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Secularisation in Contemporary Ireland

Info: 8437 words (34 pages) Dissertation
Published: 1st Oct 2021

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Tagged: Religion

This study will investigate whether, and in what ways secularisation is occurring in contemporary Ireland. Theories of secularisation, and arguments against the process, abound, and this is a hotly debated topic. How, and in what ways might secularisation be said to be taking place within a given society?

This study will attempt to make a contribution to this debateby looking at the situation in Ireland. Attention will also be paidhowever, to what has happened in Britain as much of the researchconcerning secularisation has taken place in that context. It will makesome comparisons between Ireland and the situation in Britain and otherEuropean countries to demonstrate the unique place of religion in Irishsociety. The study will seek to understand:

  • What processes might signify whether secularization is taking place?
  • Whether similarly observed processes might be said to signify that secularization is taking place in Ireland
  • Whether Contemporary Ireland could be said to be a secular society or as Brewer (2005) contends, a post-Christian society.
  • Whether, and in what ways religion may be said to have a unique position in Irish society.

The study will draw on statistical and documentary data, along withmedia reports to ascertain whether, and in what ways, secularization istaking place. The study will look at the relationship between religionand the state in the republic of Ireland and also in Northern Ireland.It will also look at the education system and the phenomenon ofinter-religious marriage. In this way the study treats existingdocumentation as primary data by using it together in a distinctivefashion.


The study will begin with theories of secularization and a literature review which will look at the process in Britain and in Europe and contrast this with the situation in Ireland to demonstrate in what ways Ireland may differ from other industrialized societies and how this may affect whether and in what ways secularization could be said to be taking place. Following the literature review the methodological approach to the study will be outlined and attention will be paid to reflexivity in the research process. There will be an analysis of the findings of the research and finally a conclusion that will establish whether the research question has fulfilled its aims.

Religion is common to almost all cultures. Religious traditions and their teachings are, it might be argued, the result of three things,faith, theology, and culture. Anthropologist
Clifford Geertz (1966) describes religion thus:

1. A system of symbols which acts to

2. Establish powerful, pervasive,and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by

3. Formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and

4. Clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that

5. The moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz, 1966:4).

Religion has many different aspects from personal beliefs aboutspirituality, to institutional structures like schools and hospitals,to the influence of religious bodies over legislation Until the Enlightenment the teachings of religion were rarely questioned becausethey were regarded as direct truth from God. Modernity, with its implicit understanding of the absolute powers of reason, called intoquestion the traditional understandings of theological truth claims anddrastically reduced the cultural influence of theology and religion.

The contemporary term ‘secularisation’ has come to represent the declining influence of religion in society. The word is contextual inthat it arises from the western tradition and is part of the history ofthe church.It was first used in 1648  to refer to the transfer of lands under church control to lay political control. The term secular is alsoused to specify that which is inferior to the realm of the sacred. It was later used in the context of the priest being allowed to dispense with his vows, in the Middle Ages the distinction between religious and secular priests referred to those who worked within a religious order and those who worked among the laity.

From the 1830s onwards the death of religion due to the rise of thescientific age was proclaimed by confident atheists. Comte in particular decreed that the fiction that was
theology would die and be replaced by the truth of science. This view was largely endorsed by Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Freud, all of whom were convinced that the forces of the modern age heralded the birth of a secular one. Auguste Comte is regarded as the founder of sociology.He believed that with the rise of science religion would, eventually, die out. Weber also thought that religion would lose its significance through the growth of capitalism and the influence of urbanisation and rising technology. The world would become desacralised and there would be less reliance on magic and religion. Meaning would be found rationally.

Throughout the twentieth century it had been widely assumed that the decline of religion and religious belief was an irreversible process. Sociologists are keen to stress that secularisation is a natural process rather than a polemic against religion (which secularism is), some would also argue that secularisation is not an ideology (an imposed system of ideas). It is simply a process which has been observed over the last two or three hundred years. Seen from this vantage point secularisation is largely the result of two things, the increasing complexity of modern society and its compartmentalisation into different areas, for example, politics, education and the law, and religion ceasing to provide cohesion for all areas of human life. Wilson (1966) says that the complexity of this process is characterised by a wide variety of innovations which have led to a structural change in society. He cites the following; scientific advance and the development of technology, changing patterns of work and increasing industrialisation, the rise of individuality, and education characterised by science rather than religion and tradition.

