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Secularisation in Contemporary Ireland

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 literaturereview which will look at the process in Britain and in Europe andcontrast this with the situation in Ireland to demonstrate in what waysIreland may differ from other industrialized societies and how this mayaffect whether and in what ways secularization could be said to betaking place. Following the literature review the methodologicalapproach to the study will be outlined and attention will be paid toreflexivity in the research process. There will be an analysis of thefindings of the research and finally a conclusion that will establishwhether the research question has fulfilled its aims.

Religion is common to almost all cultures. Religious traditions andtheir 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. Formulatingconceptions of a general order of existence and 4. Clothing theseconceptions with such an aura of factuality that 5. The moods andmotivations 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 theEnlightenment 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 thedeclining 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 landsunder church control to lay political control. The term secular is alsoused to specify that which is inferior to the realm of the sacred. Itwas later used in the context of the priest being allowed to dispensewith his vows, in the Middle Ages the distinction between religious andsecular priests referred to those who worked within a religious orderand 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 inparticular decreed that the fiction that was
theology would die and be replaced by the truth of science. This viewwas largely endorsed by Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Freud, all of whomwere convinced that the forces of the modern age heralded the birth ofa 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 loseits significance through the growth of capitalism and the influence ofurbanisation and rising technology. The world would become desacralisedand 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 againstreligion (which secularism is), some would also argue thatsecularisation 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 andits compartmentalisation into different areas, for example, politics,education and the law, and religion ceasing to provide cohesion for allareas of human life. Wilson (1966) says that the complexity of thisprocess is characterised by a wide variety of innovations which haveled to a structural change in society. He cites the following;scientific advance and the development of technology, changing patternsof work and increasing industrialisation, the rise of individuality,and education characterised by science rather than religion andtradition.

Bruce and Wallis (1992) class secularization as the ‘diminishingsocial significance of religion’, directly brought about by threestrands of modernization: ‘social differentiation’, ‘societalization’and ‘rationalization’.  By social differentiation, they mean theprocess by which ‘specialised institutions’ take the place of religiousones; for example, in Britain the provision of education and welfare isnow the responsibility of a secular government, not the church.  Socialdifferentiation also
includes the fragmentation of society into distinct social groups basedon differing life experiences, for example a distinction between socialclasses. Bruce allows however that the significance of religion is lesslikely to decline if it can find some social role, other than thecommunication of beliefs, within the wider society. In Ireland for example, the fact that religion has long been a source of contentionhas given it another social role.

Societalization refers to the disappearance of small-scale communities and their replacement by the idea of ‘society’, largely due toincreasing industrialization and urbanization.  Rationalization refersto changes in the way people think; the rise of science and technologyhas 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 theseprocesses is the decline in the social position of religion. McLeod(1992) maintains that the concepts of differentiation andrationalization are not particularly helpful when trying to understandthe place of religion in a particular society as cultural practicesdiffer widely.

Berger (1970) believes that urbanisation and modernisation result insocial fragmentation and this leads to a plurality of cultural andrelgious groups. The monopoly previously held by one group comes to anend. We can see that this has happened, whether or not we subscribe tothe 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 tosecularization is often challenged. Martin (1978) contends that inorder to make sense of the process of religion in industrialized societies attention must be paid to the specific cultural andhistorical patterns that pertain in a specific society. In NorthernIreland for example, religion has remained in the public arena as asource of dispute that is connected to issues of national identity.What happens in Ireland is quite different to what has happened inBritain 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 War2 than it is now, at the dawn of the twenty first century. In the yearsimmediately preceding the war and on into the late 1940s and 50s themajority of British people still had some form of contact with theChurch (often through their children attending Sunday School, orthrough 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 indenominational attitudes. Mainstream Christianity was endorsed in partby the 1944 Education Act. The Act required that the school day begin with anassembly and act of worship and that religious instruction should beaccording 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 atthe time the Act was passed. It was felt that non-denominational worship and teaching would make sensewhen co-related with more specific Church teaching that it assumed children would have (Parsons, 1993).  However this assumption proved to be unfounded. Theway in which education has been affected in Ireland is ratherdifferent. In some areas amendment to the education system haveresulted in a reiteration of  Catholic religious beliefs to thedetriment of the Protestant minority.

The Picture in Ireland

Secularisation has affected the whole ofEurope and surveys undertaken in the 1980s and 90a  via the EuropenaValues systems survey indicated that many young people show little ifany recognition of religious symbols. In Ireland the situation israther different. Although seculaisation may be seen to be having aneffect religion has always had a prominent place in Irish life andpolitics. 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. Irelandis 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 onlybeen observable for the last 30 years.  In the republic of Irelandthere has, historically been a much closer connection between Churchand state. The refusal of the state to confront the Church iscontributing 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 relegatedto the wings. This is precisely what the Church has sought to doelsewhere, 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 educationis a highly controversial subject in sectarian Ireland. From thenineteenth century the education system in Ireland has been split alongsectarian lines and in the last thirty years this has been an area ofmajor concern for some analysts (Darby, 1976).

