There has been a great deal of coverage about the undoubtedly significant fact that the number of people living in Ireland who say they belong to no religion has soared in the five years from Census 2011 to Census 2016.
These ‘nones’ as they are called (because they mark the box marked ‘none’ in the Census religion question), numbered 270,000 in 2011 but had jumped to 468,000 by 2016, a 73% increase.
No other religion category has increased by as much as the ‘nones’. Their share of the population is now just under 10%. On the other hand, the number of people who ticked the ‘Catholic’ box in last year’s Census declined from 84% to 78% compared with 2011.
Let’s have a quick look at some of the other religions. What about the various Protestant denominations? The two major Protestant denominations, the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church, both declined marginally. This was after a preceding period in which immigration swelled their numbers.
The number of people belonging to one or another Pentecostal Church has also declined somewhat (by 5%).
On the other hand, the number of people living here who belong to one of the Eastern Orthodox Churches has increased by 37% to 62,000.
There has also been an increase in the number of people living here who belong to a non-Christian religion. The number of Muslims has increased from 49,000 to 63,000 while the number of Hindus has increased from almost 11,000 to just over 14,000. In both cases the adherents will be overwhelmingly immigrants or their children.
Many of the ‘nones’ are also immigrants. The Census 2016 figures, released last week, shows that about a quarter of them are immigrants which is higher than the number of immigrants living in Ireland. Therefore, immigrants are more likely to be ‘nones’ than the native population. English people, for example, are much more likely to be ‘nones’ than Irish people.
The proportion of the population who identify as ‘nones’ in the British Social Attitudes survey reached 48.5% in 2014. That is a huge figure, almost five times higher than the Irish one.
So, what are we to make of the rise of the ‘nones’ in Ireland? One thing it certainly means is that a growing number of people who don’t practice any religion are now more willing to say they don’t belong to any religion either.
For years in Ireland, the vast majority of people who didn’t practice religion were unwilling to say they didn’t belong to any religion. That is starting to change and the trend will probably continue to accelerate in the years ahead.
For example, younger people are more likely than older people to say they are ‘nones’, although we shouldn’t overstate this too much. While the total number of ‘nones’ in the population is 9.8% it rises only a bit to 12% among those in their 30s. That’s lower than I would have predicted but it will rise in time in all probability.
But are ‘nones’ necessarily non-believers, that is, are they atheists or agnostics? The Census doesn’t tell us, but other surveys do.
For example, RTÉ conducted a poll of voters as they came out of voting stations in the recent General Election. This exit poll found that 14% of those who voted were ‘nones’ (higher than in the general population) but only 4% of those polled said they were atheists and just 1% said they were agnostics. In other words, about two-thirds of ‘nones’ believe in God.
This is backed up by US polling. The Pew Forum, which is a major polling company, has been tracking American ‘nones’ for some time here.
A poll conducted by Pew in late 2015 found that 61% of ‘nones’ in America believe in God and 20% pray every day.
The numbers of ‘nones’ in the US as at 2014, according to Pew, was 22%, up 6% compared with 2007.
So, using ‘nones’ as our measure, Ireland remains far less secular than the US, never mind Britain.
The fact that so many ‘nones’ believe in God and even pray daily means they cannot simply be claimed by atheist organisations for themselves, and cannot be simplistically used as part of the campaign against Church-run schools.
Britain alone proves that. As we have seen, almost half of Britons don’t belong to any specific religious faith but at the same time, Church-run schools in Britain are extremely popular.
By the same token, all those who say they are Christian in the Census cannot be automatically claimed by the various Churches either. Obviously, all of the 78% of people living here who said they are Catholics do not subscribe to all of the major teachings of the faith they say they belong to. They are much more ‘à la carte’ than that.
In fact, when you think about it, the ‘à la carte’ Christian has now been joined by the ‘à la carte none’.
Just as we cannot be sure of what someone who says they are Catholic actually believes, nor can we be sure of what those who say they don’t belong to any given religion believe either when it comes to matters of religious belief.
Both categories are picking and choosing what suits them.
This is because we live in such a highly individualistic age and let’s keep in mind that this individualism extends beyond religion. It affects politics, among other things, as well. Party loyalty is not what it was.
The floating voter who isn’t loyal to any given party is now commonplace. This kind of political and religious ‘floating about’ is the mark of our time.