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.

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  • aquifer

    “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.”

    So political Unionism is thriving, despite the ‘Unionists’!

  • Interesting stuff. Just one niggle though – secularism should not be defined as lack of belief, but as willingness to compartmentalise that belief in public. One can have a secular society without compromising depth of belief or observance.

  • @Alan,

    Interesting post. Thanks. I have been a fan of John Brewer’s since he was writing about Inkatha in South Africa a quarter century ago. On this topic I would like to say that two years ago for a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prospects of a two-state solution I examined the politics of Fianna Fail’s abandonment of its long-term support for a united Ireland as part of the Northern Ireland peace process. The best explanation that I could find for it is that in parallel to the development of the peace process there was a process of secularization in the 26 counties as a couple of major scandals involving Catholic clergy lowered the reputation of the Church as an institution. This is important because the wing of Fianna Fail that was most supportive of the united Ireland policy after Sunningdale was strongest in the border counties and in rural counties where the population tended to be more traditionally religious. The increased secularization may have contributed to many of these simply staying home and not participating in the May 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement leading to the overwhelmingly positive vote. This was naturally on top of the personal support of Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and other Fianna Fail ministers for the peace process.

  • Newman

    One senses with Professor Brewer sociological and political insight, but a lack of theological reflection. Why do I get the feeling that if only the church would change its theology to reflect the liberal consensus then all would be well…it’s not that easy and we are myopic if we think a shared secular society is panacea

  • carl marks

    Why on earth would he need “theological reflection” he is merely pointing out that society is moving away from the superstitions that have blighted this place.
    Northern Ireland is a place that was run by people with “theological reflection” coming out their ears and was a hate filled backward bigot ridden hole, that eventually collapsed under the strain of being ruled by people with “theological reflection” and we are coming up to the season when groups with “theological reflection” are going to try to make others put up with their “theological reflections” and are going to show the greatest contempt for others with different “theological reflections” and of course we have pastors whose “theological reflections” tells him not to trust an entire people and don’t forget those who abused children and young mothers because what their “theological reflection told them that those girls were sinners and the kids product of sin, , so all in all those with “theological reflection” have done a great deal of harm in his little place and most of the rest of us (those who don’t accept the myths that those with “theological reflections” believe in) just want to live in community with our neighbours and would prefer that those who have “theological reflections would stay out of our lives.

  • Roll on Peace

    For there is too much religion in this country

    and not enough Humanity

    way too much creed

    and not enough ethic

    Roll on Peace

    All we are saying is give Peace a Chance

  • Newman

    Carl,People with theological reflections have clearly stayed well away given your hostility. What you highlight is distortion and the sin of human beings, not the message or teaching of Christ which many of us strive unworthily to emulate. What we argue for is the right to be in the public square and to propose matters which are for the common good. Dispute with us of course but we will not be silenced or relegated to the sidelines.Thank God we still live in a democracy where that right of free expression has not been taken away. I rather fear that in your secular utopia we would be confined to the privacy of our own heads. A little more tolerance my friend would be in order. Criticism, much of it justified,by all means but contempt and hauteur hardly advance your arguments

  • carl marks

    Firstly let’s get rid of a tired old cliché.
    1/ Please point out where I claimed a secular society would be a utopia!
    2/ please point out where I stated that you should not be entitled to free speech
    The old state of NI was run by those with theological reflections and they boasted from the rooftops how lordly they were and look at the disaster that turned out to be,
    The old state of the Irish republic was run by those with theological reflections and they boasted from the rooftops how lordly they were and look at the disaster that turned out to be,
    My contempt and Hauteur is rightly aimed at those who wish to put their theology into our politics, the track record of those with theological reflections in running any society (let’s make this global) is to say the least rotten.
    Getting religion out of our politics will not make our society perfect but it will remove a major point of contention, thankfully most people are coming round to this point of view and that is to be welcomed,
    Of Course I am not talking about banning religion or those with religious beliefs being involved in politics, even if I wished such a silly thing I would be wasting my time as people seem to be deciding for themselves that they don’t want it.