Love's Betrayal

The Decline of Catholicism and Rise of New Religions in Ireland

by Peter Mulholland (Author)
Monographs X, 362 Pages


This book provides a detailed analysis of the decline of Catholicism and the almost simultaneous surge of new religious movements in Ireland during the second half of the twentieth century. After chronicling the sudden emergence of these new religious movements, some of which were associated with New Age spirituality, and considering the reactions they elicited in the Irish media and from religious and academic observers, the author explores the cultural, socioeconomic and political context in which they flourished.
Taking its title from President Mary McAleese’s response to the Ryan Report on clerical child abuse, the book traces the «systemic betrayal of the great Christian commandment to love one another» back through Irish history and into the heart of Catholic theology. It argues that the theology that transformed the «cult» of early Christianity into a great civilising power was implicated in the development of an authoritarian regime, and that this regime was undermining the faith and fostering interest in alternative spiritualities for decades before the abuse scandals of the 1990s brought the Church to its knees.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: The Winds of Change
  • Chapter 1 Man Turned God
  • Chapter 2 The Civilising Mission
  • Chapter 3 The Civilising Offensive
  • Chapter 4 Beating the Devil
  • Chapter 5 The Birthpangs of a New Civilisation
  • Chapter 6 The Brink of Apocalypse
  • Chapter 7 Attachment and Atonement
  • Chapter 8 Conclusions: Psyche and Circumstances
  • Appendix: A Chronicle of Change
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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This book is based on part of a doctoral research project that I carried out at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, with the help of a grant from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. I am particularly indebted to my PhD supervisors, Professor Lawrence Taylor and Dr Séamas Ó Síocháin and thank them for their encouragement, patience and guidance. I would also like to thank Professor Tom Inglis for his constructive criticisms of my original thesis and an earlier draft of this book. Whatever misunderstandings or misinterpretations of facts or arguments there may be are mine alone and I hope none of the above are disappointed by the end product.

I must also pay tribute to the late Professor Peter B. Clarke whose undergraduate lectures at King’s College London alerted me to the value of studying new religious movements. And I would like to say special thanks to a couple of people without whose friendship and shared interest in the human condition I might never have studied religion. My interest in the subject owes a lot to the curiosity and worldly wisdom of my old farmer fiend Aidan ‘Sid’ Mannerings and I am forever indebted to Helena Stuart for having drawn my attention to the psychological theory of attachment that has become central to my understanding of religious belief and behaviour. But above all I am most grateful for the encouragement, constancy and support that I have received from my dear wife Sheila and her mother, Mary Considine.

Peter Mulholland,



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Introduction: The Winds of Change

In the first few decades after the Second World War Irish Catholicism began sliding into decline and a plethora of new religious and quasi-religious movements emerged from obscurity or arrived from abroad and began drawing media attention and competing for converts. But though they attracted a good deal of attention in the media relatively few Irish people ever got seriously involved in any of the new movements and most of them soon failed or faded back into the obscurity from which they had emerged. Nevertheless, though they were of little statistical significance the new movements provided some lay and religious people with new ways of thinking about their traditional religious beliefs and they were harbingers of what one scholar perceived as being a ‘nebulous New Age orientation’ to religion (Inglis 2007: 214–16). This book chronicles the emergence of the new religions in Ireland and proposes a synthesis of sociological, theological, anthropological, and psychological theories and insights in explaining the dynamics behind a remarkable period of religious flux and innovation in what was reckoned to be ‘one of the last bastions of traditional and authentic Roman Catholic teaching’ (Bowers 1989: ii).

