Disappearing icebergs: Scotland and sectarianism

MICHAEL ROSIE

An Edinburgh academic examines the evidence for sectarianism in Scotland.

Recent media coverage of Loyalist and Irish Republican parades in Glasgow has again raised the spectre of ‘sectarianism’ in Scotland. Various commentators have offered deceptively simple, and entirely predictable, solutions: ‘ban parades’, ‘abolish denominational schools’. These are deceptive because they misunderstand and mischaracterise the supposed underlying problem.

In 1988’s Scottish Government Yearbook, sociologist Steve Bruce noted that there was ‘considerable superficial evidence of sectarianism [in Scotland], if by that rather loose journalistic term we mean the aggressive display in the public sphere of religious and ethnic differences’. Many in Scotland saw the outward signs of ethno-religious tension – football rivalry, graffiti, parades – as reflective of deeper social divisions. In contrast Bruce, using the metaphor of an iceberg, argued that: ‘the relatively rare public displays of sectarian animosity are not the visible tip of a submerged mass of ice but are rather all that is left’.

Thirty years later and it might seem that the ‘debate’ over sectarianism has barely moved on. However, whilst Bruce bemoaned the lack of hard evidence with which to judge the extent and the nature of this complex issue, we have no such worries. For the last 20 years the Scottish Government, the Census and other organisations have routinely collected the sort of data on religion that was previously lacking. The picture of Scotland drawn in that data lends credence to Bruce’s arguments about disappearing icebergs.

Take ‘life chances’ for example, the outcomes that people receive in the labour market, in education, housing and the like. Robust and accessible data on religion and ethnicity demonstrate no evidence of systematic ‘sectarian’ disadvantage (let alone discrimination). It is essential to disentangle these terms.

Disadvantage relates to structured patterns that indicate that particular religious groups are losing out, getting a worse deal than other Scots in their outcomes within, say, the labour market. Discrimination relates to the treating of a person, or a group of people, in a negative way because of their perceived religion. Such discrimination can be direct – an intentional and deliberate policy to exclude particular religions – or indirect. Indirect discrimination might be seen as the unintended consequence of a policy. In 1973, for example, the UK made it compulsory for all motorcyclists to wear crash helmets and this left religiously observant turban-wearing Sikhs at a disadvantage. That was not the purpose of the (rather sensible) law, but it was an outcome of it – hence ‘indirect discrimination’.

The crucial point is this – in any context where there is widespread discrimination of either kind we should be able to measure its effects. That is, discrimination (if it is widespread) will produce disadvantage. Indeed, in the case of direct discrimination creating such structured disadvantage is the entire point.

It logically follows that if we find little or no disadvantage then there can be no widespread or systematic discrimination. Whatever discrimination there might be will be small-scale, localised, and generally ineffective. This, of course is no consolation for any individual discriminated against, but the wider point is that such occasions will be rare and there will be alternative opportunities available.

One of the difficulties in looking for evidence of disadvantage between religious groups lies in the fact that all such groups are, of course, rather mixed. They contain (in differing proportions) men and women, the young and the old; they may have regional variations and concentrations; they may have quite different histories of immigration and migration, of ethnic and national composition. In other words, some of the differences we find between religious groups may be less to do with religion than with these underlying patterns.

Let me give you a concrete example. Catholics in Scotland are, collectively speaking, younger than Presbyterians and older than the irreligious. So if we found a difference in labour market outcomes we might wonder whether this was a religious difference, or one driven by these differential age profiles. Likewise, Scotland’s Catholics are far more regionally concentrated (particularly in West Central Scotland) than other groups which are more widely spread across the country. So we might find that Catholics across Scotland as a whole are more likely to live in areas of relative deprivation. Is that because they are Catholics or because they remain highly concentrated in west central Scotland – an area which disproportionately contains exactly such areas?

That is to say that the seeming disadvantage we might see amongst a particular religious group may have little to do with their religion, per se, but more to do with different underlying demographic, historical or geographical factors.

