Why the old Protestant/Catholic atheist gag isn’t funny anymore

A couple of evenings ago I attended a discussion in the Old Chelsea Town Hall in London. It was an ‘election dissection’ debate with four panelists representing left and right opinions. They tried to answer why the outcome of the UK election was so surprising. They discussed the failure of Labour. They discussed the success of the Conservatives.

Northern Ireland was mentioned just once. But the speaker who mentioned it – Victor Bogdanor of King’s College – made reference to Northern Ireland’s “two communities”.

I was thinking of challenging the eminent academic – asking him why he had referred to two communities. I wanted to say that I wasn’t a member of either community. But he, like most of the British public who know anything about Northern Ireland, would take such protestations with a pinch of salt. Everybody in Northern Ireland, everybody seems to know, is a member of one tribe or another. Protestant or Catholic. Unionist or Nationalist.  Even Northern Irish atheists will be Protestant atheists or Catholic atheists. Everybody knows the old gag.

But the old gag isn’t funny anymore. On the face of it, the hard-wired structure of religious monitoring and re-designation unfairly discriminates against atheists in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has institutionally defined itself as Protestant and Catholic and we have set up monitoring systems to ensure that everyone is force-fitted into one category or another based on our upbringing and parentage. But as an atheist, I, and many others are beginning to question whether enough is enough. Is it time to challenge the system of religious monitoring in Northern Ireland?

The Equality Commission NI provides equality data based on religious background. Should an atheist identify as belonging to neither Protestant nor Catholic communities on employment monitoring forms the employer is advised:

“If it has not been possible to make a determination of community background because, for example, the employee did not return the monitoring questionnaire or indicated that s/he was a member of neither community, you are strongly encouraged to use the fallback or residuary method of monitoring. The residuary method permits employers to use other written pieces of information provided by an employee, which can give a reasonable indication of community background. For information which can be used in applying the residuary method see Appendix 5.”

Appendix 5 lists suggested ways to forcibly fit self-declared atheists into Protestant and Catholic e.g. surname and other names; schools attended; sporting or other leisure pursuits or interests; clubs, societies or other organisations belonged to.

The Equality Commission states, “regardless of whether we practice religion, most of us in Northern Ireland are seen as either Catholic or Protestant.”

In short, the Equality Commission insists that people who have no religious faith should be defined as Protestant or Catholic whatever they claim.

So why should atheists, who do not define themselves as Protestant or Catholic or any other religion, be defined as something else because of Equality Commission rules?

This ridiculous situation is allowed to continue with no complaint. A group that has no faith is miraculously redefined as being a group with faith at every opportunity.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) conducts the 10-yearly census. Everyone who completes the census form is asked to indicate to which religion they belong.  Only people who indicate ‘No Religion’ are asked if they attended church with their parents.

NISRA uses this data to create two outputs. The first is “religion” and the second output is called “religion or religion brought up in”.

The first output for “religion” counts atheists as “no religion” but it is largely ignored in analyzing the religious make-up on Northern Ireland. Atheists will be lumped-in to the grouping “religion or religion brought up in Protestant and other Christian (including Christian Related)” if their parents brought them to church as children.

The first output doesn’t feature in the NI Assembly ‘Key Statistics from the 2011 Census’ document but the second does. The media mostly report the ‘religious background’ statistics (because they are provided with them) and often neglect to advise the reader that they are background statistics i.e. they are wrong.

This means that atheists’ census answers based on childhood church attending results in them being reported within the Protestant or Catholic populations.

It’s clearly wrong if people who want to be seen and classified as atheists are being categorized as something else. Most atheists may not see themselves (ourselves) as members of a minority group. Atheists tend not to have homogeneous views on many issues (although they tend to me much more socially liberal than those with faith).

But it could be argued that the systematic re-categorisation of Atheists is in contravention of Article 3 of the EU Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The convention states that members of minorities should have the right to choose to be treated as such and that no disadvantage shall result from that choice.

I’m an atheist. I’m not a Protestant or a Catholic. I’m not a Unionist or a Nationalist. I’ll take issue if anyone suggests otherwise.

(Many thanks to Roy Fisher for much of the background information for this post)

Free market libertarian. Businessman. Small government advocate. Former Vice-Chair, Conservative Party in NI. Fellow, Institute of Economic Affairs. Former Regional Chair, Business for Britain (the business voice of VoteLeave).