Bruce and Wallis (1992) class secularization as the ‘diminishing social significance of religion’, directly brought about by three strands of modernization: ‘social differentiation’, ‘societalization’and ‘rationalization’.  By social differentiation, they mean the process by which ‘specialised institutions’ take the place of religious ones; for example, in Britain the provision of education and welfare is now the responsibility of a secular government, not the church.  Social differentiation also includes the fragmentation of society into distinct social groups based on differing life experiences, for example a distinction between social classes. Bruce allows however that the significance of religion is less likely to decline if it can find some social role, other than the communication of beliefs, within the wider society.

In Ireland for example, the fact that religion has long been a source of contention has given it another social role.

Societalization refers to the disappearance of small-scale communities and their replacement by the idea of ‘society’, largely due to increasing industrialization and urbanization.  Rationalization refers to changes in the way people think; the rise of science and technology has removed uncertainty and the need for faith and has provided rational explanations for questions which in the past were considered the domain of religion.  The combined effect of these processes is the decline in the social position of religion.

McLeod (1992) maintains that the concepts of differentiation and rationalization are not particularly helpful when trying to understand the place of religion in a particular society as cultural practices differ widely.

Berger (1970) believes that urbanisation and modernisation result in social fragmentation and this leads to a plurality of cultural and relgious groups. The monopoly previously held by one group comes to an end. We can see that this has happened, whether or not we subscribe to the secularisation thesis. Secularisation is a problematic concept however, while Wilson (1982) and Bruce (1996) maintain that the forces of modernity heralded a new secularized age,other theorists differ. The view that modernization inevitably leads to secularization is often challenged. Martin (1978) contends that in order to make sense of the process of religion in industrialized societies attention must be paid to the specific cultural and historical patterns that pertain in a specific society. In NorthernIreland for example, religion has remained in the public arena as a source of dispute that is connected to issues of national identity.What happens in Ireland is quite different to what has happened in Britain since the Second World War.

The Changing Face of Religion in Britain

The religious landscape of Britain was significantly different at the close of World War 2 than it is now, at the dawn of the twenty first century. In the years immediately preceding the war and on into the late 1940s and 50s the majority of British people still had some form of contact with the Church (often through their children attending Sunday School, or through membership of Scouts, Guides and the like) and many still claimed to hold a belief in God and in the basic teachings of Christianity. They would also have been exposed to explicitly Christian teaching in schools.

The General Picture and its Effects in Ireland

The growing importance of the ecumenical movement meant a change in denominational attitudes. Mainstream Christianity was endorsed in part by the 1944 Education Act. The Act required that the school day begin with an assembly and act of worship and that religious instruction should be according to an agreed syllabus and should be given to all pupils (Parsons, 1993). The Act did not make provisions for other faith traditions, but neither did it specify the form of worship or instruction. The ongoing effect of the Act was to weaken the hold of mainstream Christianity on British society, although this was not considered at the time the Act was passed. It was felt that non-denominational worship and teaching would make sense when co-related with more specific Church teaching that it assumed children would have (Parsons, 1993).  However this assumption proved to be unfounded. The way in which education has been affected in Ireland is rather different. In some areas amendment to the education system have resulted in a reiteration of  Catholic religious beliefs to the detriment of the Protestant minority.

The Picture in Ireland

Secularisation has affected the whole of Europe and surveys undertaken in the 1980s and 90a via the Europena Values systems survey indicated that many young people show little if any recognition of religious symbols. In Ireland the situation is rather different. Although seculaisation may be seen to be having an effect religion has always had a prominent place in Irish life and politics. In Ireland the survey showed that there was a growing lack of confidence in the church and that for the first time a generation who were not connected to the church was emerging. Ireland is quite different from both Britain and the rest of Europe.

While in Britain and the rest of Europe the process of secularization has been taking place for the last 300 years, Bishop Bill Murphy maintains that in Ireland it has only been observable for the last 30 years.  In the republic of Ireland there has, historically been a much closer connection between Church and state. The refusal of the state to confront the Church is contributing to the international problem of the unresolved question of those who have been sexually abused by clergy. Doyle (2005) writes poignantly on this matter.

