02 Morality & Culture

Morality & Culture


In describing ideas about morality, young people from the Republic of Ireland feel strongly and similarly about their values. Despite Ireland’s religious roots, these instincts about how people should treat each other often form around ideals of popular culture, rather than Church teachings. As Irish youth find their moral compass, some of the topics the Church has traditionally spoken about are now seen as off limits, especially interpersonal relationships and sexuality. Young people are also reluctant to discuss a final judgment or God’s role in framing reality.

Popular morality prompts many young people to contend with the source of their values; one youth worker describes this present movement as a “powerful wave of atheistic secularism, in the form of progressivism, and the strong tendency of youth toward conformity to it.” Subsequently, a polarization of views prevents dialogue.

A collision between cultural paradigms and biblical convictions may spark some separate and seemingly contradictory reactions in the young people of Ireland—to abandon religion entirely or to attempt to fit it within a hazy sense of morality.


Generational Values


Non-Christians’ development of ideas about Christian theology began—and ended, according to many of them—in primary school. Interviewees’ descriptions of God frequently include a white-haired old man, and more than one-quarter (27%) doubt Jesus’ historical existence.

Non-Christians expect believers to interpret their religion in line with contemporary values of acceptance, morality and non-judgmentalism—what Barna has referred to as a “morality of self-fulfillment.” To Irish youth, especially non-Christians, God is seen as a loving, yet restrained figure. One girl paints a picture of God “sitting on top of clouds … a very happy person that just accepts everyone and listens to everyone and doesn’t judge anyone.”

Counterintuitively, many young people find some of the rules in the Bible its most appealing part. Some interviewees—both Christians and non-Christians— thought the Ten Commandments were “a good idea.” Rather, intensity or fervency about the rest of scripture is what others find offensive; rules for living well appeal to the young people Barna surveyed when they are an option, rather than an imposition. After all, 62 percent of non-Christians say it’s mostly or completely true that they just don’t understand Christian beliefs.

Non-Christians’ limited perceptions of God make sense alongside the ideals of non-interference and non-judgmentalism that young people in Ireland value so highly. In the minds of many young people, judgment is not something that’s just dangerous in the hands of fallible people; it’s something that is inherently wrong—meaning even a good God would not judge.

“Minding your own business” is one of the moral values many Irish youth have adopted. With that contemporary value of non-interference comes a distaste for evangelism; even among Christians, just over a third (37% agree strongly or somewhat) personally feels a responsibility to share their faith with others. One teenaged girl expresses concern that a school chaplain seemed to be evangelizing to a non-Christian student: “Sometimes you see people trying to force other people to be Christians or have a different religion or change their religion. … Everyone has the right to believe in whichever one they want.” Another teenager says, “I hate when people push their views on you.” For youth today, and not only those in Ireland, each person is welcome to have his or her own views, but not to try to convince others of them, perhaps because the concept of eternal consequences is not of great concern to many young people.

There is a commonly held idea among Irish young people that religions are, at their core, different shades of the same essentially good moral system—“ like a book with guidelines of life that you can choose to follow,” as one young woman puts it. Karl Marx’s description of religion as “the opiate of the masses” is, to many young people, both apt and acceptable. It’s a really nice way to distract people and make them feel more comfortable about people coming to the end of their lives. And, like, having morality in all this. It keeps people sane about panicking about the end of their life because they know that there’s something after this,” one Dublin girl says. However, she adds, “It’s like a safety net. … It’s really nice to have that, and it’s really nice to teach children as well. Because it really set up my morals, and it set up how to feel about other people.

To youth workers, this hollow brand of Christianity is exactly what young people need to avoid. “I’d like them to see that Jesus is that thing that they can be passionate about,” a Methodist youth pastor says.



Barna found that the subject of sexuality weighs heavily on the minds of Irish youth and proves to be an obstacle in their willingness to identify with or practise Christianity; more than 20 of the 96 in-person interviewees brought up homosexuality or gay marriage without prompting. None of those who brought it up saw a Christian theological stance against gay marriage or related progressive issues as a positive thing. Opposing homosexual marriage is generally seen as “inappropriate” and “regressive.”

