Are Anti-Sectarian Initiatives Counter-Productive?

Congratulations to Larkhall for being the first town in Scotland to receive the ‘Champion for Change’ charter mark by Nil By Mouth, in recognition of its work to tackle sectarianism in the community.

Local schools, community groups and Church Leaders worked together to promote sporting initiatives and creative projects aimed at encouraging tolerance and understanding between different religious and faith groups.

Without wanting to detract from the very good intentions, the enormous effort and hard work involved in bringing people together through anti-sectarian initiatives like this, it is worth sounding a quick note of caution.

A curious thing about the very idea of anti-sectarian initiatives is that, apart from the fact that many of us seem to lack agreement with regards to what ‘sectarian’ actually means, potentially diluting their effectiveness, such initiatives could also have the unintended effect of reinforcing existing divisions in our thinking.

This is what I mean: anti-sectarian initiatives are designed to educate us towards a better understanding of other people’s differences, typically in respect of certain ‘protected characteristics’ as referred to within the UK Equality Act 2010, such as religious and theological beliefs.

But the very act of focusing on such differences as constituting a protected feature of groups of individuals, who live ordinary lives just like everyone else, risks elevating religious differences to a defining status in the relationships we form with them.

The upshot is that rather than religious differences not figuring in our thinking as salient and distinguishing features at all, which is what we should be aiming for, there is a risk that religious differences become features that we need to learn how to constructively manage in our relationships.

There is something wrong with this.

As soon as we begin to think of others as being of a certain religion, and start to see them as being different from us in virtue of their beliefs, but to be respected and tolerated nonetheless, we are already heading in a direction in which we need to tread very carefully.

It is as if ‘being different from ours’ were one of the defining characteristics of their religious beliefs, such that we could not think of them and their beliefs without thinking about how they were necessarily different, and it is as if our moral duty were then to find a way of ‘tolerating’ that fact.

To talk of ‘tolerating’ other religious beliefs suggests that there is something we find offensive about them, almost as if we are talking about keeping a lid on our anger whilst we tolerate someone else’s annoying habits.

The implication is already built in that their beliefs irritate us somehow.

Eventually the lid will come off again. And it won’t come as a big surprise.

We are thinking about this in the wrong way.

That is exactly why those responsible for developing anti-sectarian initiatives need to be very careful not to frame the initiatives in such a manner that they either become ineffective, by working with poorly defined terms in the first place, or become counter-productive, by unwittingly reinforcing existing divisions in our thinking.

Otherwise, we are in danger of making the very same errors the initiatives were designed to avoid, with the message of hope – and the opportunity to bring about real change – completely lost.

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