Their voice is stifled, their complaint against the church is relegated to the wings. This is precisely what the Church has sought to do elsewhere, including America, though with much less success and at far greater financial cost. (Doyle, 2005 no p. no.). 

The place of education, and particularly compulsory religious education is a highly controversial subject in sectarian Ireland. From the nineteenth century the education system in Ireland has been split along sectarian lines and in the last thirty years this has been an area of major concern for some analysts (Darby, 1976).

Bowen (1983) maintains that since independence the minority of Protestants (in the 1991 census only 3% fell into this category) has fallen further and that this is largely a result of inter-religious marriage. In 1996 a study was undertaken to establish the number of inter-religious marriages in Ireland (Sexton and O’Leary, 1996).Ireland has witnessed a growth in inter-religious marriages (Bowen,1983). Jack White, a Protestant wrote of inter-religious marriage that: 

no single cause contributes so much to the continuing division in Irish life and the embitterment of inter-church relations; in any circle of Protestants this will be advanced to justify segregation in education and social activities’(White, 1975: 129).

The Research Question

This study looks at the process of secularization in contemporary Ireland. It draws comparisons between what has happened in Britain andwhat is happening in Ireland. The argument of this study is that the Irish context is quite unique and secularization may not be occurring in the way that sociologists understand it, i.e. the removal of religion from the public to the private sphere. In Ireland the connection between Church and state and between religion and politics means that religion is constantly in the public sphere and thus the situation is quite different. This difference has led Brewer (2005) to view Ireland in terms of a post-Christian society rather than in terms of secularization. The use of the term post-Christian originated in the1960s in Britain where the pace of social and religious change and the contention of many theorists that Britain was a secular society led some theologians to speak of the death of God and a post-Christian era.The term was again taken up in the 1960s by feminist theologian Mary Daly who called on women to leave the Churches and to participate in apost-Christian spirituality.


This study will investigate the above question through a literature based survey. It will look especially at :

  • Inter-religious marriage
  • The education system
  • Whether the situation in Ireland could be said to be unique in that religion in Ireland still occupies a very public place.

Due to costs and time constraints the research will consist of the examination and analysis of existing documentation, statistics, and media reports. Theoretical concerns are:

  • Whether, and in what ways, increasing industrialization and modernization influences the process of secularization in Ireland.
  • How this process manifests and may be connected to any perceptions of the decline of religious authority in Ireland.
  • Whether what is emerging could be called secularization, or as Brewer(2005) maintains might be better thought of as post-Christian

The major areas of analysis are through the relationship between Church and state in the republic of Ireland and how this impacts on, or is impacted by, inter-religious marriage and the education system. Questions arising from this are:

  • How far might the relationship between Church and state be said to imply that the Irish situation is unique due to religion’s place in the public sphere.
  • Does a growth in inter-religious marriage loosen religious ties and does it indicate a decline in adherence to religious authority?
  • Has integrated education been successful and how does this affect the teaching of religious values and doctrines?
  • How far could there be said to be a move towards a multi-faith orientation in the teaching of religious studies, and what effects might this have on the Irish situation?
  • Might Ireland be said to be a post-Christian rather than a secular society.

The research will be largely literature based, using existing studies and analyzing
them in terms of the above questions. This same process of analysis will also be applied to media reports and to statistical findings. One source of data will be the 1991 census which indicated that 84% of the Irish population still claimed regular church attendance. In addition the study will look at any decline in religious practices as defined by Wilson 1982.

How does society distance itself from religious traditions?

Theorists argue that it can be seen in the  decline in the number of church baptisms and weddings,and the fact that church officials have less financial recognition. In Britain religious festivals have become increasingly secularised and so have beliefs with numbers of ministers saying that they no longer believe in the virgin birth, the incarnation or the resurrection.

Wilson  is of the opinion that there are at least three levels of analysis that need addressing if we are to assess the impact of secularisation they are: religious practice, religious organisation and religious belief. While these three levels are dealt with separately for the purpose of this research, they are connected empirically. People are, more often than not born into a religious tradition in the same way that they are born into a particular culture and these things will affect a person’s worldview, their moral values, and their sense of themselves. This study will also ask how far Wilson’s levels of analysis could be said to be evident in Ireland and thus relevant to the Irish situation. The distinctiveness of this study is the bringing together of a number of different aspects of the Irish situation and comparing them (for example attitudes to marriage and to abortion) to what has happened in Britain.