What did the most recent Census (2011) tell us about employment patterns? The table here takes into account sex and age by examining the occupations of only men aged 15-34. This may be particularly interesting since this is a cohort entering or in the early stages of a labour market career – when the question ‘what school did you go to?’ is sometimes claimed as an important means of direct discrimination. It includes the three major religious groups in Scotland: those who identify with the Church of Scotland, Catholics, and those of no religion. The table is representative of broader patterns in the Census data.

Religion and Occupational Class, 2011: Men aged 15-34

Men, aged 15-34 % by column

Church of Scotland

Catholic

No Religion

Higher managerial & Professional

7

7

9

Lower managerial & Higher supervisory

16

16

17

Intermediate

11

10

11

Small employer/own account worker

6

6

6

Lower Supervisory & Technical

14

15

15

Semi-routine occupations

16

18

15

Routine occupations

19

20

18

Never worked/long-term unemployed

10

9

10

Base (n = )

4,996

3,985

12,331

Source: Census of Scotland, 2011: Safeguarded Microdata (authors’ own analysis)

We need not labour over this table – the patterns are clear: what differences we find are very small and the Catholic profile is exceptionally similar to that of the Church of Scotland. We find similar results amongst women and across age group in the Census and in other sources of robust data such as the Scottish Household Survey. Taken together these sources demonstrate unequivocally that there is little or no difference in the occupations of Catholics, Presbyterians and those of ‘no religion’. Indeed these sources suggest that for Catholics entering employment from the second half of the 20th century onward there was no evidence of widespread disadvantage. Similarly, a wide body of research into other key areas of inequality in education, health and deprivation suggests that any religious differences that remain are modest and in decline. Without evidence of disadvantage it is impossible to sustain credible claims of widespread discrimination. It is clear that whatever the extent of systematic labour market discrimination in the past, it has now (and perhaps long) disappeared.

There is an often ignored sociological issue over direct discrimination. That is, to put it simply, if we wish to be a religious bigot how can we know who to discriminate against? Whatever ‘clues’ we may seek out – school attended, football team supported, name or spelling of name – these are becoming increasingly fallible, not least because the integration of religious groups in contemporary Scotland has progressed in the most intimate of spheres: friendship, love, and sex. Evidence on intermarriage and personal friendships hardly confirms the popular image of a Catholic-Protestant divide in Scotland.

The 2001 Census demonstrated that boundaries between religious traditions at the most intimate level are highly permeable. Almost 400,000 Scottish Catholics were recorded to be living with a spouse or partner. In almost half these cases (47 per cent) that spouse/partner was not Catholic. More than a quarter of Catholics (27 per cent) were married to, or cohabiting with, a Protestant. These data indicate that Catholics are very likely to find their life-partner outside the faith, and the fact that this is even more marked amongst those who are cohabiting suggests that ‘exogamy’ amongst younger Catholics is remarkably high.

Marriages are not the only evidence of the personal mixing of religious communities at the personal and intimate level. The Scottish Social Attitudes survey of 2014 demonstrated that inter-religious friendships were perfectly commonplace: 81 per cent of those who identified themselves as Catholic reported as having one or more Protestant close friends. Equally, 76 per cent of self-identified Protestants said the same of Catholic close friends.

Another measure comes, again, from the 2011 Census. One third of Scotland’s households are religiously mixed, that is, they contain persons who describe their religion differently. This pattern varies with age, with younger households more likely to be religiously mixed. If we exclude single-person households we find that half of the Catholics aged 0-59 living in a household with others, live with non-Catholics. Even amongst the oldest Catholics, though, this figure is around 33 per cent.

Previous studies have found that Scotland’s Protestants and Catholics (and, indeed, the irreligious) are very like each other in terms of their political and social attitudes, and to a large extent we now know why. The Census data on intermarriage, alongside the evidence noted above on friendship networks, serve to signal that religious communities are not discrete and bounded entities inhabiting separate social worlds. In Scotland ‘different’ communities are connected by, and within, friendship networks, families and romantic relationships. Religious conflict with ‘the Other’ – indeed the very conception and relevance of ‘Other’ – becomes difficult to sustain when it is one’s partner, father, sister, or child who ‘kicks with the other foot’.

Michael Rosie is senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Edinburgh

CURRENT ISSUE
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In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.


Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.