The impact of rising atheism on public life in the US and Ireland
By David Christie
Atheism is on the rise internationally: according to a global opinion poll released in August, the number of atheists in the world has risen by 9% since 2005. The poll, carried out by Win-Gallup International, was conducted in 57 countries and involved 51,000 people. It found that 59% of people describe themselves as religious, 23% as non-religious, and 13% describe themselves as convinced atheists. There were also figures for specific countries, with Ireland and the US providing two of the most interesting examples. Despite the fact that both countries are normally associated with high levels of religiosity, the survey shows that they have both experienced a drop in religious belief. These cases invite us to pose the question of what causes people to turn away from religion, as well as the question of how this affects the ability of religious organisations to make an impact on public life.
In Ireland, the survey found that 47% of respondents are religious, 44% are non-religious, and 10% are convinced atheists. This reduction in religious belief (from 69% in 2005 to 47% now) is dramatic, with Irish citizens abandoning religion faster than every country in the world except Vietnam. This is surprising, as Ireland is normally seen as one the most devout Catholic countries in the world. Irish society has in fact become increasingly liberal since the 1960s, though perhaps at a slower rate than many other countries in the western world. Some policies based on Church dogma, such as restrictions on abortion, still remain in place.
So why are so many Irish citizens now leaving the Church? The most obvious reason is the scandal of child sex abuse. Since the last global survey on religious belief was conducted in 2005, the appalling crimes committed by Catholic priests have been exposed by investigations such as the Ryan report, a nine-year inquiry published in 2009 which found that the rape and abuse of children was ‘endemic’ in Church-run industrial schools. These scandals turned large sections of Irish public opinion against the Church. They also led to a deterioration in relations between the Irish government and the Vatican, which would previously have been unthinkable.
So is the growth in atheism, and the shift in attitudes towards the Catholic Church, finally starting to weaken the Church’s influence over Irish society? Hopes were raised last year that the Church’s influence could be weakened in the area of education, with Irish Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn announcing that he wanted to remove more than 50 per cent of primary schools from Church control. However, this policy seems to be running into difficulties. According to a recent report in the Irish Examiner, only 44 of over 3,300 primary schools will be surveyed to ask parents if they wish to change the patronage of their child’s school, and ‘Ruairí Quinn is likely to leave behind a school system where change in the statistics on school patronage is modest or negligible’.
Another problem which has its roots in the Church’s dominance is the lack of abortion rights. Abortion is only legal in Ireland if the woman’s life is in danger. According to the Abortion Support Network (ASN), a London-based charity which helps Irish women seek abortions in Britain, the number of women who contact them for help is set to double for the third year in a row. In April this year, the Irish government also defeated a private member’s bill to provide limited access to abortion. An expert group set up by the government is soon expected to recommend the setting up of a panel of medical experts to consider applications for abortions, but only in cases when the mother’s life is threatened.
The recent opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast will enable some Irish women to access abortion facilities by travelling north of the border, but the Belfast clinic’s activities are still heavily restricted, because Northern Ireland (unlike the rest of the UK) is not covered by the Abortion Act. The opening of the clinic has also led to angry protests by anti-abortion activists. It seems that the anger over the abuse scandals, as well as the subsequent rise in atheism, have not managed to dislodge all of the Catholic Church’s influence over Irish politics and society.
The US ranked eighth in the poll’s list of the top ten countries which have experienced a decline in religiosity, experiencing a drop from 73% in 2005 to 60% in 2012. 30% of Americans now identify as non-religious, and 5% describe themselves as convinced atheists. But in the US, the evangelical Christian right has wielded enormous political influence since Ronald Reagan courted their votes in the early 1980s. This makes it surprising to see a decline in religious belief among Americans. So what explains this decline? Some argue that the rise of the ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens has led to more Americans feeling comfortable with identifying themselves as non-religious. The Christian right’s socially conservative stance on a range of moral issues has been identified as another factor, as the bigoted attitudes of evangelicals seem to have put some Americans off religion altogether.
