Am I alone in making sense of the Census?

The 2011 Census results have really caught my attention, not because of the great changes in Northern Ireland, but because of the reporting of the statistics by local journalists, experts and even the Statistics Agency. As an artist and market trader in St George’s Market with no more relevant qualifications than having worked in Public Relations for a few years over a decade ago and an A-Level in Maths I cannot understand why I disagree with everyone I rely on to supply news and comment.


As a person of no faith in Northern Ireland I feel unrepresented by the political parties as I am unaware of any atheist representatives in the province, I was most interested to see what proportion of the population had responded as being of ‘no religion’. I was somewhat disappointed to find that the current figure was only 10.11% in Northern Ireland, given that I’d heard a media report of 25% in England and Wales, with the city of Norwich reaching a high, or low depending on your view, of 42.5% of it’s citizens selecting No religion.

BBC Northern Ireland’s Mark Devenport’s tweeted at 9.51am

markdevenport: NI Census Religion Breakdown Protestant 48 %. Catholic 45. % Other or none 6.5 %

at 9.52am I tweeted:

royfis: @markdevenport only 10% of the population stated to have no religion. Although 10% atheists in Stormont would be a start.

Twitter is not an easy place to change a journalist’s thinking, but my 10% figure obviously contradicted his other or none figure of 6.5%. My twitter timeline shows numerous exchanges on the topic as well as some unanswered tweets to journalists.

On the 10am news during the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster the figures disclosed were that 17% of people here either did not state their religion or ticked the box no religion, along with the 48/45 breakdown.

Immediately I thought, “Why would the media think to combine the data for people of no faith and people who for whatever reason didn’t answer the question?”

The Key Statistics Table KS211NI: Religion clearly shows the figures of 10.11% ‘No religion” and 6.75% ‘Percentage of usual residents who did not state religion’. Now, looking at the minutiae of how the table is presented ‘No religion’ is presented in the same manner as the other ‘Percentage of all usual residents stating religion as’ answers, while unanswered figures are independent.  I have no issue with this table of statistics. It is the current situation in Northern Ireland, if the media really wished to present the results of the Census 2011 with regard to religion in Northern Ireland this is the go to table.

The headline figures from this table are 40.76% Catholic, 41.56% Protestant (including other Christian), 0.82% Other religions, 10.11% No religion and 6.75% didn’t answer.

Showing a difference of just 0.8% between the two main religions.

Then I saw the press release on the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency’s website make the following points:

One sixth (17 per cent) of the usually resident population on Census Day 2011 either had No Religion or Religion Not Stated. The prevalence rates for the main religions were: Catholic (41 per cent); Presbyterian (19 per cent); Church of Ireland (14 per cent); Methodist (3.0 per cent); Other Christian or Christian-related denominations (5.8 per cent); and Other Religions and Philosophies (0.8 per cent).

Bringing together the information on Religion and Religion Brought up in, 45 per cent of the population were either Catholic or brought up as Catholic, while 48 per cent belonged to or were brought up in Protestant, Other Christian or Christian-related denominations. A further 0.9 per cent belonged to or had been brought up in Other Religions and Philosophies, while 5.6 per cent neither belonged to, nor had been brought up in, a religion.

So this is why the media combined the data for people of no faith and people who didn’t answer the question. People do disclose more personal information on a census than you’d expect to be asked in a street survey, but if I went into Belfast with my clipboard I’d expect a great deal more than 6.75% of the population to be uncomfortable in disclosing their religion. We certainly have no way of knowing whether the people who didn’t answer are Protestants or Catholics, or Hindus, Muslims, Jews or Atheists. So there is no more reason to combine the figure from unanswered with the ‘No religion’ group as there would be the Catholic or Protestant groups. And for the press release to be correctly representing the 0.8% of other religions it seems biased to misrepresent the 10.11% No religion. I’m concerned that this shows a real lack of understanding as to what a person of no religion is. I know many people who will have answered the Census as Protestants and Catholics, some of them have genuine faith, some of them don’t but still identify themselves as ‘one or the other’, as an atheist I’ve considered religion and through independent thought and reasoning decided to remove myself from the faith that was brought up in. So you may understand why I may feel that the 10.11% of the population who answered ‘No religion’ are actually collectively the most thoughtful respondents, while I really can’t read too much into the people who didn’t answer, maybe they don’t know what religion they are, and that too is different from no religion.

