01 Religious Legacy & Identity

Religious Legacy & Identity


Ireland’s history is steeped in Christianity, and most Irish youth (70%) consequently think of themselves as Christians. Of those, 86 percent say they are Catholics, making Catholicism the majority religious identity in the Republic of Ireland (60%).4

Although it may seem that the pervasiveness of Christian identity lays a foundation for faithfulness, young people seem to be drifting away from an active, embodied religion, in more ways than one.



An initial sign of this drift is the significant percentage of young people who do not affiliate with religion. Much has been written about the “nones,” referring to those who either do not subscribe to or do not practise a religion. Barna’s study shows that Ireland is not excluded from a surge of religious skeptics, atheists and agnostics. As in all things, young people today feel they have options, and many begin to identify as non-religious during their youth. One-quarter of young people in Ireland (25%) says they are non-religious— and the older a young person is, the less likely he or she is to be Christian.

Self Identified Religions of Irish Young People

January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Even if Irish youth don’t abandon the label of religion, they may discard its key tenets or spiritual postures. A majority (63%) of those in Barna’s survey qualifies as nominal Christians—essentially, they are Christians in name only. (See the glossary in the Appendix for full definitions of all faith segments.) Overall, less than half (47%) feel their religious faith is very important, and one in five (19%) affirms the idea of salvation through grace.

A young woman from Cork says her biggest frustration with Christianity is this nominal form, which she feels misrepresents the Christian faith. “People even now think that it’s all about the rituals, [when] it’s all about relationship. People cling onto what the past has told them about our faith, but they don’t actually know it for themselves.”

In other words, many Irish youths identify with a religion whose content and claims they disagree with. The pressure to continue with this in-nameonly version of faith is strong; consider how many desirable schools require baptism for students to attend, which some speculate may support high levels of baptism. In the summer of 2017, the Irish government again stated its intention to no longer permit religious criteria for school admission, a change which, if implemented, may reveal how much of an incentive Catholic schooling was for baptism.5 Still, other incentives to “be Catholic” remain, like required chapel attendance in some schools or the prospect of having a church wedding.



The demographics of this study also reflect the changing demographics of the Republic of Ireland. Of the 790 youth surveyed in the quantitative portion, 72 percent are at least partly white Irish. Of the remaining quarter who did not list themselves as white Irish, most have other European backgrounds (15% of all surveyed). About 6 percent are of African descent, either recent or distant.
Five percent have Asian heritage. One percent are Travellers. It remains to be seen how Ireland’s population may continue to change along with that of post-Brexit Europe.

Ethnicity affects how likely someone is to identify as Christian. Of those with non-Irish heritage, almost two-thirds (64%) say they are Christian; of those with Irish heritage, the proportion is nearly three-quarters (73%).

Although a majority of those who are not white Irish is Christian, the remaining 36 percent are more widely spread across religious groups compared to white Irish; 13 percent of youth who are not white Irish identify with non-Christian faiths, and one-quarter (23%) says they are not religious.
Ninety-six percent of non-Christian white Irish youth are non-religious.

However, those who identify as Christian and non-Irish are more likely to practise their faith and to be evangelical in their beliefs. Many of them come from families rooted in highly religious places, such as Nigeria. They are more likely to have a personal relationship with Jesus, agreeing in higher proportions that Jesus speaks to them in a way that is relevant, has deeply transformed their lives and understands what their lives are like today. They are also more likely to say they are Christians because of a conversion experience— a specific, private experience of committing their lives to Christ (15% of non-Irish Christians). Sixty-seven percent of white Irish young people have never read the Bible on their own, compared to 45 percent of non-Irish ethnicities.



The overall religious apathy of most Irish youth who identify as Christian becomes clear when they’re asked about their commitments to core teachings of the faith, such as those presented in the Apostles’ Creed. Only about half of Christian youth in Ireland agree with any of the ideas in the Apostle’s Creed included in the survey (see table). The statement Barna often heard from youth workers—that young people’s grasp of Christian theology is quite poor—appears to be accurate.

