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For much of the past century, Ireland was practically synonymous with the Catholic Church. The Church was arguably the most powerful institution for generations of Irish people. But all that began to change in recent years and it’s happened faster than anyone could have anticipated. “Holy Catholic Ireland” is quickly turning unholy.

Ireland is now a place where the fastest growing “religious” demographic is people with no religious affiliation. The government is secularizing the default-Catholic school system to the point where they’re phasing out Christianity as the default option in many secondary schools. Abortion has been legalized. Same-sex marriage has been legalized. The blasphemy law has been repealed.

Maybe the biggest change, though, has been the reputation of the Catholic Church itself. It’s no longer seen as an influential, relevant institution. You’re far more likely to hear it referred to as the problem rather than the solution.

Dr. Hugh Turpin is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Oxford’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography who has been studying this phenomenon for years, using a variety of methods to examine the rejection of Catholicism in Ireland. His new book, Unholy Catholic Ireland: Religious Hypocrisy, Secular Morality, and Irish Irreligion (affiliate link), is a culmination of his research up to this point, looking closely at the causes and effects of a post-Catholic Ireland.

The cover of Unholy Catholic Ireland

In the exclusive excerpt below, Turpin writes about how secular organizations helped hasten this change and how the legacy of cultural Catholicism still carries plenty of weight:

Developments in Organized Secularism

In 1998 there was only one small pressure group, the Campaign to Separate Church and State. Today, an enormous range of dedicated groups are confronting individual causes that intersect with secularist concerns, and the internet allows for geographically dispersed individuals with a strong commitment to secularist goals to form communities and self-organize in a way that was not possible before. Although they were a fairly peripheral presence in the Repeal the Eighth campaign because of the wealth of grassroots organizations more directly committed to the issue, one group—Atheist Ireland—is deeply involved in efforts to secure further church-state decoupling, particularly around the education system. Atheist Ireland is quite numerically small and acts much like a mirror image of such neoconservatives as the Iona Institute, in attempting to organize disparate interest groups to promote the further separation of church and state.

Atheist Ireland’s motto makes its role clear: “Promoting atheism, reason and an ethical, secular state.” Atheist Ireland began in 2006 as an online group aiming to combat anti-atheist prejudice, but today it functions as the country’s most high-profile secularist lobby group. The group’s members have addressed the United Nations, met with government ministers, and regularly act as foils for religious Catholics in television and radio debates. Unlike some nonreligious organizations, Atheist Ireland is not particularly concerned with filling in the communitarian void left behind when religion withdraws; it does not provide services such as “Sunday Assemblies” or alternative secularized rituals for rites of passage (this duty falls more to the Humanist Association of Ireland). It is, essentially, a lobby group that advocates for the rights of atheists and other nonreligious individuals and for the secularization of Irish institutions more generally. One Atheist Ireland committee member told me that if Catholic institutional influence were fully overcome, then the group would have achieved its purpose and could be wound down. The mantle that Atheist Ireland has assumed has caused it to become more outwardly pragmatic and ecumenical than many New Atheist organizations in the United Kingdom or the United States. For instance, Atheist Ireland has formed an alliance of convenience with evangelical Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims in pursuit of educational secularization. Overall, then, Atheist Ireland acts primarily, and effectively, as an organizing centripetal force within the broader context of Irish secularization initiatives, campaigning alongside nonatheist secularists and minority religions to reduce Catholic influence. Along with this shift in organizational power, Irish secularism as an ideology has also broadened its focus from combatting institutional influence and discrimination against non-Catholic minorities to actually getting people to question their status as Catholic in the first place. Cultural Catholicism, the prior default, is now in play.

