‘What causes religious and social segregation?’


Chris Baker

Presentation for the Christian-Muslim conference June 16th 2014.
Are we Reflections of Jesus and Muhammad, or Distortions?

Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on why we segregate as a form of distortion of the religious principles of deep love, forgiveness and hospitality mandated by the founders of our Muslim and Christian religions.

Two brief things before I begin. First, I am not an inter-faith expert, but I would classify myself a person of faith from the Christian tradition. I trained for the Church of England priesthood in the late 80s, but in the last 12 years I have pursued an academic career in research looking at the relation between religion and public life. So I will approach the question of what creates segregation from a socio-economic perspective as well as theological/spiritual perspective.
Second, I see segregation not so much as a cause but a symptom – and that symptom is the breakdown of trust and empathy. So I will ask ‘How we have structured our society and political economy so that it appears to minimise, rather than maximise, the conditions for trust and empathy?’

So what are the main drivers for the way our society is structured? The answer lies in the simple but also complex term globalisation. ‘What is globalisation?’ Well, I tend to go to the Financial Times lexicon for these things

‘Globalisation describes a process by which national and regional economies, societies, and cultures have become integrated through the global network of trade, communication, immigration and transportation.’

This integration as we know creates huge upheavals, huge churns of people who have to uproot themselves and become mobile and flexible in order to find work and pursue education. So increasing numbers of spaces where we thought we knew we belonged and which were basically full of people quite similar to us, have in the last few years become much more diverse. The cultural landmarks and buildings we have grown up with have changed, and we perhaps feel as though we are no longer welcome or as confident in using the streets and shops that we once knew.

So globalisation directly impacts on two things that are vital for our sense of belonging and connectedness and therefore trust; our sense of place and our sense of identity. A cause of urban change that often affects our sense of place is gentrification; namely the cherry picking of derelict sites in and around city centres for redevelopment of business infrastructure and accommodation designed to attract the well-off and hyper-rich. Gentrification used to be a more organic and gradual movement – a few pioneers moving in and taking over derelict spaces for an arts or cultural project. However, it is now more synonymous with a ruthless and wholescale relocation of existing communities. Research figures suggest that 25% of original residents might be lucky enough to be relocated back into their area, but many will pay more for the privilege of living in their former locations.

Most new developments are also what we call ‘gated’ communities, surrounded by constant surveillance, private security and restricted access to what had previously been a public space.
Gentrification thus helps create a politics of envy and greed and perpetuates social and economic inequality. Two British academics, Wilkinson and Pickett in their recent book The Spirit Level, noted that the more unequal a society was, the more unhappy it was.  They identified the usual social impacts; poorer education, higher obesity and mortality in the most excluded communities. But they also highlighted physiological impacts such as higher levels of cortisol people’s blood stream in unequal communities. Cortisol is a hormone that helps produce adrenalin as a response to fight to flight situations – it is raised in relation to perceived threat and readies the body for fight. It makes us jumpy and trigger happy, quick to take offence or get ‘stuck in’. Unfortunately for us, the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the world – only Singapore, US and Portugal are more unequal in terms of the income gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20%.

So from place to identity, the second major dimension of our experience shaped by globalisation. There are two lenses by which to understand identity. The first lens is called Social Identity Theory. This sees belonging to groups as a natural way of ordering the world – we understand the world though groups. This becomes a problem, when, often quite naturally, we tend to see our group as superior to other groups, not least because this idea of group superiority is deeply wedded to a personal need for self-esteem. No one usually chooses to belong to a group seen as underdogs or outcasts – unless you are a Millwall fan, or in my case a Charlton Athletic supporter. Now a sense of innate superiority for groups can come from a number of different sources, nationality, ethnicity, geography but if the prime source for our sense of superiority is religious, then an encounter with pluralism and difference leads many religious groups to create a cultural enclave characterised by frequent interaction with fellow-believers; what Henri Tajfel would describe as ‘the tight drawing up of in group boundaries as clearly delineated and protected against out-group influences’. Religion in this reading of identity is monolithic and static. Its power lies in an unyielding and unforgiving attitude to the wider world. This attitude says: ‘You change to our ways or at best we will ignore you – at worst we will seek to violently conform you to our way of thinking.