Tradition has it that Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the year 432 AD. The 1,500th anniversary of that legendary event was commemorated with the staging of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, in 1932. The Eucharistic Congress was a great public spectacle. It demonstrated the strength of the relationship that had developed between the Catholic Church and the State and it let the wider world know that the newly independent Irish Free State was truly a Catholic nation. A few years later, the Census returns for 1936 revealed that 93.4 per cent of the total population of 2,955,107 had registered as belonging to the Roman Catholic tradition. Three decades on the 1961 census showed a slight fall in the total population and in the number of Catholics with 94.9 per cent of the population now identifying with the Catholic tradition. The 1961 figures showed that there were 2,673,473 Catholics in the Republic and ← 1 | 2 → 144,868 people affiliated to other denominations. The Church of Ireland was by far the largest group of non-Catholics with 104,016 members followed by 18,953 Presbyterians; 6,676 Methodists; 3,255 Jews, 727 Society of Friends (or ‘Quakers’); 481 Baptists; 401 Lutherans; and 3,627 were classified ‘Other Religion’ while 1,107 people put themselves into the sub-category of ‘No Religion’ and 5,625 made ‘No Statement’. Three decades on the census returns for 1991 showed that although 91.6 per cent of the population belonged to the Catholic Church the number of people who did not claim any religious identity had risen to 149,640.

Though the census returns indicated that Irish Catholicism was still fairly robust and stable the Church would soon be rocked by a succession of child abuse scandals and a 2007–2008 survey headed by the Jesuit sociologist Micheál MacGréil found that just 43 per cent of Irish Catholics regularly attended mass and 33 per cent never went to confession. MacGréil also found that religious indifference was the major reason behind the very substantial shift in attitudes and he warned that the high levels of indifference heralded a crisis in Catholic practice (MacGréil 2009). A few years later, in 2012, a Red C poll rated the Irish Republic one of the least religious of fifty-seven countries surveyed with just 47 per cent of the population considering themselves religious.1

There can be no doubt but that the litany of child abuse scandals that resulted in a governmental Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse, the so-called ‘Ryan Commission’, was a major factor in the decline of Irish Catholicism. But the winds of change were blowing for decades before the Ryan Report moved the former Irish President, Mary McAleese, to call for a forensic probing and explanation of the ‘systemic betrayal of the great Christian commandment to love one another’.2 The American Jesuit sociologist, Fr Alexander Humphreys found some signs of change during the course of field research that he carried out nearly half a century before the Ryan Commission published its report. What he found were signs of intergenerational changes amongst Dublin Catholics that he thought ← 2 | 3 → would ultimately lead to a more questioning attitude and he thought that the changes had a lot to do with a shift away from parental ‘domination by authority’ to ‘domination by affection’ and a growing tendency:

The emergence of a more questioning attitude towards the Catholic ethos was picked up again in the 1970s when, as Louise Fuller explained it, a Church sponsored report on religious practice, attitudes and beliefs suggested that although ‘91 per cent of those surveyed attended weekly mass this did not mean that they lived their lives according to church precepts, particularly in the area of sexual morality’. As Fuller went on to note, it was in that 1974 report from the Irish Bishops’ Research and Development Commission that the phrase à la carte Catholicism was used to describe the new dispensation (2005: 51).

A decade on from the publication of that report, Michael Fogarty, Liam Ryan and Joseph Lee interpreted the findings of the European Values Study (EVS) as showing that although Ireland remained an outstandingly religious country many Catholics felt trapped by the traditional, nationalist and Catholic nature of Irish society (1984: 8 & 98). Ryan thought the EVS figures indicated that orthodox Catholicism had become a minority position amongst some social groups and highlighted findings showing that nearly a quarter of the Catholics surveyed did not believe in life after death, only 46 per cent believed in the doctrine of the one true Church, almost half did not believe in hell or the devil, only a third of those under twenty-five years of age believed that their church’s answers were adequate on moral problems and problems of family life, 53 per cent of all Irish people and 71 per cent of those under twenty-five years of age approved of divorce legislation, one in four of the adult population did not pray and half of the total population lacked confidence in their church (Fogarty, Ryan and Lee 1984: 99).

