Decline is a painful experience. When an established way of life or a set of beliefs give way to something new, it is a sad experience for those who adhere to the old ways.
It must be obvious to most people that organised religion is in terminal decline. When you hear people from the churches calling on their leadership to change in order to reverse the decline you can only marvel at their optimism.
The long-term ebb of religion is not down to recent scandals, poor leadership or inadequate communications. It is down to the lack of credibility in the existence of God.
The more that science explains the world, from evolution to the origins of the cosmos, the narrower the ground for a supernatural explanation for existence.
The process of religious decline really started with widespread education and the mass media. Less than a hundred and fifty years ago the balance of the population were illiterate. The number of ideas competing for their intellectual attention were not widely disseminated. The churches did their thinking for them.
Ironic then that the churches did so much to educate the Irish people. The vast majority of schools in Ireland still owe allegiance to the main churches. The vast majority of Irish children are still taught religion in schools. That won’t make any difference to the decline.
Of course, science is better at explaining the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’. Science can’t give the ‘meaning’ that a belief in God can. Loyalty and tradition means that the religious decline is slow. People still want religious baptisms, weddings and funerals even though their day-to-day lives are untouched by the theology behind these rituals.
I don’t think that the disappearance of religion will make much difference. Religious belief is no barrier to sin (read crime). Some of the most stable societies in Europe (like the Nordic countries) are also the most irreligious. What is required now is to give those with no religion parity of esteem.
Godlessness doubles in Dublin
Dubliners describing themselves as having ‘No Religion’ in the census have increased from 66,270 in 1991 to 138,264 in 2002.
This is a pretty impressive growth, by any standards. But it is not as conclusive as it might seem. Many of these people might not be equating ‘no religion’ with ‘no God’. Perhaps they mean ‘no organised religion’.
In Dublin, only 484 people described themselves as ‘agnostic’ and only 250 were prepared to be decisive and call themselves ‘atheists’ (I was among the latter).
Oddly enough, the growth in ‘no religion’ was greater outside Dublin. Why might that be?
In Connacht it nearly trebled. It could be due to inward migration. Or it could be due to the Catholic Church’s very bad handling of child sex abuse cases. Or, starting from a lower base, the west of Ireland is starting out on the same journey as the rest of the western world.