Census 2021: The dramatic growth of the non-religious in Northern Ireland

In every news outlet this week was the headline that Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in its history. The most remarkable demographic change however, and one worthy of far more coverage that it received, is the dramatic growth of the non-religious – now the fastest growing demographic in Northern Ireland.

In Census 2021 data released on Thursday, when asked ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, 330,983 people ticked None, compared to 183,164 in 2011. In spite of a leading Census question that predisposes people to tick a religious box, the non-religious population has increased by 80% in just ten years: a remarkable change in the make-up of the country, and one that depicts far better Northern Ireland’s cultural direction of travel than the divisive ‘Catholic V Protestant’ narrative. 

While new outlets may see Northern Ireland as of interest primarily for its political future, Northern Ireland is also a place in its own right, with systems of education, health, and family law – all areas of public life that will be far more affected by the growth of the non-religious. Major changes in the last six years have been driven not by the growth of one religious denomination, but by the growth of the non-religious population, and with it, a greater focus on secular, inclusive values in public policy.

When Humanists UK launched Northern Ireland Humanists in 2016, it could not foresee the speed with which change would occur. In the space of just six years, Northern Ireland has legalised same-sex marriage, introduced zones in the immediate vicinity of abortion clinics to prevent harassment and intimidation by anti-choice groups, and legally recognised humanist marriages. More recently in education, historic laws have been passed to end discrimination by religion in hiring and firing teachers, and new law has mandated that the Government must meet demand for places in integrated, and more inclusive, schools.

Catholics outnumbering Protestants may be a historical milestone, but of far greater significance is the growth of the non-religious – a demographic change that has already dramatically changed the landscape of Northern Ireland. It’s time to end the obsession with historical divides and instead focus on a new Northern Ireland based on secular, inclusive ideals.

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