How many atheists are there in Ireland?

It should be a simple enough question. After all, there’s a box to tick on the census form. Yet counting the number of atheists in Ireland isn’t quite that straightforward.

Atheist Ireland, for example, reports the latest census with the assertion that “350,000 Irish people did not identify with any religion.” They arrive at this figure by adding together the number of people who ticked the box marked “No Religion” (269,111), those who wrote in “Atheist” (3,905) or “Agnostic” (3,521) and those the CSO report as “Not Stated” (72,914).

The article does clarify that some of those in the “Not Stated” category may be religious, but declined to answer the question, but equally, Atheist Ireland argues “the true figure for nonreligious people is likely to be much higher, based both on the reality of living in Ireland, and a leading census question that assumed that everyone had a religion and merely asked them what that religion was.”

Census question: What is your religion?

The CSO has previously stated that it makes no distinction between ticking “No Religion” and someone who writes “Atheist” in the box provided. (A cheeky Irish Times headline declares 320.3% as the increase in the number of atheists, though the text below does clarify the greater number who ticked “No Religion”.) The CSO records and reports the numbers who choose either option, but regard them as synonyms. That gives us a baseline figure of 273,016 atheists. (Atheist Ireland also ran a campaign urging people to tick “No Religion” in preference to writing in “Atheist”, with a campaign dubbed Honest to Godless.

That brings us to the “Agnostics”. Agnostics neither believe nor disbelieve. They’re in the “Don’t Know” camp. Richard Dawkins has argued that agnostics are atheists who find it more socially acceptable to keep one foot inside the door as it is. Equally of course, it might be argued that not all atheists arrive at their philosophical position overnight, and at any time there will be a given number of people considering the issue, before either committing to atheism or reaffirming a religious faith.

Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the Irish Catholic, pointed out on twitter that 23% of Britons in Ireland answered “No Religion”, while only 4% of Irish citizens did the same. Given the large elements of shared culture on the two islands (we speak the same language, watch a lot of the same television, follow the same soccer teams) this might indicate a reluctance to even identify as “Agnostic” among the Irish, given the prominent role religion plays here. The large numbers of nominal Catholics who do not attend weekly Mass (particularly in urban areas) have been cited as evidence for this hypothesis.  Alternatively, it may just be a cultural difference, with atheism a more common choice in Britain. Likewise, the remarkable increase in the numbers answering “No Religion” in recent decades may be a marker of cultural change in Ireland.

“Not Stated”, on the face of it, means anyone who did not tick any box, simply leaving the question unanswered. Describing these as people who “did not identify with any religion” is a bit cheeky. Just because they didn’t answer the question, doesn’t mean they identify themselves as not religious. It may have been an oversight in filling out the form, it may have been considered a private matter and no business of the government, or perhaps they missed the box that says “No Religion”, inconveniently placed *below* the portion of the census form where respondents are asked to write in.

Curiously, FactsAreSacred has discovered that “Not Stated” is not confined only to those who omit answering the question. In response to a question about the number of people who had answered “Jedi”, “Jedi Knight”, “Pastafarian” or similar to the census question, it emerged that “Entries such as Jedi knight and Pastafarian, not being religions, are coded to ‘not stated’.” For what it’s worth, the UK does code for Jedi knights. More worryingly perhaps, Wikipedia records that there are 14 Sith in Scotland. One official has commented that counting Jedi may encourage people who would otherwise not complete the census form to do so – for the lulz.

But this raises an interesting question. Does the CSO have the right to decide what is or isn’t a religion? Jedi Knights may mostly be bored teenagers (or middle-aged Star Wars fans) but what if there’s another answer, an obscure faith the CSO coder has never heard of?

(And speaking of teenagers, there’s also the tricky question of a child’s religion. The CSO does not count as Irish speaking anyone under the age of three, even if they are in an Irish-speaking household, but a one day old infant can be coded for religion. As ThirstyGargoyle notes in a blog on the census religion question, much of the increase in the number of Roman Catholics since 2006 is due to “natural increase”. FactsAreSacred suspects there were several heated arguments between parents and teenagers on this issue on census night, though there is no way to determine if it is statistically significant.)

Sixty years ago, Scientology was in its infancy, and probably regarded as a lunatic fringe of science fiction fans losing the run of themselves. Two centuries ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) were in much the same position. Was either less of a religion then than now? And who is to say that in 100 years, Jedi will not be regarded as an established church?

Unfortunately, the CSO is unable to tell us how may of the 72,914 Not Stated are Jedi, Pastafarians or others. All they can say is that answers to the religion are coded into 33 categories (including “No religion” and “Not stated”) which are then collapsed into the categories seen in their final published reports. But it does seem illogical to classify a response as “Not stated” just because the answer is regarded as lacking legitimacy.

So returning to the question we asked at the beginning, how many atheists are there in Ireland? At least 273,016. Probably.

9 comments for “How many atheists are there in Ireland?

  1. steve white
    March 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    ooh, are people who said no religion atheists, i wouldn’t say probably, its the question thats really the problem here the cso won’t change it because they say it would break the link with their previous stats, I guess they want to stick to tradition, maybe the bishops had a word with them too?

    • March 7, 2013 at 10:17 am


  2. March 30, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    Some who answer “No Religion” may mean “Not religious” in the sense of not a regular participant in their church’s services, r a belief in deism/theism without membership of a specific church, but as I noted above, the CSO intends the question to reflect the number of non-believers. For the moment, we can only take the number as intended.

    Besides, there’s the counter-argument (also above) that many who are actually atheists actually answer as Catholic/Church of Ireland etc, either out of habit or because of perceived peer pressure. Given the vast number of nominal believers, that would suggest the number of “Type I error” believers who mistakenly answer “No Religion” is at least matched by, if not outnumbered by, the number of “Type II error” atheists who misakenly identify themselves by a religious affiliation.

    As to the broader point, yes, the question could do with improvement, and discontinuity with previous results is no reason not to update it. Other questions are altered to reflect changing circumstances too. For what it’s worth, I understand changes to the question were proposed last time, but too close to the deadline to be put into effect. So they question may be revised for 2016,

  3. steve white
    April 2, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    as if the cso itself were unaware of the problem, i dont’ take the cso excuses on that

  4. steve white
    May 5, 2012 at 12:31 am

    the point eoghan murphy wanted to make was how they double checked whether things were accurate, we have to wait for the transcript and the reports from the cso

    the cso seems to want consistency over accuracy

  5. April 9, 2013 at 11:59 am

    i grew up next to church in Dublin,as a young man i remember mass on half hour,full from 7am 1 pm.moved back in 1998, see no one on Sunday,i think their are 2 on Sunday,and one on Saturday,all three are old people,its like heavens gate.belief in god is dead.

  6. cluster
    April 26, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    There should be an option for ‘Lapsed Catholic’.

    A lot of people feel culturally Catholic and would not feel comfortable marking Atheist/No Religion though not actually practising Catholics.

    • gerard
      April 26, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      At what point do you draw the line? Vaguely protestant? Jewish at Yom Kippur?

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