Thursday 19 November 2009

Please don't label me

The British Humanist Association is carrying out a billboard campaign to coincide with Universal Children's Day tomorrow, 20 November – the United Nations 'day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children'. "Labelling children as if they innately "belong" to a particular religion, while ascribing incompatible beliefs to infants who "belong" to other religions, can only serve as an obstacle to understanding between children around the world" according to the humanists.

The poster can be seen on Great Victoria Street in Belfast, or for the rest of us, here:

Of course in Northern Ireland children (and even sheep) are routinely labelled as belonging to one religion or the other. The labels are tribal rather than religious, though. Few if any children have any idea what religion really is – and usually the adults doing the labelling are themselves hypocrites. Northern Ireland's religions are badges of ethno-political identity, and only a minority of adults actually adhere to the tenets of their so-called beliefs.

Nonetheless, it seems as if the humanists are a bit late to the game. Even at the time of the 2001 census many parents were declining to label their children. Look, for example at the graph below. It shows the percentage at each age group that were declared as belonging to one of the 'big three' religious groups in Northern Ireland – Catholic, 'Protestant/other Christian', and 'No religion/religion not stated' (Census table s306a). Apart from the obvious observation, that Catholics are more numerous than Protestants below the age of 27, another element stands out clearly – that below the age of 10 the proportion that are 'not labelled' increases dramatically.

Now those kids below 10 did not fill in their census forms themselves, so it is obvious that their parents are deliberately not labelling them – despite labelling themselves (look at the proportion of 'none/not stated' in the age group of the parents, i.e. between 30 and 45).

So a lot of parents in Northern Ireland – up to 25% - already did not label their kids in 2001. By 2009 this proportion has probably increased even further. Only when the results of the next census are released in about four years will we be able to see whether the unlabelled in 2001 grew up and gave themselves tribal labels, or if the trend seen in 2001 was really the start of a post-religious society.


Daithí said...


If it weren't for different churches, the conflict would be reported as a rivalry between supporters of two different Glasgow-based football clubs.

Oh, wait!

These days, sports is religion!

Anonymous said...


If you compare the non-relgious component between prod and fenian areas the percentage is much higher in Prod areas e.g. East v West Belfast. The last time I raised this with you I have to say you were a little too cautious, in my opnion, in agreeing that this was a bit of hidden positive for Prod demographics.


Horseman said...


I don't remember what I said previously, sorry. But I remain somewhat cautious. You could be right that there is a slightly higher rate iof non-religion in Protestant areas (and in the Protestant community), but I do not think that the overwhelming majority of the 'nones' are Prod, certainly amongst the youngest kids. Cleraly both sides are suffering a loss to the 'nones' but we'll have to wait and see if this is a lasting effect, or just a normal thing (we don't know, because it wasn't asked before, whether there is a long-standing tendency amongst people to not put down a religion for their kids before their confirmations, for example).

Anonymous said...


I thought there was only a catholic majority below 24 according to the 2001 census?


Anonymous said...

If religion is used as tribal identity in N.I. then it makes me wonder what might have happened if Ireland had become Protestant during the reformation? Or if Britain had stayed Catholic in the first place? Assuming the same colonization by Anglos and Scots of course. How would it be today?