Bowen (1983) maintains that since independence the minority ofProtestants (in the 1991 census only 3% fell into this category) hasfallen further and that this is largely a result of inter-religiousmarriage. In 1996 a study was undertaken to establish the number ofinter-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 theIrish context is quite unique and secularization may not be occurringin the way that sociologists understand it, i.e. the removal ofreligion from the public to the private sphere. In Ireland theconnection between Church and state and between religion and politicsmeans that religion is constantly in the public sphere and thus thesituation is quite different. This difference has led Brewer (2005) toview Ireland in terms of a post-Christian society rather than in termsof secularization. The use of the term post-Christian originated in the1960s in Britain where the pace of social and religious change and thecontention of many theorists that Britain was a secular society ledsome 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 MaryDaly 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 theexamination and analysis of existing documentation, statistics, andmedia 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 betweenChurch and state in the republic of Ireland and how this impacts on, oris 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 toimply that the Irish situation is unique due to religion’s place in thepublic sphere.
• Does a growth in inter-religious marriage loosen religious ties anddoes 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-faithorientation in the teaching of religious studies, and what effectsmight 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 analysiswill also be applied to media reports and to statistical findings. Onesource of data will be the 1991 census which indicated that 84% of theIrish population still claimed regular
church attendance. In addition the study will look at any decline inreligious practices as defined by Wilson 1982. How does societydistance itself from religious traditions? Theorists argue that it canbe seen in the  decline in the number of church baptisms and weddings,and the fact that church officials have less financial recognition. InBritain religious festivals have become increasingly secularised and sohave beliefs with numbers of ministers saying that they no longerbelieve in the virgin birth, the incarnation or the resurrection.

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

Does going to Church really mean that a person believes in God, or canyou do this without attending religious ceremonies. It certainly seemsthat the power and influence of the Church and perhaps other organisedreligions is declining in Britain if the statistics are anything to goby.  Sunday Schools were another recruiting ground
for the Church they were extremely popular in the late nineteenthcentury and remained so until the middle of the twentieth century. Thenumber of attendees at Sunday School is now only ten percent of thenumber in 1900 (Bruce, 1995). The next question is how has thisinfluenced the institutions themselves. At the same time

This involves an examination of the extent to which religiousorganisations are involved in the day to day secular order in anysociety and to what extent they are able to exert control over thatsociety. Signs of the growth of secularisation include the following,declining membership of the established Churches, declining numbers ofpeople who are willing to make religion their vocation, and the closingof 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 EnglandBishops were recruited largely from the peerage or landed gentry in1860. This practice has decreased and nowadays clergy often come fromthe poorer strata of society. The Protestant Church was once considereda good living but its wealth has declined and so ordinands usually haveconcerns other than material welfare, it has become  a low statusoccupation. In Britain there was a marked decline in the number ofChurch of England ordinands between 1900 and 1988 (Bruce, 1995). Thisstarted happening much later
in Ireland, and at a much slower pace.

With the apparent decline in church membership and the marked declinein the number of both Church of England and Roman Catholic ordinandsthe requirement for church buildings has diminished. This has largelyaffected the Anglican Church
and in some cases other Protestant denominations. The trend for closingchurches is less marked in the Roman Catholic Church. It could be thatthe Catholics were not so prolific in their church building as theAnglicans 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 aspubs or
as retail outlets or warehouses. This has not yet been the case inIreland, particularly the Irish republic, where much of the land andbuildings are still the property of the Catholic church and remainsunder the church’s control.

In Britain, between 1970 and 1998 1250 church buildings were closedor sold off. Religion itself appears to be changing, becomingsecularised, it is less likely to provide a lead for people and moreinclined to follow trends than to set them (Browne, 1998).Browne (1998)shows that while the influence of the Anglican Church has declined, andmay 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).
• Themonarch must be a member of the Church of England, is crowned by theArchbishop of Canterbury, and since the time of Henry V111 has beenhead 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 ofan estimated £3 billion in 1991, and it is one of the largestlandowners in the country.
• Since the 1944 Education Act, all schools have been legally obligedto hold a religious ceremony each day, and the 1988 Education ReformAct reaffirmed and strengthened the requirements to hold assemblies ofa broadly Christian nature and teach Christian beliefs for at least 51percent 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 personalbelief 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 ofwhether, and to what extent, secularisation has occurred in this area.One of the problems stems from the different understandings people haveof such a belief. For numbers of people it may be agreement to all ofthe teachings of Christianity, for others a general belief in God andfor some it might be a spiritual awareness and a sense of meaning andpurpose to life. In Ireland, religious belief is closely allied topolitical matters and people are far more inclined to state that theybelong to a particular tradition, in this way they define not onlytheir religion, but also their political and national loyalties.
In Britain one way of estimating trends in religious believing is tolook at the rise in the number of New Religious movements, the rise ofthe Black led Churches and the rise in the number of House Churches.There has also been a considerable growth in other forms of evangelicalChristianity and most people in Britain still claim a belief in God..