Nearly half a century on from the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 researchers found that that nearly 86 per cent of the Catholic population of this 95 per cent Catholic country felt extremely or somewhat close to ← 3 | 4 → God (MacGréil 1991). The 1991 census returns showed that 3,228,327 citizens belonged to the Roman Catholic tradition while 89,187 identified with the Church of Ireland; 6,347 as Protestant; 13,119 as Presbyterian; 5,037 as Methodist; 1,581 as Jewish; 1,156 as Baptist; 1,010 as Lutheran and 749 as Society of Friends (or Quakers). Then, listed under the heading ‘Other religions’, the census recorded Christian (unspecified) 16,329; Muslim 3,875; Lapsed Roman Catholic 3,749; Jehovah’s Witnesses 16,329; Buddhists 986; Hindus 953; Latter Day Saints 853; Agnostic 823; Evangelical 819; Baha’i; 430; Greek Orthodox 358; Atheists 320; Apostolic or Pentecostal 285; Pantheist 202; Other stated denominations 2,197; No religion 66,270; and Not stated 83,375 (Census 1991: 22). As Malcolm Macourt observed, the 1991 census was the first to report the numbers belonging to ‘what might be described as new religious movements’. However, acknowledging that ‘the boundaries between facts, beliefs and opinions cause serious problems for every census office’, Macourt also noted that religious groups with less than 200 adherents were excluded and that the catch-all categories of ‘Pantheist’ and ‘Other stated denominations’ were problematic because it could and was likely to include such diverse groups as Pagans, Wiccans, Druids, and Satanists as well as some Hindus, Buddhists and Theosophists (Macourt 2011: 32, 34, 48–9).

By the mid-1990s an Irish Carmelite priest felt able to declare that the ‘unique situation that still exists as regards the practice of the [Catholic] faith here is not one of unbelief but of shallow belief’ (O’Dwyer O’Carm 1995:273). So, despite the appearance of high levels of religious satisfaction and stability, Irish Catholicism was not nearly as robust, as homogenous or as stable as it appeared to be. Indeed, as Hiliary Tovey and Perry Share put it, there had been a ‘sea change’ in both the nature and position of all the main Irish churches since the 1960s and the contemporary surge of new religions. Referencing Peter Berger’s definition of secularisation as being ‘the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols’ they argued that changing attitudes towards religion and the decline in religious vocations and practice were indicative of a trend towards increasing secularisation and a shift towards mysticism and ‘New Age religions’ (2000: 312–14, 324–30 & 403). ← 4 | 5 →

New religions and the New Age Movement

What is meant by the term ‘New Age religions’ or the more commonly used term ‘New Age Movement’ are not easily defined and their meaning has been contested by academics and amongst the people that they identify as being members of the movement (see, e.g. Lewis 1992: 294; Hanegraaff 1998: 7; Sutcliffe 2003: 6–7; and Puttick 2005: 149–30). One of those scholars noted that by the 1980s ‘even otherwise thoughtful figures in the metaphysical subculture’ were already distancing themselves from the ‘New Age’ label because of media stereotyping of the movement as being ‘narcissistic’ (Lewis 1992: 294). Steve Sutcliffe thought that the label should be abandoned ‘because it was originally an apocalyptic emblem that had been ‘devalued into a tag or codeword for a spiritual idiom’ (2005: 160). And Elizabeth Puttick, a New Age enthusiast (1997: 4), has also argued that the term should be dropped. Puttick held that the millenarian dimension of New Ageism has become ‘old hat’ and noted that the New Age author William Bloom favoured the term ‘holism’ as being a ‘more inclusive’ and ‘multi-level definition’ of the movement. She also highlighted the fact that the New Age publishing industry had dropped the label in favour of ‘mind-body-spirit’ (or ‘MBS’) and suggested that academics should follow suit (2005: 130 & 149). MBS beliefs and holistic or what some prefer to call ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ healing have indeed become a dominant feature of what Marian Bowman called the New Age ‘healing hypermarket’ (1999: 181–9). Nevertheless, the term New Age has remained in common usage and I shall be using it in the loose and pragmatic sense that Hanegraaff advocated when saying that he used such terms as New Age Religion and New Ager to refer to ‘a sphere widely regarded as “religious” according to common parlance’ (1998: 7).

It has been argued that the New Age movement represents an important phase in a long-term process of cultural elaboration (van Otterloo 1999: 192). But academics rarely used the term New Age in relation to religion prior to 1987 and an event called the Harmonic Convergence, a globally synchronised meditation that was timed to coincide with an exceptional alignment of the planets in our solar system (Lewis 1992: 6). Now the terms New Age and New Age Movement or the acronym NAM are commonly ← 5 | 6 → used to refer to the plethora of new religious and quasi-religious or occult movements that flourished in the wake of the 1960s counter-culture and which Robert Bellah understood to be ‘successor movements’ to the counter-culture (Bellah 1976: 339).

It was largely because of anti-cult campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s that social scientists like Bellah chose to use the term new religions rather than the terms ‘cult’ and ‘sect’; both of which were being used to deride and attack all kinds of non-traditional, unorthodox and exotic movements as being deviant, deceptive or immoral and a threat to people’s physical or mental health. The social scientists hoped that the term ‘new religious movements’ (NRMs) would serve as a generic label for the phenomenon they were studying without implying that they were a social problem (Barker 2011: 198–9).

In its narrow usage the term ‘new religious movements’, or NRMs, refers to religious groups and organisations that emerged in the West after the Second World War and which were mainly peopled by first generation converts. But the term is also used in a broader sense to refer to ancient religions like Buddhism and Hinduism that started flourishing outside their countries of origin in modern times. So as Peter Clarke explained them, NRMs are religions that were not new in a cultural and theological sense but which have established themselves in Western Europe, North America and Japan since 1945, and in Africa over a longer time-span (1991: 149). Expanding on that definition of the new movements Eileen Barker held that what made the new movements religious was not that they offered ‘narrow theological statements about the existence and nature of supernatural beings’ but that they proposed answers to some of the ‘ultimate questions that have traditionally been addressed by mainstream religions’; questions about the existence of God, what happens when we die, and how to find direction and meaning and purpose in this life (1999: 16). Clarke thought that, regardless of time or place and religious or cultural background virtually every NRM was essentially millenarian and that their impact and historical significance could only be fully appreciated when seen for what they were, ‘a religious reformation on a worldwide scale’ (2004: xii–xiv). And with regard to the NAM, he observed that very few traditional religions have escaped its influence or the ‘process of osmosis’ through which it is ‘fast becoming part of mainstream religion and culture’ (2006: viii). ← 6 | 7 →

However, the NAM is not thought to be an entirely new phenomenon in Western culture. Rather, as the Baptist theologian John Newport saw it, New Ageism was just the ‘latest phase in a persistent occult tradition that has been in constant contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition’ (1998: 19). Professor of religious studies and himself a Theosophist, Robert Ellwood thought New Ageism was ‘a contemporary manifestation of a western alternative spirituality tradition going back to at least the Greco-Roman world’ and breaking into high visibility in Renaissance occultism, eighteenth-century Freemasonry, and nineteenth-century spiritualism and Theosophy (1992: 59). But others have argued that, like Wicca or witchcraft, New Age belief/claims about such things as flying saucers and extraterrestrial saviours were essentially mid-twentieth-century developments (see Sutcliffe and Bowman 2000: 4).

When considering the inspiration behind New Age thinking Gordon Melton held that the movement originated in Europe among Theosophists and emerged in recent times among English ‘Theosophical and channelling groups’ (1992: 20). With her focus on the American scene, Kay Alexander concluded that, in so far as it was product of the ‘transpersonal movement’, the NAM ‘came directly out of the human potential movement’ and was nurtured in places like the Esalen centre in California (1992: 30–47). Hanegraaff argued along similar lines but acknowledged that American New Ageism had some roots in a British ‘proto-New Age Movement’ that existed in the 1950s and which had a ‘broadly Theosophical worldview’ and was preoccupied with ‘immanent apocalypse’ and the emergence of a ‘spiritual elite of enlightened seekers who would usher in a new age by facilitating the arrival of extraterrestrial saviours. He held that that essentially English proto-movement had persisted but with some ‘softening’ of the original apocalyptic vision as it was being absorbed into the American ‘New Age sensu lato’ [New Age in a wider sense]; a movement that had ‘important cultural and ideological roots in the American New Thought movement and the so-called Metaphysical Movements’ (2005: 46–7).3 Sutcliffe thought ← 7 | 8 → that the NAM was a realisation of Colin Campbell’s thesis that the NRMs were harbingers of a more diffuse phenomenon, an ethos or cluster of values and beliefs which accords a general place to spirituality (2000: 27).

