ROME, August 9, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A massive global study on religiosity, covering 57 countries and five continents, has found that of the western nations, the Irish are losing their faith faster than anyone. The Global Index of Religion and Atheism, a survey conducted by the Gallup International Association, showed that of all countries studied, only Vietnam is losing interest in religion faster than the Republic of Ireland.

“Globally, those claiming to be religious, drops by 9 per cent, while atheism rises by 3 per cent. This compares to a drop of 22 per cent among the Irish population claiming to be religious,” the report said. It added that 44 percent of Irish surveyed said they are not religious and 10 percent said they are “convinced atheists,” a dramatic rise from three percent in 2005.

“Most of the shift is not drifting from their faith, but claiming to be ‘not religious’ while remaining within the faith,” the report said.

While most media outlets are citing the recent revelations of clerical abuse of young people in Ireland as the reason for the shift, others have placed the source further back with the long-term failure of religious authorities to adequately teach and uphold the Catholic Church’s tenets.

Liam Gibson, the Northern Ireland spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and a long-time observer of the religious situation of Ireland, told LifeSiteNews.com that the religious downturn in Ireland is not a surprise, given the falling away from religious faith in the rest of the western world.

Since the 1960s, “the activity of the Irish Church has been focused on social justice issues to the detriment of the spiritual and eternal aspects of the Gospel.”

Moreover, the findings of the survey, he said, are a crucial factor in getting the pro-life message out. “Globally speaking the Catholic Church is the pro-life movement so social trends which alienate people from the Church will have an impact on how the pro-life message is received,” Gibson said.

“This atheism,” he added, “isn’t an intellectual one but arises from the fact that there is so little truth, beauty and goodness visible in contemporary culture. The coming years in Ireland will be decisive but the pro-life movement cannot prosper long if the Christian life continues to decline.”

Patrick Buckley, SPUC’s representative in Dublin and at the EU, told LSN, that there is no one factor that can be pointed to, but the causes include a combination of sudden increase in wealth during the country’s “Celtic Tiger period” and “poor catechetical formation” by the Church itself.  Buckley also listed the “child abuse scandals” and a hostile media as contributing factors.

“Add to the foregoing the almost constant denigration of traditional values and the celebration of immorality and depravity on TV, which is also readily accessible online.” Buckley noted, however, that with the economic downturn, “some are returning to the fold.”

The survey found that 59 percent of the 51, 927 people surveyed around the world described themselves as religious; 23 percent said they are “not religious” and 13 percent said they are “convinced atheists”. But Ireland, whose people still overwhelmingly identify themselves as Catholic, stands out in contrast with only 47 percent considering themselves “religious,” placing the country at 43 out of 57 countries.

Ireland is now among the top ten nations with the largest number of convinced atheists, following China, Japan, the Czech Republic, France, South Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Iceland and Australia.

At the time of the 2006 census, 87.4 per cent of Irish registered themselves as Catholic, which number had dropped to 84.2 per cent by 2011. A study undertaken by Georgetown University found that in 1980 Ireland’s Catholics had one of the highest rates of weekly Mass attendance in the world. This rate, however, has dropped precipitously from 81 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2006.

According to archdiocese of Dublin’s figures, weekly Mass attendance in the diocese, the area with the lowest rates of adherence in the country, had fallen to 18 percent by 2011. In May last year, the Irish Times reported that among younger people, the number attending weekly Mass in Dublin was around 2 percent, according to the archdiocese’s own records. 

A 2012 survey, conducted by the Association of Catholic Priests, a dissident group seeking to change Catholic teaching on sexuality and women’s ordination, found that weekly mass attendance for the whole country stood at about 35 percent with previously common daily attendance being about 3 percent.

The same survey also indicated that acceptance or understanding of Catholic teaching on key cultural issues was low, with 87 percent feeling the Church should abolish mandatory priestly celibacy and 77 percent saying that women should be allowed to be ordained to the priesthood. About 60 percent “disagreed strongly” with the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and only 20 percent agreed that sexual expression outside of marriage was immoral. Three quarters said that the Church’s teaching on sexuality is “not relevant” to them or their families.

Other countries seeing a drop in religious belief are, in order, Switzerland, France, South Africa, Iceland, Ecuador, the US, Canada and Austria. The most religious countries were Ghana, Nigeria and Armenia and the least were China, Japan and the Czech Republic. Notable also is the survey’s findings that many of the most religiously inclined countries are strongly Islamic, and that the countries seeing the sharpest decline in religious belief are all formerly Christian-majority.

Liam Gibson said that it is not surprising that the general state of global decline in religious belief should be hitting Ireland now: “Historically Ireland has been at the tail end of most cultural trends. While the decline in Christian life was taking place in the rest of Western Europe gradually, it wasn’t so obvious in Ireland.”

Gibson said that the delay in its effects until relatively recent years “has made the decline in Ireland seem more dramatic.”

Gibson also said that the causes include a uniquely Catholic problem that has been commented on globally for 50 years: “banal” liturgy and uninspired, uninspiring preaching since the major changes to the Church’s liturgy in the 1960s. For a country in which the day-to-day practice of Catholicism, through its liturgical and devotional rites, was the central driving cultural force, the changes in the liturgy hit the laity hard.

“When it comes to the public worship of the Church, the experience of most Irish Catholics is of what Pope Benedict has referred to as a banal, on-the-spot fabrication.

“The Mass in many Irish parishes lacks beauty, reverence and the standard of preaching is frequently anodyne and sometimes verging on the heretical.”

In addition, a “spirit of materialism” has infiltrated through every level of Catholic life. Not in the sense of pursuit of wealth, but “in the sense that the visible world is all that matters.”

Gibson also pointed directly at the bishops for their failure to defend and promulgate the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reiterated the Church’s teaching that artificial contraception is “gravely” sinful. This failure, one that the Irish bishops shared with the Catholic episcopate throughout the western world, “also played a part in the spread of this materialism”.

“It has led many people to believe that it was possible to reject Catholic teaching on the most serious issues and remain a Catholic. Eventually this contradiction is resolved by the complete abandonment of the Catholic faith.”

He said that a restoration of “reverence and beauty” in Catholic liturgy and music “is capable of reversing this trend” even now.