Bruce (1995) argues that the face of organised religion over the lasttwo hundred years has changed from a dominant Church model to thegrowth of the sect and
the denomination (Bruce, 1995). This has been brought about by the riseof cultural pluralism and the reluctance of governments to use force toget people into a state Church. Although the churches were slow torelinquish their privileges the role of the
Anglican, Scottish, and Welsh Churches have changed considerable sincethe 19th century, in Britain for example in 1828 a person who heldpublic office was, at least
officially, a member of the Anglican faith. Non-members could not holdpublic 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 marriagescould only be celebrated by an Anglican minister, irrespective of thefaith of the marriage partners
and until 1854 non-Anglicans were not allowed to study at Oxford andCambridge, and unti 1871 all teaching posts at these institutions wereheld by Anglicans. Women were not allowed to be members of thesecolleges before the late 1890s. With each of these changes the Churchof England lost some of its power in society. Bruce (1995)
holds that Protestantism by its very nature increases fragmentation inreligion and by extension in society. The rise of the ecumenicalmovement also played a part in the Church’s loss of power.

Fragmentation undermines the Church, it has state support for areligious monopoly and this has gradually been removed, this also hasfunding implications, until the nineteenth century the Churches werefunded by the land they owned and by public taxation, this was largelyfinished by the start of the twentieth century. Secondly its personnelbecome increasingly influenced by the psychology of an increasinglypluralist culture. It is not so easy to believe that a religion isright 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 anddecreases certainty. The problems that different denominations beenmight 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 ofeducation were introduced and this caused a deal of controversy centredaround conflicting interests (Dunn, 1989). The Belfast Agreement of1998 set out guidelines for the promotion of religious and culturaltolerance 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 isan increasing secularization in Ireland and that liberals in the Northmay be considering replicating the multi-faith educational model thatoperates in the rest of Britain. This has led to vigorous debate anddiscussion of the differences between Britain and Ireland (Barnes,2004).

Although numbers of commentators contend that there is a growingsecularization, in Ireland in the 1991 census 84% claimed to attendchurch at least once a week. In a survey undertaken in the south ofIreland Greil (1998) found the following listed in the table on thenext 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 professedno 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 organisedreligion in both contemporary Britain and in Ireland, many people stillclaim to hold orthodox beliefs and a moral judgement based on thetenets of Christianity. At the same time they do not have so muchattraction to institutional forms of religions (Bruce, 1995 and Browne,1998).

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

By the end of the decade most people owned a television and programmessuch as That was the Week That Was took an irreverent view of religion.This, along with the sixties sexual revolution, brought changingattitudes towards the Church and to people’s attitudes to religiousauthority. The media was highly influential on the Church’s publicimage and became far more critical of outdated morality.  What went onin America had a greater influence on what happened in Britain. Thesuccess of the civil rights movement in the mid-nineteen sixties openedthe way for second-wave feminism and the call for women’s rights. Theabortion reform act of 1967 meant that women had more rights over their own body and the employmentdiscrimination act of the mid-nineteen seventies meant that other thanin the Church employers could not discriminate on the basis of sex. Thelate 1960s also saw the burgeoning of feminist theologies. These havedeveloped and changed over the last thirty years and have become achallenge to patriarchal systems across the world. Divorce law reformsaw a huge increase in the number of divorces and traditionalists sawthis as a threat to the institute of marriage and the structure of thefamily. The rise of the Gay Christian movement and the aids threatsfrom 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 inIreland is very different to what has happened in Britain and ratherthan 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 shapeordinary believers’ lives, a growing liberalisation in what ordinaryChristians believe and in the certainty with which they believe it, andthe appearance of other world faiths, still admittedly very much asminority religions, but a presence that nonetheless challenges theChristian hegemony. Religious diversity and pluralism now has to caterfor differences in practice and belief between the world religions notjust Catholic and Protestant (Brewer, 2005:7).

Sociologists use divorce statistics, abortion and homosexuality figuresto sustain the argument that secularisation is on the increase. Theyuse this evidence to suggest that these factors are a result of thedeclining 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 haswitnessed an increasing industrialization through urbanization and agrowth in the number of people employed in both the industrial, ratherthan the agricultural sector, and in higher education. Religion hasbeen a key factor in Ireland and, since the 1970s, an increasing causeof 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 seriouslyargues that the conflict has been about religion. But religion is itsform, the way in which it is experienced. The contestation has beenabout the legitimacy of the state and access to its scarce resources,but this took on a religious form because ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’were the

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