Mind the Gap:Measuring religiosity

Mind the Gap:
Measuring religiosity
in Ireland
Eoin O'Mahony

Issue 385, vol.97, Spring 2008

The theory is that a secularisation process is totalising in its effect; that it takes root in an entire society; and that its effects have been uniform across Western Europe. But in Ireland a gap opens up between this theory and the survey-findings. The gap is immediately apparent when we come to the empirical data of religious observance.

Of course of itself, religious observance / ‘practice’ is only one indicator of the influence exercised by religion : many people in Ireland are happy to draw from a deep sense of what is just and unjust, right and wrong, in both their public and private lives.

Besides, in each individual is found a whole residue of religious sensibility or feeling, which necessarily extends beyond any external rituals of religious affiliation. The surveys do not pursue this in detail. However, the European Social Survey (second round) did pose the question, “How religious would you say you are ?” – and, in comparison to all of the Catholics in the entire European sample, Catholics polled in Ireland in fact judged themselves to be more ‘religious’. On an 11-point scale from “Not al all religious” to “Very religious”, only 0.8% and 5.9% (respectively) placed themselves at either of the two extreme points. Yet as many as 84% ranked themselves at the “5” position or at a higher point.

To come then to the basic finding for Ireland of the surveys : Regular (weekly, up to monthly) Mass attendance for Irish Catholics now stands at 63.4% - with 50% attending weekly, and 5% attending daily. This figure is the highest in Europe (Poland scores less than 60% and Italy scores less than 40%)…Back in the l970s, however, one survey had put Irish Catholic regular Mass attendance at 91%.

However, few sociological surprises emerge from the statistical breakdown of the 63.4% figure. The age variable shows regular Mass attendance at 47.5% for those in the 15 to 24-year-old group. There is a drop to 34.7% among the 25 – 34 cohort; but this is more than offset by the 54.7% attendance of 35 to 44-year-olds. Each succeeding cohort displays a substantial increase : 65.5% for 45 – 54s; 76.9% for 55 – 64s; 90.2% for those aged 65 and over. On the educational attainment variable, regular Mass attendance stands at 76.5% for those who went no further than primary education - while attendance reaches only 55.4% for those holding a primary degree. On the population-concentration variable, Mass attendance was found to stand at 49%, 50.9% and 56.5% (respectively) in suburbs, in cities, in towns; in villages and in countryside/farm homes, by contrast, the figure rises to 70.6% and 76.6%

Eoin O’Mahony is Social Researcher at the Council for Research and Development, Irish Bishops’ Conference, Maynooth, Co. Kildare
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