The new poll by Gallup/Red C suggesting that Ireland is now less religious than Iceland certainly generated lots of headlines, but what did it really tell us about how religious we are?
After all, as David Quinn pointed out in his Irish Independent analysis piece on the matter, roughly a third of Irish people still go to Mass weekly, and a further 15 percent go every month.
As he points out: “By no stretch of the imagination is Iceland a more religious country than Ireland. In countries such as Iceland, Sweden or Norway, levels of weekly religious practice are a lot less than 10pc.
“Measured in this way, Ireland continues to rank as one of the most religious countries in the western world.”
The survey asked one question: “"Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?”
But as Irish Times columnist John Waters argues, this is a rather reductive way to measure religiosity.
Waters writes: “Religion is really the science of the total meaning of things, the word “science” having the same roots as the word “knowledge”. Religion is an attempt by man to fill himself with a knowledge of everything.
“Asking people if they are religious is bound, as a matter of course, to ignite highly personalised meanings. Some people think of religion as referring to membership of a certain club or tribe, adherence to particular sets of rules, or simply to a belief, or “faith”, in something called “God”. But what is “God”? What is “faith”? The poll assumes these meanings are fixed and commonly agreed but they are anything but.”
Religion is about more than one's self-description, it goes right to the core of how we see ourselves, the rest of the world and the relationship between ourselves and the world. It is about the meaning of life.
Because of this, measuring the true level of religiosity in any country is far from straightforward. Asking respondents whether they think of themselves as religious doesn't seem to be a terribly comprehensive way to establish how religious any one country is.
A series of surveys taken in the past 15 years have shown that the influence of Catholicism, and religion generally, has declined markedly and steadily. But there has to be some questions about a poll which suggests that Ireland is less religious than Iceland.