Sustainability as Civil Religion? (Part One)


Over the past half century or so anthropolgists and sociologists of religion developed some fascinating theories into how religion is experienced by people in various societies at various points of time.  It is a genuine shame that the insights of people like Paul Heelas, Linda Woodhead and Jeremy Carrette (and many others) have been drowned out in the noise created by some of the more adolescent voices who pontificate about the lack of value of faith to society.  It is only by ‘looking under the hood’ (so to speak) of what religion does to people and groups who participate in it, and what these in turn do to it that we can develop some real insight into what we are as human beings.  As the perpetually relevant WIlliam James wrote in the Varieties of Religious Experience over 100 years ago: ‘To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesteing as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution.  It would seem, therefore, that, as a psychologist, the natural thing for me would be to invite you to a descriptive survey of those religious propensities’ (pages 2-3).  In other words, James wasn’t interested in proving the existence of deities, or how they wanted us to behave, or even if certain churches or theologies represented the one true path to faith: he was solely interested in how people experienced their faith or lack of it, and how this varied across the individual’s lifespan.  Weber had proposed that religious sentiment impacted on economic development and organized work; James sought to account for how the fluid nature of the individuals relationship with their own faith impacted on their behaviour.  

James’ influence on contemporary scholars of organisations and the work ethic has spread to contemporary organisational scholarship (see this article, for an excellent example). One of the sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, many contributions was the rejuvenation of the idea of civil religion.  In an article titled ‘Civil Religion in America’ which was published when he was a professor of sociology at Harvard in 1967, Bellah discussed an American Civil Religion which was ‘a point of articulation between the profoundest commitments of the Western religious and philosophical tradition and the common beliefs of ordinary Americans’ (p. 52).  This shared religion was built upon shared Abrahamic faiths (and did not prioritize any particular one) and provided powerful symbols, rituals and beliefs that helped provide guidance and unity when the internal consistency of the project of the United States was contested or disputed.  As the American Civil Religion sacralized values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘service’, these  could be called up to justify good decisions (such as the emancipation of slaves or enshrining constitutional civil rights) or bad decisions (such as the decision to become increasingly involved in Vietnam).  More importantly though, the American Civil Religion, which stemmed from powerful discourses of faith and nationality and was ‘practiced’ throughout society as part of everyday life, could be used a collective means of resolving national crises, which Bellah refers to as trials. 

In many respects Ireland has an equivalent of a civil religion, which is entering the endgame of it’s trials where important decisions will be made.  The ‘biblical archetypes’, to use Bellah’s phrase, which informed our national creed were largely based on (1) the Roman Catholic faith, (2) the construction of a particular form of gaelicized culture which encouraged Irish sports, arts and language and (3) political structures which largely stemmed from divisions which became entrenched at the start of the project of the Irish Republic.  All of these remain, but the point is that the degree to which the first two of these have been seen by some commentators as being in decline since the 1960s. 

The Roman Catholic church’s ownership of Irish ethics, which Tom Inglis aptly named a moral monopoly,  has imploded in the aftermath of the response to the horrific child abuse recounted in recent official reports.  Not only are artistic and sporting alternatives becoming more available to Irish people, but the variety of tools for accessing and participating in new communities also spreading.  The core demographic topography of the country rapidly changed during the boom.  Poltically, the idea of being an independent republic has fallen away and many have commented that Ireland’s policies are no longer decided by the people we have democratically elected, but dictated by the troika of the EU, the IMF and the ECB. 

These ‘trials’ come to a head with what ultimately may prove to be some key events, where we will see what is sacred to the Irish Civil Religion. Although the last census of Ireland demonstrates that the overall percentage of people in Ireland identifying with the Roman Catholic Faith has fallen, it is still very high at over 86% of the population, making Ireland one of the ‘most catholic’ countries on the planet.  In the past this commitment could be manifested through monitoring the degree to which people observed weekly rituals (such as mass attendence), but is probably best quantified through engagement with special events.  In the past, this might have been the huge attendances at the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932 or the Pope’s visit in 1979.  This June, the next International Eucharistic Congress will take place in Ireland and responses to and engagement with it as a significant event may provide important clues as to the ongoing relevance of the Church in Irish culture and society.

One of the pivotal faiths of Ireland’s national creed has been ‘independence’ from a colonial other.  This event stems from the moment that our right to national sovereignty was proclaimed in 1916.  In four year’s time Ireland will commemorate its first centennial and this will doubtlessly lead to much re-consideration of what it means to be Irish in contemporary Ireland.  Once again, it is the extent to which these notions are shared that are of most importance.  The photograph below is of an image which was affixed to Occupy Dame Street’s encampment at the Irish Central Bank and is a good example of how the economic position of the current Government is challenged by using an image from an archetypal Irish patriot. 


Finally, at a political level, although Irish people have not been averse to civil resistance and protest since the foundation of the Republic, there is much evidence of a strong strand of social conservatism which is likely to be another element of our civil religion.  Recent news reports have highlighted that there is a growing acceptance of civil disobediance to government which is no longer equated with being unpatriotic.  Take for example the large numbers of homeowners who have not paid the household tax.  Perhaps, more importantly, Ireland’s role in Europe will be interrogated when a referendum will be held on the new EU Fiscal Treaty at the end of next May. 

If the Irish Civil Religion has scaralized Roman Catholic ethics, independence and conservatism, it will test its engagement with these in the lead up to and aftermaths of three signal events (or ‘trials’).  The questions that will asked will be ones that seek to clarify a new ethical core to how we govern our society, and take care of each other, in the future.  In the second part of this blog post I would like to discuss some of the evidence why I think that sustainability in it’s many forms is possibly the key pillar for how this Civil Religion may be enacted in the future, and the role which businesses, and management researchers, have played in making this the case.