Posted: 2021-08-13

27% say they are non-religious, but where are the parties that give them a voice?

ACCORDING to the latest Life and Times Survey, published in June and relating to 2020, as many as 27% in Northern Ireland regard themselves as having no religion  – a figure that has more than doubled in a decade. It is also nearly as many as those who are Catholic (28%) and more than Presbyterians (18%). Yet religion maintains its privileged position in many areas, including politics, education and the media. 


In politics it is not generally acceptable to declare yourself as atheist or agnostic. In recent times the only MLA to come out as a non-believer was Anna Lo, who is not actually a native of the province. A BBC survey in 2015 found that seven MLAs were actually non-religious but all except Anna wished to remain anonymous. 


Religion is still widely regarded as a badge of respectability so that to come out as non-religious is seen as signing your own political death warrant. Yet it would presumably be applauded by at least 27% of the population and probably by many believers who would appreciate the honesty and who see can through the pretence of piety.


This hypocritical display of piety plays a part in preventing many politicians from acting to reduce the overbearing influence of religion in many areas of life, including the laws on social issues such as abortion and gay issues. Local MLAs continue to stall on implementing abortion reform, and the DUP has consistently opposed gay rights from the days of its foundation under Paisley. These reactionary attitudes persist in the main churches. The Presbyterian Church forbids gays from becoming full members. 


Northern Ireland has been persistently behind most other advanced societies in these matters, precisely because of the negative and decidedly ‘unchristian’ influence of narrow religious dogma by many of the leading politicians and the clergy.


Education is another prime example. The churches have too much influence on the ethos of most schools and in insisting on collective worship and a narrow RE curriculum which is predominantly Christian in character. It is, however, encouraging that a father and daughter are challenging this exclusively Christian-focused education in the courts and that they have been granted a full hearing in November.


The churches are also mainly responsible for keeping the children apart. It is an absolute disgrace that, well into the 21st century, 93% of children are still educated in religiously segregated schools. They are likely to go through their entire school life without having a serious conversation with someone of the other ‘tribe’. This segregated education is clearly a major cause of division in the wider society. 


All the evidence indicates that prejudice, hatred and sectarianism are fuelled by a lack of contact and reciprocity. On the other hand, compassion, empathy and friendship grow when we are together and can know one another.


The question, then, is why does this segregation persist? Is it fear of bringing our conflict into the classroom? Or, more likely, is it because vested interests want to keep it this way? The main churches, in particular the Catholic Church, argue that we should be proud of our educational diversity and pluralism as opposed to the dull uniformity of education in other countries. 

Yet this is a disingenuous argument. It is only diverse for the religious organisations who have an input into them. It crucially lacks diversity for the children who are educated separately. It is they who need to experience the diversity of the community themselves so that they understand the different perspectives and engage directly with them. 


They can only successfully do that by being educated together throughout their formative years. The time is overdue when our local politicians begin the process of ending the iniquitous system which, scandalously, keeps them apart.


As for the media, the Irish News is clearly a Catholic newspaper and the Belfast Newsletter is a Protestant journal. The Belfast Telegraph has recently become less purely Protestant, but all three are religious in basic outlook, with religious correspondents, religious columns and church notices. The broadcast media are also religious in tone, especially on a Sunday. The BBC still refuses to allow non-believers to present Thought for the Day.


Where, then, can the 27% have their voices heard? Humanist organisations have a limited impact. They may be able to challenge some of the laws through the courts or in occasional media contributions, but changing the ideologies and mindsets of Orange and Green is the real task. This transformation can only be achieved through education, publicity and power and, as we have seen, the obstacles in the way are currently formidable. 


Perhaps, finally, those who have long maintained that Northern Ireland needs a Humanist party have a real point. The 27% can then begin to organise throughout every town in the province and demonstrate to a wider public that they have a progressive vision which seeks to move the society beyond the narrow ground of God and Ulster.      


Brian McClinton August 2021