Sutcliffe traced the transformation of New Ageism in Britain to the arrival of an American called David Spangler. As Sutcliffe explained it, Spangler arrived at the Findhorn centre in Scotland in 1970 and initiated a major hermeneutical shift away from a highly literalist millenarian eschatology to a more symbolic discourse, one that had the advantage of functioning with plausibility at several different levels simultaneously.4 Sutcliffe explained that shift as being a consequence of the confluence of key elements of Human Potential ideology with a minority New Age hermeneutic that triggered a rediscovery of the self and a shift of emphasis away ‘from external revelation to internal transformation, from apocalypse to evolution, from transcendental god to immanental self and from theology to psychology or from without to within’.

Sutcliffe thought that Spangler played a major role in turning the British NAM into:

A populist, diverse and resilient ‘new age spirituality’ in which the self withdrew from traditional religious institutional affiliation altogether whilst eclectically synthesising on an increasingly global scale the functional religious elements each biography required for its unique soteriological pilgrimage. (1995: 23–42)

Liselotte Frisk also thought that New Ageism was distinguished by an accelerated eclecticism in which inner experience remained central (2001: 33).

So the term New Age has stuck and the movement is widely regarded as being something of a successor to many of the NRMs that flourished after the Second World War. It has absorbed many of the religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices espoused by those movements as well as some of the not-so-new metaphysical, Pentecostalist and non-traditional ← 8 | 9 → religious groups and movements that flourished during that same period (see, e.g. Alexander 1992:47; Lucas 1992: 193; Tumminia and Lewis 2013: xxv). But the NAM also differed from those new and not-so-new religious movements. In his seminal study of the movement Paul Heelas observed that the ‘mode of affiliation’ amongst New Agers differed from that of the ‘well structured’ NRMs and he described it as being a highly diffuse movement consisting in a great diversity of practices, groups, networks, seminars, centres, monasteries, retreats, exhibitions, music and books (1996: 9, 30, 68). Heelas also thought that the NAM was distinguished by a shift from the counter-cultural concern with ‘harmonial paths’ and alternative lifestyle to a growing emphasis on ‘Self-actualisation’, ‘Self-responsibility’, ‘self-healing’ and ‘Self-spirituality’. He thought that such pursuits appealed most to those who had rejected the voices of authority associated with the established orders and he explained the preoccupation with psychospiritual and ‘holistic healing’ as being driven by the desire to exorcise the voices of authority that had been internalised as the ego (1996: 2, 9, 68, 75, 80, 82).

Some of the NRMs that have come to be seen as precursors or constituent elements of the NAM were labelled narcissistic (Hamilton 1995: 207) and Heelas has acknowledged that narcissism was ‘operative’ in the movement but he rejected the idea that New Ageism necessarily involved a narcissistic flight from reality and suggested that the great challenge for enthusiasts was to find ways of minimising any tendency to indulge in trivialising and self-indulgent behaviour (1996: 4, 150, 214). Nevertheless, as Puttick observed, Heelas’s characterisation of the NAM as being a ‘self-religion’ has been used to support negative comparisons with the Christian doctrine of service and to attack the movement for encouraging narcissistic self-indulgence and a lack of social conscience (2000: 205).


X, 362
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
New Religious Movements and cultural change in Catholic Ireland Child abuse, corporal punishment and Catholic theology Sociology and psychology of religion
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. X, 362 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter Mulholland (Author)

Peter Mulholland holds a PhD in social and cultural anthropology from Maynooth University. He has published papers on Marian apparitions in the Republic and sectarian parades in his hometown of Portadown, in Northern Ireland. He initiated the first multidisciplinary academic conference on new religious movements in Ireland and co-edited the essay collection Ireland’s New Religious Movements (2011).


Title: Love's Betrayal