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Work is Ireland’s new religion, unemployment its new sin

Unthinkable: Our religious devotion to work stigmatises those who are less productive

Ray Griffin (left) and Tom Boland (right), authors of The Reformation of Welfare: The New Faith of the Labour Market.

The separation of Catholic Church and State seems to be nearing completion. There are legacy arguments about land ownership, religious oaths, and such like, however the days of bishops manipulating government policy are long gone.

But has one church in Ireland simply been replaced by another? As religious moralising dissipates, other forms of judgmentalism – and especially those allied to free-market economics – have become more dominant.

Labour market researchers Tom Boland and Ray Griffin believe we need to wake up to the “theology hidden in plain sight”.

Competition, productivity and individualism are something like a holy trinity today. According to Boland and Griffin, however, such contemporary values are, crucially, underpinned by a Judeo-Christian inheritance; in other words, the old church hasn’t entirely gone away.


The duo identify a distinctly religious flavour to various secular rites in the labour market.

Having a job isn’t enough you need a vocation – a passion to which you surrender yourself. Pilgrimage has its parallel in “the interminable ritual of jobseeking”, while the Curriculum Vitae serves as a “confession of faith” in meritocracy. Contrition is expected to be shown for gaps in employment.

As for purgatory, it’s not unlike that “interim space” between the worlds of work and unemployment, characterised by a punishing wait or humiliating ritual.

Boland, who is senior lecturer in sociology at University College Cork and Griffin, who is lecturer in strategic management at Waterford Institute of Technology, have collated their findings in a new book The Reformation of Welfare: The New Faith of the Labour Market.

The product of “a decade of sustained thought and discussion”, it blends policy analysis and moral philosophy with revealing interviews with jobseekers who attest to the spiritual upheaval caused by unemployment. And it questions whether existing values can survive when the logic of technology and automation take hold.

Boland and Griffin wrote the book together so they gave joint answers to the questions as this week’s Unthinkable guests.

There seems to be a blind spot on both left and right of the political spectrum to what you call “the Judeo-Christian inheritance”. Why is that? Is part of it a naïve belief that religious values no longer inform our thinking?

“Modern thought has its own ‘foundation myths’ – the idea that our era is a decisive break with the past, marked by Enlightenment, revolutions or experimental science. Yet, up to a century ago, most politicians and policy makers knew their religion intimately, even if they doubted miracles or heaven.

“More importantly, theological models shaped how they thought about the society, developed the state and judged individual lives...

“Left, right and centre in politics there are elements of the ‘Judeo-Christian inheritance’. Socialist ideas reflect the Sermon on the Mount where ‘the meek will inherit the earth’. Egalitarianism is preceded by St. Paul’s ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female’ in Christianity. Liberalism emphasises freedom and choice, by which individuals are judged, either by the market or by God – the famous ‘invisible hand’.

“Interestingly, both left and right are committed to hard work as redemptive: From Marx to Roosevelt, Stalin to Hitler, DeValera to Thatcher, politicians have endorsed Thessalonians 3.10: ‘If anyone should not work, neither should they eat’. Work is considered redemptive – especially of those who are supposedly fallen and in need of ‘reform’ by the welfare state, termed L’Etat Providence in French.”

One of the most vivid sections of the book is on purgatory. Can you explain how exactly workers find themselves in this condition?

“Unemployment is not just financially difficult: Free time becomes a burden of anxiously waiting for a welfare claim to be processed, waiting for a job, and just waiting. Time becomes excruciatingly tedious, yet also frantic, because the welfare state demands ritualistic ordeals of interviews, confidence training, career advice and proof of extensive job-search...

“This experience reprises the medieval invention of purgatory, a second chance for souls not condemned to hell to purify themselves. Sins were redeemed in purgatory by suffering tailored to the sinner – work for the idle, abstinence for the gluttons and so forth.

“Famously, Luther rejected purgatory as having no scriptural basis, yet Protestantism considered life itself as a purifying trial. Misfortunes are taken as tests of faith, suffering is an ordeal of salvation.

“These religious roots explain why contemporary society takes life itself as a challenge, a journey of self-discovery, especially through hard times. More importantly, the state imposes this model of redemptive suffering on the unemployed – turning social support into the demand to transform yourself into a worker – which can only happen with the blessing of the labour market.”

Unemployment is associated with feelings of guilt and shame. How can this be overcome?

“The guilt and shame of unemployment are not inevitable, rather they are a policy choice. At times unemployment in Ireland carried little institutional stigma, the absence of work was a problem of our erratic national economy. This might stem from our post-colonial or Catholic heritage, in which the poor were virtuous: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’.

“The moralising character of the Troika’s bailout found its way into the ‘Pathways to Work’ policy which sought to reform the wayward unemployed. Effectively this replaced traditional tolerance with the neo-Calvinist values that drove European Central Bank – which judges the unemployed harshly for their situation, without reference the macro-economy.”

You note Ireland has traditionally had a relatively “passive” welfare system “whereby the unemployed were encouraged but not compelled to seek work”. Is our system more humane than that of other countries?

“Absolutely. Although there were admirers of ‘active’ welfare systems within Irish politics and social policy, until the arrival of the Troika in 2010, Ireland was a world-leader for its compassionate welfare system. Individuals were assured meaningful financial assistance that prevented absolute poverty without interfering in their lives – a genuinely ‘liberal’ welfare state.

“The Department of Social Protection (DSP), although not without its flaws is our greatest achievement as a State. We have an erratic economy, rapidly whirling though feast and famine, and the 7,000 people who work in the DSP and the representative democracy behind it through communal taxation has held us together as a people.

“We estimate almost half of all Irish adults have relied on unemployment benefit at some stage, especially at pivotal moments – like the pandemic and the global financial crisis before it, the DSP provides a safety net.

“Beyond that – unemployment can lead to social unrest; populist political dissent is often driven by economic deprivation. Complex welfare systems were invented and implemented by liberal and conservative politicians to maintain market capitalism, protect private property and thwart revolutionary impulses.”

On the impact of the pandemic, you note that tax receipts "have proven to be surprisingly resilient" and it appears "fewer people are actually needed in work" once basic goods and services are catered for. Can the economy – and society – flourish with higher levels of unemployment?

“Flourishing depends mainly on the distribution of wealth: more equal societies do better. Fifty years ago, a single wage could buy a house and support a family. Unemployment was low, but the ‘participation rate’ – the proportion of people in paid employment was also far lower than today.

“That was no utopia – given the gender inequality and personal hardship involved – but the proliferation of lower-paid work since then is no panacea. From a utilitarian sense, work and the economy could be done very differently – and the pandemic has proved that yet again and the limits of our shared environment make that a necessity.

“Our argument is that work and welfare have much deeper roots: We are a work-cult, we believe in the need to work, for ourselves and our kids, and we seek to transform anyone who cannot find work – even if it involves being cruel to be kind. So, dislodging those ideas is no superficial task.”

The Reformation of Welfare: The New Faith of the Labour Market by Tom Boland and Ray Griffin is published by Bristol University Press

*In other labour-related news, Axel Honneth will, on July 14th, deliver this year's Royal Institute of Philosophy/University College Dublin annual lecture on the theme of Work: A Short History of a Modern Concept. The online event is free. See: