Guest post: Ireland is also more secular than we thought

February 24, 2012 • 4:46 am

Grania Spingies, of Atheist Ireland, has contributed a short post about a European country that most of us see as religiously retrograde. It turns out that it’s far more secular than we thought.


Ireland may also be a lot more liberal and secular than some would have you believe

by Grania Spingies

Last week the Ipsos MORI polls conducted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason revealed that the majority of self-defined Christians living in the UK tend to have more far more liberal and secular views than those promoted by Christian campaign groups. The reaction from those groups has been predictably both outraged and outrageous, but the message is fairly clear: the highly conservative values espoused by such lobbies do not reflect those of the Christian majority on whose behalf they claim to speak.

A recent government-sponsored poll shows very similar attitudes in Ireland. The poll is based on  the Irish Referendum in 2011 (in Ireland the Constitution can be amended only by popular referendum), and was conducted by the Irish government for political reasons: to find out why people voted as they did. Unlike the Dawkins Foundation poll, then, this one was not conducted by a pro-secularist organization, and thus cannot be criticized on that count.

The poll shows that despite being a “Catholic” country (the 2006 Census put the proportion of Catholics above 86%) and in spite of Irish religious lobby groups insisting that the conservative status quo remains, it seems that a comfortable majority of Irish people do not take their cues about morality from the Church at all. In fact, an article in Thursday’s Irish Examiner by June McEnroe shows that the Irish overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage, and also do not support Ireland’s ill-conceived new Blasphemy Law.

The poll found:

* 73% believe same-sex marriages should be allowed in the Constitution.

* 53% believe the offence of blasphemy should be removed from the Constitution.

* 51% believe references to women’s life within the home should be removed from the Constitution.

(The Constitution has a rather paternalistic view of women which, while it does not preclude women from working, tacitly endorses the idea that women are to be seen primarily as mothers.  Here’s one section:

1° […] the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.)

These results are heartening but perhaps not surprising. In spite of a recent history dominated by the Roman Catholic Church that has resulted in almost all Irish schools being faith schools and led to many fights for the legal right of individuals to do such things as use contraception (1985), get a divorce (1994), or obtain an abortion (still illegal in Ireland, with its elimination being vigorously campaigned against by the Church), it seems that Ireland, much like the rest of Western Europe, prefers a secular and enlightened society too.

One thing seems clear: religious think-tanks and lobby groups do not represent anything like the numbers of people who tick the same religion box in surveys, and shouldn’t be allowed to insinuate that they do.

36 thoughts on “Guest post: Ireland is also more secular than we thought

  1. 53% is still awfully low re: the removal of the blasphemy offense from the Constitution. It’s a majority, sure, but not one to be proud of quite yet…

    1. I think that figure is in keeping with the public reaction to the blasphemy law when it was enacted. There was very little public protest about the restriction of free speech and the incitement to ostentatious displays of offense that the wording of the act promoted. The Irish newspapers were almost completely silent on the issue.
      It was only the atheist society of Ireland that stood up for the principles of free speech.
      The thing you have to remember about the Irish blasphemy law is that it is not a sectarian religious law. It was not promoted by the Catholic Church (indeed, they seemed almost embarrassed by it!)
      It is best seen as an accomodationist law – aimed at silencing criticism or ridicule of religion (and particularly those religions that might freak out and ban Irish exports – such as livestock to middle east countries).

      1. I think that it’s a problem when only atheists stand up for free speech though. Don’t you agree that everything should be open to criticism?

        I would expect even the religious to want the right to criticize other religions as a means of promoting their own.

      2. I can see the point you’re making about economics, though… One has to be pragmatic when money is at issue.

  2. Is there any similar longitudinal information, in particular to see what sort of effect the paedophile priest scandals have had?

  3. Irish society was already in retreat from a Catholic identity, when it was deeply shaken by revelations of pedophilia, and also of the virtual enslavement of young women. Current constitutional discussions involve same-sex marriage, and the abolition of the blasphemy laws (I don’t know when these were last enforced, if ever).