The second lens is Identity theory. In contrast to social identity theory, it suggests the way we construct and negotiate our identities is more complex and the relationship with the world is more porous. We are more reliant on our personal strategies for integration, rather than blindly following the group line. In this theory of group identity, the religious identity is just one of many other identities, and esteem and status are cultivated through interpersonal relationship across a wide variety of social and cultural settings. Our self-verification therefore, depends to some extent on the way strangers confirm our identity rather than having our identity purely confirmed by those who are similar to us.

So why is the first form of identity (social identity theory) which is more likely to provoke segregation, apparently more prevalent than the second one (identity theory). We cannot blame the pressure and stresses of the external world alone (powerful thought they are). Perhaps a stronger drive towards our need for well-defined in/out boundaries comes from within. At which point one needs to turn to theological or spiritual sources.

I guess three ideas that are relevant to this debate are: human sinfulness; submission; kenosis (or self-emptying). I am interpreting human sinfulness primarily as the desire to control and impose ones will over others. Freudian analysts suggests this desire for control is linked to the ego – the Nietzschean drive for human autonomy, creativity and indeed survival – what Nietzsche called the will-to-power that is always seeking to subvert the internalised authority figures of religion or parents or social norms  i.e. the Id.  Greek philosophy has a more ancient term for this will-to-power i.e. hubris – an excessive pride that likes to shame others and becomes increasingly detached from reality.

Religion also has much to say on the subject of will-to-power. In the Islamic tradition we have the central idea of submission to a higher power than the human – i.e. the will and revelation of Allah as revealed by the Prophet (PBUH). This submission to the will and revelation of God represents a renunciation of ego, and a directing it instead towards the precepts of justice and peace which safeguard creation as part of a covenantal relationship of divine love and judgment.

Within the Christian tradition, there is within Jesus’ teaching a radical counter-worldly thrust towards being emptied; that the journey towards God, but also the journey towards a new humanity is to empty oneself in order to be filled with God’s spirit – to be born again. The Greek word for this spiritual emptying is kenosis. Paul exhorts the early Christians in his letter to the Philippians  ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ, “who though he was in the form of God  emptied himself, taking the form of slave and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross”.’ (Phil 2: 5-8)

Jesus’ modelling of the emptying of ego and self for the greater good is a radical and costly form of discipleship that I certainly struggle to implement in my life. But it does inspire me to, in the words of Jesus’ sermon in the plain, as recorded by St Luke, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those you abuse you. Give to everyone who begs from you and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ (Luke 6:27-31)

In my best moments, which are few and far between, I am inspired by these words to implement behaviours in the public sphere that bring about trust and thus militate against an increase in segregation.

How can we impart these universal messages of love, forgiveness, grace and justice without that element of coercion and will to power that breaks down trust and so contributes to spatial, identity and spiritual segregation. The great religious and spiritual traditions of the world have it within their power to act as a progressive, not a regressive force for positive change that restores norms to public live and reminds us the deep interconnection of our intertwined fates. 84% of the world’s population, according to the Pew Centre Survey on Religion and Public Life identify with a religious group. Those who identify as Christians and Muslims constitute 55% of the world’s religious citizenry between them. At a recent meeting of the William Temple Foundation, we discussed a book called How Much is Enough? by father and son Robert and Edward Skidelsky. One is an economist the other a philosopher. They ask whether it is possible for us as a global society to rediscover the importance of the good life, where the drive towards work and money are balanced by an appreciation for nature, philosophy and the importance of recognising what we need rather than what we want. The future of the planet, they say, requires us to move to a form of capitalism that uses new technology to creates these benefits rather than simply creating endless opportunities to consume that then lead ever more chaotic and driven lives as we seek to consume even more . They conclude that this moral and practical shift to a more balanced and fair form of capitalism in pursuit of a good life is ‘…probably impossible without the authority and inspiration that only religion can provide’ (p. 217). It’s time for us who define ourselves as people of faith, to step up to the plate; and to walk the walk of trust and not collude with the forces of segregation.

Dr Chris Baker
June 16th, 2014
William Temple Foundation/University of Chester


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