The physicist Max Planck, in his autobiography, suggested that
new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
In other words orthodox ideas, once ingrained within a mature mind, are so hard to displace that better ideas will only gain consensus through achieving popularity in the young, and the subsequent demographic displacement of the older generation. This idea, now termed “Planck’s Principle,” is widely quoted in terms of scientific paradigms but can, perhaps, be more accurately applied to another area of modern societal belief, namely religion.
Does the religious consensus change because all sections of the population alter their beliefs or, alternatively, in keeping with Planck’s principle, do we see the greatest change in the younger age groups?
One way of testing this hypothesis is through the examination of statistical data that shows change in religious attitudes amongst different age groups.
The most recent survey that allows this question to be examined was recently published in Ireland. The 2011 National Census contained data from 4,239,800 individuals who, amongst other questions, were asked which religion they professed. The survey contained no option for “atheism” as a choice but instead allowed “no religion” as one of the categories alongside various religions (Roman Catholicism, Anglican, Judaism, Islam, Pentecostal Christian, etc)
As expected Roman Catholicism remains the largest religious grouping in the country with over 3,861,300 members. In national percentage terms, however, Catholicism has dropped 2.63% to 84.2% since the previous census of 2006. In contrast the ‘no religion’ group is increasing by 1.5% in terms of the total population, to a current level of 5.9%.
A deeper examination of the data shows even more worrying signs for the Church in Ireland. The drop in the percentage of Roman Catholics in Ireland occurs alongside a large influx of Catholic immigrants, due to inter EU economic migration, mainly from the predominantly Catholic Poland.
The census data illustrates the effect of this by showing the percentage change in religion according to the nationality of the questionees, demonstrating that almost all the numerical increase (rather than percentage increase) in Catholics since 2006 has been due to non-Irish immigrants.
In contrast, the vast majority of those of the no religion category have been Irish nationals, indicating that the drop in the percentage of Irish Catholics is even starker than the initial figures suggest.
So, back to our original question; In which sector of the population are the changes occurring to the greatest extent? The census data allows us to examine this point by showing the levels of ‘no religion’ for the differing age ranges.
As can be seen, the percentage of the older population groups belonging to the ‘no religion’ group in Ireland is very low to nonexistent. In contrast there is a large spike in the results for ‘no religion’ from those aged 19 to approximately 49 years of age. If we remember that Ireland has a young population, and that the census form is usually completed in a family setting, it is likely that the sudden increase in ‘no religion’ from those of 19 and older is simply an indication of the result you get when young people are allowed to answer for themselves .
The concentration of ‘no religion’ amongst the younger age groups, if maintained as the years progress, will almost inevitably change the religious landscape of Ireland, bringing it into line with the rest of north western Europe.
As might be expected, the religious proponents in Ireland are not amused by the implications of the census. They have attacked the figures in characteristic fashion – by lying about the results. Writing in the Irish Examiner, two Catholic academics, Prof Eamonn Conway and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, lecturers in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, claimed:
The most reliable and up-to-date data is the 2011 census which shows that 84% describe themselves as Catholic, an increase of five percentage points since the previous census.
Apparently being professors of moral theology allows one a certain latitude towards statistical accuracy. According to Conway and Van Nieuwenhove,
The increase is not explainable by immigration alone, and given what has happened with regard to the Catholic Church in Ireland over the past few years, the figure is astonishing, no matter what spin is put on it.
Well, not exactly.
If the “spin” you put on it involves simply telling lies, astonishing is perhaps the wrong adjective.
As I’ve pointed out, the actual data completely contradicts their assertions. The percentage of Catholics has fallen, not risen, and any numerical increase is almost entirely explained by immigration from Catholic regions of Europe.
The only surprise about this poll is that it isn’t the worst news that the Irish Church has received this month. Just last week saw another religious survey released, this time one carried out by the Church itself.
I’ll detail these results, and the almost laughable apologetics offered to explain them, in my next post.