Does going to Church really mean that a person believes in God, or can you do this without attending religious ceremonies. It certainly seems that the power and influence of the Church and perhaps other organised religions is declining in Britain if the statistics are anything to go by. Sunday Schools were another recruiting ground for the Church they were extremely popular in the late nineteenth century and remained so until the middle of the twentieth century. The number of attendees at Sunday School is now only ten percent of the number in 1900 (Bruce, 1995). The next question is how has this influenced the institutions themselves. At the same time this involves an examination of the extent to which religious organisations are involved in the day to day secular order in any society and to what extent they are able to exert control over that society. Signs of the growth of secularisation include the following, declining membership of the established Churches, declining numbers of people who are willing to make religion their vocation, and the closing of churches, which in Britain are either sold off or left and allowed to fall into terminal dereliction.

Historically, senior clergy were recruited from the same universities, schools and families as the government. In Britain Church of England Bishops were recruited largely from the peerage or landed gentry in1860. This practice has decreased and nowadays clergy often come from the poorer strata of society. The Protestant Church was once considered a good living but its wealth has declined and so ordinands usually have concerns other than material welfare, it has become  a low status occupation. In Britain there was a marked decline in the number of Church of England ordinands between 1900 and 1988 (Bruce, 1995). This started happening much later in Ireland, and at a much slower pace.

With the apparent decline in church membership and the marked decline in the number of both Church of England and Roman Catholic ordinands the requirement for church buildings has diminished. This has largely affected the Anglican Church and in some cases other Protestant denominations. The trend for closing churches is less marked in the Roman Catholic Church. It could be that the Catholics were not so prolific in their church building as the Anglicans were or that they have greater funding capacity formaintaining large buildings. Nevertheless it is not uncommon nowadays, in Britain particularly, to see Church buildings sold off and used as pubs or as retail outlets or warehouses. This has not yet been the case in Ireland, particularly the Irish republic, where much of the land and buildings are still the property of the Catholic church and remainsunder the church’s control.

In Britain, between 1970 and 1998 1250 church buildings were closed or sold off. Religion itself appears to be changing, becoming secularised, it is less likely to provide a lead for people and more inclined to follow trends than to set them (Browne, 1998). Browne (1998) shows that while the influence of the Anglican Church has declined, and may continue to do so, the Church still remains important in a numberof ways.

  • Church of England Bishops have seats in the House of Lords. (The Lords Spiritual).
  • The monarch must be a member of the Church of England, is crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and since the time of Henry VIII has been head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith.
  • The Church of England remains the official or established Church in England.
  • The Church of England is extremely wealthy, with investment funds of an estimated £3 billion in 1991, and it is one of the largest landowners in the country.
  • Since the 1944 Education Act, all schools have been legally obliged to hold a religious ceremony each day, and the 1988 Education Reform Act reaffirmed and strengthened the requirements to hold assemblies of a broadly Christian nature and teach Christian beliefs for at least 51 percent of the time allocated to religion in schools.

This still leaves us with the question of whether religious belief is affected by the growth in secularisation.

How much influence does religion have in the areas of personal belief and practice, and how does one measure people’s beliefs? Sociologists identify this type of measuring as a problem and many admit that there is no clear picture of whether, and to what extent, secularisation has occurred in this area.One of the problems stems from the different understandings people have of such a belief. For numbers of people it may be agreement to all of the teachings of Christianity, for others a general belief in God and for some it might be a spiritual awareness and a sense of meaning and purpose to life. In Ireland, religious belief is closely allied to political matters and people are far more inclined to state that they belong to a particular tradition, in this way they define not only their religion, but also their political and national loyalties.

In Britain one way of estimating trends in religious believing is to look at the rise in the number of New Religious movements, the rise of the Black led Churches and the rise in the number of House Churches.There has also been a considerable growth in other forms of evangelical Christianity and most people in Britain still claim a belief in God..