Self-identified Christians have a broad range of orthodox and unorthodox ideas about God, with confusion over equality within the Trinity, God’s power and the doctrine of hell. For example, four in 10 (41%) believe that Jesus is equal to God the Father. Among practising Christians, the proportion is higher (50%), but still smaller than youth workers would hope.

It’s likely, of course, that some young people simply disagree with traditional Christian theology. One youth worker says this has to do with a “postmodern pluralist mindset. … ‘Yes, God is good, but I like the idea of reincarnation, too.’” On that point, the same percentages of Catholic and non-Christian youth (10% each) believe that “when you die, you will become another being, such as an animal.”

Apostles Creed
January–February 2017, n=497 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.
*Given the familiarity of the ideas of the Apostle’s Creed, respondents were not asked to affirm these exact phrases, but rather paraphrased, parallel statements of these beliefs.


General Christian theology differs between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, and tends to show Catholic youth to be less convinced of certain Christian teachings. More than one-quarter of Catholics say they do not know whether hell is a real place (29%), whether Jesus was physically raised from the dead (26%) and whether God is the Trinity (24%). Meanwhile, twothirds of non-Catholic Christians believe in Jesus’ resurrection (67% vs. 44% Catholics) and the Trinity (65% vs. 49% Catholics), and more than half (53% vs. 36% Catholics) agree hell is real.

Perhaps most telling: Regardless of their theological ideas, few young Christians seem to believe God understands them. Only one-third of Christians (32%) trusts that Jesus can understand what their lives are like today. One in four (24%) says Jesus has transformed their life; even among practising Christians, the number is low (39%).

Catholics' & Non-Catholic Christians' Views of Jesus
January–February 2017, n=458 Catholic and non-Catholic Christian young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Instead, the young Irish view of Christianity puts more emphasis on rule-following over a relationship with a loving and gracious God. Six in 10 (60%) agree that “if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their life, they will earn a place in Heaven.” Similarly, 43 percent of Christians believe that Jesus is mostly “concerned about people doing good things and morality in general.”



Young Christians have a lot of questions and doubts about the Bible’s trustworthiness. One teenager from Cork says, “I always ask questions to my parents like, How do we know this is true? And they’re always [saying], ‘It dates back to real life; it actually happened.’ But some stuff in the Bible I question. My sister thinks the Bible is written by men. A lot of men lie a lot of the time.”

Age makes no difference in how well young people say they know the Bible or theology, in spite of the fact religious education is usually part of schooling. Even though more than half of young people (57%) have already learned about Christianity in the course of their education, and another onefifth (20%) is currently taking a course on it, only three in 10 feel confident about church teachings and theology (29% “completely” + “mostly” true), or in their knowledge of the Bible (31% “completely” + “mostly” true). Only four in ten young people who participate in Christian events are self-assured in their knowledge of the Bible (40%) or church teachings (38%). Young people who are less involved in Bible or other Christian studies, group prayer, communion or serving in church are even less confident, with 43 percent saying it is not at all true that they know the Bible well (compared to 20% among those who are more involved).

Interviews indicate a common belief even among Christians that the texts of the Bible were written long after the events described and were altered for political reasons. Miracles are a barrier to some, teachings on homosexuality to others. One boy wonders about the authorship and how the canon was put together: “How exactly did these four [Gospel writers] know the stories? Who are they to write about it? Why did no one else get to write about it?”



In a country where nearly three-quarters of infants (73% in 20131) receive a Catholic baptism, half of Christian youth (51%) believe baptism is the point at which someone fully becomes a Christian. Others believe this exchange occurs by being born into a Christian family (17%) or participating in a confirmation or church membership ceremony (10%). Many interviewees also support the idea that baptism and confirmation are key to fully becoming a Christian. Committing one’s life to Christ is ranked fourth (8%), just higher than the experience of becoming a Christian in a gradual process (6%).

At What Point Did You Fully Become a Christian?
January–February 2017, n=553 young Christians (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


As making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ is not seen as a universal requirement for people of faith, less than half of those who self identify as Christian (47%) say they have made such a commitment. Those with a private spiritual life (that is, Christians who say they are more spiritual than when they were 12, agree strongly or somewhat that their religious faith is important in their lives today and do at least two of the following: “read the Bible on my own,” “pray on my own,” “pray the rosary”) are most likely to have had that experience (80%).