Given the current political and social atmosphere of the Republic of Ireland, this isn’t surprising. In 2015, Ireland became the first nation to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote—and by a wide margin, according to The Irish Times: 62 percent voted for legally recognised gay marriage, while 38 percent voted against it.8 Irish non-Christians’ criticisms of the religious— and Christians’ hang-ups with their own faith—often have to do with what they perceive as the Church standing in the way of progress or human rights. Liberal beliefs about sexuality and politics encapsulate this clash. One young person says, “The Church teaches … opinions of the past. And because we’re more of a new generation, we have problems with the Church being against things like abortion, things like gay marriage. Things really shouldn’t be a problem but are a problem because of the Church.”

Eighty-one percent of young people at least partially agree with the statement, “I think the Church’s teachings on sexuality and homosexuality are wrong,” with 45 percent of all youth in complete agreement with the statement. More than half (53% “completely” + “mostly”) say they cannot personally live by the Church’s teachings on sexuality. One young person says of same-sex marriage, “It just seemed like the Church was holding lots of people back. So, that was one of the main things that made me question [Christianity].”

I Personally Can't Live by The Church's Teachings on Sexuality
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Occasionally Christian youths make an attempt to reconcile liberal values with belief in the Bible. One young man says, “I feel it’s interesting because there’s a lot of controversial stuff in [the Bible] that doesn’t have a place in modern society. I feel there are parts of the Bible that are very sexist, very homophobic, very racist. But I feel overall the message we’re taking from it, especially after the Christian Reformation, is a message of peace and positivity.”

Behind many of these statements is the idea that standards of right and wrong change over time or that a sense of morality should be rooted in social consensus (a mindset Barna has also observed in studies of young people and adults in other countries, including the U.K. and U.S.).

Questions of sexuality affect non-practising Christians more than those who go to Christian activities. Reinforced by exposure to Christian teaching and a community that more often accepts it, practising Christians are less likely than non-practising Christians to feel conflicted over traditional theology on sexuality. Still, three in 10 practising Christians (28%) feel the Church is completely wrong on this subject.

Angst and confusion about sexuality not only occurs among young people, but also among youth workers. Several workers criticise Christians for a stance that alienates people. Youth workers say LGBT issues highlight the need for conflicting views to be discussed respectfully and for the ability to understand someone else’s perspective. “We don’t hold conflict and tension that well as a community, as a people and as a culture,” one youth leader states.


with Ruth Garvey-Williams

Ruth Garvey-Williams is the editor of Ireland’s cross-denominational Christian magazine VOX. She has travelled throughout every county on the island, visiting churches and individual Christians from all different denominations and church backgrounds. In her spare time, she is a youth leader with over 20 years of experience working with both Christian and secular youth groups, clubs and drop-in centres.

Cultural & Spiritual Influences

Many young people today, especially those who are less religious, like to regard themselves as independent of outside influence, or at least have a difficult time identifying how they are influenced. Youth workers with whom Barna spoke, however, see young people as very impressionable, open to a variety of voices such as celebrities, friendships and more. In Barna’s own survey of and discussions with Irish youth, it is clear that both shallow and serious culture affect what young people believe, as well as what they value.

Which Influences Make Christianity More Appealing
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


When asked about factors that influence their connection to Christianity, young people list experiences with church first, then a variety of relationships, followed by media.

For practising Christians, all sorts of influences are more likely to make Christianity more appealing, though mothers and experiences at church are most likely to influence Christians toward the faith. This isn’t surprising, considering that those who are actively practising religion and seeking God may find many sources of spiritual insight, while less religious young people may likewise encounter more reasons to be skeptical of or resistant to faith.

Which Influences Make Christianity Less Appealing?
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.



As mentioned in the first chapter, a majority of Irish youth has had experiences with church, and for more than a third (36%), attending church has made Christianity more appealing. Interestingly, church is more likely to make no impact on a young person (28%) than to give them a negative impression (23%). Practising Christians (74%) and non-Catholic Christians (65%) are especially energised by church attendance. Illustrating a connection between corporate and personal spirituality, almost all of those with a private spiritual life (91%) say going to church made Christianity more appealing. Among non-Christian young people, however, the takeaway is less positive; more than four in 10 non-Christian youth (43%) who have had a church experience say it pushed them further from Christianity.

The individual leading the service is key in this equation; one in three (33%) says a minister, pastor or priest has made Christianity more appealing to them. Among non-Christians, it’s the opposite (33% less appealing), and one in five overall (20%) says a church leader influenced them against Christianity. In some interviews, young people intimated that their awareness of church scandals may negatively color their experiences with church and its leadership.