Bruce (1995) argues that the face of organised religion over the last two hundred years has changed from a dominant Church model to the growth of the sect and the denomination (Bruce, 1995). This has been brought about by the rise of cultural pluralism and the reluctance of governments to use force toget people into a state Church. Although the churches were slow to relinquish their privileges the role of the Anglican, Scottish, and Welsh Churches have changed considerable since the 19th century, in Britain for example in 1828 a person who held public office was, at least officially, a member of the Anglican faith. Non-members could not hold public office. Catholics were not allowed the vote before 1829 (Bruce,1995) and it was 1850 before the Church was allowed to restore its hierarchy. Until 1836 marriages could only be celebrated by an Anglican minister, irrespective of the faith of the marriage partners and until 1854 non-Anglicans were not allowed to study at Oxford and Cambridge, and until 1871 all teaching posts at these institutions wereheld by Anglicans. Women were not allowed to be members of these colleges before the late 1890s. With each of these changes the Church of England lost some of its power in society. Bruce (1995) holds that Protestantism by its very nature increases fragmentation in religion and by extension in society. The rise of the ecumenical movement also played a part in the Church’s loss of power.

Fragmentation undermines the Church, it has state support for a religious monopoly and this has gradually been removed, this also has funding implications, until the nineteenth century the Churches were funded by the land they owned and by public taxation, this was largely finished by the start of the twentieth century. Secondly its personnel become increasingly influenced by the psychology of an increasingly pluralist culture. It is not so easy to believe that a religion is right in every detail when other worldviews are becoming more prominent. At the same time the Church retains an illusion of strength from the continuation of communal occasions such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. However, the growth in competition means that this illusion becomes increasingly difficult to maintain (Bruce, 1995). The rise inthe number of denominations eventually increases tolerance and decreases certainty. The problems that different denominations been might be said to constitute a significant feature of the situation in Ireland, particularly as it pertains to education.

In Northern Ireland, beginning in the 1980s integrated systems of education were introduced and this caused a deal of controversy centred around conflicting interests (Dunn, 1989). The Belfast Agreement of1998 set out guidelines for the promotion of religious and cultural tolerance and it is thought by some commentators that this was
directly linked to the Good Friday Agreement (Morgan and Fraser, 1999). Since the Good Friday Agreement some thinkers have argued that there is an increasing secularization in Ireland and that liberals in the North may be considering replicating the multi-faith educational model that operates in the rest of Britain. This has led to vigorous debate and discussion of the differences between Britain and Ireland (Barnes, 2004).

Although numbers of commentators contend that there is a growing secularization, in Ireland in the 1991 census 84% claimed to attend church at least once a week. In a survey undertaken in the south of Ireland Greil (1998) found the following listed in the table on the next page.

Table One weekly mass attendance in the Republic of Ireland 1981-1998

Year % Comments Source
1998 94% older people Survey of Diocese of Cashel and Emly published in Irish Times
1998 92% People over 65 MRBI poll for Irish Times
1981 87% all people European Values Survey
1998 87% Connacht/Ulster people MRBI poll for Irish Times
1990 85% all people European Values Survey
1988/89 82% all people Mac Gréil (1996)
1998 66% all people MRBI poll for Irish Times
1998 60% People 18-34 Survey of Diocese of Cashel and Emly published in Irish Times
1998 60% all people RTE Prime Time poll
1998 50% Dubliners MRBI poll for Irish Times
1998 41% 18-24 yr olds MRBI poll for Irish Times
1990 40% Urban unemployed European Values Survey

While this does show a rapid decline, particularly among the young, for Father Greil the fact that only one percent of his sample professed no religion at all, still leaves him optimistic about the place of religion in Irish life. Greil is of the opinion that there is a lack of community feeling in the cities and that the rapid growth in urbanization is a significant factor in the decline in church attendance.
While there does seem to be a decline in participation in organised religion in both contemporary Britain and in Ireland, many people still claim to hold orthodox beliefs and a moral judgement based on the tenets of Christianity. At the same time they do not have so much attraction to institutional forms of religions (Bruce, 1995 and Browne,1998).

The nineteen sixties saw rapid social and religious change. In the years after the war, the rise of the welfare state, the growth in the number of Catholic Grammar Schools and the resulting rise in the number of Catholics to enter Higher Education spurred a transformation in British Catholicism. This eventually led, in the 1960s to the holding of the Second Vatican Council and the resultant Catholic alignment withthe ecumenical movement.

