The religions of the world are in serious decline. Each generation is less religious than the last and the grip of the Church is being steadily weakened. Ireland used to be the most religious country in Europe, yet even here religion is being eroded away. The simple fact is that religion’s future is one of decline into insignificance as the older generations die off and young fail to take their place. Churches are facing a crisis in even finding members to join as priests and the closing of churches will soon be a common sight. Within 50 to 100 years religion will be but a shadow of what it once was, a mere footnote belonging to a forgotten time.
As so much of religion is private, it is not easy to quantify the level of religious belief in the country. Officially, the vast majority of people claim to be religious and in the most recent census 84% of the population claimed to be Catholic. However, religion has been caught up with people’s identity and many consider themselves Catholic the same way they consider themselves Irish. It is something that came with their birth and they cannot change. However, few of these people could in anyway be consider religious or practicing Catholics. A more accurate measure of religiosity is opinion polls and church attendance, both of which are crude and liable to overstatement by respondents who claim to practice more than they actually do (this dates back to when being seen as a “bad” Christian was a terrible shame). One study found that 36% of people claimed to attend church on a weekly basis whereas only 20% actually did. However, despite the differences among opinion polls, they all point in one direction, the unstoppable decline of religion.
In 1973 weekly church attendance in Ireland was a whopping 91%. This was the peak of Old Ireland, the absolute height that religion reached. Since then, the only way has been down. This steadily declined to 66% in a 1996 Irish Times/MRBI poll, 48% in 2002 Milward Brown IMS poll. A host of polls showed numbers jumping around the 40s throughout the 2000s due to variance in the conducting of polls and the responses people gave. While each one varied from each other, they all showed that less than half of Catholics were actually practicing. If you are unwilling to devote an hour a week to your religion, it probably isn’t that important to you. Global polls have found that Ireland has experienced the 2nd largest drop in religious belief, falling from 69% to 47%, with 44% describing themselves as not religious and 10% as Atheist. When the Association of Catholic Priests conducted a study in 2012 that found only 35% of Catholics attended Mass on a weekly basis, no one could deny that the Catholic Church was in a crisis.
Linked to this decline is the rise of Atheism. In fact church attendance figures would be lower if it wasn’t for the large number of people who are leaving religion. To be an Atheist at the moment is to enter a movement on the ground floor. Numbers are small at the moment, but rising rapidly and will certainly challenge mainstream Churches within a generation. According to the latest Census in 2011, the numbers of people listing No Religion, doubled to 350,000 and 7.5% of the population, making it the 2nd largest religious grouping in the country. I can see this change occurring among my friends. We all come from Catholic backgrounds, yet none of us could be called religious and rarely does anyone go to Mass. Among my college friends Atheism is dominant and once people move away from home, they stop attending church.
The decline is also to be seen in people’s views of the Church. In the study by the Association of Catholic Priests mentioned above (an admittedly biased group) even they found widespread discontent with the Church. Only 20% felt the views of laypeople were taken into account by the hierarchy, dropping to only 12% discussing Bishops. There was a consensus that the Church is out of touch with the rest of society and its members. There is a similar disconnected between believers and the social teachings of the church. 77% of Catholics think women should be allowed to become priests and 87% think that priests should be allowed to get married. The survey revealed that people no longer listen to the Church with 75% saying the Church’s teaching on sexuality have no relevance to them or their family. Only 18% agree with the Churches stance that homosexuality is immoral. Only 5% believe that divorced people should be refused Communion. In other words, the Church itself has found massive rejection if its policies and teachings as well as widespread alienation.
Catholic Bishops conducted their own study which also revealed the erosion of belief in core principles among Catholics. 25% didn’t believe in sin, another quarter did not believe in Heaven and almost half didn’t believe in Hell. If you thought these were dangerously high levels of disbelief among supposed Catholics, it gets worse. 28% don’t believe in life after death (isn’t that the whole point of Christianity?) and a surprisingly hilarious 10% don’t believe in God (but still call themselves Catholic). In other words, a large proportion of Catholics don’t actually believe in Catholicism.
This alienation from the Church and decline in religiosity is most pronounced among the young, the well educated and the wealthy. It is observed across the world that as countries become richer they become less religious. This could be because rich people don’t need religion as much, in that they are less desperate and in less need of divine help in their life. Also having money allows you to broaden your horizon and move away from static ideas like religion. Education too is strongly correlated with secularism and it was at university that I became an Atheist. This is because higher education encourages you to challenge preconceived ideas, think in new ways and demand evidence to support claims. Especially if you move away from home, college is a time where people are pushed out of their comfort zones and meet new ideas. Finally, the fact that the young no longer identify with religion is deeply worrying for Churches. With each generation less religious than the last, then it is only a matter of time before religion dies out in Ireland and Europe.
Allow me to stare into my crystal ball and make a guess at how the future will unfold. The Church will continue as it is, slowly losing members and finding it harder and harder to entice people to become priests. It will gradually lose power and influence and become a discredited institution (its weakness can be seen in the way it was overruled by even conservatives in Fine Gael during the recent abortion legislation). As the hierarchy becomes smaller and older, it will become more and more out of touch with the rest of society. This is where the death spiral kicks in, less members leads to less relevance leads to less members etc. As the number of priest’s declines, churches will have to be closed. Churches will literally recede from public life and fewer and fewer people will be willing to commute every Sunday. The current position where every tiny village has its own church won’t last.
As religion declines, secularism will rise. At the moment the Church’s social teaching are ignored and ridiculed, a position which will only worsen. It is only a matter of time before Ireland becomes a secular state (goodbye to references to God in the constitution and blasphemy laws). Religion is something that once lost, is incredibly difficult to regain. It is almost impossible to convince thinking adult about stories like Noah’s Ark, Garden of Eden and Jonah and the Whale really happened. Only a gullible child who has it hammered into them at home, church and school can believe it to be true. If you take an adult who has never heard of Christianity and try to convince them about virgins giving birth, the dead coming back to life etc, they would think of it as the strangest fantasy they’ve heard.
The decline of religion will not be smooth. It will get a boost from immigrants from religious third world countries, but rather than saving faith, it will only delay the inevitable. There will probably be the occasional dead-cat-bounce where some young people buck the trend, but their view of religion will be unrecognisable to us. The old traditional Catholic guilt of Cardinal McQuaid is gone and not coming back. People will experiment with other religions and forms of spirituality like Buddhism, Islam or even paganism. However, religion requires too much faith and ignoring contrary evidence for these trends to be more than temporary. By the time I die, I would expect Atheism to be the dominant belief of Ireland, with Catholicism being nothing more than a niche held by 5-10% of people. In fact Atheism (which is the absence of belief) may no longer be a thing as without religion, it is not necessary. You can’t reject what isn’t there.
So that’s how I see the future. Of course, by its nature the future is unpredictable, but this is a rough outline. Religion is trapped in a holdout of the old, a constituency that is ever shrinking. It is caught on the wrong side of history. The question of time is debatable, what is certain is the result. Over the coming decades we will see religion decline across the Western World as sure as the advancement of tide. Some countries (France, Scandinavia, Czech Republic) will advance faster than others; in fact these countries are pretty much there now. Other countries (America, Italy, Greece) will be slower but even there the decline is clear to see. The Third World remains an open question, but history shows that as countries become better educated and richer, they become less religious. The future is bright and it has no place for God.