Like any country with a reputation for extremism, it's history will always be judged on the actions of extremists. The usual saying that history is judged by the victors does not yet apply to Northern Ireland, as it sometimes seems that the state of conflict has never really ended in the minds of much of its population. Many use religion as a twisted analogy for political preference, and this is instilled from childhood by a school system that is still separated by religion above all else. This faux-religion breeds a segregation and division that is seemingly unique to Northern Ireland; the sense that religion means less about faith and more about if you wish to be in union with the United Kingdom. It is a powerful - and useful - tool for politicians to utilise, but based on the latest census results we have perhaps reached a turning point. There is now approximately ten percent (10.11%) of the Northern Irish population that identify as having no belief in regards to religion.
In my experience, running an atheist website in Northern Ireland has been both an educational and a daunting process. Set up as an extension of personal thoughts and writings it quickly gained an - initially small - following on social media and the feedback has to date been mainly positive from those interested in the topic. However, in a country so openly divided by religion one does risk insulting many people and it has at times proven rather difficult water to tread. In Northern Ireland, having no religion is perceived as having no political allegiance - which makes it difficult for those that wish to attribute a person to a certain area, or as some like to say, 'community'.
The Importance of the Union Flag protests
The recent flag protests have only highlighted the fragile nature of Northern Ireland. Until December of last year the country appeared to be in a state of relative peace (or at least a plateau of relative non violence) that showed few signs of fracture. This quickly changed after the democratic decision was made by a motion put forth by Sinn Fein and Alliance to limit the days that the Union Flag was to be displayed at City Hall in Belfast City Centre. The aftermath of this decision has been well reported: intimidation, violence and general thuggery, all masked under the excuse of 'erosion of culture and identity'. Once the dust settled, it has been reported that the policing costs (and this figure does not count the money lost by retailers affected by protests over the Christmas trading period) has been estimated at over 20 million pounds.
How is an atheist supposed to act in this modern day Northern Ireland?
This time of year there is an awkward, slightly delusional sense of a calm before the storm. With the marching season fast approaching 'communities' will yet again clash and politicians will attempt to walk the fine line between being socially aware and at the same time trying to appeal to the more dedicated hard-line members of their constituencies.
The society is so openly divided by the titles of Protestant and Catholic that many can't seem to comprehend that one can have no religion and still be a Nationalist or a Unionist. The two do not demand a coalition.
As much as we can attempt to separate politics and religion in Northern Ireland, the two seem to be forever intertwined. In recent times we have even seen a rise in fundamentalist behaviour from a number of politicians. For example, a previous Environment Minister is a creationist that believes the Earth is six thousand years old. A Minister for Social Development attempted to get a creationist exhibition into the local museum and a local fundamentalist Christian lobby group, the Caleb Foundation attempted - and for a small period of time succeeded - in getting a creationist view displayed in a National Trust exhibition at the Giants Causeway. These are not examples of the influence of the general public, these are the elected men and women that have a say in running the country. For an atheist, that lacks belief in any God, this is an unnerving proposition. One cannot stress enough the paradox of a country having an Environment Minister that thinks the environment is less than six thousand years old.
What the latest census results provided was a way to judge patterns of unbelief, and it turns out the patterns are not limited to Northern Ireland. More of the population are choosing to describe themselves as not adhering to any religion, and due to the stigma against openly rejecting a religious stance, the percentage could very well be more than stated. It seems that with each generation, more people are willing to think for themselves, and not just choose a faith position based on the principles of ones parents. This, especially in Northern Ireland, has the potential to change everything.