When People Shed Religious Identity in Ireland and Austria: Evidence From Censuses

Demogr Res. 2014 Nov 28;31:1297-1310. doi: 10.4054/DemRes.2014.31.43.


Background: Disaffiliation from religion is an important factor behind the rapid rise in persons claiming no religious affiliation in many advanced industrial countries. Scholars typically think of disaffiliation as a life course process that is confined to young adults, with little change occurring among older adults, yet few studies have examined this assumption outside the United States and Great Britain.

Objective: We evaluate whether the young-adult model of disaffiliation from religion applies in Ireland and Austria, two historically Catholic-majority countries with different levels of non-affiliation growth.

Methods: We use census data on religious affiliation in Ireland (1971-2011) and Austria (1971-2001) to track aggregate changes in the percentage reporting no religious affiliation over the life course for successive birth cohorts.

Results: We find support for the young-adult model in Ireland. However, recent cohorts in Austria exhibit a distinct pattern of disaffiliation that continues into middle adulthood. Our analysis suggests that mid-life disaffiliation in Austria is connected to a religious tax, which we argue spurs nominally affiliated adults to disaffiliate themselves, as their income rises and the costs of religious affiliation increase.

Conclusion: Our findings offer insight into some of the social factors behind recent religious change across Europe and highlight the need for more cross-national research on the age and cohort dimensions of this change.