Personal relationships with parents have a significant impact on the way young people in Ireland view Christianity, something the concluding chapter will examine more closely. Mothers are especially influential, usually in drawing a more appealing picture of the religion (42%) as opposed to a less appealing one (15%). Fathers still play a major role in shaping ideas about Christianity (30% more appealing, 18% less appealing), though not much more so than other relatives (29% more appealing, 14% less appealing). Half of Irish youth (51%) say a sibling has had no impact on their connection to Christianity, perhaps because they are often forming religious identity alongside one another. Almost two-thirds of Irish young people (63%) say that a majority (20%) if not all of their family members (43%) share the same faith.

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


The influence of friends on Irish youth is fairly split; one in five says these bonds have contributed to positive (20% more appealing) or negative (21% less appealing) ideas of Christianity. However, of the ties that give practising Christians an uneasy sense about their faith, peers are number one (22% less appealing).

Teachers and professors also have the potential to turn young people one way or the other (24% more appealing, 23% less appealing), though the non-religious are particularly susceptible to educators who may influence them against the faith (29% less appealing). The spiritual pull of teachers is more pronounced during secondary years and is usually positive during that time (30% more appealing, 24% less appealing among Irish teens). Many young people (28%) say the majority of their schoolmates or workmates share their faith, and one in five (21%) says only some or a few (21%) subscribe to their same religion.



As social consensus is quite often expressed through books and films, Barna also explored how certain types of media might influence Irish youth toward or against Christianity.

Fourteen percent of young people say a movie made Christianity more appealing to them; 16 percent say it made Christianity less appealing.

Books had a similar amount of influence on youth’s perceptions of Christianity; 16 percent of youth say they were influenced toward the faith by a book. About an equal proportion (17%) says a book made Christianity less appealing. A third of young Irish people says that reading the Bible, either on their own (36%) or with someone else (31%), has had an impact on their faith, whether positive or negative. Identifying as a Christian barely seems to make any difference in this, although almost two-thirds of non-Catholic Christians (63%) have found that reading the Bible positively influences their faith.

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


Celebrities do not hold great sway over young people’s beliefs about Christianity; half (50%) say such figures have no impact, non-Christians (54%) even more so. If entertainers do have an influence, however, it’s more likely to put Christianity in an unflattering light (15% less appealing, 9% more appealing).

Headlines have a particularly negative effect; more than a quarter overall (27%), including four in 10 non-Christians (39%), say a news story has given them a bad feeling about Christianity. Indeed, in Barna’s interviews, many young people discuss feeling driven away from Christianity by unanswered questions, injustices and controversies highlighted in the media, such as reporting on the activities of Westboro Baptist, the 2016 presidential election in the United States or ongoing revelations about long-term abuses within the Catholic Church. Concerning the broader and often discouraging impact of news reporting, an 18-year-old in Dublin adds, “I suppose there’s a lot going on in the world right now. Like different terrorist stuff going on around the world, and all this stuff in America with the election. … If you don’t understand it properly, it can be quite daunting to think there’s so many crazy things going on in the world that we can’t really understand.”


More Than Entertainment

Respondents had the opportunity to specify the titles and types of books or films that made Christianity seem more or less appealing.

Works that influenced Irish youth toward Christianity include:

  • The Passion of the Christ
  • Kendrick Brothers films (such as War Room, Courageous, Fireproof, etc.)
  • 1984
  • Dubliners
  • The Cost of Discipleship
  • Tuesdays with Morrie
  • Spiritual classics

Works that influenced Irish youth away from Christianity include:

  • The Passion of the Christ
  • Eat Pray Love
  • The Wind That Shakes the Barley
  • The DaVinci Code
  • Dogma
  • God’s Not Dead
  • Ambush in Waco
  • The God Delusion
  • Books by “new atheists”
  • Science and history books (unspecified)

Interviews reveal a need for youth workers and adults to help prepare young Irish Christians to sort through the troubling events presented in movies, books and the news, as well as arguments presented by influencers or celebrities who don’t represent their faith.


Perceptions of the Church

One thing that pressures young people to avoid overt religious expression is negative cultural perception of the Church. Church is generally seen as something for old people, and Christians as a group violate some of this generation’s core values, as explored earlier in this chapter. Many young people see the Church as a temporary institution, perhaps one that will fade away as Catholic influence wanes. Nearly a third of Christians (31%) agrees that Christianity will die out, leaving less than half of Christians (45%) who say that Christianity will last. A quarter of Christian youth (24%) says they simply do not know whether the Church is eternal.

