In Northern Ireland, you are one or the other. You are either ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them.’ There is no sitting on the fence in this province.
I was reminded of this fact recently when a work colleague not-so-subtlety tried to determine my faith. After several minutes of probing questions such as ‘do you play GAA?’ and ‘do you go to the parades?’ she finally found the courage to flat out ask me the big question.
While I wholeheartedly respect people’s personal beliefs, I told her, I myself did not believe in God.
“But Michael,” she said, with genuine concern for my wellbeing in her voice, “you’re going to hell.”
For many people in Northern Ireland, atheism is one of the last remaining taboos.
In 2009, a number of rows erupted between atheists and believers following several advertising campaigns designed to get people thinking about the role of religion in society.
Messages proclaiming “there is probably no God” drew scorn from several religious organisations when they were seen on the side of buses.
Similarly, a British Humanist Association billboard showing two young children and with the slogan “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself” was criticised when placed on the corner of Belfast’s Great Victoria Street.
The last census showed that 14% of the population considered themselves to have no religion. Also, the number of atheist, humanist and agnostic organisations has been on the increase, including Queen’s University’s Humanist Society.
However, despite an increase in those turning away from God it remains an issue not thoroughly discussed by the country’s politicians.
It could be that they dismiss those who do not believe in God in favour of the majority who do. After all, why talk to atheists when you are a politician representing the one of the world’s most religiously divided societies?
According to Brian McClinton, religious commentator and board member of the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland’s politicians may not be willing to speak about the issue for another reason.
“When we presented The God Delusion [Richard Dawkin’s 2006 book] to MLAs a couple of years ago,” he said “we were told by some party reps that there were non-believers in their party, but they didn’t want to damage their image or harm their prospects by coming out.”
McClinton also believes that the current system of parity of esteem at Stormont is harmful to those who do not subscribe to a religion.
“We would prefer parity of disesteem”, he says.
“The system is not designed to encourage ‘others’ who do not fit into either camp. The two extreme parties have carved up the politics and the culture between them and pushed out dissenters from both traditions.”
Despite the advances in Northern Ireland politics over the last decade, McClinton believes an openly atheist politician will not hold a prominent position in government in ‘the near future.’
“But,” he asserts “prediction in Northern Ireland is a dodgy business.”
“It may be that someone in the next few years will take the plunge, reveal their atheism/agnosticism and discover that the majority of people are okay with it.”
“They will then discover that the fear was more imaginary than real.”
It could be that the politicians are afraid of what an atheist might do if in power.
Possibly, they are afraid an atheist lord mayor may refuse to shake the hand of a young Christian girl. Or even that a humanist organisation might hold a series of large parades every summer.
And those are two divisive issues Northern Ireland certainly doesn’t need.