Northern Ireland Humanists call for politicians in Stormont to give ‘non-religious a seat at the table’ after Census figures

Northern Ireland Humanists has said it shows it is time for politicians in Stormont to give the non-religious ‘a seat at the table’, and that religious divisions in our education system ‘are simply not sustainable’.

The 2021 Northern Ireland Census, released today, shows the number of people identifying as non-religious has almost doubled.

When asked ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, 330,983 ticked None, compared to 183,164 in 2011 – an 80% increase. That represents a growth in the share of the population from 10% to 17%.

More people identify as non-religious than as Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Methodist, or any denomination apart from Catholic.

Stormont

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Northern Ireland Humanists has said it shows it is time for politicians in Stormont to give the non-religious ‘a seat at the table’, and that religious divisions in our education system ‘are simply not sustainable’.

The share ticking ‘Catholic’ grew just 1%, from 41% to 42%. The share ticking ‘Presbyterian’ shrank from 19% to 17%, ‘Church of Ireland’ from 14% to 12%, and ‘Methodist’ from 3% to 2%. Those ticking ‘Other Christian’ grew from 6% to 7%, ‘Other’ (i.e. other religions) stayed at 1%, and non-respondents shrank from 7% to 2%.

Northern Ireland Humanists say the higher results for the non-religious have come about ‘in spite of the fact that there is a problem with the way the Census question is phrased, in that the question assumes that people are religious.’

“It therefore undercounts the non-religious share of the population. A better question is asked by the annual Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey. It asks ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? If yes, which?’ One of the options is ‘No religion’. In 2021, 28% of the population ticked that box.”

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Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented: “The biggest demographic change in Northern Ireland in the last ten years has been the dramatic growth of the non-religious – and today’s Census results confirm it.

“The implications of this trend are wide-ranging but, given that younger people are more likely to be non-religious, they are especially urgent in relation to our school system. We now have an increasingly untenable situation where a fifth of the population are not Christian but 100% of our schools are. Compulsory Christian RE and worship in our schools simply no longer fits with our society and the Assembly should bring about a radical overhaul of our education system in particular as soon as it possibly can.’

The Census also asks a second question: ‘What religion, religious denomination or body were you brought up in?’ Many commentators and politicians use this to try to argue that people affiliate to one of the two historic communities in Northern Ireland: Catholic or Protestant. This is a problem because it may fail to consider how people choose to identify today. It should therefore in many contexts be discounted.