On BBC Newsline at 1.30pm on Tuesday Mark Devenport reported the figures from Table KS212NI: Religion or Religion Brought Up In.

Showing that 48% of the population were, or were brought up as Protestant, 45% were, or were brought up Catholic and 7% other or none. While this data is correct it’s not the current situation, according to this report I am on the Protestant ‘side’, when the truth is very different. Why would you report a person’s religion as that which their parents chose for them and not what they thought themselves?

Combining the census respondents answers renders the data historical, which does allow for interesting points to be made about mortality and could be used for comparison with the more current figures from Table KS211NI.

I tweeted Mark Devenport after the news and got one response which was no response to the question I posed…

royfis: @markdevenport combined figures on @bbcnewsline – misleading to report 93% Catholic/Protestant when data shows it’s currently 82%. #bbcni

markdevenport: @royfis @bbcnewsline they produced 2 findings – the one usede on news brings together religion and religion brought up in

royfis: @markdevenport I knew that – and it’s misleading. NI is 10% no religion. You presented me by my upbringing and not my own census answers.

royfis: @markdevenport @bbcnewsline you should be using the first set of figures just titled religion which you could compare to historic views.

BBC NI continued along the same vein for the rest of the day, despite my attempts to direct them otherwise. On Stormont Today that night Steven McCaffery again repeated figures so I tweeted:

@SMcC_TheDetail why all quoting 48% Protestant? There are only 41.56% who are CURRENTLY CoI, Presb, Metho & other Christian #totalmediafail

On Wednesday I phoned Talkback and while the researcher I spoke to understood my argument that the wrong results had been focused on by everyone, they didn’t take the story on air, and haven’t to my knowledge addressed it since:

royfis: @wendytalksback I phoned earlier about the census results being poorly reported. It should be addressed, it’s already yesterday’s news.

I looked online and The Newsletter has an audio file on its website where Robert Beatty, the head of the Census in Northern Ireland states “We now have 48% Protestant, 45% Catholic and a further 6% with no religion or religion brought up in.”

David Young in the Belfast Telegraph writes:

“The percentage of Catholics in the population was up to 45 while Protestant representation has fallen to 48% from the 2001 census.”

Remember the 2011 Census shows 40.76% Catholic, 41.56% Protestant.

Eamonn Mallie spoke to Ian Shuttleworth of Queen’s University who talked of a 1% rise in the Catholic population and stated “the protestant share of the population has dipped below 50%, it has fallen to something like 48%”. He goes on to discuss how there is now no population block at 50% or greater,  “So it’s 48 against 45 with the balance being made up by others and people who are nones.” And bizarrely describing the “nones” as people with “no identity”.

Does Mr Shuttleworth think that an atheist wouldn’t be British or Irish in Northern Ireland?

But this is another problem with the statistics. They are being compared with similarly historical data. In the 2001 Census 53% of the population were, or had been brought up as Protestants. But the number who actually belonged to one of the Protestant religions at that time was 45.57%. The Catholic religion 40.26%, and other religions a very small 0.3%. In 2001 the figures released combined no religion and religion not stated showing 13.88% but no breakdown as to how many atheists answered the question.

When studying the data there were three further statements about religion I object to in Mallie’s conversation.

The figures show that there were not more than 50% of the population belonging to Protestant religions in 2001. There had been 53.13% who were or had been brought up protestant, but only 45.57% belonging to a Protestant religion.

There is not a 3% difference in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, it is just 0.8%.

There is a 0.5% rise in the population of Catholics, not 1%. And there is a 4% decrease in the population of Protestants, not 5%.

I’d suggest that in Northern Ireland a lot of respondents do not really consider their church, faith and religion as the same thing. Many people of no faith will have answered that they belong to a religion, and many people of no faith attend church because it’s part of their upbringing, tradition or community. Atheism may have more negative connotations attached to it than Protestant or Catholic labels, especially within segregated societies where there is a dominant religion that is clearly identifiable. There must be reasons other than the true belief in God and scripture as to why one tenth of our population has no religion and one quarter of England and Wales, which shares so many cultural values, has no religion.


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