It is no secret that Northern Ireland is quite a religious place, certainly when compared with the rest of the UK.
The more conservative views in the current controversies over abortion law and same-sex marriage tend to be viewed as heavily influenced by a religious outlook, although it is probably wiser not to see this as the whole story because views on these subjects do vary considerably within the religious population and there appears to be a growing liberalism even in religious circles.
Yet, if we raise our horizons for a moment, it is interesting to note the results of a recent major survey of Christianity in western Europe as a whole.
The highly regarded, Washington-based Pew Research Center – which describes itself as a “non-partisan fact tank” – recently published its report, ‘Being Christian in Western Europe’.
It reveals that of the population of the 15 countries in the region, 18% are church-attending and 46% are non-practising Christians.
The term ‘church-attending’ refers to Christians who attend church at least once a month, and the ‘non-practising’ are Christians who attend less often.
In fact, Pew reported that the only country in the region with a higher proportion of ‘church-attenders’ than ‘non-practising’ is Italy.
The UK figures are 55% non-practising and 18% church-attending – a total of 73% identifying as Christian at some level.
Yet, what happens to the ‘non-practising’ statistic will be especially key for the future of Christianity in the region.
Certainly, the statistics in the last UK and Republic of Ireland censuses have shown a definite, increasing trend towards no religious affiliation.
Yet what the Pew research also reveals, amongst many other things, is that, worryingly, overall in western Europe, “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish opinions are more common among Christians, at all levels of practice, than they are among western Europeans with no religious affiliation”, adding, however, that this is “not to say that most Christians hold these views”.
The Pew report observes that in every country surveyed most people of no religion who had a religious upbringing said they “gradually drifted away from religion” with many also saying they disagreed with church positions on key social issues or stopped believing in religious teachings.
The report points out that many in several countries, such as Spain and Italy, “also cite ‘scandals involving religious institutions and leaders’ as an important reason they stopped identifying as Christian (or with another religious group)”.
The Pew Center report comes as an underscoring lesson that the churches actually have a mission to their own people, quite apart from reaching out to people who declare themselves to have no Christian faith at all.
In this, it is of key importance that the life of the churches and their leaders must unambiguously reflect the values they stand for.
It will be of particular interest in Northern Ireland that, last year, in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran reformation, the Pew Center released the result of its study of Protestant-Roman Catholic relations, stating that in western Europe they are now “very accepting of each other”.
That report added: “In every country surveyed, roughly nine-in-ten or more Catholics and Protestants say they are willing to accept members of the other tradition as neighbours. And large majorities of both groups say they would be willing to accept members of the other religious group even as family members.”
• Canon Ian Ellis was editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette from 2001 until last year