The Middle East and Ireland losing their religion

February 5, 2021 • 9:30 am

Two of the last holdout areas for religion—countries and regions that have historically been resistant to nonbelief—are now becoming surprisingly secular. Those are Ireland in the West and seven countries in the Middle East—at least according to recent surveys. The stunning thing about both areas is how fast the change is coming.

Let’s take the Middle East first. There are two studies mentioned in the article below in Die Deutsche Welle (click on screenshot):

The article itself gives data for only Iran, but you can find data for six other countries by clicking on the article’s link to a study at The Arab Barometer (AB), described as “a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan.” (The sample size for that study isn’t easily discernible from the various articles about it).

First, a graph showing a striking increase in secularism across the six nations:

The change from the blue bar to the burgundy one is at most 7 years, yet every index in each country has dropped over that period save for a few indices that appear to be unchanged. The true indices of religiosity itself—profession of nonbelief and attendance at mosques—has fallen dramatically. And remember, this is over less than a decade.  Trust in religious leaders and Islamist parties has also dropped.

Here’s the summary among all these countries. (Note that many Muslim countries, including those in Africa and the Far East, as well as nations like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, aren’t represented.) 

In 2013 around 51% of respondents said they trusted their religious leaders to a “great” or “medium” extent. When a comparable question was asked last year the number was down to 40%. The share of Arabs who think religious leaders should have influence over government decision-making is also steadily declining. “State religious actors are often perceived as co-opted by the regime, making citizens unlikely to trust them,” says Michael Robbins of Arab Barometer.

The share of Arabs describing themselves as “not religious” is up to 13%, from 8% in 2013. That includes nearly half of young Tunisians, a third of young Libyans, a quarter of young Algerians and a fifth of young Egyptians. But the numbers are fuzzy. Nearly half of Iraqis described themselves as “religious”, up from 39% in 2013. Yet the share who say they attend Friday prayers has fallen by nearly half, to 33%. Perhaps faith is increasingly personal, says Mr Robbins.

And some data from Iran, not represented in the survey above. Remember, Iran is a theocracy. The survey is for those over 19, and the sample size is large: over 40,000 “literate interviewees”.

An astonishing 47% have, within their lifetime, gone from being religious to nonreligious, while only 6% went in the opposite direction. As we see for almost every faith, women retain their religion more than men.  The “non-religious people” aren’t all atheists or agnostics, but instead appear to be “nones”—those with no formal affiliation to a faith. (This includes atheists and “spiritual people” as well as goddies who don’t belong to a formal church.)

I say that many are “nones” because another study in Iran, cited in the AB article, showed that 78% of those surveyed in the Middle East believe in God: a lot more than the 47% below who professor to being “non-religious” (of course these are different surveys and might not be comparable). Still, in this other survey, 9% claim that they’re atheists—comparable to the 10% of Americans who self-describe as atheists.

And a general remark by a religion expert whom we’ve encountered before:

The sociologist Ronald Inglehart, Lowenstein Professor of Political Science emeritus at the University of Michigan and author of the book Religious Sudden Decline [sic], has analyzed surveys of more than 100 countries, carried out from 1981-2020. Inglehart has observed that rapid secularization is not unique to a single country in the Middle East. “The rise of the so-called ‘nones,’ who do not identify with a particular faith, has been noted in Muslim majority countries as different as Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco,” Tamimi Arab added.

Inglehart’s book, Religion’s Sudden Decline, came out January 2, so it’s brand new, and you can order it on Amazon here.


It’s a pity that Grania isn’t here to comment on this article from Unherd’s new news site The Post, as she always had a good take on Catholicism in Ireland (she was, in fact, a German citizen born in South Africa). These data come from a study taken by the World Inequality Database, which I can’t access. I’ll just give the scant data for Ireland presented by David Quinn (click on screenshot):

The proportion of Irish people who say they never go to church:

2011-2016: 19%
2020:     50%

That is a huge jump!

The proportion of Irish people who regularly attend church (once a month or more often):

2011-2016: 33%
2020:     28%

This shows that the drop in Irish religiosity reflects a rise in who rarely or never go to church, not a falling-off of the regulars. Quinn reports that “just under half of Irish people were coming to church less than once a month four or five year [sic] ago and this is now just 22%. Many of those sporadic attenders have stopped coming altogether.”

