Them and Us? Attitudinal Variations Among Churchgoers in Belfast

Author(s): Frederick Boal, Margaret Keane, David Livingstone
Document Type: Report
Publication Title: Insight Series No 1
Publisher: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast
Place of Publication: Belfast
Year: 1997
Subject Area(s): Religion, Identity/Culture

Abbreviations: SDLP - Social Democratic and Labour Party

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.

Research Approach

  • 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.

Main Findings

Catholic Churchgoers

  • Catholic 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 25s,

  • Those 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 professional/managerial backgrounds.

  • Regarding 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.

  • Profound 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.

  • There 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.

  • Catholic 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.

Protestant Churchgoers

  • Protestant 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.

  • Ecumenical 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.

  • Younger age cohorts are overwhelmingly conservative in their religious convictions.

  • Class 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 initiatives.

People Profile

  • Demographically 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.

Faith and Practice

  • Remarkably 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.

Women's Issues

  • 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.

The Moral Sphere

  • While 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.

  • Given 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.


  • Ecumenical 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.

  • More 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.

Home | About ORB | Contact

Disclaimer: © ORB 2001Thursday, 29-Apr-2004 10:40