Armies for No Religion

You may have noticed that I’ve been tweeting in the last week about the first results from the Republic’s census. For policy and research twonks like me, the release dates of census data in Ireland are good days. They’re good days because we all get to see the results of a counting process across a fairly stable and unified stadial unit called Ireland. They’re also good days because most of tweeting is now done in grumpy political mode. You’ll also know that I work for an organisation called the Catholic Church in Ireland and so the data have a direct relevance to the kinds of things that this organisation likes to do.

So here are the headlines:

  • 3.86m people (84.2%) of people living in Ireland defined themselves as Roman Catholic in April 2011.
  • This is a decrease on the 87% who did so in 2006.
  • Due to general population increase, however, just under 180,000 more people define themselves as Catholic than in 2006.
  • The next largest religious grouping is the Church of Ireland/Anglican Communion with 129,039 people (2.8% of the population).
  • There are 49,204 (1.1%) Muslims living in the state.
  • The Orthodox Church in Ireland and other Christian religions have 45,223 and 41,165 adherents respectively (about 1% of the population each).
  • A large group of people (269,811, 6%) chose the ‘No Religion’ category, a 45% increase on 2006 (83,493 people).
  • A further 3,905 people chose ‘Agnostic’ and 3,521 chose ‘Atheist’.

In one way, this list is as meaningless as enumerating the numbers of people who are left or right handed. I mean, having found out that 4% fewer of the population states that they are not Roman Catholic is not really one can individually do anything about. But you see my employers are in that business: evangelisation. In another way, the numbers mean an awful lot because they have implications for the ways a government controls its legitimate (?) use of violence. Catholics have no reason to be smug, well, at least most of them. Just because they’re in a statistical majority does not mean that temporal authority flows from this. As it happens, about 45% of the people who call themselves Catholic regularly attend to their beliefs. This is of course of great concern to those in leadership positions (however that is minimally construed) within the Church. It is not that practice makes perfect but merely that intentionality should form some central part of a faith. One of the significant issues that the Catholic Church in Ireland faces is a lack of intentionality: it has been said before but a smaller church would be a better church. Until this intentionality thing gets a little more phenomenological and a little less theological, some argue, there is no ‘renewal’.

I do not think that No Religion should be included in the census question: What is your Religion? If you have no such category in the question, you merely subtract the total population from those who ticked one of the choices in this question. There you go CSO: that one’s for free. However, to state as Atheist Ireland have that:

the true figure for nonreligious people is likely to be much higher, based both on the reality of living in Ireland, and a leading census question that assumed that everyone had a religion and merely asked them what that religion was.

In what sense is the census not ‘reality’? If the true figure for nonreligious people is likely much higher, how does that separate Atheist Ireland from a bishop who is concerned that the 45% Mass attendance figure is not ‘the reality’ in his Diocese? And, as thrashed out in a chance meeting with Kevin Hargaden, why aggregate the No Religions with Atheists and Agnostics unless you mean to lead the ranks of massed No Religionists? Aggregation would imply intentionality which seems to me to imply a faith in something. A faith in the sense that all of those who ticked the No Religion, Atheist and Agnostic choices had a shared understanding of what this means. Do 84% of people in Ireland believe in the unquestioned authority of their bishops? No. Do 3.86 million people in Ireland share the same faith of a Peter McVerry or a David Quinn? No.

I think people ticking No Religion in the Census is a good thing. If nothing else it means more interesting conversation on street corners, in pubs and outside churches. But in the same manner as a Catholic leader should take no comfort from a “mere” 4% drop in the proportion of Roman Catholics in Ireland given all that we have read in the last ten years (because to do so would imply a crude imperialism ), atheism cannot ‘claim’ No Religionists. I would blame the CSO for this: not Atheist Ireland.

EDIT: Susie Donnelly has indicated that she does not mind her work being put online. Thanks Susie.