Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Religious illiteracy in Norn Iron

Years ago, around the time when the Good Friday Agreement first was signed, the young Melancholicus was chatting to a friend of his, an Englishman, about the intractable problems of politics and religion in Northern Ireland. His friend was adamant that the Reformation was still taking place in Northern Ireland, which explained the extraordinary level of bitterness evident on both sides of the divide, as well as the religious hue with which the conflict has often been tinged.

Melancholicus would agree — in part — with aspects of his friend’s theory, but he cannot but conclude that here, as in so many other instances, issues of religion are merely a useful prop wherewith to buttress a political position, not the root cause of the problem itself. For who will seriously maintain that in these days of religious liberty and indifferentism the unionist population of the six counties dreads most of all being subsumed by the Roman Catholic Church, as opposed to being absorbed by the Republic of Ireland, which is an entirely different matter.

Furthermore, the religious dimension of the conflict is more apparent to the protestant side. The Republican paramilitaries, as well as the political parties on the nationalist side, are not motivated at all by Catholicism; the community they represent may be composed of Roman Catholics, but the political ideology that drives them owes far more to the writings of Karl Marx than to those of the Roman pontiffs.

It would seem, however, that the religious clash between the Council of Trent on the one hand, and the Thirty-Nine Articles on the other, is a smokescreen pure and simple, for no one on either side of the divide seems to know much about religion, one way or the other. It reminds one of Hugh Trevor Roper’s observation that there has never been any lack of hot-headed young men ready to rise in arms against Popery, without knowing whether Popery were a man or a horse.

From, as usual, Catholic World News:

Religious knowledge weak in Northern Ireland, survey finds

Belfast, Dec. 10, 2007 (CWNews.com) - A new study has uncovered a surprising lack of religious knowledge among both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Contradicting the impression that residents of Northern Ireland are generally more religious than their neighbors in the Irish republic, a survey by the Millward Brown Ulster firm found that the level of religious knowledge is roughly the same on both sides of the border.

The survey -- the first of its kind in the region -- found that Catholics in Northern Ireland show the same level of religious knowledge as those in the south. Among Protestants, however, the residents of Northern Ireland are less knowledgable. Overall, only 42% of the poll respondents knew that there are 4 Gospels, and just 54% could name the persons of the Trinity. The survey uncovered a striking decline in religious knowledge among younger respondents. On each question and most others, Catholics scored substantially higher results. Only 21% of those aged 16-24 knew the number of the Gospels, and only 33% could identify the persons of the Trinity.

Commenting on the poll figures, Stephen Cave of the Evangelical Alliance of Northern Ireland said: "Overall the figures are not good but the drop in knowledge, almost halved within a generation, indicates that the Christian faith is becoming less meaningful to those under 25 years of age." His colleague Sean Mullen of the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland added: "The notion that Christianity can be transmitted through the culture from one generation to the next is clearly no longer valid."

The survey was conducted by Millward Brown Ulster for the Iona Institute, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Evangelical Alliance of Northern Ireland. The full results of the survey are available from the Iona Institute.

This is interesting news, since Melancholicus has long since taken for granted the popular but mistaken impression that folk were generally more religious in Northern Ireland than in the Republic.

So much for religion — as opposed to issues of community, identity and politics — being the primary motivating factor in the division of the Northern population.

So, whether they live north or south of the border, and whether they belong to the Roman, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian or other communions, Irish people don’t know a whole lot about religion at all. Not many people know much about their own tradition, never mind anyone else’s.

This rather surprising level of ignorance uncovered by the Iona Institute’s poll we might safely attribute to three causes: the secularism of modern western society, the current crisis of faith which grips all mainstream churches, and shoddy education — particularly shoddy catechesis — in both faith schools and in seminaries. Ecumenism has doubtless also played its part.

It is particularly interesting, however, that the state of religious knowledge is poorer among protestants than among Roman Catholics. So much for the much-touted dictum of protestants knowing their Bible well, whereas Catholics are ignorant. This is all the more ironic when one looks at the edifying collect for this week — the Second of Advent — in the Church of Ireland’s Book of Common Prayer:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning: grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them; that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ: Who liveth.

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