On 30 May the Central Statistics Office in Dublin released the data from the 2022 Irish census. The following day, 1 June, NISRA announced the release of a selection of multivariate tables from Census 21, and followed that up on 22 June by releasing all the census data in such a way that you can build your own flexible and interactive data table. There are many patterns to be found in the new figures, but media coverage in each jurisdiction tended to zoom in on its own dominant concerns. Thus in Northern Ireland the focus, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, was the sectarian headcount. In Ireland it was the continuing decline in the numbers identifying as Catholic (in England it was the rise in the minority ethnic population). Running underneath these headlines, like an underground stream, was the erosion of traditional identities and, linked to this, the growth of secularisation.

This was not surprising. Internationally, secularisation has been the main census story. The 2021 Australian census showed 40% registered as having no religion. In Canada it was 34.6%. In this context the Irish figure of 14.4% is perhaps not so startling, but that figure has to be seen in the context of Ireland’s historical identity as a Catholic nation. In 1961, 95% of the population identified as Catholic. The decline since then has been described as steady, but that term no longer covers it: it is now on a slide. The new figure revealed in this census is 69%, a fall of ten percentage points from the 79% in the six years from the last census (Ireland conducts a census every five years, but postponed the 2021 exercise for a year because of Covid). In the Dublin City Council area Catholics were only 53% of the population.

The title of Derek Scally’s 2021 book, The Best Catholics In The World, is of course ironic. The crisis for the Catholic Church in Ireland is not simply to do with a drop in numbers; a country where the citizenry has voted in successive referendums to legalise divorce, abortion, and same sex marriage cannot be seen as a Catholic country in a way that Archbisop McQuade would have recognised the term. And yet 69% of the population still choose to describe themselves as Catholic. In 2008 the historian Roy Foster addressed this conundrum in an essay called How Irish Catholics Became Protestants. In it he argued that the Irish people now follow individual conscience rather than church doctrine, but that they retained a sluggish fidelity to their cultural identity as Catholic. It is what the QUB sociologist of religion, Gladys Ganniel, describes as a ‘sticky’ identity, that is, one that people find it difficult to shake off. The census figures however suggest that Ireland has entered a new phase, where 14.4% of the population are prepared to make that break, not just with Catholicism but with any form of organised religion. It is perhaps important to stress that the No Religion label covers a diverse range of beliefs, from hard core atheists to watery pantheists, with many forms of agnosticism in between: what they have in common is that they do not identify with any church-based beliefs.

The 14.4% figure in Ireland is still a smaller percentage than in Northern Ireland, where 17.4% described themselves as having no religion, a considerable jump from the 10.1% in the 2011 census. There are of course geographical differences within Northern Ireland: from 30.6% in Ards & North Down council area to 7.8% in Mid Ulster council area. Significantly though all councils are more secular in 2021 than they were ten years ago. For the churches, the crisis is now very real. In May, Bishop Donal McKeown issued a pastoral letter entitled ‘Be Part of God’s Amazing Dream’. The contents of the letter alerted the Catholic faithful that the shortage of priests had entered a crisis point. In ten years time in the Down and Connor diocese the number of priests in active ministry will be almost half what it is today, while twenty years from now, there will only be approximately 24 priests available for 86 parishes. One example of what that means in practical terms is that in the future it will not always be possible to have priests to lead funeral masses; that responsibility will have to pass to the lay congregations. It’s not clear whether it is also part of God’s amazing dream, but the Presbyterian church in Northern Ireland is going through a similar crisis. In June this year, one month after Bishop McKeown’s Pastoral Letter, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland met to consider a radical plan for church closures and mergers. Quite simply, it is running out of money. The number of ‘contributing families’ has reduced by 20% and in some traditional heartlands it is even worse: down by 41% in north Belfast, 40% in south Belfast and 30% in Carrickfergus. All of this was prefigured in the census figures released in September 2022, which showed that Presbyterian numbers in Northern Ireland had dropped from 345,000 to 316,000 over the previous ten years. For some Protestant churches the situation is even more dire. The Free Presbyterian Church, once a force in the land, can now claim only 8,433 adherents.

All of this might be seen as part of the long arc of modernity which will result in religion being eclipsed altogether. The experiences of England and Wales would suggest something quite different. While the 2021 census showed that for the first time the Christian population in England and Wales is less than half the population (46%) it also showed that other religions are experiencing growth. London, for example, is the most religiously diverse region of England, with just over 25.3% of people reporting a religion other than Christianity. The same phenomenon can be seen in other cities. Luton, Birmingham, and Leicester are among 14 areas in England where people identifying as White are now in the minority, and where non-christian religions are on the rise. Most notably, those identifying as Muslim in England and Wales rose from 4.9% in 2011 to 6.5% last year.

The inverse is also true: the concentration of No Religion tends to be in areas that have fewer minority ethnic communities. Wales is a case in point. The census records that the largest single category in the Religion tables, larger than Christianity is No Religion with 46% of the population. In parts of South Wales that were once the home of Methodism the percentage of people with No Religion runs at 56% or 57%. This is in line with the ethnic make-up of the area. As Birkbeck sociologist Eric Kaufmann says, “Secularisation is a white phenomenon.”

Ireland then is likely to find itself pulled in two directions at once. Attachment to the Catholic religion will continue to weaken, and while Protestant denominations (now just below 3%) may experience what is called an ‘African bounce’, the growth areas are likely to come from Muslim and Hindu communities. The same trends hold for Northern Ireland. For example, in 2011 the Muslim population was 3,800, but in 2021 it had grown to 10,900. The other growth area lies in the margins where more exotic religions have been flowering: Shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Taoists, Shintoism and Druids seem to respect no border on the island of Ireland and can be found in both jurisdictions.

Northern Ireland even has 15 people who self-categorise as Free Thinkers. Now there’s a minority group.