John Brewer: peace threatens religion in NI; a future shared society may well be a secular one

John Brewer, professor at QUB’s Institute for Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, delivered the second annual David Stevens Memorial Lecture on Wednesday evening. A former General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches and leader of the Corrymeela Community until his death in 2010, David Stevens had a long time interest in the interplay between religion and politics. The full text of the lecture is available.

John BrewerJohn Brewer suggested that “religious change is happening in ways that are breaking the link between religion and politics and are promoting a shared society”. In his opinion:

Northern Ireland is changing, and changing for the better. It just doesn’t feel like it. We have yet to make peace with peace I think.

Post-Good Friday Agreement, John suggested:

If truth is the first fatality of war, perspective is the casualty of peace.

Because there is still some distance to go to realise a shared society, we easily lose sight of just how far we have come. Perspectives are distorted in peace processes by focusing on the difficulties ahead and ignoring what we have actually achieved. Our politicians are particularly prone to this. And so the public sphere, which is dominated mistakenly in the media’s mind by politicians, becomes curmudgeonly, cantankerous and crabby, further disillusioning pro-peace supporters, and buoying its detractors.

Focussing on three area, he started by asking “whether we are still as religious as when the conflict reinforced identification and observance?”

Change in levels of identification is clearly a foot. There has been a rise in what is called religious independents – those who have no religious identification or refuse to state it in the census or social surveys. Religious independents have risen by six per cent, from 11% to 17% of the total population in the twenty years between the 1991 and 2011 censuses. On the other hand, clearly, we still maintain very high levels of religious identification compared to other Western societies, at 83% in 2011 …

The overall statistical pattern, however, is clear: identification is in slow decline for mainstream Protestantism, holding up for Catholicism and rising amongst small independent, charismatic and conservative evangelical churches, so that the growth in religious independents comes at the expense of mainstream Protestant denominations.

John pointed to census data and the results of Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey modules on religious practice what points to a decline in religious observance. But the headline statistic that adult weekly church attendance in NI had dropped from two thirds in the 1960s to 40% by 2008 did not reveal the full picture.

The number of believers who declare they never attend church has remained relatively stable over forty years at around one in six people and the practices of believers have changed only to being less regularly observant; there has been no increase in the number of those who do not attend at all. Less regular observance is not the same as growth in non-belief. We should call this liberalisation rather than secularisation – more liberal practice rather than a rise in non-belief.

Secularisation, thus, is not yet on the rise and there is no growth of non-belief at the moment to change the way religion and politics intersect in Northern Ireland. So we cannot look to secularisation to decouple the link between politics and religion in Northern Ireland. I contend, however, that the changes in religious identification and practice that I call liberalisation are nonetheless having the same effect.

He moved on discuss the link between religion and politics [Ed – two things I was taught as a child not to bring up in public conversation!]:

Religion and politics no longer reinforce one another to the extent they did in the past. Let me address this by posing two questions … First, what impact is religious change having on Northern Ireland’s politics? Secondly, what impact is Northern Ireland’s political change having on religious practice?

Census and NILT survey data point to shifts in national identity amongst those identifying with Britishness, Irishness and Northern Irishness. While regular readers of Slugger will be bored teasing out the nuances of the figures, John concluded that “no longer it is feasible to automatically equate a person’s religious identification with their national identification”.

We should not exaggerate the change. It remains significant that in the near decade that elapsed from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to the 2007 Life and Times Survey, six out of ten respondents still utilised traditional and dichotomous notions to describe their identity as either Irish Catholic or British Protestant. An old sociological truism is relevant here: while things change, they also stay very much the same. But consider this.

A poll of 1,046 adults undertaken for BBC Northern Ireland across the country in January 2013, a sample size approaching that of the Life and Times surveys, focused directly on the question of the border. It showed that the proportion of Catholics wishing to retain the Union was 38%, higher by three percentage points than those Catholics who preferred a united Ireland. Nearly a quarter of those who identified themselves as Sinn Fein voters said they would support retention of the Union. More than half of SDLP supporters said they would opt to stay in the UK if a poll was held tomorrow.

In the 2013 Life and Times survey, released only last week and which is yet to be fully analysed, some headline figures stand out dramatically. More than half of Catholic respondents were pro-Union and only 28% supported a United Ireland, a substantially changed proportion than in the BBC’s border poll. Perhaps equally ground-breaking, 52% of the respondents under 44 years of age described themselves as neither Nationalist or Unionist, compared to 36% amongst the over 45s, the generation that lived through ‘the Troubles’ as adults and perhaps hang on most to its mindsets. What is more, 44% of Catholics and 32% of Protestants described themselves as neither Nationalist nor Unionist.

