‘Nones’ in Ireland, North and South: Has the End of Ethno-Religious Violence and Institutional Abuse Contributed to the Rise of ‘No Religion’?

I presented a paper today on “‘Nones’ in Ireland, North and South: Has the End of Ethno-Religious Violence and Institutional Abuse Contributed to the Rise of ‘No Religion’?” It was part of a workshop on “ ‘Nones’ in selected countries in Western and Eastern Europe and the US: A Comparison,” hosted by the ‘Religion and Politics’ Cluster of Excellence at Muenster University.

I have reproduced a few excerpts from the paper below.

Nones in Ireland, North and South …

The island of Ireland has long been one of the most religious locations in Europe, exhibiting unusually high levels of religious identification, practice and belief when compared to the rest of Europe. But in 2009, Máire Nic Ghiolla Phádraig wrote (2009:3): ‘The extent, of the most recent levels of decline, signals the crossing of a new threshold, perhaps comparable to the projected melting of the polar ice caps. Does this signal an inevitable ‘disappearance of religion’ or simply mark a new phase of religiosity in Ireland?’

The latest Census figures for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (ROI) have produced even further measures of religious decline; specifically, more people than ever before are choosing the categories of ‘no religion’ or ‘not stated.’ The figures stand at 17 percent in Northern Ireland in 2011, up from 13 percent in 2008 and nine percent in 1998. The latest figure for the ROI is 12 percent in 2016, up from eight percent in 2011 and six percent in 2006.[1]

It has often been assumed that Northern Ireland and the Republic have retained high levels of religious identification and practice due to the island’s divided and violent past. The ROI has historically been overwhelmingly Catholic, with more than 90 percent of the population identifying as Catholic until the early 1990s. In 2016, that figure stood at 78.3 percent. Northern Ireland has always had a Protestant majority – indeed, it was the Protestant majority that ensured that this part of the island remained in the United Kingdom when the ROI (at that time called the Irish Free State) was created in 1921. The gap between the number of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland has been narrowing over time, and by 2011 the figures stood at 42 percent Protestant and Other Christian, and 41 percent Catholic.

… In this paper I argue that it is likely that both the ending of violence and the revelations about institutional abuse have contributed to the decline of religion on the island. A few studies have evaluated the impact of the abuse scandals on religious identification, belief and practice – with a cautious consensus emerging that the scandals have been much more damaging to the ‘institutional’ Catholic Church, than to people’s belief in God (Goode et al 2003, Iona Institute 2011, Turpin 2017[2]). There is not corresponding evidence, apart from what was deduced in Jennifer Todd’s study on the border areas in the early 2000s, about the relationship between the ending of violence and change in religious identification and practice. In what follows, I bring together existing evidence to demonstrate how the abuse scandals may have contributed to the rise of ‘Nones’ (hereafter used to include those who identified as ‘no religion’ and ‘not stated’ in the ROI and Northern Ireland), and declines in other measures of religiosity. First, I present data charting the increase in Nones. Then I present the results of surveys that have asked people about the impact of the abuse scandals on their own faith and practice. Significantly, people report that the abuse scandals have impacted on their religious identification and practice – confirming that the scandals have contributed to religious decline. However, we cannot be certain how important the abuse scandals have been amongst a suite of other factors that are likely contributing to decline.

Concluding Reflections

… In the conclusion, I identified a research agenda, including asking people specifically about the impact of the ending of ethno-religious violence and the abuse scandals, both north and south. A north/south dimension is important. For example, Todd’s findings about how religion is more important for identity in Northern Ireland than the ROI hint that the impact of the ending of violence on religion has not been straightforward. In addition, I am not aware of any studies that have asked people in Northern Ireland about the impact of the abuse scandals on their religious identification and practice. Is it possible that even though the Catholic Church is organised on an all-island basis, that the abuse scandals have contributed to greater declines in the ROI because the Church was entrusted with so much more power there than in Northern Ireland?

In addition, future studies also should focus on those under 35, especially those born in the 1990s who would have almost no memories of the violence of the Troubles or of a scandal-free Catholic Church. It is striking that a 2013 Student Marketing Network survey in the ROI found that 78 percent of third-level students said that the scandals had negatively affected how they perceived the Catholic Church, while a 2011 Iona Institute survey found that 30 percent of people under 35 would be happy if the Catholic Church disappeared from Ireland completely. Finally, it is worth pointing out that cross-nationally, the impact of institutional abuse on religious identification and practice has remained relatively unexplored. [Although the Pew Center has conducted research on this in the USA.] So this paper calls for further research investigating whether or to what extent institutional abuse has contributed to religious decline in Catholic-majority countries or in countries with significant Catholic populations.

[1] The ROI Census allows people to tick ‘Other’ and write-in an identity. Some people wrote in lapsed Catholic, atheist, agnostic, and lapsed Church of Ireland, which I have added to the categories of ‘no religion’ and ‘not stated.’ If only ‘no religion’ and ‘not stated’ are calculated for the ROI, the figure is just under 10 percent.

[2] Hugh Turpin, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast, kindly allowed me to present some of the results of his unpublished survey on ‘current religious and non-religious beliefs and values among Irish people who were baptised Catholic.’

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