There are certainly signs of a widening gap between the moral outlook of the Christian right and that of an increasing number of Americans. Opinion polls have shown growing support for gay marriage, and a large majority of Americans believe that gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military. Views have also shifted on abortion rights: in November last year, voters in the normally conservative state of Mississippi rejected an amendment which would have defined a fertilized human egg as a human person. This liberal shift in opinion would appear to be confirmed by the 2012 election results, with voters in states such as Maine, Maryland and Washington choosing to legalise gay marriage, and Republican Senate candidates who took a staunch anti-abortion line being rejected at the polls.
The rise of non-belief could also have had a direct impact on Barack Obama’s re-election. Another recent study on religious belief, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that the number of Americans adults who claim to have no religious affiliation has reached one in five. This is a lower figure than that found in the Win-Gallup survey (which found that 30% of Americans describe themselves as non-religious), but the Pew study also found that those without a religious affiliation are far more likely to vote Democrat, with 75% of them voting for Barack Obama in 2008. Therefore it is possible that the rise in non-belief could have helped to tip the 2012 vote in Obama’s favour. The Pew study also found that for adults under 30, as many as one in three have no religious affiliation, which suggests that the effect of non-belief on US politics is set to increase.
So with the views of many Americans moving away from those of the Christian right, why has the Christian right’s political influence not been weakened? In fact, there is some evidence that it has. For a start, the election results represent a big setback for religious conservatives. But even before the election, there were already signs that the Christian right’s influence is on the wane. Evangelicals still have a significant presence within the Republican Party, but they did not manage to obtain the Republican nomination for their favoured candidates in 2008 or in 2012: John McCain was disliked by the Christian right because he once described evangelical preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as ‘forces of evil’, and some evangelicals were suspicious of Mitt Romney because they regard his religion, Mormonism, as a cult. The Christian right also now suffers from a lack of charismatic leaders, and its support base is ageing, with a difficulty in attracting young supporters.
However, in spite of these developments, religion still casts a large shadow over American public life. Religious leaders opened and closed each day at both recent party conventions, and there was uproar at the Democratic convention when the word ‘God’ was briefly removed from the party’s platform (the Republicans’ 2012 platform mentions God 12 times). There has also been fierce opposition from Catholic bishops to Obama’s healthcare reforms, because they include insurance cover which provides contraception. It is virtually unheard of for American politicians to be openly atheist, and there is currently only one politician in the US who fits this description: Pete Stark, Democrat Representative for California.
Professor Barry Kosmin offers an interesting explanation of the power of the American religious right: ‘When religion was doing well, it did not need to go into politics. Secularity of our population and culture is obviously growing and so religion is on the defensive’. If this is true, it means that right-wing religious organisations in the US retain a certain level of influence not because of the size of their constituency (which is in decline), but because of their political skills. They are skilful at organising campaigns, disseminating propaganda, manipulating the media and lobbying politicians. A parallel could perhaps be drawn here with socially conservative Christian groups in the UK, such as Christian Concern and the Christian Institute, which have a level of influence which is out of proportion to their actual size and membership (for example, look at how they have manipulated media coverage of the ‘persecuted Christian’ cases at the European Court of Human Rights). Similarly, the Catholic Church has been known throughout history for its formidable organisational skills, and this could help to explain its continued influence in Ireland.
Atheism and non-belief have increased in the US and Ireland because the dominant religious institutions in these countries have failed to move with the liberalising trends of the modern world. The Catholic Church, believing itself to be all-powerful, thought it could turn a blind eye to horrendous abuse committed by members of its clergy. However, the infringement of individuals’ rights, including the rights of children, is unacceptable in modern society. An institution which spent centuries whipping up moral outrage against other groups in society ironically found itself the subject of moral outrage, and lost the respect of many of its adherents as a result. The American Christian right thought that it could maintain its social conservatism despite the shift in social attitudes since the 1960s, and its bigotry is now causing an increasing number of Americans to turn away from religion entirely. The organisational skill of these religious groups enables them to maintain a certain degree of political clout. But as the size of their flocks continues to shrink, there will surely come a point when their political influence diminishes as well.