RELIGION is a belief or worship or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control over human destiny.

Ireland may have been known as the land of saints and scholars in the days when religious zeal and fervour were looked on as aspirational virtues. However, the demographics of religion in Ireland have been changing rapidly and never more so than in the past decade. In 1881, when the census was first taken, 3,465,332 out of a population of 3,870,020 were Catholic; 317,576 were Church of Ireland; 56,498 were Presbyterian; 17,660 were Methodist; 394 were Jewish and 12,560 were described as 'Other'. In 1961 those figures had changed; of a population of 2,978,248 in the Republic, 2,673,473 were Catholics; 104,016 Church of Ireland; 18,953 Presbyterian; 6,676 Methodist; 3255 Jewish; 5236 Others. A new category of No Religion contained 1,107 and Not Stated was 5,625. The latest figures available are from the 2002 census in which the population was 3,917,203. Of these 3,462,606 professed to be Catholic; 115,611 Church of Ireland; 20,000 Presbyterian; 10,033 Methodist; 1,790 Jewish, while Other Religions had risen to 89,223. The number claming No Religion was 138,264 and those making no statement about their creed numbered 79,094.

That still makes Ireland, on paper, a religious and predominantly a Catholic country.

But is it?

As teenagers at the time of the Vatican II revolution, Catholics brought up on a diet of fear and retribution, we were all religious zealots in the making. Now, 40 years on . . . far from being rejuvenated and energised . . .Catholicism, it seems, is struggling to keep its place in Irish life. Has religion lost its place, and if so, why?

It's easy to explain the abandoning of slavish Catholic devotion. Revelations of the hypocrisy of some familiar clerical faces was to mark the beginnings of its downfall.

While we lived in fear of eternal flames and punishment if we should miss mass or let our thoughts wander to such evils as sex, we were forced to grow up when we realised that many of those doing the preaching didn't believe a word of what they were telling us. Of course, 'they're not all the same', but those who were different and good didn't do enough to stop the atrocities or to help those struggling with their faith to come to terms with the cover-ups. People left in droves, many converting to the Protestant faiths, others deciding they didn't need an intermediary to talk to their god.

The consequences of this revolution are obvious and are recognised by the present Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. In an interview only last week he said:

"People are becoming gradually un-churched and this will be from one generation to the next a much more serious problem. In some parishes you'd have 70% regular Sunday practice and higher, down to where you're talking about 1% on the outskirts of Dublin."

There is currently only one priest under the age of 30 in the Diocese of Dublin, with most aged over 60.

But if that is the experience of the Catholic church, why has church attendance dropped off in other religions too? Protestant churches have closed in great numbers, with clergymen doing the rounds . . .

a service here one week and somewhere else the next.

Some of the Protestant religions have allowed women clergy to be ordained. While this is not on the agenda of the Catholic church, it has just announced that deacons will be introduced in the next three years. The number of Jews, synagogues and kosher shops has dwindled to a handful. More people will openly tell you they are atheist. Has this all to do with affluence and the effects of consumerism? If religion is . . . in the words of Karl Marx . . . the opium of the people, is the affluent Celtic Tiger generation not in need of opiates any more? Faith is flourishing in developing countries and declining here.

Paradoxically, with the declining numbers of Irish people going to mass, the churches have been given a new lease of life as a result of increased immigration.

In Halston Street there are two Polish masses on Sundays. In Westland Row there's a Lithuanian community. The Ukrainians have a service in the Pro-Cathedral. In the deaneries of north Dublin there are children from 104 different countries and 20 different religions.

A new wave of immigration has brought with it diversity in colour and creed like we had never imagined. From a predominantly Catholic/ Protestant culture with a little Jewish and Quaker following thrown in, almost overnight we have embraced Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Church of the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah Witnesses and Pentecostalists, along with many other creeds.

Mosques were unheard of here 40 years ago . . . now they are popping up in larger communities and the Islam cultural centre in Clonskeagh has done much to promote an understanding of the Islamic faith in this country. Archbishop Martin has stated publicly that he would have no objection to Muslim girls wearing their headscarves in Catholic schools.

It seems that the softly softly approach has failed and a la carte religion has lost its appeal. It seems also that those with stricter regimes and dictates are finding favour and followers. Globally Christianity holds approximately a 30% place in the faith stakes with Islam at 21%. It is estimated that followers of Mohammed will have grown to 45% in 15 years.

However it is perhaps too late for many churches to win back their followers here.

Freedom is a heady drug and, for many, religious freedom meant freedom from religion.

Many have fallen from the fold, others have regrouped, joined different values or merely reassessed their principles and persuasion. Whether the country will be better off in the future remains to be seen.

So too whether the churches will have more than a social role to play. Whatever happens, it is a fact that when people started talking against their faith or their lack of it, the skies didn't fall, and the hells didn't open up and life went on pretty much as usual.