By the end of the decade most people owned a television and programmes such as That was the Week That Was took an irreverent view of religion.This, along with the sixties sexual revolution, brought changing attitudes towards the Church and to people’s attitudes to religious authority. The media was highly influential on the Church’s public image and became far more critical of outdated morality.  What went onin America had a greater influence on what happened in Britain. The success of the civil rights movement in the mid-nineteen sixties opened the way for second-wave feminism and the call for women’s rights.

The abortion reform act of 1967 meant that women had more rights over their own body and the employment discrimination act of the mid-nineteen seventies meant that other than in the Church employers could not discriminate on the basis of sex. The late 1960s also saw the burgeoning of feminist theologies. These have developed and changed over the last thirty years and have become achallenge to patriarchal systems across the world.

Divorce law reform saw a huge increase in the number of divorces and traditionalists saw this as a threat to the institute of marriage and the structure of thefamily. The rise of the Gay Christian movement and the aids threats from the 1980s onward meant an overall rethinking and debate onpersonal morality within the chuches (Parsons, 1993).

As stated earlier Brewer (2005) contends that what is happening in Ireland is very different to what has happened in Britain and rather than the secularisation of Ireland what we are seeing is the move to apost-Christian society. What Brewer means by this is:

the declining ability of Christian religion to affect and shape ordinary believers’ lives, a growing liberalisation in what ordinary Christians believe and in the certainty with which they believe it, and the appearance of other world faiths, still admittedly very much as minority religions, but a presence that nonetheless challenges the Christian hegemony. Religious diversity and pluralism now has to cater for differences in practice and belief between the world religions notjust Catholic and Protestant (Brewer, 2005:7). 

Sociologists use divorce statistics, abortion and homosexuality figures to sustain the argument that secularisation is on the increase. They use this evidence to suggest that these factors are a result of the declining importance of religious thinking and teaching in people’slives. In Britain many people have a pick and mix attitude towards religious believing and more than half of all marriages are nowcivil or non-religious ceremonies.From the 1950s onward Ireland has witnessed an increasing industrialization through urbanization and a growth in the number of people employed in both the industrial, rather than the agricultural sector, and in higher education. Religion has been a key factor in Ireland and, since the 1970s, an increasing cause of conflict between Catholic and Protestant groups (O’Leary, 2001). Brewer (2005) has argued that the conflict has not been about religionas such but about identity and political loyalty.

Religion is not the substance of this conflict; no one seriously argues that the conflict has been about religion. But religion is its form, the way in which it is experienced. The contestation has been about the legitimacy of the state and access to its scarce resources, but this took on a religious form because ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ were the terms used to understand and describe the nature of thegroups. (Brewer, 2005:1). 

Brewer (2005) maintains that Ireland should not be viewed as a secular society because unlike Britain, where religion is a private matter, in Ireland it is still very much in the public arena, thus, he argues, Ireland should be seen as a post-Christian, rather than a secular society. Ireland is, like Italy, Spain and France a Catholic country, unlike these countries however, Ireland has not been in involved in the power of the Papacy. This has meant that any claims regarding secularization in Ireland have quite different roots to these other Catholic countries.

Ireland became an independent state for a number of reasons, not least of these being its struggles against the power of  Anglicanism and its persecution of the Catholic Church. There is thus a much closer connection between Church and state in Ireland and all those this has been continually modified it basically has remained unchanged (Doyle, 2005).

Since the 1920s successive Irish governments have raised no serious challenges to the rulings of the Church in fact in 1938 when the Irish Constitution was drafted, the Church had specific input which is why both abortion and divorce have been illegal in Ireland. In fact until 1996 divorce was almost impossible in the republic of Ireland.

