October 10, 2012

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Lois Lee on Non-religion (8 October 2012).

With the advent of cultural and religious pluralism within western society, the theme of secularity and non-belief has gained momentum within academic discussion. Non-belief is a growing trend in Western Europe and North America. While countries such as the United States claim to be religious the percentage of non-affiliated individuals is increasing. Roozen (1980) discovered that 46% of American’s were relatively uninvolved in religious services for 2 years or more. In ISSP 2008 survey data, 2.8% agree with the statement “I don’t believe in God”, while 5% agreed with “I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe that there is a way to find out,”, and 10.3% agreed with “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind,” appearing to confirm an agnostic viewpoint on the existence of God.  Similar trends in data were observed in the American Religious Identification Survey results. 2.3% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “there is no such thing (as God)” while 4.3% agreed that “there is no way to know”. 12.1% agreed with the statement “there is a higher power but no personal God” (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). Such data seems to support Steve Bruce’s (2011) secularization paradigm or at least a shift away from organized religious association even within the “religious” United States. Obviously with a social shift away from institutionalized belief and individual faith would certainly assume social structures and institutions would shift to nonreligious culturally relative inclusive structures of meaning.  In other words people would begin to seek to find alternatives in social rituals, symbols, and contexts. An alternative perspective to consider is that of non-religion or those social systems and contexts which share similarity to religious systems but unto themselves are their own distinct non-religious phenomena.

Non-religion and Cross-Disciplinary Research

Dr. Lee’s perspective is an excellent view of how new fields emerge within human studies in academia. A couple of important themes emerge within this Podcast.  The first is related to the reference point of what is non-religion. Such conversations of delineation are challenging as they are juxtaposed within the much larger epistemological framework of an established field.  They begin within the definitional boundary not only of what non-religion is but also what it is not. For example, Dr. Lee notes within the podcast: that non-religion is the “Practice or perspective that differs from religion, something that is defined by how it differs from religion. So it is religious like (in) some way we consider (it) meaningful but beyond that, we need to know more.”  Dr. Lee goes on to say non-religion is a “Space or object where non-religion takes religion as its primary reference point.” Such a conversation has a variety of perspectives as well as establishing an implicit sequitur in meaning.  For Lee the definitional boundaries are necessary if this new field is to have utility. Non-religion appears to be set within the social structural meaning. Its distinction is embedded in the social system and symbols which give the society meaning. In other words, non-religion is related to the social frame of human experience where systems which were originally rooted within the religious order have replaced, adapted, or yielded to more secular frames of reference. It appears that some social systems such as humanism, ecology, environmental awareness, and others may have religious like values or beliefs but lack the religious connections or reference points which would define other social systems. Therefore such social systems fit the nonreligious classifications. These examples – which are socially engaged advocacy groups – fit Hood, Hill & Spilka’s (2009) definitional term of “horizontal transcendence” which assumes that there are movements which give non-religious affiliated individuals a deeper meaning in life but do not require a “vertical transcendence” or religious cosmology in which to find meaning. As Hood and colleagues demonstrate, other social systems provide greater meaning in the lives of people who may not be religious affiliated. This viewpoint is further reinforced with the work of Kohls and Walach (2006) whose work has shown that experiences can be “exceptional” without the interpretative medium of religion to provide transcendental reference point.  While exceptional experience can include newly emergent phenomena such as spirituality, they also include other experiences which may or may not be socially defined. Certainly within the field of Psychology, there has been an effort to capitalize on such experience – exceptional and non-religious meaning – in providing tools for increasing psychological health and well-being (Pargament, 1997). While much of Pargament’s work deals in the realm of Psychology of Religion and coping there are also other experiences observed by Pargament which provide mediums for treatment as well. Such possibilities should be explored further to determine to what extent non-religious experience can provide meaning during traumatic times in people’s lives. Understandably there are wide theoretical and cross-disciplinary possibilities within the study of non-religion which should be collaboratively explored further.  Dr. Lee’s attempt at broadening meaningful human experience certainly has broader implications. The definitional boundary of the field leads to the next point which is the politics of the academic domain in which the non-belief theory operates.

The Politics of Academia

Dr. Lee spends much of the Podcast discussing the scholarly boundaries with other social science and humanities fields such as sociology/secularism and theology/theism. For example, theist academic departments concern themselves with theoretical definitions in which to identify their study. Social science departments may seek operational definitions in which to pose their methodological inquiry. Thus theoretical definitions provide the philosophical paradigm which shapes inquiry. Obviously one’s academic training certainly may determine how non-religion is explored. In the field of psychology for example, non-religious institutions could be studied through the organization of atheists and agnostics. It could be that in the case of socially engaged secular groups, one’s personal ontology juxtaposes their social interests with others of similar view. Religious Studies may approach the perspective very differently by examining the nature of non-religion versus religion looking for ontological patterns of similarity or difference between them. Such considerations of academic consent remind me of Russell McCutcheon’s (1997) work on Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. In this work McCutcheon discusses the sui generis aspects of religious studies or, more simply put, the study of religion simply for its own purposes. McCutcheon believes that religion is not unique from any other academic enterprise but rather should be critiqued and analyzed by a similar measure of other academic disciplines.  While McCutcheon’s work discusses a variety of issues providing evidence of a scholarly impasse for the legitimacy of traditional modes religious studies education, one theme relates to Dr. Lee’s perspective here. That perspective is the legitimacy of inquiry as posed within budgetary constraints and departmental politics. As these new fields – such as non-religion – form, certainly academic inquiry should not be limited to a particular academic field. As McCutcheon suggests, the study of social systems such as religion in his example or non-religion in Dr. Lee’s example should be an interdisciplinary exercise. While this response has focused primarily on the study of non-religion in post-secondary education such as colleges and universities, certainly there is a larger implication as well. In countries where secondary education includes religious education, there is the potential for non-religious education. In considering the politics of this new field, scholars and educators may benefit from discussing these non-religious systems as modes of exceptional experience as noted by much of the work of Kohls and Walach. This could provide additional legitimacy for the field to address the dreaded issues of departmental politics and funding, but also as sub-segment of the much larger focus on religion and spirituality.

