Are There Any Christians in Northern Ireland?

Author(s): John D. Brewer
Document Type: Chapter
Year: 2002
Title of Publication: Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Eighth Report
Editor(s): Ann Marie Gray, Katrina Lloyd, Paula Devine, Gillian Robinson and Deirdre Heenan
Publisher: Pluto Press
Place of Publication: London
ISBN: 0 7453 1911 4
Pages: 22-38
Subject Area(s): Religion

Abbreviations: NI - Northern Ireland, NISA - Northern Ireland Social Attitudes, NILT - Northern Ireland Life and Times

Background to the Research

  • NI is well known for its high levels of religiosity, the importance that religion still retains in many aspects of everyday life, and the link that exists between religion and ethno-national conflict.
  • The numbers of people in NI attending church services and the number of marriages celebrated religiously are the highest within all the regions of the United Kingdom.
  • The normal explanation for this is that religiosity is a surrogate for ethno-national identity, so that it is Northern Irish politics that keeps religion alive. This being so, the chapter examines recent patterns in religious belief and observance to see if levels of religiosity have declined during the period of the ceasefires (which began in 1994), and leading up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
  • This chapter presents time-series survey data across two years - 1991 and 1998 - to look at shifting patterns of church attendance and religious belief in NI.

Research Approach

  • The data used by the author come from the 1991 NISA survey and from the 1998 NILT survey.
  • The NISA surveys were carried out annually from 1989 to 1996 and interviewed a random selection of adults (aged 18 years and over) who lived in private households in NI. The sample size was around 800.
  • The NILT survey began in 1998 and is carried out annually.
  • Each year, interviews are carried out with a random selection of adults (aged 18 years and over) who live in private households in NI.
  • The sample size for the 1998 NILT survey was 1,800 - although some modules were asked of only half the sample.
  • The sample size for the module on religious observance was 900 respondents.
  • Similar questions on religion and religious beliefs were asked in both the 1991 NISA survey and the 1998 NILT survey which makes it possible to compare data across the years.

Main Findings

  • The proportion of Catholics has risen and the proportion of Protestants has fallen over the period 1991 to 1998.
  • The vast majority of respondents belonging to any of the Christian churches were brought up in families with some kind of religious affiliation; furthermore, there is little church switching.
  • More respondents who are 'Other Christian' than those who are either Catholic or 'Mainstream Protestant' say they believe in life after death, heaven, hell, and miracles.
  • In 1998, NI still remains a very religious society, with nearly nine out of every ten people considering themselves to belong to a church.
  • However, apart from identification with a church, changes have been occurring in the period from 1991 to 1998. In virtually all measures of religious observance, practice and belief there is some decline.
  • While the Catholic church has seen the biggest drop in regular church attendance, (from 82% attending weekly in 1991 to 67% in 1998) the 'Mainstream Protestant' churches had the lowest regular attendance in 1998 at 29% (down from 34% in 1991).
  • The percentage of people who say they pray daily fell from 16% in 1991 to 10% in 1998.
  • Similarly, fewer people say they 'believe that God exists and have no doubts about it' in 1998 than in 1991 (61% and 51% respectively).
  • The percentage of people overall who claim that they have been 'saved' has fallen between 1991 (29%) and 1998 (10%), but this is particularly so for the 'Other Christian' category (from 73% to 20%).


  • Overall, NI has seen very little secularisation, with virtually no diminution in the numbers identifying with a church over the last decade. However, if nominal identification has not declined, there have been other changes. Levels of observance are less strict, beliefs are held with more ambivalence and uncertainty than in the past, and attitudes are becoming more liberal.There is very little growth in non-belief however.
  • There is also no evidence of church switching in NI, except for the small growth in independent Protestant churches and charismatic groups.
  • There is no evidence that events during the decade around the ceasefires and peace negotiations have weakened either religious identification or the impact of religion on ethno-national identities.


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