The Land of Saints and Scholars—Ireland—experienced sudden economic growth (the Celtic Tiger) and has changed—changed utterly as poet W.B Yeats would say. Instead of being packed to capacity, chapels are virtually empty on Sunday. Once revered, the clergy are now so mistrusted that they must approach children in the company of a female chaperon (1).
Despite the slow pace of religious change in most countries, the level of atheism can rise suddenly in a rapidly-developing country. This is certainly true of Ireland where belief in God, religious attendance rates, and religion in general was as high as in any other poor country forty years ago (2). Today, Ireland is indistinguishable from the other affluent secular countries of Europe.
Only 54 percent of Irish survey respondents see religion as important and much fewer than this bother to attend church (2-3 percent). This fast transition is easily accounted for in terms of extremely rapid economic growth that catapulted the country from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to being one of the wealthiest in the world.
The Celtic Tiger has lost much of its bounce but the Irish have not gone back to religion. The genie is out of the bottle and will not go back whether due to education, to social media, or other factors.
Another reason for disenchantment with the Catholic Church—that formerly claimed the majority of the population as active members—is child abuse. Sexual abuse of children by priests was actively covered up by the Church hierarchy for several decades according to the Ryan Report (4).
Yet, the two explanations are not so different as they might at first seem. In an environment of increasing secularization, priests are no longer seen as beyond reproach—an aura that gave them the opportunity to abuse children in the first place. They are more likely to be held accountable for their crimes against innocence.
The recent history of religion in Ireland lines up a staggering increase in national wealth with an equally stunning reversal in the fortunes of religion there. This is a dramatic example of a more gradual decline in religion throughout the world as economic well-being marched steadily upwards (1).
Why atheism replaces religion around the globe
The decline in religion follows three basic stages corresponding roughly to the different levels of economic development: agricultural societies; industrializing countries; and fully developed modern democracies. In countries where most of the economic activity is in agriculture, over 95% of people believe in God—or other forms of supernatural control over their lives, such as witchcraft - and agree that religion is an important influence in their daily lives (2).
Religion is an effective monopoly and there is little nonconformism in practice. Even people who disavow belief in God may still attend religious ceremonies and rely upon religious institutions for marriages and burials because these religious rituals are such an integral aspect of daily life in agricultural communities. Agricultural societies behave very much as though religion were universal.
The decline in religion as economies move from agriculture to industry can be explained in terms of better living conditions (1). As people become more secure in terms of economics, health, and personal liberty, they lose interest in formal religion as a balm for the emotional difficulties of everyday life.
With industrialization, the standard of living in a country improves. This is a genuine improvement and not simply a matter of monetary incomes rising because people are obliged to buy food and homes whereas subsistence farmers grow, or build, their own. We know that the improvement is real because there is a corresponding advance in various health measures, particularly declining infant mortality, reduced infection with epidemic diseases such as measles, polio, and cholera, and increased life expectancy.
Ireland no longer fits the mould of an agricultural society where religion is universal. Instead, due to a vastly improved standard of living, she has been changed –utterly – into one of the godless countries of Europe (1).
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...
2. Gallup (2010). Religiosity highest in world’s poorest nations. http://www.gallup.com/poll/142727/religiosity-highest-world-poore...
3. “Irish mass attendance below 50%” (2006, June 1). Catholic World News. www.catholicculture.org/news/features/index.cfm?recnum=44521
4. McDonald, H. (2009, 20 May). ‘Endemic’ rape and abuse of Irish children in Catholic care, inquiry finds. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/20/irish-catholic-school...