Clearly there is a weakening of the link between politics and religion for a significant proportion of the population.

So does political change encourage people to be more liberal in their religious observance? John looked at the “religious independents” who “are undergoing the most religious change”.

This group is much more likely to reject the labels of Unionist and Nationalist. Is this because those who seek to break away from a religiously-based political system feel they have to break away also from religion itself, or do people who have already moved on from religion find it easier also to transcend the conventional politics of their former co-religionists? Which is chicken and which egg? Does political change precede religious change, or does religious change predicate political change?

He concluded that “researchers opt for the view that disaffection with the old identity politics is driving the rise in religious independents”.

… dissatisfaction with identity politics is creating disaffection with institutional religion and is promoting religious change. Alienation from old style identity politics alienates people from old style institutional religion that is thought to underpin it.

Of course, religious change is not only motivated by political change. The institutional church is facing a crisis of legitimacy that is affecting its moral authority in Northern Ireland, which is potentially very threatening given that rejection of institutional religion is one of the motivations of religious change. This crisis is rooted in several broad social changes. Anti-clericalism has grown in parallel with revelations about the extent of sexual and child abuse in the Church. The conservative moral agenda of the churches, on issues such as women’s rights, abortion, and LGBT issues runs counter to the trend to moral liberalism amongst the young, who are precisely the people churches are finding it hard to retain.

These broader social changes will in themselves alter the dynamics of religion and politics in Northern Ireland, further weakening the traditional shibboleths and introducing a more diverse political and religious landscape.

I believe that the break in the link between religion and politics is already setting in motion a chain reaction that will eventually become very profound.

John Brewer argued that one of the “consequences of the decoupling of religion and politics for religion” was that “it will promote secularisation”.

Peace threatens religion in Northern Ireland.

The churches unintentionally benefited from ‘the Troubles’ because the violence helped maintain remarkably high levels of religious identification and practice as a form of identity formation and defence in a conflict that had a religious form despite its political substance. Patterns of religiosity are now undergoing change, as the political landscape shifts and as broader social and moral changes occur. The peace process threatens to weaken taken-for-granted religiosity and to make religious identification and practice a choice of conscience rather than an obligation of identity politics.

I will reiterate this point to strike home its significance. By separating religion and politics, religion is made a matter of personal conscience rather than political identity, leaving religiosity to a decision of taste rather than buoyed by a distorted form of identity politics. This will result I think in increasing liberalisation and will accelerate the process of secularisation. We can expect observance to decline further and non-belief to increase as identity politics weakens.

The consequence for community relations of rupturing the link between religion and politics was, John submitted, that “it promotes a shared society”.

… some people are beginning to reject traditional ethno-religious identities and the number with hybrid identity combinations is growing. Vote transfers in our recent elections are another reflection of this … while many people still vote on an ethnic tribal basis to keep ‘”them ‘uns” out, there are others who transfer their votes in ways that transcend traditional identity politics. When people separate religion and politics like this, they normalise politics; and normal politics makes a shared society imaginable.

Imagining the future as a shared one – not necessarily agreeing the future, but agreeing that it will be shared – is the first step in learning to live together after conflict. To imagine a shared future, to contemplate a better society for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, to want a society in which the conflict never happens again – all this requires that the link between religion and politics be broken.

Despite our frustrated and disappointed expectations of the peace process, and regardless that many have yet to make peace with the idea of peace, there is incontrovertible empirical evidence that the link between religion and politics has been ruptured for a significant and growing number of people. We might not be at the point where the shared future of which David Stevens dreamed is here, but we are no longer living a nightmare and the numbers who share his dream are expanding.

John Brewer concluded “in a way that David would lament”.

What is Northern Irish society’s gain is the Church’s loss. People are not being persuaded to the principle of a shared society by religious faith, as was the hope of the Ecumenists in the community relations field from the 1960s onwards. Rather, it is the rejection of institutional religion that is inspiring today’s dreamers of a shared society as a result of their dissatisfaction with identity politics. Breaking the link between religion and politics foreshadows more enlightened politics but promises to threaten the practice of religion. David’s shared society may well be a secular one.

A real challenge for churches, some of whom have been at the heart of grass roots reconciliation efforts for decades.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.