  4. This is very encouraging news, Grania. Ireland has moved a very long way in the last few years.

    Just one thing I’d like to pick up on. The RDFRS UK poll was commissioned but not conducted by us. It was conducted by Ipsos MORI to their very high professional standards and, as with all polls that they carry out, it was rigorously scrutinised at every stage to ensure that the questions were fair and not leading, that the sample group were representative, and that all statements we made about the results were genuinely supported by the data, etc.

    You are right that there are some who have tried to suggest that the results are unreliable because RDFRS UK has strong views on the subject-matter, and that this completely unjustified objection is less likely to be thrown at the Irish results; but simply because the objection has been made in some quarters, I am seizing every opportunity to put it straight. Ipsos MORI would not have acquired its respected position in the world of opinion-polling if it did not ensure its polling procedures were as representative, as accurate, and as unbiased as possible.

  5. “One thing seems clear: religious think-tanks and lobby groups do not represent anything like the numbers of people who tick the same religion box in surveys, and shouldn’t be allowed to insinuate that they do.”
    Does not the question arises why those Irish citizens, who apparently declare themselves Catholics, allow those lobby groups to simply ignore and misrepresent their views?

    1. Because when you’re a Catholic who holds views at odds with the Catholic church you have two choices. Leave the church, or shut up and keep your opinions to yourself.

      On the other hand, answering an opinion poll or voting the way your conscience tells you is right (rather than what an authority figure tells you is right) is anonymous and brings no repercussions. It’s a lot easier to listen to your conscience in the face of societal pressures when nobody knows you’re doing it.

        1. Modern western European Catholicism is very much an a-la-carte version of the religion. Nobody pays attention to the ban on contraception, divorce is seen as a human right and church attendance is a fraction of what it was a generation ago. Many people still call themselves ‘Catholic’ but it is a very watered down type of Catholicism. The church authorities are reluctant to admit this issue as they rely on the nominal demographics as a means of continuing political support – in other words measuring the numbers of Catholics by the numbers of people baptized is more politically advantageous to them than measuring numbers according to those who are ‘practicing Catholics’.

      1. So what exactly refrains all those catholics – à la carte or otherwise – telling those catholic authorities and lobby groups and think tanks to shut up and to listen to them?

    2. Because they are only Catholics on paper and don’t care what the religious think-tanks and lobby groups have to say. Politicians know this but the church still holds considerable power with regards to education. The people know this. Catholicism and God is much too deeply ingrained in Irish culture to just disappear but don’t worry, the vast majority of Irish people give no credence to what the church or its lobby groups have to say. On anything. In the words of Dara o Briain, “I’m an atheist, but I’m a Catholic atheist”.

  6. A very similar thing was found in my country, Argentina. Social scientists conducted a series of polls which show that a large majority of people identify whith a religion (mostly catholic), but their views on contraception and other subjects did not match the Church’s view

    link to the study (in spanish):

  7. Not only is abortion illegal in Ireland, it’s also illegal to travel to the UK, where it is legal, for an abortion.

      1. From the article:

        “…women have continued to travel [to England] in their thousands for abortion. In 2010, a total of 4,402 women made the journey – an average of 12 every day. Since abortion was legalised in England in 1967, more than 100,000 Irish women have had abortions abroad.”


    1. NoAstronomer, it’s not true that travelling for an abortion is illegal in Ireland.
      The x case ruling 20 years ago established that the Irish government could not prevent women from traveling abroad for abortions

  8. Interesting, thanks!

    I have been following Irish politics more closely since Enda Kenny’s astounding speech re: Cloyne and have noticed the refusal to back down over the closure of the embassy to the Vatican! (Even though quiet pressure was asserted from certain areas of Irish society to reverse the policy).

    It seems the Irish have more bravery than the UK when it comes to standing up for what is right, rather than for what is easiest.

    Christian arguments against gay marriage are perhaps the most confused things I have ever heard. Apparently, God invented marriage, so it’s not bigotry to deny it to everyone (the old ‘God cannot be a bigot’ proof…).

    More here for anyone interested…

  9. Rather than completely removing that part of the constitution, they should desex the language:

    the State recognises that by their lives within the home, parents give to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

    2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that primary caregivers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.)

    Domestic work should still be recognized and supported by the state.

