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Them and Us?
A Survey of Catholic and Protestant Churchgoers in Belfast

Funded by
European Regional Development Fund
The Central Community Relations Unit of the Northern Ireland Office

Executive Summary

Aim of the Project
Northern Ireland society is typically portrayed as comprising 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.

The main methodological instrument was a questionnaire distributed to a wide range of Catholic and Protestant churchgoers in Belfast. Completed returns were received from 5,255 respondents. The findings from this source were supplemented by information gleaned from a series of 81 in-depth interviews carried out with clergy / church leaders. Operationalizing this method involved a number of discrete stages. Initially seven different social areas within Belfast were identified to ensure a range of socio-spatial contexts within which a variety of individual churches could be surveyed. As a result 81 individual churches, across a wide denominational range, were selected. Questionnaires were subsequently distributed to church attenders at each of these locations during October/November 1993. Completed returns were collected, coded, and analysed on the Queen's University Vax 9000 using the SPSS statistical package.

Major Findings

Catholic churchgoers
Catholic churchgoers appear to follow late twentieth 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 and, although there are as many from manual as from non-manual backgrounds, there are few who are 1 An active church-going population gives the impression of solidarity. However, it is far from uniform not only in religious convictions but also in attitudes to morality, social concerns and community tensions. Age and education are particularly significant in accounting for this diversity; 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 penetrate identity and political outlook; on these there is little disagreement.

Religious Practice and Beliefs
The levels of religious practice recorded by Catholic churchgoers suggest a very active churchgoing population, loyal to the sacraments, prayer and other devotional practices. Nonetheless, there is a decided absence of the under 25s in the pews while the under 45s and the better educated are less diligent and less conformist to Church rules than their older co-religionists. Of considerable behavioural and attitudinal significance is individual placing in theological space and an orthodoxy scale from high to low in respect of attitudes to Catholic Church doctrinal teachings was used as an identifier. At the high end of the spectrum are the religious conservatives who follow Church regulations closely and who are most likely to be less well educated, over 55, and in manual employment. In contrast, at the other end of the scale are the young, many educated to third level and in professional/managerial occupations, who show a strong tendency to take an individualistic stance on doctrinal and moral matters in spite of Church guidance. Such distinctive religious views permeate attitudes to moral and social questions and to cross-community mixing but when it comes to the question of identity and the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, the effect of religious mindset is far less obvious; right across the theological spectrum Catholic churchgoers are strongly in agreement.

Moral and Social Concerns
One post-Vatican 2 trend, the inclusion of the laity in the ministry of the Church, has been generally well accepted by churchgoers. The applause, however, is decidedly stronger among the younger members and from those of professional/managerial backgrounds. This is particularly so with regard to the involvement of women in non-traditional roles in the Church and in society in general. As for personal morality in general and sexual morality in particular, Catholic churchgoers generally conform to Church teaching on premarital sex and co-habitation and there is a strong pro-life ethic. However, for some 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 in the public arena on such matters as Sunday observance, discipline and punishment; the older, theologically conservative, less educated core are more rigid in their adherence to traditional values and behaviours. Whether this reflects spiritual commitment or social conformism is not clear.

Social and Religious Mixing
These divergent outlooks are mirrored in difference in attitude to the mixing of Catholics and Protestants. To begin with, Catholic churchgoers give almost universal support to ecumenism, the most orthodox members religiously being more likely to approve full church unity as an alternative to religious and social co-operation. Moreover, attendance at a joint church service of worship presents little problem especially for those of higher status living in mixed neighbourhoods. Attitudes to mixing on a more social basis can vary depending on the level of intimacy involved and Belfast Catholics are no exception to this general rule. Nonetheless, profound differences between differing religious mindsets, and different ages, education and occupational backgrounds emerge in situations ranging from the closeness of marriage to more distant residential or employment links. The young, well-educated, higher status members of society are notably less exclusionist in any context, whether a mixed marriage, a mixed neighbourhood or a mixed workplace. However, a very wide range of churchgoing Catholics, among whom only a slight tendency towards older and less educated members is observable, opt for schools for their children with a Catholic ethos. The almost universal encouragement shown for Catholic and Protestant children working together in school projects, however, suggests an openness to mixing but not at the expense of Catholic values and identity.

Identity and Political Outlook
The language which people use to describe themselves and the place in which they live is instructive. Whether expressed in terms of place or national feelings or reflected in political affiliation, 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 as 'Northern Irish.' Nonetheless, age, education and class differences emerge, however weakly, as does position on the theological spectrum, to distinguish the 'Irish' identity of some from the 'Northern Irish' identity of others. The younger churchgoers, it should be noted, fall into the former group and the better educated into the latter. Whatever, churchgoers of both identities feel strongly, and in equal proportions, that the S.D.L.P. most closely represents their views. They also strongly favour a political future where Northern Ireland is united with the rest of Ireland and where the massive perception of the centrality of religion in employment decisions is dealt with. These fundamental issues of identity and political outlook unify Catholic churchgoers even though in other respects there is little to indicate consensus.

