For obvious reasons, I find myself on Twitter less and less. I do hop on every once in a while because it remains, for now, a great source for news, and there are certain people whose writing I enjoy. One of those people is Ryan Burge (@ryanburge). Burge is a professor, pastor and author who writes about religion in America. This past weekend I saw this tweet:

The link takes you to an article on his Substack entitled Just How Secular is Europe Compared to the United States? Since Burge usually focuses on the US, I was excited to see Europe get some love! And as you might imagine, on my first run through the article, I scanned it for mentions of Ireland.

And, while the numbers Burge was working with were accurate, they provide an inaccurate picture of the current state of religion in Ireland, as they indicate Ireland is one of the most religious countries in Europe.

Two quick points: Burge rarely writes about Europe and notes why in the article. Additionally, he is looking across the whole continent and not getting deep into the weeds of any one country. And he concludes the article by saying he hopes it sparks inspiration for other researchers.

While I’m not a researcher, I have lived in Ireland for 11 years and have thought about this before, so I wanted to offer an “Ireland Supplement.”

What the Data Says About Religion in Ireland

According to the data from the European Social Survey, Ireland appears to rank as one of the most religious nations in Europe.

The problem with a snapshot is that while it captures a moment in time, it can obscure the significant trends that are occurring. So, while Ireland may indeed have a religious attendance rate of 26%, as the article states, the statistics have not yet caught up to what is happening.

Here is one quick example to illustrate the issue before we dig in more.

In Ireland, more than 90% of primary schools are affiliated with the Catholic church. (The whys of that are too long to get into here.) Unlike in the US, parents must apply to acquire a place in their child’s primary or secondary school. You do not simply go to the school closest to where you live.

Places are granted based on criteria at each school. For example, if a parent works at the school or a sibling also attends, that child is more likely to get a place.

Until 2018, many Catholic schools (again, 90% of all schools in Ireland) had a baptism requirement. So if you wanted to get your kid into the good school in your area (frequently Catholic), you had better get them baptised Catholic. You can imagine what many parents did.

The Irish government passed legislation to end that requirement in 2018. In 2019, the baptism rate dropped by almost 10%. As you can see from the chart below, baptisms had been falling year on year since 2012. However, the rate of decline increased once there was no pragmatic reason to have your child baptised.

 (The chart is from an article in the Journal.ie.

Ireland Has Changed Dramatically Over the Past 50 Years

Ireland has a deep Catholic legacy. David McWilliams, writing in The Pope’s Children, labels the fifty years from 1916 to 1966 as a period of

“Hibernian hegemony when the Church and the state were practically indistinguishable and this was a Catholic nationalistic country in almost all aspects”.

The Pope’s Children (pg 217)

In the decade after 1966, several (at times related) changes began to happen, leading to a transformation of Ireland.

Two early and foundational changes were the introduction of free secondary education to all children beginning in 1967 and Ireland’s entry into the EEC (European Economic Community) in 1973 and eventually the European Union.

These have led to other changes.

  • Since the early 1970s, Ireland has gone from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to becoming one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
  • Long known as a nation of emigrants, Ireland has become a destination for people seeking a better life. [When studies/polls state where people are the happiestthe safest or the like, Ireland is consistently towards the top in global rankings.]
  • Ireland changed from a rural society to an urban society. In 1951 only 41.5% of Ireland’s population lived in urban areas. By 2016 that number had increased to 62.6%.

The list of ways Ireland has changed is much longer, but this provides a helpful overview.

Current Trends

Is Ireland still a Catholic nation? Here are some numbers.

According to the CSO (Central Statistics Office), the percentage of people who reported being Catholic over the past few decades was as follows:

  • In 1961, the number was 94.9%.
  • By 1991, that number was still at 91.6%.
  • In 2016, the number was 78.3%.
  • In 2022, the number has dropped to 69%. (Data from the 2022 census just dropped today! Thank you, CSO!)

While 69% seems like an incredible number, the trend is undeniable.
(You can find these numbers on the CSO site here.)

That is the Catholic Church specifically. What about overall trends?
In 2017, the Iona Insitute, like Burge using numbers from the European Social Survey, noted the following trends in religious attendance.

  • In 2002, the percentage of Irish who claimed to attend a religious service at least weekly was 54%
  • It went up in 2004 to 56%.
  • In 2006, it was 46%
  • In 2008, 43%.
  • In 2010, it was down to 38%.
  • Then it levelled off and by 2016 stood at 36%.

You can find this report here.

Burge reports that the current number is 26%, one of Europe’s highest rates. But again, the trend is more important than where the number happens to be today.

Ireland has Rapidly Become a Secular Nation

It is said that the Enlightenment skipped Ireland. Regardless of how true that is, it is crucial to note that while much of Europe began a shift towards secularism more than two centuries ago, Ireland only started 50 years ago, yet has quickly caught up with the rest of the continent.

The trends above illustrate that well, as do the recent referendums on legalising abortion and same-sex marriage.

A few other factors indicate that this transformation is ongoing, and Ireland will not return to what it was.

The Age of the Population & the “Nones”

In 2011, 5.9% of those living in Ireland claimed no religion.
In 2016, that number rose to 9.8%.
Initial results from the 2022 census show the number claiming “No Religion” has increased to 14%

Ireland has one of the youngest populations in the EU, thanks largely to its history of emigration. And the data shows that it is the older population who remains most connected to the church. The graph below shows the increase in those reporting “No Religion” from 2006 to 2016 by age range.

Rural and Urban

As noted above, one of the transformations Ireland has gone through is that it is now a majority urban nation. That is another trend that does not show any indication of ending and accelerates the move away from religion in Ireland.

The rates of church attendance in Ireland have always been higher in rural areas than in urban. Data from Ireland’s Central Statistics Office (CSO 2016, Religion – Religious Change) shows that in 2016, 9.8% of the population in Ireland claimed no religion, while in the city of Dublin, that number is one in five.

It was 2011 when then Archbishop Diarmuid Martin reported that only about 18% of those in the Dublin archdiocese attend Mass on Sundays. [Link]

At this point, “None” is now the second-highest reported religion in the nation.

In Empty Pulpits, O’Doherty claims that religion has primarily been a social activity in Ireland and that the move to urban areas has given people other opportunities to form relationships and removed the peer pressure that once existed.

And finally, in Derek Scally’s excellent book, The Best Catholics in the World, he summed up religious attendance in Ireland this way:

“And, if we’re honest, as a small, conservative country, we’ve always been good at the ‘done thing’ – going to Sunday Mass then, staying away from it now. Mass passive absence today does not address the effects of mindless Mass presence yesterday.

There’s a remarkable similarity between how older generations talk about going to Mass then, and how younger people talk about staying away today: it’s just what you do.

The Best Catholics in the World

All that said, I would argue that Ireland has become one of the least religious countries in Europe. What do you say?

I hope this provides a helpful picture of the current state of religion in Ireland. I’d love to hear your thoughts and if there is anything you would add.

Photo by Tommy Bond on Unsplash