A SURVEY of 5,000 churchgoers in Belfast has found that education levels determine how readily Catholics accept the doctrines of their church.
The strongest expressions of traditional doctrinal conviction came from young Protestants.
Responses from more than 3,000 Catholics, collated by Queen's University's institute of Irish studies, show that those who had been to university were much less likely to be firm believers and so much more likely to reject Church teachings, particularly those relating to Papal infallibility. They adopted a pick 'n' mix attitude to what they believed.
As the proportion of those with a university education increased, the frequency of church attendance also declined. But Frederick Boal, Margaret Keane and David Livingstone, authors of the report, Them and Us, Attitudinal Variation Among Churchgoers in Belfast, said the impact of education may be linked to age.
Similarly, as levels of education improved, the centrality of church membership in people's lives appeared to wane.
Nevertheless, 64 per cent of the university educated still considered membership of the Catholic Church to be extremely important.
Graduates also emerged as the most frequent readers of the scriptures, far outranking those from unskilled backgrounds. They were also quickest to hold that sermons should sometimes deal with political problems and social and economic issues.
Young Protestants, in marked contrast, displayed a distinct conservatism. Of the 2,000 Protestants surveyed, 78 per cent of those aged under 24 espoused biblical infallibility, and only half of those over 65 did so.
The young also advocated traditional sexual mores more readily than older Protestants.
"The attitudinal pattern regarding sexual mores may well reflect the fact that younger respondents are more likely to have conservative or evangelical religious convictions," the authors said.
Protestants were more strongly opposed than Catholics to a religiously mixed marriage. Only 14 per cent found inter-church marriage to be acceptable while a quarter of Catholics would be happy to marry a Protestant.
Each group overwhelmingly perceived "the other community" to be fairly treated these days. But this was not reflected in feelings about their own group.
A quarter of Protestant churchgoers considered that Protestants did not get a fair deal. The figure rose dramatically to three quarters of Catholic churchgoers believing that Catholics are not fairly treated.
But for both Protestants and Catholics an inter-racial marriage was preferable to a Northern Ireland partner of the other religion.