However, in the province’s two main cities, that figure has soared to almost six out of 10 – with 59% of babies in Belfast and 58.7% in Londonderry being born to cohabiting couples or lone parents.
Free Presbyterian Minister Rev David McIlveen said the figures were a “tragedy” and added that too many young people cannot make a distinction between “love and lust”.
But Michael Kelly, editor of the influential Irish Catholic magazine, said that churches were, in general, no longer draconian in their attitude towards people who have children outside marriage.
According to the new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 10,540 babies were born outside marriages or civil partnerships in Northern Ireland in 2014 out of a total of 24,394, equating to an average of 43.2%. In Larne, more than half (50.1%) of all babies were born to unmarried parents, with the rate sitting at 46% in Carrickfergus and 45.2% in Newtownards.
By contrast, the fewest babies born out of wedlock were in Magherafelt (27%), closely followed by Omagh (29.8%) and then Armagh (31.6%).
“Overall, these figures are very sad, and reflect that we are swinging towards a promiscuous society,” said Rev McIlveen.
“Morals have been devalued, and people don’t respect traditional values.
“Young people are unable to make a distinction between lust and love, and this is a major problem in Northern Ireland.
“Society is built on love between man and woman, and therefore marriage.
“We shouldn’t have this problem of babies being born out of wedlock.”
On a UK level, 46.7% of babies were born outside marriage during 2014 – slightly higher than Northern Ireland’s 43.2% rate, which is the same level as the affluent south east of England.
London, meanwhile, has the lowest proportion of children born outside of marriage (36%), while the rate is almost 60% in both the north east and in Wales. There were also high rates in the north west of England, Yorkshire, the east Midlands and Scotland.
The Northern Ireland 2014 figures compare with 10,231 out of 25,315 (40.4%) newborns coming into the world out of wedlock in 2010. And looking back, there were 8,108 out of a total of 22,328 (36.3%) in 2005, according to Northern Ireland’s Statistics and Research Agency.
“There’s no longer the same taboo about issues such as having a child out of wedlock,” said Mr Kelly.
“People are not ashamed about it in the way they may have been in a previous generation. The churches are much more understanding about it as well. No one wants a return to the days when unmarried mothers were shunned and were treated very badly.”
On a different subject, the latest statistics from the ONS highlighted that Northern Ireland had the highest number of churchgoers in the UK and was socially very conservative.