a reduced role in politics for religion?

In the Irish Times Gerry Moriarty reports on the analysis of trends in religious affiliations [subs req] in NI, and the dissaffection with politics, by Professor Ian McAllister of the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University – who suggests [Implications page 7] – “If these trends continue, secularists will represent the second or third largest religious group in Northern Ireland society by the time of the next census, in 2011.” but that this group may not influence the political process – analysis available here from the excellent ARK site[PDF file]
As Gerry Moriarty notes

Prof McAllister is based at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. He received funding from the Nuffield Foundation for this project to work with ARK in 2004/5 and carried out the research while based at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The report uses a pooled dataset, combining the Northern Ireland social attitudes surveys (1989-1996), the Northern Ireland life and times surveys (1998-2004), the 1998 Northern Ireland referendum and election survey and the 2003 Northern Ireland election study.

As well as the increasing level of those with no religious affiliation driving a demographic change as families pass on religious, or non-religious beliefs – in varying degrees – Prof McAllister notes two other factors – “socio-economic change; as people become more affluent and are exposed to a wider range of life experiences, their interest and commitment to traditional forms of religion declines.” and “politics. Recent debates in the United States over moral issues such as abortion and euthanasia have shown that, on these issues at least, religion and partisanship have become more closely aligned than at any time in the recent past. Observers have argued that the increasing alignment between religion and politics may be motivating people to disavow a religious attachment, in order to avoid its political connotations.”

From the Implications [page 7-8] of Prof McAllister’s analysis[pdf file]

What are the implications of these findings? Does the move towards secularisation suggest a reduced role in politics for religion?

The answer to this question, paradoxically, is no. In the first place, religion acts as an ethnic marker, demarcating community boundaries, and is a formative influence on many of the key social processes within the society. To have any substantive impact on this key role, secularisation would have to progress much further than we have observed here.

A second reason is based on the political behaviour of those who see themselves as secular. Their disaffection from politics has led to their move away from religion, and ironically, they have left the political arena almost solely to those who retain a religious identity. In the short to medium term, this is likely to enhance the role of religion in politics, not reduce it, since the most religious are the most politically active and exert the most influence on parties and politicians. If secularisation is to have any impact on the political process, those who see themselves as secular will have to re-enter politics and influence it from within.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    So that makes about one in nine people in NI ‘religious independents’. I think it would be very usedul if the Government actually bothered to record this in the census.

    You can tick a helluva lot of boxes on a census form, but curiously, a growing part of the population is being ignored.

    I detest the way politics and religion intertwines in NI. If the Prof is right – that 1/9th of the people who reject traditional religion are doing so at least partly because of its political connotations, then it won’t be the shifting council boundaries that will distance a growing sector of voters from their ‘representatives’.

    The Govt might like to consider at least recording the basic demographic fact that there are more and more people who aren’t interested in nationalist/unionist politics. If it is over 10 percent, then these are the people who will hold the balance of power between the two tribes come the referendum on a united Ireland!

    Downplaying that figure – as HMG does – is silly. Recognising it might encourage the parties to actually try and appeal to this group, as they seek to shore up support for their respective constitutional positions.

    However, their vote is unlikely to be earned with emotional drivel, sectarian appeals or historical jingoism.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Here’s the report’s summary in a nutshell:

    Key Points

    • In line with international trends, a significant minority in Northern Ireland (approximately 10%) see themselves as having no religion. This group is now the fourth largest religious group in Northern Ireland.

    • If these trends continue, those with no religion will form the second or third largest group in Northern Ireland by 2011.

    • Those with no religion are more likely to come from Protestant than Catholic families. There has been a significant decline in church attendance among Catholics.

    • There is evidence to support gradual population replacement as one explanation for the growth in secularisation.

    • There is also suggestive evidence that disaffection with politics is causing the growth of this secular group.