  10. Ireland has no established religion (unlike the UK). The head of state is not the head of the church (unlike the UK). There are no bishops appointed automatically to the upper house of the Irish government (unlike the UK). Church and state are separate, bar the odd pious reference.

    Catholocism in Ireland frequently involved opposition to the church as the church excommunicated people for fighting for political independence.

    An ability to accommodate irreconcilable beliefs has been part of the Irish character since Christianity failed to entirely replace traditional beliefs and superstitions. Fintan O’Toole’s book Ship of Fools on the financial crash in Ireland has a rather good chapter on dual belief systems in Ireland — on knowing and not knowing at the same time (about corruption etc.).

    The Catholic church has fallen off its pedestal in Ireland in a very big way and it is unlikely to be put back there this side of a major reformation of the church (with priests allowed to marry, women allowed to be priests etc.). For many it fulfils a largely social function.

    Not just is Ireland essentially secular, but proud of its tradition of Christianity — broadly defined, in terms of compassion for the poor, hungry, destitute etc. — most Irish people regard American religiosity, especially the Southern variety with great distaste.

    Of course, I refer to the Republic. In the North there are fundamentalist firebrands who traveled to the southern US for graduate degrees in peddling hatred. However, the market for their wares has fallen off quite a bit.

  11. The actual statistics on views are heartening.

    The view in the constitution is disheartening. I can’t believe they single out women (or men), 1) puts them in the home, and 2) tries to prevent them from labor away from home! That is so sad.

    1. It occurs to me that if those clauses were made gender neutral, and referred not to women but rather to parents rearing children, that they could actually underpin some important rights for parents who stay at home, and might not be such a bad thing. Just subtract the patriarchal attitude and they become socially constructive.

      For example the first one, if it were gender neutral, could ensure that a stay at home parent would not be discriminated against by policies designed to reward people actively contributing to the economy via labor and taxation. It establishes a state interest in supporting the contribution to society of an unemployed parent.

      The second one could be the basis for state support of single parents or families in which a single income is not sufficient.

  12. It makes you wonder just what it really means to be a Catholic. You don’t have to do what the Church says or believe what you’re told to believe but you can still call yourself Catholic regardless. It seems to be more of a statement of historical family allegiance that any present reality. Like people who are born and raised in a new country still call themselves ‘Italian’, their parents were Italian, they just like Italian food.

    1. Yes, these people probably consider themselves as “cultural Catholics”. But do they realize that in fact they support a global organization that is causing much harm? Is it not quite callous (to say the least) to claim full autonomy for oneself regarding e.g. abortion or contraception, while supporting an organization which is denying this autonomy to helpless people in faraway countries?

      1. “denying this autonomy to helpless people”
        You should give people more credit than you do.
        We earned our autonomy, and they must too if they are ever to respect it.

  13. As a sense of both cultural Catholicism and where the Catholic Church is going in Ireland: Around 75% of Irish who are over 55 identify as Catholic and of those, around 60% go to weekly mass, compared to the approx 60% of 15-34 year olds who identify as Catholic but only 20% of those go to weekly mass…

  14. I have an Irish gf and I’ve met, through her, a fair number of Irish people, mostly of the younger generation (under 35, roughly).

    I can confirm (based on that limited experience) that Ireland is more ‘culturally’ catholic than anything else. Belief amongst the newest generations is much much lower than before, and I can see that from the difference between my gf’s grandmother, mother, and herself (being say 100% catholic, 60% catholic, and less than 5% catholic, respectively).

    Wherever respect is given and lip service paid to ‘the church’, such as in getting married in a church, baptising children, this is less done out of belief, more done not to offend the older generation – parents – whilst simultaneously thinking that even though (or actually, because!) it’s ‘rubbish’ there’s no harm done, and a decent show and nice get-together, too, what with all the dressing-up.

    Give it another 40 years and I would estimate, based on who is going to die and how the newborns will be brought up, that less than 25% of Irish will be ‘catholic’.

  15. The new Government (one year old) has promised a referendum on blasphemy, that is, on removing the unused and unusable clause on blasphemy from the Constitution.
    There is also a commission being put in place to rewrite the whole document and presumably much of the 1930s rhetoric will be removed.

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