Northern Ireland’s Humanists: daring to declare ‘no religion’

Growing community urging those who are not religious to say so on the next census

Humanist Sheena Bradley: ‘I was born into the Church of Ireland, and tried a few different churches, so I suppose I was a Protestant. But I was never a very Protestant Protestant’

Humanist Sheena Bradley: ‘I was born into the Church of Ireland, and tried a few different churches, so I suppose I was a Protestant. But I was never a very Protestant Protestant’

 

Once every 10 years, Sheena Bradley has ticked the box “Christian” when asked about her religion in the Northern Ireland census.

This year the 54-year-old says she will “no longer be afraid” to declare herself as having no religion.

“I would have always said I was Christian,” she says. “I was born into the Church of Ireland, and tried a few different churches, so I suppose I was a Protestant. But I was never a very Protestant Protestant.”

Nonetheless, she was married in the church and had her three children christened. Later, Bradley attended services of different denominations and, raised on a diet of “hellfire and damnation”, was always afraid to cut her ties.

“But as I got older, I got more confident as a person and I stopped being afraid and realised I didn’t believe any of it,” she says.

“I remember being in the car with my daughter, who was then eight or nine years old, and her friend, when her friend asked her if she was Protestant or Catholic.

“She didn’t even understand what she was being asked. I thought that was brilliant that she didn’t understand. I thought we’ve done something right there. It’s not a congenital condition or genetic – you can decide not to be one or the other.”

Struggled

Bradley, from Dromore, Co Down, formally “left the church” in 2013, having always “struggled to believe the things we were supposed to believe in”.

She is one of the North’s growing community of Humanists who are urging people who are not religious to say so in this year’s census. She feels that if more people were “not afraid” to say they have no religion in the North, where many identify as one or the other “so as not to be a traitor to the cause”, then the census would tell a different story.

Humanists are encouraging people who are “not in any meaningful sense religious” to tick the “None” box when asked about their beliefs in this year’s census, the date for which has yet to be announced.

Boyd Sleator, the Northern Ireland Humanists co-ordinator, who says his community has grown from 230 members five years ago to 2,500 now, believes many people are inclined to tick a religious box because of their family history or cultural background.

“But you should understand that if you do that then you will be counted as fully religious in the eyes of policymakers,” he says.

Policy decisions

Census results are used by government and local authorities to make policy decisions on the allocation of funding to state services such as education, health, social care and pastoral care, Sleator says.

Continuing religious segregation in state schools is “justified” based on census results, he adds, as is the requirement for Christian worship in state schools “and aspects of our constitutional settlement like, for example, the ongoing presence of 26 bishops voting in parliament”.

“If you don’t want this to happen, then you should tick ‘None’,” he says.

As a result of the pandemic, instead of adverts in public spaces, the community is focusing on online advertising, press adverts and distributing posters for members to display in their windows for the campaign.