The ‘spiritual’ are the second biggest faith group in Ireland

RTE’s exit poll conducted on the day of the General Election throws up some very interesting data concerning religion and political affiliation. More on that very shortly, but for me the most striking thing is that it was the first poll I’ve come across that distinguished between the non-religious who call themselves ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’, and those who say they are not religious but they are ‘spiritual’.

This is a very important distinction because it shows that the ‘no religion’ or ‘nones’ are not a homogenous group. They simply cannot all be claimed by atheists as sometimes happens.

One of the questions the poll asked those who had just voted was, ‘Which of these religious denominations/faiths, if any, do you adhere to?’

Seventy-nine percent said they were Catholic and three percent Protestant. But the group that didn’t classify themselves as belonging to any religion was the second biggest at 14 percent of the total.

Does this mean 14 percent of voters are atheist or agnostic? The answer is no. Only one percent said they are agnostic and four percent said they are atheists. But nine percent classified themselves as “not religious”, but “spiritual”. It’s hard to be sure what exactly that means, but clearly they don’t consider themselves to be atheists or agnostics. Therefore, atheists can’t even begin to claim all the ‘nones’ for themselves.

Another thing that was striking about the exit poll was the finding for church attendance. Thirty-four percent attend church at least weekly and another 15 percent monthly or so bringing the total that can be classified as regular church-goers (which will mostly mean Mass-goers) to 49 percent. Only 24 percent say they never or hardly ever attend. The rest go “a few times a year”.

These figures have been remarkably consistent for the last decade or so. Church-attendance plunged in the 1980s and 1990s but then began to stabilise. I would have thought the fact that church-goers are rapidly aging would have brought the figure even lower by now. But that has not happened. Yet.

More depressing for the Churches is that only 12 percent of those aged 18-24 go once a week or more, while 13 percent go once a month or so, and 43 percent never or rarely go. This age group has the highest number of atheists at 12 percent and the highest number who say they are ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ at 17 percent.

But these figures still mean that 25 percent of the youngest voters are regular or very regular church-goers which is reasonably high by comparison with some other European countries.

In addition, as people get older they often begin attending church or revert to doing so, therefore even if we fast forward a few decades, regular church attendance may well turn out to be higher than we might expect looking at the figures today for the age group 18-24.

A final finding, and a not unexpected one, is that regular church-goers were most likely to vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and least likely to vote for the Greens or the Anti-Austerity Alliance.

Interestingly, given its reputation, only 17 percent of Renua voters (based on a small sample needless to say) were regular church-goers.  Twenty-five percent said they never or rarely attend church.