The Constitution also contains a clause which decrees that a woman’s place is in the home bringing up children . In 1951 a high court judge ruled that in failed mixed marriages, and contrary to what was common practice at the time, the custody of any children would automatically go to the mother if she was a Catholic (Browne, 1998). Although the hold of the Church has weakened somewhat over the last 15 years or so the Government still fails to speak out against the Church and has held referendums on both divorce and abortion law, in this way the onus is on the people to decide, thus absolving the Government of the responsibility of challenging the Church. The 1992 referendums were the result of a highly publicized case that revolved around a 14 year old rape victim being refused permission to travel to Britain for anabortion. The right to travel was upheld by the electorate but abortion in Ireland was still nigh on impossible and any doctor who performed one under 1996 amendments to the constitution could be struck off(Girvin, 1996).

In the republic of Ireland,  up until 1993 93.1% of primary schools were Roman Catholic and almost three quarters of secondary school students attended denominational schools (Clarke, 1998). Clearly the amount of influence that the Catholic Church had over the state in Ireland resulted in a lot of inequalities. Rulings on education in the 1970s that removed the previous separation between religious and secular knowledge in the schools may have appeared more egalitarian but in actual fact it infringed the rights of Protestant parents to have their children opt out of religious instruction (Hyland, 1996). Kissane (2000) contends that in the state of Ireland the educational system discriminates against the rights of non-Catholic parents to have their child educated in non-denominational or mixed denomination schools. 

Up to 1998 the State did not fully fund the establishment of primary schools, but expected the sites and 15 per cent of the new school’s capital cost to be funded privately. In areas where a new school was needed, it became customary for the Catholic Church to organise the financing of such schools, and to provide a site, often from its own lands. This system placed those small groups of parents in urban areas which wanted multi-denominational education for their children at a disadvantage, since they lacked church support (Kissane, 2000:13).

The new Education Bill of 1997 allowed for greater toleration of multi-denominational schools in the republic of Ireland (Kissane,2000).

Brewer (2004) contends that in Ulster secularization, associologists understand it, could not yet be said to be taking place. Earlier theorists e.g. Bowen (1983) would have questioned this assumption. As we have seen earlier inter-religious marriage is asource of concern to many and an inhibiting factor in the move towards a united Ireland are the number of inter-religious marriages in Northern Ireland. Many fear that if the country were united then the partners involved in these marriages would face persecution (Guardian,May 1994).

In 2002 a survey was undertaken in Northern Ireland to discover whether Protestant and Presbyterian respondents thought most people would object to a close relative marrying someone of another religion 34%  of Church of Ireland members thought that most people would not mind while 25% thought that most people would mind a lot. The replies from Protestants and Presbyterians were very similar to this but this was in contrast to a survey undertaken in1989 when 48% of Church of Ireland respondents said that people would mind a lot.  Respondents were then asked whether they themselves would mind if a close relative married someone of a different religion two thirds of Church of Ireland respondents said that they would not mind and only 13% replied that they would mind alot. The number of Protestants and Presbytarians who said they would mind a lot was slightly higher than this making Church of Ireland respondents somewhat more tolerant of inter-religious marriage. The results are shown in the tables below.

Table 2 Most People would mind a close relative marrying someone of a different religion
 1989 2002
 C. of Ireland Pres Prot C. of Ireland Pres Prot
Would mind a lot 48 37 41 25 26 26
Would mind a little 28 40 34 33 33 34
Would not mind 16 18 18 34 35 34
Don’t know 9 5 6 7 6 7

Table 3 Respondent would mind a close relative marrying someone of a different religion
 1989 2002
 C.of Ireland Pres Prot C. of Ireland Pres Prot
Would mind a lot 21 25 25 13 15 15
Would mind a little 29 18 21 16 21 18
Would not mind 47 55 53 66 61 62
Don’t know 1 2 2 4 3 5

Clearly positions with regard to inter-religious marriages have shifted somewhat. Although this survey did not give personal details such as the age of the respondents it does seem reasonable to suggest that as Greil’s survey found that church attendance among 18-24 year olds had declined rapidly in recent years, the change in attitudes towards inter-religious marriage could also be a factor of different generational attitudes. White (2000) contends that there is a change in Irish national identity, particularly among the young and that this has been characterized by a loss of faith in the traditional teachings ofthe Church. White sees this as a sign that Ireland is rapidly becoming secularized.

The Catholic Church has been challenged by internal scandal and growing loss of faith, especially among the youth of Ireland (Dillon1998). This secularisation has tended to undermine the fusion of nationalism and religion that O'Brien (1988) has cited as being a vital aspect of Irish nationalism in the past century ( cited in White,2000:4).