The Obstacle of Cultural Catholicism

The true cultural obstacle for secularists is often seen to lie in the tendency of a broad swath of Irish people to go on affiliating as Catholic even though they sustain no obvious commitment to Catholicism in doxastic or moral terms. This looser form of attachment is seen as being a relatively recent secularizing development (progressing from the 1970s and accelerating post-1990s), but it is not a particularly unusual characteristic for a contemporary Catholic society more generally. It is often understood that people will have varying degrees of proximity, including the most attenuated, to the Church while still remaining Catholics, and anthropologists of Catholicism have noted that in most Catholic cultures, “lapsed,” “ethnic,” or “cultural” variants are generally still considered Catholic by the rest of society, and many Catholic populations happily defy and disregard the moral precepts of the hierarchy when it suits them. Why, then, does Catholic identity matter if it is so easily separable from commitment to the Church and its goals?

One aspect is that it is unpleasant for some people to note that, in the Church’s view, having been baptized means that they have “become” Catholic ontologically and irreversibly, whatever their current metaphysical views or stance toward the Church may be—an “anthropological link” that the Church believes leaves the door open for future re-evangelization. Thus, if people who do not really adhere to Catholicism nevertheless choose to baptize their children for reasons of social expediency, they will then produce more ontological Catholics for the Church to claim. Much more important, however, a self-defined Catholic of whatever stripe is a full-blown Catholic on paper so far as the national census is concerned. The number of “on paper” Catholics is then used to defend or challenge the continuing religious patronage of schools and hospitals and to make general claims about what it is Irish people collectively believe and want. The larger the group that can be claimed, the greater the power of ideological actors to influence the shape of social institutions, causing them to reflect their values. For this reason, Atheist Ireland has expended great effort in getting the census religion question changed to a format that does not encourage habitual affiliation. These moves have been successful, and the 2022 Irish census (deferred from 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic) will be designed to incorporate a slightly modified question structure that is likely to reduce Catholic numbers somewhat.

How people describe themselves on the census is thus of enormous interest to secularists and neo-conservatives, and census results are endlessly used to defend opposite agendas. Secularists emphasize the growth of nonreligion and the problematic nature of the census’s religion question to claim that nonreligious people are both burgeoning and underrepresented, especially in the education system. Religious conservatives regularly cite that the majority of the population is Catholic to claim that any moves toward institutional secularization, such as the reform of abortion laws, are being forced on an unwilling public. Leaders of ideological groups confront one another across the media, projecting these issues into popular consciousness. In one radio debate, for instance, Michael Nugent, head of Atheist Ireland, noted that census forms are often filled in by “heads of households,” meaning that younger nonreligious household members are often entered as Catholic. He noted that the question itself assumes a religion and thereby encourages high levels of natalist religious responding among people who neither practice nor believe (“What is your religion?” rather than “Do you have a religion?”). He cited that “8% of Irish Catholics said that they don’t believe in God, which would be a low hurdle for Catholics.” His antagonist, David Quinn of the Iona Institute, executed a more sophisticated rearguard defense than the usual gesturing toward the Catholic census majority. He accepted that Catholicism had declined and that Catholic census identification may not mean full support for a neo-conservative agenda, but he quoted European Values Study statistics on self-reported theism among Irish “nones” to argue that the “fact that so many ‘nones’ believe in God and even pray daily means they cannot simply be claimed by atheist organizations for themselves, and cannot be simplistically used as part of the campaign against church-run schools.” Here, Atheist Ireland’s exclusive legacy name was tacitly used to undermine its broader secularist agenda.

For secularists, although religious conservativism may be the source of the ideologies they abhor and although institutional Catholic entrenchment may be the proximate cause of their perceived oppression, a primary force to be reckoned with is the power of cultural Catholic inertia that they believe sustains Church power. Cultural Catholic tendencies risk that the goals of absolute religious privatization will be interminably deferred, that the number of Irish Catholics will continue unabated, and that Irish schoolchildren will go on having their “faith formed” forever. Even though much of the secularist effort goes into directly fighting church-state influence, another important aim is to get potential census “swing voters” to observe the dissonance between their reported status as Catholics and their rejection of beliefs and, more especially, moral values disseminated by the Church. It is hoped that this will lead them to “awaken” and shed their inertial identity, thereby curtailing production of further ontological and bureaucratic Irish Catholics through the practices of baptism and box checking. The scandals once again enter the picture at this juncture.

