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James Heron Gilliland and William Mayne Knox were leading figures in the Belfast Ethical Society, which was founded in 1896 – the same year as the Union of Ethical Societies (now Humanists UK). The census provides an intriguing glimpse into the self-defined religious beliefs (or lack of) of each man, with Gilliland supplying ‘rationalist’ as his religion, and Knox refusing to provide the information altogether. Their 1911 censuses followed the same pattern, with Gilliland stating ‘agnostic’ and Knox ‘none’. Many other Irish men and women used the census to express their convictions as atheists, rationalists, or ‘nones’, some of whose activities – informed by these beliefs – we can trace. In the case of Knox and Gilliland, who were active in a range of efforts for social reform, alongside charitable causes, they also offer a glimpse into the character of the ethical society they founded. In the early years of the Ethical movement, members were not assumed necessarily to disavow religion: the movement was built instead on the agreement that morality was quite distinct from theological beliefs. In the case of Gilliland and Knox, though, we can clearly see their explicit non-religiousness.

As well as countering the assumption that Ireland was uniformly devout – defined by religious affiliation – those like Gilliland and Knox, and fellow members of those ethical and secular societies they were part of, are also testament to the active social conscience of non-religious radicals at this point in Ireland’s history, as ever. The recording of their beliefs on the census also forms part of a brave tradition of humanists willing to risk judgement, scorn, and even punishment, on account of their convictions, and is a reminder of the long presence of humanists – both openly and otherwise – throughout history and across the world. In a 2020 survey, 27% of people in Northern Ireland described themselves as non-religious, a figure more than double that of a decade earlier. This is powerful evidence of a growing confidence among humanists and the non-religious to describe themselves as such.

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