Terminology of a New Theory

One could argue that the primary reference point for a new theoretical term should incorporate similar language used by its parentally proceeding terminology. In this case, it appears the field of non-religion is an evolving social system, changing, adapting, and incorporating new meaning and ideas. While the social and ritual systems have similarity, it is unclear if the connection to old religious systems are a result of needing structure or if simply they serve as theoretical cynosure. In other words researchers are concerned with making the ontological and epistemological leap beyond the parental social systems which govern human behavior and structure symbolic meaning. If the new social phenomenon is to exist and, by relation, be studied on its own terms, one possible theme to consider would be to shift the term away from using religion as its terminology primary reference point.

While the space and ritual may seem similar to that of religion, as non-religion begins to form its own social structure it will become more alien to the religious meanings – explicitly or implicitly. While it will always have a historical connection to religion, the social appraisal of the system will be gained through its continued use ergo it gains value of its own as it gains complexity and is routinized in tradition. Following McCutcheon’s perspective, it will create a space where the value of non-religious discourse is on its own terms as the function and structure of a human social system. Scholars should study non-religion for the utility it brings in better understanding the human condition not because it is attached to religiosity in some way.

Certainly new research and scholarly enterprises have been spawned from other older research discourse. Why should non-religion be any different?  Rather than calling these systems non-religious as Lee suggests, consider a phrase such as the Latin ritus insula – insular, or insulate – where the definition reflects the individuality of people and value as well as the social system in which they participate. So instead of speaking of non-religious rituals we would call them ritus insula rituals, endowing the term with an alternative meaning. As the term is adopted and accepted, it begins to epitomize its own meaning in defining these social systems which are shifting away from religious meaning and connection. Dr. Lee and her colleagues should consider the theoretical and research methodological possibilities inherent in shifting the term away from religion.

A Moment of Reflexivity

As I write this response, I find myself in an inner struggle as a Social Scientist. In one sense Dr Lee’s podcast and my subsequent response beg a question of causation. For me the question has its origins in the psychological. Does atheism and/or agnosticism lead to secularization and by proxy non-religious systems of meaning? Or as a social movements continue to gain adherents, do we see a diffusion of new ideas. As is noted by scholars of innovation such as Everett Rogers (2003) there are early adopters who embrace new ideas early while there are others who are slowly drawn to the idea as popularity increases. According to Rogers – and Interestingly – a small segment of the population who are the first to adopt a new idea are called the innovators. This group typically makes up 2.5% of the population. This could map on to the ISSP data and the American Religious Identification Survey as noted earlier where there are now individuals who simply do not believe in God. This would also lead to the conclusion that European samples are much more along the Rogers continuum of diffusion. Rogers argues that as an idea is disseminated and saturated, it becomes a part of the overall culture. It can be part of cultural identity of a group. While Roger’s work was likely more concerned with products and services, such data coupled with Rogers theory would indicate that secularization is inevitable. As human society changes and more people identify with non-belief and Lee’s concept of non-religion, religious systems and beliefs as they are practiced today will cease to be. Therefore it can be assumed that such products of non-belief such as the social systems of non-religion will gain additional opportunities for observation and study. Therefore the difficultly in identifying populations and samples of non-religion may lessen over time.

This response has attempted to show the vast possibilities in collaboration, academic adaptation, and locution of non-religion as an academic study. Through the advent of globalization and with more complex social theories, new human systems of meaning are emerging within academic literature. The challenge that scholars such as Dr. Lee have is interpreting these elaborate and intricate social systems and their implications for humanity. Non-religion makes an excellent area of focus, as it appears to be an emerging phenomenon along with other research areas of atheism, secularization, and spirituality.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu.


  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C. & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: an empirical approach. (4th ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Kohls, N. & Walach H. (2006). Exceptional experiences and spiritual practice: a new measurement approach. Spirituality and Heath International.  7. 125–150.
  • Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Kosmin, B. A., & Keysar, A. (Eds.) (2007). Secularism and secularity: Contemporary international perspectives. Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.
  • Roozen, D. A. (1980). Church dropouts: changing patterns of disengagement and re-entry. Review of Religious Research, 21(4), 427-450.


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