Both Catholic and non-Catholic Christian young adults struggle with feeling like their faith community is focused on simplistic affirmations of belief and behavior when their own experience is marked by uncertainty and complexity. Similarly, many Christians are frustrated with the structures, misunderstandings and mixed legacy of the Church.



As mentioned, almost all young people in Ireland (97%) have been to a church service, and in a Christian-majority country, most encounter Christians on a regular basis. Not all of those experiences are positive, however: When Barna asked young people about their impressions of Christians and of the Church, about a quarter of Christians (27%) and 40 percent of non-Christians say it’s mostly or completely true that they have had a bad interaction with Christians.

Perceptions are very different for those who participate in a faith community than for those who don’t, despite many shared experiences. One key difference between Christians and non-Christians is whether they deem followers of Christ to be generally loving. Many young Christians describe their fellow believers as welcoming, loving and hospitable (in the broadest sense). They feel like a family, albeit a sometimes dysfunctional one. One young Christian says Christians are “probably the nicest people that I’ve met. Generally Christians are just a lot friendlier.” Another young man says, “Christians changed my life before I realised that it’s God [acting] through Christians.” Yet another interviewee adds, “I think the average Christian is exceptional and very loving. And I think that’s something the average person doesn’t do [well]: loving.” These statements are an interesting companion to Barna’s data (explored in chapter one) showing all Irish youth’s struggle to feel understood by Jesus and highlight the importance of healthy, personal representations of Christianity.

Young Adults Think Less of Christians Than Teens Do
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


When non-Christians select descriptions of Christians in general, opinions are still gentle, though slightly less benign. For example, Christians are commonly seen as judgmental (70%) and anti-homosexual (66%). As this report has already discussed, these characteristics clash with some of the most strongly held values among young people today. The more a young person disagrees with Church teachings on sexuality, the more likely he or she is to say that the institutional Church is a difficult place to live out faith. Seventy percent of Christian youth who completely agree with the Church’s teachings on sexuality say it is not at all difficult to be part of the institutional Church (higher than the Christian average of 37%), while more than four in 10 of those who mostly or completely disagree with the Church’s teachings on sexuality (42%) find it difficult to practise their faith as part of a church.

Christians and non-Christians inevitably disagree on whether people of faith are boring, sexist or out-of-touch. The biggest difference between Christians’ and non-Christians’ perceptions occurs when asking whether Christianity is good for the world, or for Ireland specifically. Nearly a third of non-Christians (31%) doubts that Christians are good for Ireland, and a quarter (24%) says no Christians are good for the world. Meanwhile, a majority of Christians feels at least some if not most people of their faith are a benefit to the world (74%) and their country (71%).

Practising Christians are keenly aware of differences between nominal Christians and those who practise, asserting that the discrepancy often leads to misperceptions. To define the Church as something more than a cultural artifact, young people will have to help make a distinction between nominal and thoughtful Christianity, as well as between the individuals who merely identify as Christians and the larger truths of the Christian faith.

Age is another factor in how young people perceive the Church. Even when church attendance (which drops with age) is taken into account, the older a youth is, the less likely he or she is to see Christians in general as: kind, good for Ireland or the world, moral, wise, caring about social justice, loving toward everyone / other Christians or joyful. Instead, the older a youth is, the more likely he or she is to think Christians are out-of-touch, judgmental or racist.


A Youth Worker's Perspective

An urban youth pastor comments on the passions and insecurities of young Irish people today.


Ireland has been witness to a long wave of alarming scandals concerning the Church, accompanied by a series of high-profile investigations and commissions on “endemic” levels of child abuse in church-run organisations.9 Parents and older generations’ disillusionment with the Church and its activities has been passed down, compounding the spiritual wariness of Irish young people.

Forty-two percent of Christian youth agree at least somewhat that when they think of the Catholic Church, they also think of child abuse scandals.

In describing things that have driven them away from Church, relatively few interviewees candidly bring up scandals within the Church. However, 27 percent—and 42 percent among non-religious young people—say a story on the news has made Christianity less appealing to them.

