Tag Archives: religious prejudice

Why Sectarianism Remains An Enduring Problem Today

It is quite interesting to reflect on certain of our current sociocultural problems – I am thinking particularly about sectarianism in Scotland – by comparing the psychologies of those caught up in the midst of it today, with those who lived through its complex historical origins.

Whilst it is very difficult to work your way inside the emotions, attitudes and thought patterns of individuals living through the difficult circumstances surrounding this problem nowadays, it is even more of a challenge with respect to those living in an entirely different historical period.

But it is interesting because it helps to shed some light on why problems like sectarianism, which should have been confined to the lives and circumstances of a different generation, with different belief systems, still endure today.

We could think of sectarianism, perhaps rather simplistically, as being rooted in the complex mix of religious, sociocultural and political circumstances that have prevailed, to greater or lesser extents, at various points in our history over the past few centuries.

Perhaps at the time, sectarianism was something like a strange type of ‘medicine’ that people believed that they had to take, in order to ward off the perceived threats and spooky ills of the day. It helped secure, and ultimately reinforce, their sense of identity, belonging, purpose and spiritual well-being. But it was a ‘medicine’ that looks more like a poison to most of us today, with very obvious, and totally unacceptable, adverse effects.

There is a very clear sense in which sectarianism would have been actively prescribed by certain unscrupulous, corrupt and very powerful, organisations and authorities, as a potent remedy for tackling some of the perceived threats to the preferred establishment of the day. It was a means of protecting and insulating Scottish Presbyterian Protestantism, for example, from the threat of the ‘superstitions’ of Catholicism and the absolute authority of Rome.

The recipe was celebrated and passed down through subsequent generations, without any thought being given to the fact that the psychology that made sense of it as an antidote to a particular religious and sociocultural malady, was firmly rooted in a historical setting that is wholly incommensurate with how the majority of us want our lives to look and feel today.

But here is the sting: whilst the majority of us want our lives to look and feel a certain way today, because the story we are given is that we inhabit a culturally advanced, socially civilised and morally structured space of reasons that makes this possible, the reality behind the story is somewhat different.

The reality is that the institutional corruption and sociocultural prejudices that tainted our past are still absolutely rife today, albeit appearing in a slightly more sophisticated guise, and with much wider ramifications for our everyday lives.

We may have become more sophisticated in our thinking, but our psychologies are integrated into today’s sociocultural conditions, in much the same way that the psychologies of generations before us were integrated into the conditions that prevailed during their time. And we also have the disadvantage of backward integration through being immersed in our respective generational traditions, with the symbols, stories and songs that keep them alive.

But whereas many of us have moved on in our attitudes and belief systems, and acknowledge that sectarianism is something that should belong firmly in the past, the brutal reality behind the story is that most of the same basic sociocultural ingredients still exist today that existed then.

Witness the wilful corruption, institutional prejudices and wholly immoral practices of certain journalists, politicians and bankers, for a start. And they are not alone in this respect. The elitist framework that furnishes and protects the lavish lifestyle of certain social groups is the very same framework that creates the context for many of our ugly sociocultural prejudices.

That is what we need to dismantle if we are serious about eradicating sectarianism for good. But that, unfortunately, is never going to happen, and that is why sectarianism remains an enduring problem today.

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The Tangled Roots of Sectarianism in Scottish Society

By definition, a person is sectarian if he adheres in a narrow minded or bigoted fashion to a ‘sect’ or ‘body of beliefs’. In Scotland, the term ‘sectarianism’ is more commonly used in a pejorative sense to refer to specific divisions within the Christian faith, namely, Catholicism and Protestantism, and the discriminatory behaviours it gives rise to within our society. In particular, the term tends to be associated quite readily with some of the darker issues surrounding football in the West of Scotland.

Sectarianism in Scotland has many tangled roots. It would be difficult to isolate any single strand as the definitive cause of the problems we encounter today, but there are a few salient themes running through history that are worth considering in order to throw some light on our current situation. Because, despite what politicians of every persuasion would tell us about Scotland being an inclusive and tolerant country, despite publicly rejecting sectarianism, racism, et al, there are far too many examples of behaviour and attitudes that would suggest otherwise.    

Religious Roots: Scottish Reformation

Religion was important to Scotland in the 16th Century. The Roman Catholic Church was dominant. It was regarded as central to all aspects of human life, from health, education, welfare and discipline. However in 1560, John Knox was at the heart of the Reformation movement which finally rejected the Catholic Church and the authority of Rome, ending hundreds of years of dominance and slowly replacing it with a form of Presbyterian Protestantism. The then Scottish Parliament passed a Reformed Confession of Faith, outlawing the celebration of mass and repudiating Papal jurisdiction in Scotland.   

Since the Reformation in Scotland, Catholicism came to be regarded with complete disdain and was considered to be opposed to the true teachings of the Bible. One of John Knox’s central theses was that Catholicism was bound up with idolatry and false worship; he also claimed that it failed to recognise the glory of Christ. Knox insisted on the sufficiency of the scriptures to regulate Church life and how people should worship God, rather than relying on the interpretation and authority of Rome.

Indeed, it was felt that the Papacy was becoming very secular and living like kings rather than spiritual leaders; their excessive wealth was becoming increasingly difficult to accept against the poverty experienced by the majority of people.     

