Background to the Research
- Northern Irish society is typically portrayed as comprising of two monolithic
blocs, Catholic and Protestant. This project aimed to query this depiction
through an in-depth investigation of attitudinal variation among both
Catholic and Protestant churchgoers in Belfast.
- A total of 5,255 Catholic and Protestants churchgoers completed a questionnaire.
This data was supplemented by information gleaned from a series of 81
in-depth interviews carried out with clergy/church leaders; 81 individual
churches across a wide denominational range, were selected and questionnaires
were distributed also to church attenders at these locations.
churchgoers appear to follow late 20th century trends in that they are
more likely to be women, to be middle aged or elderly and to have among
them few who are under 25. The whole educational spectrum is represented,
although there are as many from manual as from non-manual backgrounds.
- Age and
education are particularly significant in accounting for the diversity
in religious convictions and attitudes between the churchgoers. Individualistic,
younger, well educated, high status Catholics contrast in a range of
religious, social and political attitudes with ageing, less well educated
churchgoers from manual occupational backgrounds. These demographic
characteristics however do not permeate identity and political outlook
- on these there is little disparity.
- The levels
of religious practice recorded by Catholic churchgoers suggest a very
active churchgoing population, however there is a decided absence of
under the age of 45, and the better educated, are less diligent and
less conformist to Church rules than their older co-religionists.
- The inclusion
of laity in the ministry of the church has been generally well accepted
by churchgoers, particularly among younger members and from those of
issues such as personal and sexual morality, Catholic churchgoers generally
conform to Church teaching on pre-marital sex and co-habitation and
there is a strong pro-life ethic.
- For some,
however, the influence of church teaching has declined and the growing
trend of individualism as regards what is morally acceptable follows
the age, education and theological profile already observed. These
same characteristics contribute distinctive outlooks on a range of
other issues in the public arena.
differences between religious mindsets, and different ages, education
and occupational backgrounds emerge again in relation to mixing with
other religions. The young well-educated are notably less exclusionist
in any context, whether a mixed marriage, neighbourhood or workplace.
Other, slightly older and less educated members tend however, to send
their children to schools with a Catholic ethos.
is almost universal agreement however shown for Catholic and Protestant
children working together in school projects, although this openness
is not to be at the expense of Catholic values and identity.
churchgoers are united in being non-Ulster and non-British in identity
and non-unionist in politics. For the overwhelming majority of Catholic
churchgoers their identity lies in some form of Irishness, the great
majority feeling unequivocally Irish and a smaller group, Northern Irish.
Both groups feel that the SDLP most closely represents their views.
They also strongly favour a political future where Northern Ireland
is united with the rest of Ireland.
churchgoers taken overall, tend to be predominantly female, over the
age of 45, and to come from middle class backgrounds.
- A very
wide range of attitudinal variation on moral, social and political issues
is evident among Protestant churchgoers in Belfast. Age is of greater
significance than those in the older age brackets. There is however
little disagreement on constitutional matters.
and cross-community ventures more generally are viewed more favourably
by members of the three larger denominations than by their smaller counterparts.
At the same time considerable differences of opinion on many matters
are expressed within each of the denominational groups.
age cohorts are overwhelmingly conservative in their religious convictions.
affiliation does not seem to make much difference to positions taken
up on large scale political questions, however it does connect with
religious identity, party political preference and feelings about cross-community
the two churchgoing populations are remarkably similar, that is, they
tend to be female and in the higher age cohorts, though there is a tendency
for Protestant churchgoers to be somewhat older. In terms of class,
there is again a broad similarity, with a noticeable bias towards the
middle class and a relative absence of the unemployed.
high levels of commitment to standard doctrines and to religious practice
are typical of both populations. Divergences, of course, emerge over
the specifics of theology and personal piety. Different senses of the
meaning of parish and community also seem to surface.
- The question
of women's ordination produces a marked divergence between Catholic
and Protestant churchgoers taken overall, though this did not mean that
opposition of support follows the contours of this divide. There are
both opponents and advocates of women's ordination within each group,
though in general there is greater support amongst Protestants. Of crucial
importance here is age of respondent while, perhaps remarkably, gender
seems to make little difference. So far attitudes to women and work
are concerned, there is a remarkable similarity between the populations.
both Catholic and Protestant churchgoers inhabit a similar moral universe
- on issues of sexual mores, for example, there is substantial agreement
- there is a predictable shift of attitude on the abortion question.
Notably however, conservative Protestants and high orthodox Catholics
adopt a very similar stance on this issue. On other matters of public
morality, Protestants turn out to be rather more disciplinarian than
their Catholic counterparts.
the patterns of residential segregation in Belfast, it is only to be
expected that the majority of Protestant and Catholic churchgoers come
from neighbourhoods composed of members of their own ethnic group. Accordingly
when asked about the kind of area they would prefer to live in, a majority
of both groups would opt to live alongside neighbours sharing their
own religious background. A concern to occupy neighbourhoods exclusively
composed of one's own religious tradition is particularly characteristic
of Catholic respondents.
and cross-community interaction elicit greater support from Catholic
than from Protestant churchgoers. When it comes to actual participation
however, there is little difference between the two groups with around
half of each having taken part in joint services of worship. In addition
there is a widespread feeling among both groups that the churches should
be more active in trying to improve community relations.
- On issues
of national identity, not surprisingly these differences manifest themselves
in a highly polarised pattern of party political support. Closely related
is the shared sense that 'the other group' is fairly treated these days,
though Catholics are much more likely to see themselves as disadvantaged.
than anywhere else, the issue of the constitutional future of Northern
Ireland crystallises profoundly different aspirations between Catholic
and Protestant churchgoers. What this manifest bifurcation conceals,
however, are differing motivations that may be subsumed under this bi-polarity
of constitutional antithesis.