Ironically, given our history as a nation practically defined by its devout Catholicism, as of 2022, a large majority of young people in Ireland identify as agnostic or atheist. Since our grandparents’ generation, we have seen a gradual decline in interest in religion.
According to statistics from the CSO, there has been a seven fold increase in the number of people with no religion since 1991. A study carried out in 2016 revealed that there were 481,388 people who identified as having no religion (including atheist and agnostic). Students have a high rate of secularity: 21.9% of students indicated that they had no religion. The demographic where religion is most prevalent is the older generation, with just 0.2% of people over 85 claiming to have no religion.
One of the reasons why young people may be turning away from Catholicism is the numerous controversies of the Church in recent times. Institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries, which subjected over 10,000 women to abuse and imprisonment, were run by the Catholic Church. This figure was reported by the McAleese Report. This is by far not the Church’s only wrongdoing — thousands of children have been sexually and physically abused by members of the clergy.
On top of this history of abuse and corruption, the Church’s intransigent conservative views regarding marriage equality and reproductive rights have served to further alienate young people. However, in recent years, protesters demanding legislative reform on these issues were reluctant to be associated with the Catholic Church, as they felt it undermined their chance of being heard. Brenda Barry, a campaigner for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child campaigner, stated that “we are very careful not to present a bead-rattling, hymn-singing, candle-carrying image.”
“The Catholic Church’s hold over people loosened as social conditions and lifestyles evolved.”
Speaking to Trinity News, an interview with a man raised in the 1960s revealed that the decline in Catholicism was mostly passive. “It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to stop going to mass. It’s a big question to answer why. I think it had a lot to do with my generation moving abroad and away from the Church’s influence.” The Catholic Church’s hold over people loosened as social conditions and lifestyles evolved. The narrative of shame surrounding issues like sex, pregnancy, and sexual orientation became less tolerated within society.
Interestingly, the decline began long before scandals of corruption and abuse came to light. This was suggested by the same interviewee: “Ultimately this pushed people away. But we were already detached at this stage.” To the younger generation, issues such as the Magdalene Laundries and sexual abuse of minors are reason enough to reject the Church. Clerical doctrines are intertwined with these scandals and distasteful views, making them difficult to separate. Finn Rogerson, a student and practising Catholic, sheds light on this issue: “People may initially generalise and think just because I’m a Christian, I must also not smoke, hate sex, be pro-life, and hate the LGBTQ community.” However, this judgement is superficial as the student explains that once people get to know him they realise this isn’t true. Those closest to him are happy he has found comfort in his own spirituality.
“Conservative and discriminatory beliefs that are so often associated with the Catholic Church are a result of human dynamics such as power, pride and greed.”
Finn also spoke on the topic of modern Christianity and the youth of the Church. Many young Catholics are focusing on deinstitutionalizing the Church, as he states that “any Christian who takes themselves seriously will always want to stop churches from becoming too big and too powerfully concentrated on too few individuals. I think younger Christians in Ireland are quite happy with smaller, tight-knit communities where people have a sense of belonging, rather than ambitious mega-church plans”. He remarks on how the hyper-organisation of religion can often lead people quite far from its fundamental beliefs. Conservative and discriminatory beliefs that are so often associated with the Catholic Church are a result of human dynamics such as power, pride and greed; he contends that “I personally couldn’t call myself a Christian if I thought it permitted homophobia, patriarchal control, or any characteristics of corrupt ministries we see in the world today.”
As an alternative, many young people are choosing modern spirituality as a belief system. New-wave spirituality draws on beliefs from multiple religions, as well as more general beliefs. Western spiritualism employs concepts such as chakras (Hinduism), buddhist mudras, and elements of mysticism. There is no prescribed set of beliefs or rules to follow, allowing for fluidity and individual interpretation. However, the spiritual community has been subject to criticism because of their appropriation of cultural and religious practices. The use of ancient symbols and practices like yoga purely for aesthetic purposes has been a prevalent issue in recent years, a theme addressed by journalist Anita Bhagwandas. In her article for Glamour magazine, she explores the issue of cultural appropriation within spirituality and wellness. A student speaking to Trinity News commented on this topic: “I always make sure to research the origins of theories and concepts I choose to believe in, to make sure I am getting my information from a reliable source.” The culture of spirituality is evidence that faith does not have to be confined or categorised to a particular denomination. Morals and questions of existence are deeply personal, so it makes sense to form your own beliefs rather than surrender to the dogmatic hierarchies of others.
“There is a tendency to take on your parents’ beliefs, but this is futile if they don’t align with your personal values.”
A young student who identifies as atheist offered an interesting perspective, stating that “religion did not play much of a role in my upbringing, and I am very thankful for that. I would choose to raise my children the same way. If they find religion for themselves, more power to them, but I don’t think it is my decision to make.” There is a tendency to take on your parents’ beliefs, but this is futile if they don’t align with your personal values. The student acknowledges the difficulty in having faith, saying “I’ve tried to make myself believe in something, but it can’t be forced.” She values the human conscience and her instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. She also touches on a valid point that influences her choice to be atheist. The image of God we are presented with is one that is caring and all powerful. The injustices of the world can make it difficult to believe this, especially when you are directly affected. Another atheist student says that she is a scientific person and needs definitive proof to believe in something. She also believes that “everyone experiences the world differently. As a cis hetero white woman, my meaning of life is going to be different to someone to didn’t have that privilege.” Sociological and political elements could have an effect on the views you form, as they are rooted in your life experience.
So why are some young people turning to atheism and agnosticism? There are many influential factors contributing to the decline of Christianity in Ireland. The role of the Catholic Church in society is greatly diminished from its position in the 20th century. The State has made changes to assist in establishing a more secular society. The Church has been involved in many scandals, which has become grounds for its rejection. Discussion with a Christian student has revealed that the youth of today are moving away from the institution and focusing on fundamental teachings. One of the most important factors seems to be our acceptance of independent thinking and questioning. The overwhelming message I received, from talking to atheist and religious people alike, is that freedom of conscience is of utmost importance and, ultimately, whatever works for the individual should be paramount in these discussions.