The teachings of the reformed Church, unsurprisingly, had a profound effect on society and on family life. Educational and cultural institutions were reformed to reflect what the Protestant faith believed to be the true glory of God. It is often credited with having stimulated greater levels of literacy by encouraging people to read the Bible for themselves; it is said to have brought about a renewed appreciation of marriage and family values and to have fostered a feeling of equality among men, with a clearer recognition and understanding of basic human rights.

Historical Roots: Irish Immigration

The 18th and 19th Centuries witnessed a slow and steady flow of mainly unskilled Irish Catholic immigrants into Scotland, mainly on a temporary basis to suit the farming calendar. Numbers slowly increased as the cotton industry began to expand and the railway infrastructure started to be built. Given that Scotland was by then a Protestant country, the majority were made to feel unwelcome and were openly discriminated against in newspapers, at work, on the street and even in some of the publications and announcements of the Church. 

The Great Famine of 1845 – 52 brought about a significant increase in the number of Irish immigrants arriving in Scotland seeking refuge from the conditions back home. The basis of strong Irish communities started to be formed around areas in the West of Scotland where work was available, typically in the form of coal mining, dock yards, textiles and general labouring.   

In the late 19th Century there was an increase in the number of Irish Protestant immigrants who brought with them a commitment to the Orange Order, and because they were perceived to share a common faith with the people of Scotland, they found it somewhat easier to integrate into Scottish society (although discrimination still existed in cases).

Social & Economic: The Great Depression

The early 20th Century in Scotland was a difficult economic time, particularly during the depression of the 1930’s. The industrial strength of Glasgow had diminished and unemployment levels were high. Poverty and deprivation were rife, alcoholism and poor dietary habits were common, slums deepened and gang culture worsened. Irish Catholics were again facing discrimination as the Protestant communities complained that the immigrants were taking all of the jobs, strengthening the role of Masonic Lodges in influencing the allocation of jobs in the Clyde shipyards and further afield.

Indeed, the Church of Scotland reinforced and vindicated the anti-Irish Catholic sentiment at this time, through publishing papers such as ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality’.

Despite this, Irish communities and the Catholic Church remained determined and resolute, retaining their proud identity through establishing and supporting Catholic Schools, and Football Clubs such as Dundee (Hibernian) United, Hibernian and Celtic. Thus sectarianism became deeply entrenched, not only in many of the institutions and establishments of the time, but also in the hearts and minds of the Scottish people. 

Psychological Roots: Education & Upbringing 

It is a sad and regrettable fact that many people reach adulthood without achieving the level of maturity required to integrate into society as a rational human being, capable of making a positive contribution to their own life and to the lives of others; and many people are simply incapable of recognising other people’s right to be who they choose to be. They engage in behaviours, both unconscious and conscious, that express an underlying resentment and intolerance of all that is different.

Our perception of that which is different is informed by the conceptual and linguistic abilities we develop as we grow up. It is through our upbringing that we inherit and absorb the rich and complex web of beliefs, attitudes and ideas defining the cultural traditions we happen to be immersed in.

This inheritance is frequently and brutally reinforced through the views expressed by our parents, through the games we play and songs we learn as children, through the groups and clubs we join after school, through the ‘throw away’ comments and banter we have with friends and colleagues, through the social media forums we frequent. In short, many people learn the ropes of sectarianism and racism at home, at school and through engaging in various social activities and too often, once it takes hold, it becomes difficult to shake it off.

It is each individual person’s responsibility to learn to dissociate themselves from aspects of our culture and traditions that progressive, tolerant and inclusive societies ought to have completely rejected a long time ago.

Yet when we recognise and admit that such rejection is only superficial, where it only exists in policies embraced by most people in a sober and rational moment, that society cannot rightfully claim to be tolerant and inclusive at all.

Eradicating Sectarianism

In my view there is something deeply wrong with a society that has permitted sectarianism to take root in the first place, particularly when it did so as a matter of policy; admittedly, the roots trace back to circumstances and situations many, many years ago, indeed in some cases, centuries ago, when the religious, political and legal landscapes were completely different, but the crux is that sectarianism was once permitted, promoted and practised and so deeply embedded that eradicating it is no longer straightforward.  

Eradicating sectarianism requires admitting that we have a real problem in the first place and then slowly unravelling the key strands that hold it together. In my view, the absolute starting point has to be to address the shameful and ugly way in which some of our children are brought up – it has to start with the families and parents who deem it acceptable (sometimes unwittingly) to teach their children to be intolerant and hateful of people who hold different views and beliefs, or who are from a different ethnic origin, but this will take a couple of generations of re-education.

I also believe that many of our problems are perpetuated by the vicious circle of alcoholism and drug dependency, poverty and unemployment that a number of these same young children grow up into, resulting in seriously low levels of achievement, low levels of self esteem and poor emotional intelligence, low levels of hope for the future and zero confidence in the present.

People who are prone to engage in destructive patterns of behaviour as a result will come to regard their attachment to a group, gang, club or sect as a means of finding the fulfilment, identity and direction that is otherwise lacking. I believe that engaging in sectarian behaviour for some people is therefore a means of self preservation, attachment and protection – and that will be one of the hardest things to change. It will require a deep shift in the Scottish psyche and I am not totally convinced we will achieve that any time soon.

Liam Conway

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