Over much of the 12 years this website has been going (we started in January 2009), I’ve written posts showing the decline of religiosity in the West, predicting that it is a long-term trend that will end with religion becoming a vestigial social organ. Yes, it will always be with us, but in the future it won’t be very much with us. But I thought the Middle East would be a last bastion of belief, as Islam is so deeply intertwined with politics and daily life. But that appears to be waning as well, for the Middle East is becoming Westernized in many ways, and with that comes Western values and secularism (see Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for discussion of increased secularism and humanism.) This is to be applauded, except by those anti-Whigs who say that religion is good for humanity.

Quinn echoes much of this at the end of his piece, explaining why Ireland remained more religious than England and the countries of Northern Europe:

Secularisation has swept across the whole of the western world, and Ireland is part of the West. It was impossible for Ireland not to eventually be affected by social and intellectual trends elsewhere. What almost certainly delayed secularisation in Ireland is that, in the years after we gained independence, one way of showing we had shaken off British rule was by making Catholicism an integral part of our national identity. As we no longer believe it is necessary to do this, we are now shaking off the Church.

The third factor is that, as a small country it can be particularly hard to stand out from the crowd. Once, we all went to Mass. Now, below a certain age, almost no-one goes. We were a nation of nuns and priests. Now, we are becoming a people with no direct religious affiliation: a country of ‘nones’.


h/t: Steve, Clive

49 thoughts on “The Middle East and Ireland losing their religion

            1. To quote the great philosopher, George Carlin:

              “But I want you to know something, this is sincere, I want you to know, when it comes to believing in God, I really tried. I really, really tried. I tried to believe that there is a God, who created each of us in His own image and likeness, loves us very much, and keeps a close eye on things. I really tried to believe that, but I gotta tell you, the longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize, something is fucked up.

              Something is wrong here. War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the résumé of a Supreme Being.”

        1. And what of the innocent children who are at this moment dying horrible, painful deaths from incurable diseases? Why does “the light from Heaven” not shine on them?

    1. As Christopher Hitchens once said far more eloquently, your god is a capricious, vindictive idiot. 200,000 years of humanity, and he decided to finally reveal himself after 198,000 of them, through some nobody in a rinky-dink town, from whom his word wouldn’t even spread until hundreds of years later? Man, he must be dumb as a wet sack of gravel.

  1. More nones than nuns in Ireland. Though I hope that they allowed for pandemic restrictions when posing the questions about church attendance in 2020.

    1. I suspect that the pandemic will be the cause of a significant and permanent drop in church attendance and religiosity.

      When pandemic related lock downs finally start to relax many people will take pause to re-evaluate what exactly religion was giving them and realise that it wasn’t actually very much.

      Some exceptions to this of course, like our flock of seagulls religiot bwcarey above.

    2. Catholicism in Ireland has been traditionally linked to nationalism (i.e., resistance to Protestant British domination). Now that this issue seems to have waned it is not surprising to see a decline in Irish religiosity. Although the scandals haven’t helped the cause of the Catholic Church.

  2. Quinn links to this site for his data:

    At the bottom of the page is the link to the full article that this page summarizes as well as a link to its appendix. Both are available as PDFs. I had no trouble downloading them. So, if this is the report you’re interested, this is how to get it.

    In the appendix, the tables on pages 357 and 358 provide data on religion in Ireland.

  3. I have to wonder how much of this change is due to the age of people in some of these places. Some have a very young society and that probably helps a great deal. Pretty good when the middle east passes us by. I sure do not see much improvement from here on the ground. Biden does not help any, he is far too religious and seems to want everyone to know. I think he would do well to keep it to himself. We are overrun with Catholics as it is. I do not need g*d blessing everything every time a speech is made.

    1. Biden certainly talks the talk, but when it comes to policy, for example various executive actions such as ending the Muslim ban, reinforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to require that the federal government does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, reversing the global gag rule, which prohibits U.S. dollars from flowing to international non-governmental organizations that provide abortions, advocate to legalize and expand abortion access, or provide abortion counseling, he comes across as decidedly none Catholic.

      1. I think he does a pretty good job of separating the religion from work. I give him credit for that. I wish many more appointed or elected official would give that a try.

    2. Too right. I’m getting a little sick of that also. We KNOW you’re Catholic and love gahd Joltin’ Joe, enough already.
      Still… better that what it could have been so I’m smilin’!

