholic Church, which is one plausible explanation.

There’s nothing surprising about this poll, as it confirms the findings of a series of recent polls that have charted the decline of the Irish Catholic Church. While the Red C poll measured how many people identified themselves as ‘religious,’ other polls have asked Irish people about their feelings on some of the specific teachings of the Catholic Church.

If decline can be fairly measured by people’s disagreement with particular church teachings or disillusionment with the ‘institutional’ church, the decline is steep indeed.

For example, in February, a survey carried out by market research group Amarach on behalf of the Association of Catholic Priests (a group often considered at odds with the hierarchy, and which includes priests like Redemporist Tony Flannery, who has been ‘silenced’ by the Vatican), found that the Irish public did not agree with the Catholic hierarchy on issues including married priests, women priests, the election and term of office of bishops, and attitudes towards homosexuality.

In March, the Moncrieff Show on Newstalk 106-108 FM surveyed Ireland’s Catholic priests on a variety of issues, finding that 61% of priests feel that the hierarchy doesn’t understand the challenges they face, 63% thought that the church has handled the abuse scandals poorly, 60% thought women should be allowed to become priests, and 78% thought priests should be allowed to marry.

In November 2010,  a study by the Social Attitude and Policy Research Group at Trinity College Dublin revealed that most Irish Catholic women think that their church does not treat them with respect. A stunning 74% of Catholic women said that the Church did not treat them with “a lot of respect” compared to just 6.3% of Protestant women. 

In addition to that, previous sociological studies have shown that Ireland has been secularizing at a faster rate than other countries in Europe. For example, an article by Susie Donnelly and Tom Inglis, ‘The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Reporting Clerical Child Sex Abuse,’ published in 2010 in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (volume 25, issue 1, January 2010, pp. 1-19), compared trends in what they call ‘personal religiosity’ and trends in ‘institutional religiosity.’

Personal religiosity (or ‘spirituality’) was calculated on the basis of answers to these questions: do you believe in God? Do you believe in life after death? Do you believe in heaven? Do you believe in hell? Do you believe in sin?

Institutional religiosity was calculated on the basis of answers to questions about church attendance and trust in the church.

Donnelly and Inglis found that personal religiosity in Ireland stayed relatively stable over the time period, but that institutional religiosity declined sharply. They write:

‘…regardless of spirituality, Irish people’s trust in the church declined significantly during the 1990s. This is the first time that we can observe a dimension of Irish religiosity dropping below the level of religiosity in Italy and Spain. In short, by 1999, Ireland had, on average, the lowest levels of trust in the church than any of the other Catholic European countries examined.’ (p. 12)

Interestingly, all this data was gathered between 1981 and 1999, before the more recent Ferns, Ryan and Murphy Reports caused further damage to the church.

Other sociological research by Eric Kaufmann has noted that in Western Europe, majority Catholic countries are currently ‘secularizing’ at a faster rate than majority Protestant countries – with Ireland (late to secularize compared to other European countries) now again seeming to lead the way.

So what does this all mean for religion in the Republic?

One easy answer could be that secularization is now irreversible, and that people are turning to atheism. For example, the Belfast Telegraph article reports that the Red C poll also reveals that:

the Republic is now in the top 10 for the number of people declaring themselves to be “a convinced atheist”.

My own research for the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity College Dublin lends some support to the growing strength and visibility of atheism. In our 2010 surveys of faith, atheists responded disproportionately to their numbers in the overall population, with many saying that they felt that their perspective was excluded from the public sphere.

I think it’s more likely that the Republic will follow a trend evident in the United States, where trust in ‘institutional’ religions is plummeting, but people are increasingly engaging in alternative church/religious/spiritual networks and institutions.

Again, my own research is documenting this process in Ireland, through research on how people have found room for their faith to grow through what I call ‘extra-institutional’ spaces such as:

These extra-institutional religious spaces are perceived as (relatively) free from the corruptions of the institutional church, and they are places where people can experience hope, healing and personal growth.

Because the Catholic Church has had such a monopoly on ‘institutional’ religion in the Republic, I think the process of people engaging in alternative or extra-institutional networks will take longer to happen there than it has in the United States, where a religious ‘free market’ has for generations been a seed bed for innovative expressions of religion.


Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at