Michael Nugent‘8% of Irish Catholics said they don’t believe in God, which would be a low hurdle for being a Catholic.’

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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Can you remember what you were doing on April 24th last year? Well, let me remind you. If you were in Ireland, you were, most likely, filling out a comprehensive survey provided to you by the Central Statistics Office: The Census Form, 2016.

Well, the preliminary figures from that census were released last week and many of the headlines centred around a couple of trends, namely that we are living longer and we are becoming less religious.

Hardly a surprise, there.

But it’s the degree to which we are becoming less religious that some take issue with. And on Today with Sean O’Rourke, two veteran sparring partners in this debate took centre stage. The ‘Kerry versus Dublin’ equivalent in the debate surrounding religion in society: David Quinn, Director of the Iona Institute, and Michael Nugent, Chairperson of Atheist Ireland.

Strangely, neither expressed surprise in the headline figure that 78% of people who responded declared themselves Catholic, down from the 84% figure in the previous 2011 survey. However, dig a little deeper, and queries arose as to why that figure should be as high as it is.

According to David Quinn, those who declare themselves Catholic cannot be considered a ‘monolithic group’. In other words, there is a significant degree of what is termed ‘à la carte Catholicism’ out there. On that, both guests were agreed.

But for Michael Nugent, there was a significant flaw in the way the question was posed in the first place. The question on religion was, in his opinion, quite loaded.

‘If you ask people ‘What is your religion?’ they will give an answer typically that is a religion. But if you ask them, ‘do you have a religion?’ a lot more will say, ‘No, I don’t’. So the figures we think are much higher than they actually are.’

On the census form, 2016, the question around religion began very simply, with ‘What is your religion?’ Underneath, you were given a range of options and, separately, a box to declare that you had no religion. Michael Nugent’s contention is that the initial question should have been, ‘Do you have a religion?’ with, presumably, a straightforward yes/no option. He went on:

‘At the moment, one in 10 say they have no religion. We suspect it is a lot higher than that. Most Irish Catholics, according to a survey that the Irish Catholic Bishops did at the time of the Eucharistic Congress, said that they don’t believe in key tenets of the Catholic Church… 8% of Irish Catholics said they don’t believe in God, which would be a low hurdle for being a Catholic.’

Another issue surrounded the responsibility placed on the head of the household to fill in the form on behalf of a family, for example. Could it be the case that these household heads were filling in religious affiliation on behalf of their teenage children where, in some cases, those children have moved on?

That, according to David Quinn, could easily cut both ways.

To listen to the full interview, which also covered issues such as religion in schools and whether or not RTÉ should broadcast the Angelus, click here.

Photo Credit: Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla / Staff

© The Listener 2017

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