Of those who have had a conversion experience, some abandoned Christianity first, only to return to it later. Other interviewees share about making a deliberate commitment to Christ and / or achieving a new understanding of God at church, youth group or camp.

Have You Ever Made a Personal Commitment to Christ?
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Some young people who are less active in their faith want to know more about practising religion. Irish youth express frustration about the lack of teaching on what ceremonies really mean or how theology is applied to daily life, even though there are school courses on religion. One Wicklow youth says, “When it came to confirmation, it was just ‘learn this and learn that.’ We never knew what it was or what we were learning about religion. It was just a bit frustrating.”

The rites and milestones may, in many young people’s minds, make them Christians, but Irish youth need help in bringing substance to a more ceremonial understanding of religion.


A Youth Worker's Perspective

A Catholic educator discusses the gaps she's seen in Irish youth's theological instruction during her decade of experience.

Church Attendance

In keeping with the high percentage of Irish youth who regard themselves as Christians, nearly all have experience with church services. One-third of Christian youth (33%) attended church in the last week, as did 5 percent of non-Christian youth. Three-quarters of non-Christians (75%) have attended a regular church service, but more than half (53%) say it was more than six months ago. Even those of no faith still go to church at least occasionally (22% in the past six months), with just one in four (24%) having never attended. While more non-Catholic (44%) than Catholic Christians (31%) attend church weekly, the proportions among the two groups who have never been to church (5% Catholics, 4% non-Catholics) or who are dechurched (27% Catholics, 21% non-Catholics)—meaning they have not been to a church service in the past six months—are similar.

A majority of Irish young people feels that church attendance is optional (65% “completely” + “mostly” true), the same percentage as Catholic youth. Though fewer non-Catholic Christians hold this view, 42 percent still don’t feel church attendance is mandatory. Churchgoing is part of the family life of many young people, but the family expectations of going to church are usually relaxed at some point in secondary school. Of youth who say secondary school is their highest level of education, 29 percent are dechurched. This percentage climbs among students in post-secondary education who have not completed their bachelor’s degree (40% dechurched, compared to 49% churched). This is one of the symptoms of decreasing religious practice among young adults as they mature.

When Was the Last Time You Attended Church?
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Others, however, find that they enjoy being full participants in church, particularly when it is accompanied by a sense of community. “I went [to church] because of my parents,” one young man says. “But I’ve stayed because of the family that I feel like I’ve created in there. I honestly feel that I could go to anyone of any age, have a coffee afterwards and have a conversation. I suppose I’m comfortable there.”

The higher the proportion of youth attending a church, the greater the likelihood that those young people will attend regularly, have a faith integrated into their own lives and say that Jesus has deeply transformed their lives. This points to a key part of resolving the tension between a chaotic world and a purposeful life: Christian community.

Feeling part of a community does not eliminate the trend toward abandoning Christianity and its practices in young adulthood, however. With jobs and other aspects of adulthood that compete for attention, young adult Christians are still less likely to go to church.


Faith Transitions

Teenage years are a developmental stage in which individuals form their own opinions, apart from their parents or teachers. As a result, Christian teenagers often go through a process of questioning and claiming their faith. Some emerge with a more mature understanding of their faith; between early childhood and the end of secondary school, some teenagers (13%) develop a private prayer and devotional life. One in four Irish youth (25%) is currently going through a crisis of faith, and four in 10 (40%) have already done so. Fewer practising Christians (16%) are now experiencing this, but nearly half (49%) have questioned their faith in the past.

Interestingly, among Barna’s sample of teenagers and young adults, age has no significant impact on whether an individual has experienced a time of doubting their faith. This indicates that reaching a spiritual crisis has less to do with an individual’s age and is more likely related to larger cultural shifts.

Additionally, people who go to church are no more or less likely to have ever had a spiritual crisis than those who no longer go to church (67% of each group are experiencing or have experienced doubt), suggesting that the process of questioning faith alone does not lead young people to leave the church.
While they might be going through the motions, this willingness to retain a faith identity or remain active in a faith community leaves some opportunity for youth workers and leaders to help individuals address questions and translate their presence into practice.

