Northern Ireland Census and Religious Diversity: What does it show us?

With the 2021 census set to be released to the public on May 24th, it is important to look at the previous censuses in order to make predictions about the new one. One of the key statistics on the census is looking at the population of Northern Ireland and sorting by religion.

Considering the history of sectarianism in the country, it’s no surprise that religion is analyzed every census. When comparing the 2001 and 2011 data we can see two distinct changes over the 10-year time span. As the population increased from 1,685,267 in 2001 to 1,810,863 in 2011, a 7.5% increase, we begin to see a change in the ratios different religious identities make in the population.

For the Catholic population, it remained fairly consistent only dropping 2% over the 10 years. The Protestant (and protestant adjacent) population dropped 5% during the same time. Despite this, both are still the predominant faiths in the country.

The non-religious population nearly doubled, raising from 2.7% to 5.6% while the number of non-Christian faiths increased from 0.3% to 0.9%, tripling in size but still representing the smallest population.

When looking at these changes, talking to the younger generation can lead into some insight as to why this might be happening on a more person-to-person level. Louis Lennon, Theo McBurney, and Scott Mann each represent the younger generation in different ways.

Lennon grew up in West Belfast and was raised in the Catholic faith but has some experience with Protestantism as well as pagan faiths through family and friends, however, they ultimately became Atheist.

Lennon offered their take on how they view religious diversity in Northern Ireland.

“I think anyone who doesn’t think that religious diversity within Northern Ireland would be a good thing is blatantly blind to the past, the neglect and disregard for other religions is exactly what plunged the North into the troubles during the late 60s/ early 70s,” Lennon said.

“I believe that history is doomed to repeat itself unless the people of this country become more diversified and more accepting of other religions sharing their space. There is also the fact that other religions can only bring good things to the culture of the north, bringing their foods and other delicacies with them which could be particularly helpful for the economy within the country.”

McBurney, unlike Lennon, grew up in East Belfast to a Protestant family before becoming Atheist.

“Considering the history where there was a lot of conflict,” McBurney said, “religious diversity is very well known now a days. It’s very much present, it’s very much it’s there, It’s very normalized.”

Scott Mann comes from a different perspective compared to Lennon and McBurney. Mann grew up in County Armagh, was raised in the Protestant community, and is a practicing member of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Mann is also a member of the Orange Order society on his university campus.

When asked about religious diversity, Mann offered his take on the changes.

“Religious diversity is obviously quite a difficult issue in the context of Northern Ireland and the history we’ve been through,” Mann said.

“Demographics, I find it to be quite sad to see the increase in secularism and people moving away from Christianity because I feel that Christianity helps develop and maintain a lot of our traditional values in Northern Ireland. I feel that Christianity is the basis of our morality and our view and I think it’s a very good thing for the country and I think it’s sad to see the country move away from those values and away from God.”

After speaking with all three of them, Lennon and Mann offered their interpretations on why the diversity may be increasing.

“Personally, I believe generational growth is a massive contributor to the growing religious diversity within The North,” Lennon said. “The current generation is one which was brought up at the beginning of the peace process and have seen what religious divide did to our parents and their parents before us.”

“I believe that witnessing these things first hand has created a sense of diversity and character that could push people towards exploring religion and finding out what works for them. In addition to this, there is the fact that immigration and tourism have skyrocketed within the North in the past couple of years, with some people moving over and starting their own family bringing their religion with them or just letting others experience their culture, perpetuating it through the country.”

Mann had a similar take saying, “I think a lot of its down to how Northern Ireland has changed. I suppose that people have decided that now that the troubles have come to an end, people think it’s a lot safer to come here and live.”

“In the UK, we’ve got a lot of opportunities for people who might be from less fortunate circumstances, so obviously people can come to Northern Ireland and there’s opportunities there for them. We’re a mostly peaceful society for to people to live in and people like coming her. People are more attracted to Northern Ireland then they have in the past.”

Both acknowledged the role that immigration likely plays a key factor in how the religious demographics of the north have changed. However, both view the develop of greater religious diversity with Lennon welcoming the change while Mann feels concerned by it due to his active religious perspective.

While each of them has their differing perspectives, we can only wait until the next census is released in order to see if the trend seen between 2001 and 2011 continues. As Northern Ireland continues to become more globally connected it’s likely these numbers will continue to fluctuate and change.

A prediction for the upcoming census is that there will likely continue to be an increase is secularism as that is a trend in multiple countries and not just Northern Ireland. The same goes for religions outside of Christianity. The 2021 census will be released on May 24th.