Moral Contamination as Disaffiliation Incentive

In 2017, official investigations confirmed what had been suspected since pioneering local historian Catherine Coreless’ announced her findings a few years previously: almost 800 infants and young children had been improperly buried in subsurface chambers thought to be part of the sewage system of a former mother and baby home in Tuam, Galway. In an op-ed in The Irish Times, the popular film critic and cultural commentator Donald Clarke lamented that, even though the Tuam story “buzzed furiously about social media” and even though the minister for children and youth affairs had branded it “a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished like they should be,” it still had not conjured up the appropriate levels of disgusted withdrawal. Irish Catholics, and in particular cultural Catholics, still had not realized their complicity.

Last month the streets teemed with dolled-up children making their way to and from First Communions. The average couple still gets married in church. The vast majority of newborn babies are baptised. Even secular cremations tend to take place in grey rooms decorated with stone crosses and images of the suffering Christ…. After all that has been revealed, the time has surely come to raise eyebrows at the agnostics, atheists and the loosely committed who go through the rituals because they “like the tradition” or don’t want to upset older relatives. Many non-believers of my generation convinced themselves they were the last heathens who, terrified of fanged, rosary-swinging aunts, would feel compelled to marry in church. It still goes on.

Official atheist organizations are more hesitant to make this connection. Atheist Ireland leaders appeared to be cautious around the blunt deployment of religious hypocrisy. One woman, the moderator of Atheist Ireland’s online Facebook group, told me that clerical abuse is a difficult topic to deal with; some posters to the group, in particular older men whom she suspects have been damaged by experience, would inveigh against the Church in no uncertain terms. She permitted this, but was evidently somewhat conflicted about it, lest the organization be accused of simply being anti-Catholic.

However, independent campaigners need not share AI’s diplomatic restraint. This was exemplified by “Time to Tick No,” an online campaign to encourage Catholic disaffiliation on the upcoming census. One strand of the campaign was focused on belief, encouraging those with no doxastic commitment to Catholic doctrine, such as those interested in spirituality or the New Age, to disaffiliate. Another strand made tactical use of Catholic immorality. For instance, one campaign image contrasted the legacies of the current ‘Catholic Country’ with the attributes of an idealized future ‘Irish Republic’. The Catholic list included three forms of scandal (child abuse, mass graves, and Magdalene Laundries) alongside the issue of continued educational dominance (baptism for education). The perception here was clearly that emphasizing harm and oppression was a key ingredient in getting complacent cultural Catholics to drop a tainted affiliation. The color choices in the original image were also noteworthy: the use of nationalist green for the text denoting the merits of a future post-Catholic (and apparently unified) Ireland, juxtaposed against a drab institutional gray for the list describing the unsecularized present.

The acceptability of making such connections waxes and wanes according to the degree to which scandal is present in the environment at any given time. When scandal is in the air, cultural Catholicism is more frequently portrayed as outright complicity rather than mere obliviousness, both in the media and in secularist discourse. This underlying theme became far more overt, even in this official outlet, in the wake of the Tuam affair, when the Time to Tick No Facebook moderator posted a series of images and statements explicitly linking cultural Catholic affiliation to complicity in Church abuses, one of which was accompanied by the following statement: “If you want a school place, demand one from your politicians and the Department of Education. Don’t submit to fake Catholicism. Every single baptised child in Ireland is a fresh vote to retain the insidious, hateful organisation known as the ‘Catholic Church.’ We, as free Irish people need to make this change.” 

Note: An earlier version of this text mistakenly attributed the Time to Tick No campaign to Atheist Ireland. This has been corrected in the present version.

Excerpted from Unholy Catholic Ireland: Religious Hypocrisy, Secular Morality, and Irish Irreligion, by Hugh Turpin, published by Stanford University Press, ©2022 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.