Protestant churchgoers
Protestant churchgoers, taken overall, tend to be predominantly female, over the age of 45, and to come from middle class backgrounds. These characteristics are indicative of an important trend in religious life over the past decade. Comparison with our 1983 survey indicates that churchgoing is increasingly an activity practised by the elderly and by women. Nevertheless 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 gender in conditioning response patterns. The younger age cohort is conservative than those in older age brackets. On constitutional questions, however, there is little disagreement.

We have explored this attitudinal variation through four perspectives.

The Denominational landscape
Employing a seven-fold denominational taxonomy, we found that denominational affiliation matters a good deal in accounting for attitudinal variation. Ecumenical and cross-community ventures more generally are viewed more favourably by members of the three larger denominations than by their smaller counterparts. In religious observance (for example, personal piety and women's ordination) dramatic differences between denominations were registered. At the same time considerable differences of opinion on many matters are expressed within each of the denominational groups suggesting that other factors were significant in conditioning outlooks. Again, however, denominational affiliation makes little difference to matters of national identity and constitutional preference.

Theological Spectrum
As well as occupying denominational space, respondents were located at points on a theological spectrum from conservative to liberal. Positioning on this spectrum turned out to be of very considerable significance in interpreting diverse ecclesiastical, moral, and community stances. One particularly noteworthy finding is that the younger age cohorts (though these are a disproportionately small segment of churchgoers) are overwhelmingly conservative in their religious convictions. On such issues as religious observance, abortion, divorce, mixed Protestant-Catholic schooling, cross community interaction, mixed marriage, and sexual mores, there is clear evidence that conservatives adopt an outlook markedly different from their liberal counterparts. These diversities, however, do not seem to penetrate the political sphere at least on the major constitutional issue, though this should not be taken to mean that favouring one set of constitutional arrangements is indicative of either a monochrome Protestant culture or an entirely uniform suite of ideological motivations.

Social Class Arena
The influence of social class on churchgoers' attitudes is controverted. On the one hand, at least on the surface, class affiliation does not seem to make much difference to positions taken up on large scale political questions. On the other hand, social class does connect with religious identity, party political preference, and feelings about cross-community initiatives. Once again it is evident that a monolithic constitutional aspiration does not denote a cultural singularity. What is here expressed is a range of Ulster unionisms, stretching from a more exclusivist stance, which retains aspirations towards politico-religious 'purity', to a more inclusivist outlook hoping to incorporate a stronger cross-communitarianism within a broader unionist méntalité.

Political Affinity
While, as has been noted, on the question of the constitutional future of Northern Ireland Protestant churchgoers speak with one voice, this preference expresses itself through a variety of different party political channels. In turn, party political orientation is of considerable significance in accounting for attitudinal variety. Not only do the churchgoing constituencies of the various parties reveal distinctive religious topographies in terms of denominational and theological profile, but also-in attitudinal terms-they diverge in their responses to women's issues, the regulation of the public sphere, private morality, and cross community interaction.

Them and Us?
Having explored the Catholic and Protestant churchgoing populations separately we turned to an examination of continuities and discontinuities between them. From the wide range of possible topics for analysis we chose to focus our investigation largely on demographic structure, religious values, gender concerns, moral stance, neighbourhood space, cross-community relations, national identity and the constitutional question.

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 does not mean that opposition or 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. It is notably, however, that conservative Protestants and high orthodox Catholics adopt a very similar stance on this issue. On other matters of public morality - to do with Sunday observance, discipline in schools, the court system, and capital punishment-Protestants turn out to be rather more disciplinarian than their Catholic counterparts.

Neighbourhood Space
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. Differential personal experience of 'the troubles', together with a strong sense of parish community, may well be significant factors in accounting for this attitudinal pattern.

Them and Us?
Ecumenical ventures and cross-community interaction elicit greater support from Catholic than from Protestant churchgoers. This finding reflects the much greater support for church unity among the former. Nevertheless, when it comes to actual participation in such endeavours, 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 of churchgoers that the churches should be much more active in trying to improve community relations. And again there is little variation in attitudes to social exclusivity as revealed in a range of situations where Catholic-Protestant mixing may occur-marriage, education, neighbourhood and employment.

Compared with the high levels of agreement reported above, on issues of national identity there is overwhelming disagreement. 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.

The Future of Northern Ireland
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.

Future Work
This research project has highlighted the profound differences and similarities that exist within and between the Catholic and Protestant churchgoing populations in Belfast. Two things are evidently missing from this analysis. First, our research needs to be supplemented by a rural and country town dimension. Research on attitudes among churchgoers beyond the city would bring to light urban-rural contrasts and continuities that could be highly significant in coming to terms with cultural diversity within Northern Ireland's religious communities as a whole. Second, our findings also need to be set in the context of attitudinal variety amongst non-churchgoers, both urban and rural. Only then can we begin to ascertain what difference churchgoing makes to the reproduction of social attitudes, and to determining the overall complexity of cultural life within Northern Ireland.

Professor Frederick W. Boal
Department of Geography
The Queen's University of Belfast

Dr. Margaret C. Keane
Department of Geography
St. Mary's College, Belfast

Professor David N. Livingstone
Department of Geography
The Queen's University of Belfast

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