  4. I suspect that the appalling record of the Irish Roman Catholic Church in dealing with the sexual abuse perpetrated by the clergy, and the scandal of the Magdalen laundries and the mother and baby homes, have also contributed to the fall in attendance

          1. No, he wasn’t writing about Tr*mp and who knows who the poem referenced. It’s a rabbit hole for sure. What freaks me out is that Yeats’s words continue to be relevant at all. And it happens in America more than any other anglo-country at the moment…or maybe not so much with Biden. I’m heartened to see the dems aren’t fucking around right now. Lucy’s football has finally failed.

    1. There is also that matter of when? SDA became a religion by announcing the day for that coming and still it never happened. Come to think of it, what evidence is there of the first?

      1. If the religioso are smart, a dubious proposition, they’ll go with the theory that whoever’s coming is already here just waiting to show himself or herself. Since the arriving being can be attributed to be immortal, they could spin this yarn forever. Perhaps it’s Trump! Now that’s a horrifying thought!

  5. I’m always pleased to read of the grip of religion loosening. But if there is some ‘desire to believe’ or ‘desire to socially engage’ what do all these people choose to do instead to fulfil their desires?

  6. These results remind me of what happened in French Canadian society during the 1960s. Until that time, Quebec society was completely dominated by the Catholic Church, both socially and politically. During the 1960s we had what historians call the “quiet revolution”. Society changed very rapidly such that, just a few decades later, Quebec society became one of the most secular in the West. Today, the presence of religion in Quebec is only a shadow of its former self.

  7. First, I’d like to say that I miss Grania. She was a great contributor to this site and very funny. I had many enjoyable discussions with her.

    Anyway, this news is very encouraging. If these trends continue, we could see the eventual overthrow of theocracies across the Muslim world, which would help bring them further into the modern age. Imagine what many of those countries could do with all the money from their natural resources and young workforces if so much time and loot wasn’t spent on religion, and if the people weren’t constantly oppressed by religious dictates. Imagine how much less turmoil there would be in the region. We can only hope that this continues.

  8. This article indirectly touches on a corollary issue: Surveys consistently show that women are more religious than men by a material margin. This has been true both historically and internationally. I am not aware of a convincing explanation for this.

    1. It was virtually a cliché about working class life in Spain and Italy a couple of generations ago that the wife attended mass and voted as advised by the priests, while the husband was anti-clerical and voted Communist.

      Here is a subject for a sociological study that will be controversial, despite its limited intrinsic interest: comparing the sexual dimorphism of religious piety in cis-gendered versus trans-gendered individuals. One approach might be a questionnaire about personal pronoun choice, with a question about church attendance slipped in.

      1. Recently read this concerning gender roles and religiosity in Spain and found it interesting:

        > Here is a subject for a sociological study that will be controversial, despite its limited intrinsic interest: comparing the sexual dimorphism of religious piety in cis-gendered versus trans-gendered individuals

        I fear confounders because transgenderism gives you a highly unusual sample. How about comparing homosexuals and heterosexuals? It is well-known for example that far more than 3 per cent of Catholic priests are gay.

    2. There is some work on personality types which suggests (stereotype alert) that men are generally interested in ‘things’ (tools and technology) and women are generally interested in caring (nurturing and cooperative). How this plays out in a social context could well align with religious activities.

      A link to various scientific papers is here:

      Perhaps social media is replacing the need to meet up? It’s a stretch and almost certainly not the whole answer.

      1. Afaik women are more superstitious across the board * — with one exception: conspiracy theories, which I guess attract men since they often deal with political power and technological superiority.

        * This is one of these subjects where you can’t win: either religious or nonreligious women will get pissed off, and a devoutly religious man I told about this was also unhappy.

  9. In the Middle East – an area I know a bit about – part of it I think is the internet – which naturally speeds up societal change and another part of it might be the well publicized utter failure of theocracies like the Taliban and ISIS-land. And also Morsi in Egypt’s disaster.
    For decades the only tolerated opposition to the dictator/sheik was the mosque, but now that’s no so true. No sane person there can believe, after looking at Afghanistan and Syria/Iraq in action – the misery they inflicted – that sharia is a healthy way forward.

    D.A., B.A. (Middle East pol. & psych), J.D.

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