Dealing with the loss of implicit religious dominance

With few exceptions, religion – and more specifically their institutions – represented or imposed strong norms on societies and individuals. New studies show two trends which result in a decline of the implicit power, specifically of Christianity. Diversity management has to address the related, subtle or unconscious fears.

Invisible norms exist unnoticed until challenged by changes. The dynamics around religion are a strong illustration for this: Since 9/11 we see increasingly heated discussions about religion, faith or belief as constituting elements of (National) cultures. D&I has tried to stay away from the deeper, personal and hence emotional aspects, focusing on practical workplace solutions. New data suggests that the topic must receive a lot more attention, including for one surprising reason: Dominant majorities feel threatened – fuelled by populist campaigns – which creates a new quality of anti-diversity attitude.

Two new studies provide data showing how European societies – and hence workplace – are changing.

Societies become less religious at large …  

A report from St Mary’s University in London shows that young people in the EU are less affiliated with religion – compared with the religious affiliation of the societies at large. However, the analyses revealed immense – and surprising – differences across countries; even between some that seem to share relevant historical heritage: The four countries with the most and the least religious youth are all post-communist states. In the Czech Republic and Estonia, 91% and 80% of 16- to 29-year-olds said they had no religious affiliation, whereas in Poland and Lithuania, only 17% and 25% said so respectively. All other countries, however, show moderate levels of ‘no religious affiliation’ between 25 and 75%. These self-descriptions were confirmed by responses about religious practices. The report is based on data from the European Social Survey (2014 – 2016) and its author, Prof. Bullivant, concluded that “The new default setting is ‘no religion” and “Mainstream churches will be smaller, but (…) highly committed”.

This finding arguably points to a more polarised future, which seems to be confirmed by other data.

… while (small) Muslim minorities are growing  

Based on current estimates of the Muslim population in 28 EU member states plus Norway and Switzerland), the Pew Research Center presented possible projections, i.e. scenarios, about the future religious diversity. Based on public and academic data from various European institutions, their report shows and increase of the European Muslim population from 3.5% in 2010 to 4.9% in 2016 (including most refugees and asylum seekers from that period). Scenarios with zero, medium or high future immigration of Muslims could lead to Muslim shares of 7.4%, 11.2% or 14% by 2050. While the report includes some explanation of the intra-group diversity of ‘Muslims in Europe’ it does not explicitly model the return migration (e.g. of refugees), assuming that most ‘will continue to remain’ (based on historical experience). This assumptions could and should be challenged due to many differences of the today’s context, compared with previous migration periods. On the other hand, the report provides interesting calculations and consideration by country.

Read an interesting inclusive Belgian initiative here.

Specific Diversity Management issues around religion

The new data adds an important dimensions to the already existing complexity of dealing with religious diversity: Unlike other dimensions of Diversity, religion covers two connected levels that are, however, discussed and addressed separately:

  • Deeper values, convictions and beliefs, which employers or the State generally do not want to ‘touch’ (and arguably shouldn’t)
  • Everyday practices that are rooted in religious norms while including personal interpretation or choice at the same time (what to follow, when and where to practice my religion)

This constellation has been – already in the past – a certain challenge for D&I: How to acknowledge differences including in behaviours or needs without engaging in a value-based discussion?

Read an overview of good Corporate Practices

Over the past fifteen years, however, a new situation has emerged which includes more pronounced critical perspectives on Islam in both politics and (western) societies. This not only spills over into the workplace, it has also led to more frequent discussions about Christian values – or rather Christianity – as a cornerstone of National culture – even those who have considered or proclaimed themselves secular for centuries. Hence, a previously unnoticed assumption has become visible: The implicit dominance of Christian norms as leftovers of the former religious states.

One apparent example are public holidays in ‘secular’ countries that are based on the formerly dominant religions to the extent that strict religious rules are imposed (as it is the case with disputed ‘silent holidays’ in Germany where no loud music can be played anywhere and where a court has just ruled that even another religious ceremony [circumcision] cannot be held that day due to its assumed ‘festive’ nature).

At the very same time, it becomes apparent that this leftover hidden dominance will decrease further.

Managing majorities as a key mission of D&I

This situation shows, once more, the importance of considering majority groups as well as minorities in any D&I context (technically, we should speak about dominant and subordinate groups here). Here is an example of where religious blind spots can lead.

In the field of religion, this can practically mean – e.g. – to

  • Raise awareness for the many Christian elements in the workplace to help contextualise discussions about other religions
  • Remind people about the implicit Christian perspective that is often taken when considering norms or practices of other religions
  • Show the diversity of Christian beliefs and practices to establish awareness for intra-group diversity that exists in any religious group

Such elements in addressing religious diversity will encourage people to reflect upon implicit religious aspects in everyday life including the question if they really want that influence in the respective spaces. This can eventually lead to a renewed discussion of shared values – e.g. in the European Union – that go beyond inherited Christian (actually, mostly Catholic) influences.

A recent study was able to show that support for the EU is stronger among Catholics than Protestants, while it is generally stronger in minority groups than in dominant groups. The specific religious split is explained by the fact that most founding fathers of the EU were Catholic and supportive of the idea of a more unified political framework whereas Protestant groups saw individual states as a way to protect their values (against the historical Catholic dominance).

Looking further

While in ‘the West’, Christian religions are often the implicit norm, this is not the case for most other countries. In fact, a large number of political conflicts have religious causes or at least components. Therefore, it is no surprise that beyond the Christian-Muslim debate that is so strong in some Western societies, other inter-religious issues or mono-religious streamlining are taking place in different parts of the world.

  • In Turkey, a number of laws were introduced making the country much more explicitly Muslim than the founding fathers ever anticipated (or wished)
  • In Israel, the complex ethnic and religious questions continue to be vast and the specific questions about Jerusalem as a holy city of several religions remains unsolved
  • In Sri Lanka, violence broke out between the dominant Buddhist community and Muslim minorities (after the country had decades of inter-ethnic and inter-religious civil wars)
  • In Myanmar, old tensions between Buddhist majority and Bengal-Muslim minorities resulted in a mass escape of Rohingya towards Bangladesh

How to deal with workplace issues related to religion will have to be sorted out by D&I experts. For the academic community in this field has not had employment on their agenda for a while. As an example, the upcoming 16th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) deals with multiple religious identities (Individuals, Communities, Traditions) but not with any of the dynamics described above or what the implications in the workplace are.



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