Analysis: Religion is a group membership that can be a vehicle for health and pro-social and charitable behaviour, but it can also be divisive particularly if we inadvertently tie the fate of the group to the issue that is on the table. 

There is widespread acceptance that religion, and Catholicism in particular, has been an important component of the Irish national psyche for many years. There is strong evidence through census statistics, recent referenda results and everyday behaviours that religion is on the decline.

That said religion remains an important component of many peoples sense of who they are.

We have known for some time that group membership is central to health. In our work, we have been exploring its health benefits and one of our hypotheses is that religious group membership is particularly potent in stressful situations.

In a lab situation, when we advise people that a task is very stressful but that their beliefs may be of benefit, we find that those that believe in God often perform better than those with other beliefs. Those who believe also show less cardiovascular reactivity in response to the stress- a key predictor of health.

In short they are supported by their belief that their religion can help them cope. This we argue is because of the content of religious identity – it can help to bear our crosses in life.

As well as being a psychological resource, religious group membership can also be the basis for giving and receiving support. For many in Ireland as elsewhere, it is important to support those who are less fortunate at Christmas time.

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Our culture and values mean that we seek to help those less fortunate at this time. Psychologists sometimes refer to features of group life as banal: features of our social worlds that can almost be invisible. Ireland is not unique in having religion as a banal backdrop to everyday life. For example at the European level we could say that Judeo Christian traditions are embedded.

Parliament, schools, and universities work to the holidays associated with these religious traditions. In Ireland, the norms of one particular Christian tradition, namely Catholicism, became embedded in our norms as well as the systems and structures of the state. We can see this in our educational, health and social care systems. This happens in many places across the world.

In recent years though, Ireland has changed. We have increased secularism, as well as an increasing population of people with other religions. There is also a group who actively misidentifies from formal religion. In this new Ireland, the everyday backdrop that assumes Catholicism to be the norm can become problematic.

This can happen for two reasons. First it can make those who are not members of the main religious tradition feel they are marginal, or on the outside of our society. Certainly, there is evidence that suggests that historically Irish Protestants have felt this and there is emerging evidence that those from non-Christian traditions can struggle to feel accepted as authentically Irish.

The second issue that arises is illustrated in the RTE documentary Divorcing God. We know from a long tradition of research in social psychology that people have a tendency to favour others with whom they share group memberships.

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In the original studies, using what is called the minimal group paradigm, people favoured others in their own group when they were allocating resources. Subsequent studies showed that people also show an attitudinal preference even where the basis of the affiliation was minimal.

It is worth remembering this favouritism can be implicit. To return to our previous example it is revealed in the way we think to help those who want to celebrate Christmas. There is often no ill will associated with the favouritism and it is conceptually distinct from hostility towards out groups.

However when tensions arise - and in particular when a scenario is seen as a win-lose situation - hostility towards those who appear to devalue my group does become an issue. In this way, the debate over the future of the state’s school system within or without the Catholic church can feel very tense as there will be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

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Such situations where religious group membership is relevant are therefore very likely to influence attitudes and preferences.

So for instance in a US study, a key finding was that people who were primed to see religion as relevant responded very differently to a range of social and political attitude questions. And equally priming influenced approval of President Obama depending on whether he was referred to as Barack Hussein Obama or Barack Obama.

In our reimagining of this study, we observed the effect of priming religion on attitudes in an Irish sample. When religion was brought to the forefront of people’s mind, believers tend to have stronger views about the need for robust political leadership, the need for obedience and authority in the school system and the need to crack down on crime.

From Radio 1's CountryWide, St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland hosted a special service celebrating inclusivity in the GAA. Damien O'Reilly was joined by historian Paul Rouse to discuss the history of religion in the GAA.

We also asked people about their view of Leo Varadkar. Our results indicated that believers and non-believers responded to him very differently depending on whether he was picture with a Pride flag or a Vatican flag. Believers approved of Leo more when pictured with the Vatican Flag. Non-believers approval ratings were higher when he was pictured with the Gay Pride flag.

Overall then, we can see that religion can be a force that unites as well as a source that divides. It is a group membership that can be a vehicle for health and pro-social and charitable behaviour. But it can also be divisive particularly if we inadvertently tie the fate of the group to the issue that is on the table. But it does not have to be this way.

Our findings suggest that religion is not as divisive in Ireland as it is in the US. As we face the future, we need to make sure that people of all religions and none feel equally as comfortable and accepted in the national group. We have a history of honouring religion that can be an important basis for respecting all religious traditions in the New Ireland.

Divorcing God will be broadcast on RTÉ One on Wednesday, June 12th at 9.35pm. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.