Fast Facts about Religion in Ireland
|Church of Ireland||115,611||Evangelical||3,780|
Source: 2006 Census.
The Place of Religion in Irish Society
Many people believe that Ireland is, in some official way, a Catholic country. While Catholics are, by a mile, the largest religious grouping in Ireland, there is no reference at all in the Irish Constitution to Catholicism.
There are references to religion in the constitution, right from its opening line: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from whom is all authority and to whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred”. Religious belief is acknowledged: “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God.”
However there is no reference to the Catholic church, no religious body is given preference over any other and in fact the constitution goes on to state in clear terms a guarantee not to endow any religion or impose any penalties due to religious belief.
Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen, and no law may be made either directly or indirectly to endow any religion, or prohibit or restrict the free exercise thereof or give any preference, or impose any disability on account of religious belief or religious status, or affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending the religious instruction at the school, or make any discrimination as respects State aid between schools under the management of different religious denominations
Constitutionally the result is that Ireland is one of the most religiously free countries in the world.
The Role of Religion in Modern Ireland
It is interesting to note that while 90% of people stated that they were Catholic in the 2006 census, a Europoll conducted several months earlier found that just 72% of people believe there is a God. Which appears to suggest there are a good many Catholics in Ireland who don’t believe in God.
These apparently irreconcilable numbers however make a certain sense when looking at the place religion has in everyday life in Ireland to-day. Church attendance is still relatively high by European standards – 60% attend regularly, but this is a huge reduction on the 85% who attended 25 years ago. For an increasing number of Irish people church is a place they go to on special occasions – to babtise their children, get married or bury their dead – but is rarely if ever visited outside of those events.
Being Catholic, or Protestant, in Ireland is as much a cultural as a religious statement – it’s a statement about a heritage rather than a belief. There was often a significant misunderstanding by outside observers looking at the long running conflict in Northern Ireland who frequently saw it as a “religious war”. It never was, it was a struggle between communities with diverse histories and cultures. Thus the well know gag about the Belfast man who stated that he was Jewish, only to be asked “Yes, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”.
Leaving the situation in Northern Ireland aside, Ireland is in general a place where there is great tolerance and respect for diversity in religious belief – discrimination based on religion is pretty much non-existent.
Religion & Education in Ireland
While the constitution does not place one religion over another, this would be hard to detect when looking at the state education system. There is a system of free state funded primary (elementary) schools, known as National Scools, but these are invariably Catholic shcools in all but name. Although pupils of any religion may, and do, attend, the schools are governed by boards chaired by the local Catholic bishop and the teaching of Catholic Religion is central to the curriculum.
Those who wish to attend a schoool where another religion is taught, or an inter-denominational or non-denominational one, can do so in privately run schools, though these do receive state funding.
At secondary (high school) level, the vast majority of schools, while funded by the state, are run by religious and have a faith based ethos, although in a time of dwindling vocations and aging congregations many have latterly turned over day to day management to lay trusts.
In spite of this dominance of the church, and in particular the Catholic church, in providing education, an interesting statistic emerges: over 92% of those who leave school before completing their secondary education are Catholic, while just 2% state they have no religion. Among those who go on to complete a third level degree the numbers are very different, 86% are Catholic, 6% have no religion.
The once unquestioning reverence for the clergy which was a feature of Irish life has been permanently undermined by a series of scandals which emerged over the last 20 years or so. From now seemingly tame revelations about a well known bishop revealed to be a father, it seemed the the scandals never ended and became ever more horrific – financial impropriety, extreme physical and mental punishment, sexual abuse of children and the virtual slave labour endured by “fallen women” in Magdelen laundries.
The strenuous efforts made in the wake of these revelations, by the church in generarl and by individual religious orders, to protect their financial position in the face of a slew of court cases did little to improve their standing. They have almost certainly been a major factor in the reduction in church attendance figures.