O’Conaill (2002) says that the disaffection of young people over the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church may be attributable to the failure of the Second Vatican Council to make any reference to the accountabilityof clergy to the people they serve. O’ Conaill maintains that this can only be alleviated in the following ways:

given the other major problems of the church just now, nothing less than a comprehensive structural reform of the church can meet thesituation, involving some kind of separation of administrative and pastoral functions, as well as proper lay representation at the highest level. The safety of Catholic children, and even the continuity of the faith, also demand formal and permanent lay parish structures, together with rights of regular assembly for all the faithful, at parish, diocesan and (eventually) national level (O’Conaill, 2002 no page no).

It is obvious that there have been significant changes in both Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic in recent years. Some commentators put this down to the processes of secularization while other thinkers such as Brewer (2005) that what is being witnessed in Ireland is not secularization, rather how people see religion is changing and Ireland might best be described as having post-Christian tendencies.  However, a 2003 conference report from University Collegein Dublin tends to take the view that what is happening in Ireland is a completely different phenomena. Secularisation, it is argued, is not yet taking place in Ireland. Rather the changes that are being witnessed are rather the fact that:

While economic modernisation in the south and political reconstruction in the north have changed the context in which religion now operates in Ireland, the reality is that in both parts of the island levels of religious belief and practice are extremely high by comparison with the rest of western Europe. It is also clear that religion has not yet retreated solely into the private sphere and has retained much of its significance at the level of social life and political culture(Coonference Report, 2003:1).

Certainly in the 1990s what had been a rather poverty strichen place became a booming economic success that has since become known as the Celtic Tiger and in recent years has become one of the richest states in the European Union. This has resulted in a demographic shift where the population has shifted from becoming predominantly emigrant oroutgoing to immigrant and incoming.  Crotty (1998) maintains that:

In the late 1950s, out-migration of the population ran about 15 percent. By the decade of the 1970s, this had been reversed with an in-migration rate of +4.3 percent. The recession of the 1980s saw are turn to a substantial out-migration flow (-7.6%). By the mid to late1990s it has been estimated that in-migration is running at +2.0 percent with the likelihood of continued increase for the foreseeable future.

Certainly these things are changing the face of Irish society but are they changing its unique position with regard to religion? It seems clear that religion’s place in Ireland is still more central than in most of Europe even with its becoming an increasingly plural society the religious influence is still largely authoritarian. Crotty (1998) argues that while the role of the Catholic Church is changing in response to scandals within the Church and a lessening of its influence over the state, the religious commitment of individuals remains fairly strong. Hornby-Smith and Whelan 1994 contend that:

… the Catholic Church can take satisfaction from the extent to which Irish society has remained insulated from secularisation influences…..confidence in its ability to provide solutions to problems in a variety of areas is relatively low and has declined over the past decade. At the same time there is clear majority support for the view that it is appropriate for the church to speak out on a wide range of social and moral issues. The evidence relating to the younger cohorts does suggest the possibility that, after a time lag of some decades, Irish Catholics will be seen to come significantly closer to western European norms. (1994, 43).

So  is Ireland a secular society, a post-Christian society, or a uniquely religious society?

This study has investigated the secularisation process and whether this is occurring in Ireland. It has done this by making comparisons with what has happened in Britain and in the wider European context. It does not seem to be the case that secularisation, in the way that social theorists understand it, is taking place in Ireland. Nor would I particularly agree with Brewer’s argument that what is being witnessed in Ireland is not secularisation but the emergence of a post-Christian society - although there may be a case for revisiting this issue in the future. What I believe this study evidences is that Ireland is a unique case and that because of the ways in which religion has been so closely connected to politics and to policy making, religion, and particularly the Christian religion is a prominent feature of Irish life. Thus Ireland could neither be said to be succumbing to secularisation nor entering a post-Christian era, rather Ireland demonstrates that theories cannot always account for social processes.

The process of secularisation, particularly as it pertains to the Irish context, has not taken hold in the way that numbers of theorists have predicted that it would. Religion remains a prominent feature af many societies across the globe. The theory has been unable to account for the significant social and cultural changes that are occurring and this is particularly the case in Ireland.


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