Have You Ever Significantly Doubted Your Faith?
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Understandably, those who have never been to church have a much lower rate of questioning faith; 53 percent never have. Similarly, for youth who say they are Christian but indicate a disbelief in God, their exposure to the doctrines of Christianity is so vague and their cultural ties to the faith are so weak that holding a stance of skepticism or apathy provokes little turmoil. One interviewee describes a sense of having little to lose: “My Dad would always pray with me, and after a while, I just sort of stopped. … None of my prayers were answered. And it’s nothing against God. I just didn’t feel the need to continue it. I didn’t feel it benefitting me.”


Christian Practices

A majority of Irish youth have prayed the rosary (52%) or gone to confession (70%) at some time. Unsurprisingly, these practices are most common among Catholics, due to the denominational significance of these acts: 85 percent of Catholics have gone to confession, and two-thirds (66%) have prayed the rosary. Only a few Irish young people, however, continue these practices on a regular basis (13% and 14%, respectively).

Christian Practices of Irish Young People
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Communion and prayer are also common Christian practices of Irish youth, and remain consistent disciplines. Similar percentages of young people in Ireland currently take communion (42%) and pray on their own (41%) every six months or more. Minorities indicate they have never participated in these traditions at all (22% personal prayer, 15% taking communion).

Church-led liturgy or scripture reading are likely a part of many Irish youth’s religious upbringing, though more personal forms of Bible study or engagement generally play a smaller role in young people’s spiritual lives. A majority has never attended a Bible study (74%) or read the Bible on their own (60%). The data reflects a denominational divide in emphasizing individual examination of scripture. Fifty-nine percent of Catholic youths report they have never read the Bible on their own, and three of four (75%) say they have never attended a Bible study. Meanwhile, four in 10 non-Catholic Christians (40%) read scripture every six months or more frequently. Just one in four (25%) has not read the Bible on their own and one in three (32%) has not participated in a Bible study.

Despite the accentuation of good works among religious Irish youth, volunteering at a church is not an incredibly common act. It is, however, more frequent among practising Christians (38% volunteer in church every six months or more), perhaps as a result of a more active faith life and community.
Financial generosity is consistent (30% currently give money to a church), and Catholics and non-Catholic Christians are equally likely to give a tithe (38% and 43% every six months or more, respectively).

Some young people and youth workers say there is a good deal of pressure from peers to suppress Christian behaviors. In addition, most are unlikely to have gone to a Christian group outside of a church service (66%) or told someone else about God (60%). One interviewee expresses keeping spiritual interests secret from peers: “I pray at night sometimes when I need something there. I mean, I wouldn’t be really into it. But I know my friends would say it’s a lot of rubbish.”


Youth Events & Ministries

Christian events—which may include festivals, retreats, weekends away, community outreach events, pilgrimages, local mission trips and overseas mission trips—reach a majority of young people (58%). Popular types of these programmes include courses such as Alpha; uniformed organisations like the Girls’ and Boys’ Brigades; groups that meet regularly, such as Youth for Christ; and less frequent events, such as World Youth Day, Youth 2000 and Summer Madness. Among churched youth (those who have attended church within the past six months), reported attendance is even higher; nearly two-thirds (62%) have experienced a youth programme, and 47 percent have been to a Christian study group (other than a Bible study) that wasn’t specifically for youth. Eighty-four percent of practising Christians have been to a Christian event.

Youth Experiences with Specific Ministries by Church Attendance Habits
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Christians with a private spiritual life also often give positive reports of such programmes (though some respondents may have picked up these practises following their time in the programme). For example, the biggest gap among the groups who found Summer Madness spiritually helpful and those who did not occurs between those who pray and read scripture on their own and those who do not. Whether or not these disciplines began as a result of attending the event, those who practise Christianity on their own overwhelmingly remember their experience with Summer Madness as helpful (88%), while less than half of those who do not have a private spiritual life believe their experience helped them understand Christianity better or strengthened their faith (45%).

