Speaking About Faith: Lessons from Northern Ireland’s Faith Minorities

imageOn Wednesday the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin at Belfast), where I work, hosted a meeting of the Northern Ireland Inter Faith Forum. I was the guest speaker, and presented some results from our Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism research project.

This project, while focusing primarily on Christianity, has also included some research into the experiences of what we are calling ‘Faith Minorities.’ The results of this research were the subject of my presentation (you can download the powerpoint here).

During the question and response session, several participants commented that they were pleased with the ‘Faith Minorities’ terminology that I used throughout the talk.

I had explained that the research team had found terms commonly used on this island to describe religions other than Christianity problematic. For instance, ‘Other Religions,’ could seem to imply that Christianity should enjoy a privileged place in society, with different religions relegated to problematic ‘others.’

Another popular term, ‘non Christian’ religions, could be understood to mean that, again, Christianity is the normative religion against which others are judged. One needs to think only of the South African apartheid regime’s characterisation of other races as ‘non white’ to see what I am getting at here.

When writing up a draft report of the research, I initially used the term ‘Minority Faiths.’ My rationale was that people of various expressions of the Christian faith are a numerical majority on this island. So, perhaps a more sensitive way to characterize ‘other’ or ‘non Christian’ religions on this island would be to refer to them as minorities.

In consultation with Fred Vincent, the member of the research team who carried out interviews with people from these various faiths, I changed the terminology to ‘Faith Minorities.’

Fred thought it more appropriate to emphasise people’s faith before their status as a numerical minority, and I could see where he was coming from.

A few days prior to my presentation for the Inter Faith Forum, the research team met privately in Dublin to discuss the data from the Faith Minorities and another case study. One of our Ph.D. candidates, Celia Kenny, pointed out that she thought the language of ‘minority’ was especially significant and perhaps could and should serve as a wake-up call to the Christian majority on this island to engage with different perspectives.

What I took as Celia’s main point is that numerical minorities occupy certain spaces in society that the majority is simply blinded to.

If people in the majority engage with minorities and really listen to them, we are open to all kinds of new perspectives – particularly when it comes to ways in which our social structures, religious systems, and political systems cause people who are part of those minorities to feel oppressed or dominated.

So I expect when we get to the stage where more of this research is ready for publication in journals and books, Faith Minorities will be the term employed.

One person present at Wednesday’s talk asked me to describe the process by which the research team had settled on the more sensitive ‘Faith Minorities’ term. I answered by relating much of what I have written here about our awareness of the problematic nature of terms like ‘other’ and ‘non Christian’ religions, particularly my discussion with Fred Vincent.

I also said that the Irish School of Ecumenics’long engagement with the various aspects of the conflict on this island had most likely heightened our awareness of the difficulties surrounding language.

For instance, in their 2000 book Moving Beyond Sectarianism, then-Irish School of Ecumenics researchers Joseph Leichty and Cecelia Clegg spent a great deal of time analysing sectarianism. Relevant to this blog post, they described how polarising and divisive language plays its part in maintaining Northern Ireland’s sectarianism system. That’s a point I reiterated in a recent blog post on Slugger O’Toole.

On Wednesday, it felt good to think that at least for those present, our chosen terminology had been welcomed and appreciated. A few well-thought out words can go a long way.

One Response to Speaking About Faith: Lessons from Northern Ireland’s Faith Minorities

  1. James Holmlund October 12, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    Warmest thanks for your excellent, clear and concise presentation. I think it really struck a note with many of us present.

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