Though it has not universally resulted in a withdrawal from faith, the impact of abuse scandals has been broad. One in three Irish young people (32%) says it’s completely true that they cannot go to a church that has not properly dealt with the guilt of these abuses, a percentage that remains fairly consistent regardless of one’s current churchgoing status (29% churched, 36% dechurched, 37% never churched). Youth workers are quick to acknowledge the fallout of these controversies. One leader says, “When you try to approach an Irish youth to talk about God, the first [response] they have is what the priests have done and what God has done to us and, I think, pain and not understanding who God really is.”

Another Catholic youth worker discusses the responsibility of churches to both confront hearsay and lovingly engage those who have questions: “The whole priest scandal stuff—that just rocked people to the core. People associate that scandal with God. When people have been beaten and raped and abused, there’s no judgment from me certainly as to why they’re not a part of the church. Because it’s a violation to the core of who they are. Years of your life taken from you, and then we’re supposed to say, ‘Sorry they did that, come on ahead back.’ So I understand why people don’t go, I really do.”



Young people in Ireland are eager for a closer relationship with more unity across denominational ministries. More than half of young Christians (51%) and nearly all youth workers in this sample say there is too much tension between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches, and a large majority of Christian young people (71%) agrees, they would be happy to go to an event held for both Catholics and non-Catholics.

One youth worker says that unity among Christians can enliven young people’s faith: “I see the Holy Spirit at work and I see young people wanting to get involved in that work. I also see young people soften in their angst against God and the church when they see Catholics and Protestants working together, people giving testimony to the Holy Spirit at work in their lives.”

Common Ground Between Catholics & Non-Catholics
January–February 2017, n=553 Catholic and non-Catholic Christian young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


About half of Christian youths (49%) say that Catholics and non-Catholic Christians share the same faith, with no significant difference in how enthusiastically each group agrees with the other. On distinctly Catholic teachings, however, Catholic and non-Catholics are bound to show a few differences. For example, non-Catholic Christians strongly disagree that the pope is able to speak directly for Christ (44%, compared to 23% of Catholics), that it is good to pray to an intermediary (45%, compared to 12% of Catholics) or that communion elements become Christ’s literal body and blood (35%, compared to 20% of Catholics). Most agree that Catholic priests and non-Catholic ministers share equal authority; the only clear distinction is that between the large number of Catholics who choose “I don’t know” (28%, compared to 16% non-Catholic Christians). In fact, Catholics select “I don’t know” at a significantly higher rate on all these issues.

Regardless of theological differences or questions, young people and their youth leaders from Catholic and non-Catholic circles affirm a closeness between the two categories of Christians. In addition, 79 percent of Christian youth and all but a few youth workers agree at least somewhat that a person can be a good Christian regardless of the church he or she attends. One youth leader describes her first cross-denominational encounter: “Growing up in a really Catholic environment, the first Protestant I met was when I was 15. And that was even a shock. It was something so foreign. … Now, I would focus on where we stand together. So, that’s our belief in Christ, how we live, how we serve God’s people.”

Trust between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, though improving, has room to grow, youth workers say. Many say that higher church leadership must lead the way in bridging the gap before youth and other ministries can move forward. They acknowledge the Catholic-Protestant divide has a legacy effect, but believe it is dissipating over time—becoming a part of religious and political history, rather than a present ill will. This could be due in part to the reality that neither Catholic nor Protestant youth know much about the other’s religious context, as well as to the value young Irish people place on resisting judgment and prejudice.

Lingering tension between Catholic and non-Catholic Christian groups at times reflects the continued—and, as some youth workers report, much greater—chasm between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. One youth worker says, “Even among youth who live 25 miles from the border with Northern Ireland, in some cases, there is still a great sense of difference between Southern Protestant young people and Northern Protestant young people. We have Southern Protestant young people perceived to have a lot more in common with their neighbours—Catholic friends—than they have with Protestant friends from across the border.”


Christianity’s Reputation Among Irish Youth

When Irish youth are asked to identify adjectives they believe apply to most Christians, there are, understandably, some significant gaps between how non-Christians and practising Christians view those within the Church. Overall, believers tend to see their camp as wise, warm and relevant—while their non-Christian peers generally feel the opposite. One particularly bleak divergence: About half of young practising Christians believe most people of faith are good for Ireland and the world, while less than one in 10 non-Christians says the same. Perhaps just as telling of the Church’s standing among teens and young adults are the few terms that non-Christians and practising Christians can actually agree upon, such as “elderly.”

Christianity's Reputation Among Practising Christians
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.

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