If the goal of Christian ministries is to encourage active Christians to be persistent, they seem to be successful: There is a high correlation between all Christian practices examined here and participation in Christian events. In interviews, Christians also find these events to be important to their persistence in the faith, which the conclusion of this report will examine more closely.

When asked whether they have seen long-term results among youth who attended Christian events, most youth workers say yes. Barna also observed that if a Christian has attended a Christian event, he or she is significantly more likely than those who have not attended one to report a personal prayer life (53% vs. 25%), to attend church monthly (53% vs. 22%) and to say that Jesus has deeply transformed his or her life (25% vs. 11%). In the absence of experimental data, this report cannot conclude if youth events and ministries catalyse personal spiritual practices where they do not yet exist, or whether they prod those with weaker faith into a more active faith category. Many workers add, though, that they think the effects of Christian events do fade after time—what some might refer to as “mountain-top Christianity”—and that the inspiration and fellowship youth feel at an event or festival need periodic refreshing.

Christian Events and Faith Practices
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


The following chapter delves into the everyday pressures and generational expectations that may fortify—or threaten—a young Irish person’s faith.


Comparing to Regional Neighbours

A majority of young adults in the Republic of Ireland identify as Christian—65 percent—which is somewhat high for the region. However, the Republic’s rate of practising Christians drops to 13 percent, which is similar to some of its prominent geographical neighbours.6

Rates of Christianity
January–February 2017, n=449 young adults (ages 19-25) in the Republic of Ireland; July 2015, n=370 young adults (ages 18–24) in England; July 2015, n=52 young adults (ages 18-24) in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland.
* In Barna’s previous U.K. study, “practising Christian” was defined as monthly engagement in prayer, Bible reading and regular worship services.


The proportion of orthodox views of Jesus—defined as the belief that Jesus was God in human form who lived among people in the 1st century— is higher in Ireland compared to regions of the United Kingdom. In the Republic of Ireland, 25 percent of young adults ages 19–25 affirm this belief about Jesus. In the United Kingdom, 16 percent of young people ages 18–24 do. Other ideas about Jesus that counter traditional Christian teachings are less popular in these regions, including the belief that he was just a normal person (18% Ireland, 20% U.K.) and that he was a prophet but not divine (20% Ireland, 28% U.K.).

Among Christian youth, a similar percentage in Ireland and England have an orthodox view of Jesus (34% of Irish Christians ages 19–25 in Ireland vs. 35% of English Christians ages 18–24).

Ireland and the U.K.: Youth Views on Jesus
January–February 2017, n=449 young adults (ages 19-25) in the Republic of Ireland; July 2015, n=422 young adults (ages 18–24) in U.K.


Although views of Jesus are similar in these neighbouring nations, more young people in the U.K. think that Jesus was a fictional person, rather than a historical figure (27% U.K., 14% Ireland).

Young people in Ireland, in other words, are not all that different from those in nearby places. Time will tell whether their ideas about God and Christianity are part of a developmental phase, or whether they are lasting characteristics of this generation or locale.

Making Room for Youth

with Gerald Gallagher

Gerard Gallagher has worked for the Church for over 20 years with a particular focus on youth. Currently,
he works within the Office for Evangelisation and Ecumenism for the Archdiocese of Dublin. He is the author of Are We Losing the Young Church?, a history of youth ministry in Ireland, and Your Child’s Confirmation.

In Their Words: Irish Youth Workers Describe Irish Young People

A key part of Barna’s study included face-to-face, in-depth interviews with youth workers in the Republic of Ireland. Interviewees were asked, “What words or phrases describe today’s Irish teenagers and young adults?” Their candid responses were enlightening, painting a picture of a generation that is both vulnerable and powerful. The following visualization depicts the phrases—positive and negative—that came up most frequently in discussions with adults who are connecting with and leading young Irish people.

In Their Words
In-person youth worker interviews were conducted among a small, non-representative sample. Though helpful in gaining insight into the personality and spirituality of young Irish people, these particular conclusions should not be generalised to all youth workers in the Republic of Ireland.

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