Developing a Critical Study of Non-Religion
Podcast with Christopher R. Cotter (23 August 2020)
Interviewed by Breann Fallon
Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver
Audio and Transcript Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/developing-a-critical-study-of-non-religion/
Non-Religion, Atheism, Agnosticism, Discourse Analysis
Breann Fallon (BF) 0:05
Hi, everyone, as you just heard, it is indeed me, Bre Fallon, and I am joined today by RSP co-founder and co-editor-in-chief, Chris Cotter. Very familiar to all of you, I’m very sure. How are we, Chris?
Chris Cotter (CC) 0:20
We are okay. I’m sitting in my windowless home office “box” at the moment as we hopefully are nearing the end of COVID full-on lockdown shenanigans in Edinburgh. We’ve got our fingers crossed there. And just keepin’ on trucking.
Well, and speaking of keeping on trucking, today we’re going to chat about your new book, which I just had the joy of reading a bit of an early copy, and I found it very intriguing. Your new book is called The Critical Study of Non-Religion: Discourse, Identification, and Locality, and it’s being published by Bloomsbury. The book fits quite nicely into our monthly theme for August, which is “Journeys,” because there are many ways that your book covers this theme. But I thought we would start with perhaps the start of the book because that makes logical sense. Because the book is sort of rooted in the concept of the academy’s journey in studying non-religion thus far. And you point out a lot of missteps in that journey, so I’m just wondering if you can give us a sense of the study of non-religion thus far and major missteps up to this point?
Well, what I do, as we all do as academics, is somewhat clunkily fit the history and approaches into ideal types, and then I immediately say that ideal types are bad things. But I mean, at the beginning of the book, I am drawing a lot more on a broader literature review before getting into my own empirical material. But I hope synthesizing it in a new and exciting and up to date way.
For a long time, the study of “non-religion,” or the “non-religious,” or “irreligion,” or “the secular,” or whatever the multitude of terms we want to use, was dominated by what I call a subtractionist approach. So, it was seeing the non-religious–I’ll just keep using that term–we could get into critiquing that as an uninteresting residuum leftover when religion is removed from the picture. So, if we’re looking at people who might employ social surveys or whatever, a “none” box might be included in there in an identification exercise, and then that population would probably not be of interest to the study. So, you know, it would be included there to just siphon off people who weren’t of interest. And that approach dominated for many decades from both sides of the ideological spectrum, I suppose. People who might be invested in the category of “religion” obviously didn’t see people who are identifying as “non-religious” as being of interest. But also people who were perhaps major proponents of the secularization thesis would’ve seen it as a subtraction story, as there being something there which was religion, which was diminishing to some sort of neutral baseline normal state.
And Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant, who are the cofounders of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, of which I’m now part–they trace this back to the early pioneers of the social sciences, like [Karl] Marx, [Auguste] Comte, [Emile] Durkheim, and so on, who in their words were–because they were not religious themselves or saw themselves as having transcended this in some way didn’t see that state of being as being worthy of comment.
Now, there has been demonstrable interest in the study of non-religions from a more substantive perspective, say going back to the 1960s. There was a big conference that happened at the Vatican with a lot of that day’s major sociologists attending. Then in the early ’70s, we had Colin Campbell‘s Toward a Sociology of Irreligion, which set a research agenda. It wasn’t really until the 21st century that people started taking a real substantive look at going, “well, maybe people who are identifying as non-religious, maybe there’s something interesting going on there.” Maybe it’s more of a question of what do they have? What beliefs, values, practices, and that sort of thing do they have, rather than just seeing them as this sort of empty residuum. And from the start of the 21st century, then, with the rise of New Atheism and a whole bunch of other things, contextual factors, scholars started to turn their attention towards the non-religious substantively. So, asking things like “what does it mean to be non-religious?” And taking that “none” category of social surveys, which seems to be growing and growing, and starting to think, “well, who are these people?”
And of course, that’s an excellent first step. There’s clearly a lot of people who aren’t seeing religion–that social construct–as being relevant to our lives. So, let’s see what’s going on. But within that, a lot of critical problems emerged. I mean, the first one would be a sort of world religions paradigm expansion issue, whereby this “none” category was–and we see it all the time in major social surveys and news stories–the “nones” are being raised to the status of the world’s fourth largest religious group, as some of the stats would suggest. And problems with that are that, first of all, it assumes that there is something unifying. I mean, we present people with a survey and they say, “do the any of these categories apply to you or none of them?” If you tick none, that doesn’t say that there’s anything unifying that group at all. It just says that you rejected all the other categories in the survey. So, there’s a sort of scholarly implication in the construction of a social group that otherwise might not exist, had the question not been asked in the first place. But there’s also then, as David Robertson and I argued in After World Religions, there’s the idea of adding an extra seat at the table to the world religions paradigm. Going, well, here we’ve got this model with Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, maybe Sikhs, you know, and then we’ll add an extra table for these “nones” and then now we’re sort of properly covering all our bases and everyone’s being represented. Well, what that does is it just shores up all the critical problems with the world religions paradigm, which I’m not going to get into just now. You can check out some other RSP podcasts on that, if you wish.
It was David’s interview with James Cox that was the key one there.
So, it’s got all of those sorts of issues. Then obviously, it was an under-theorized field as well. So, when scholars started substantively studying this disparate category, whether it’s a group or not, people start coming out with their own idiosyncratic terminology. I’ve certainly done that in the past and it’s understandable. You have a new group of data, you want to typologize, you want to use ideal types. So, the field very quickly then became populated with lots and lots and lots of disparate studies, each using their own idiosyncratic terminology for usually quite small groups of participants and then starting to speak ideal-typically about those individuals. And with all the problems that come with ideal types, you know, they’re never meant to equate to reality or give us a broader, a generalized sense of what might be going on. But then thirdly, of course, from a critical religion perspective–and again, check out our interviews with Tim Fitzgerald on this–the very notion of “non-religion” in that phrasing is semantically parasitic on that category of religion. So although, as I would argue, you can do good critical work to destabilize the mystification of the category of religion and the reification of it as something sui generis, by putting an added “non” in front of it, there is a sense of sort of kicking the can down the road. And you can actually end up just further reifying the category by going “well, there is this sui generis religion and we’re gonna study all the stuff that’s ‘non’ that,” but you’re just adding an extra term onto the start of an already mystifying category. And obviously, Tim Fitzgerald takes great issue with that.
I would say, and as I hope I do in the book, that by adding that extra “non” onto the front, and by showing how all the movements between “religious” stances and “non-religious” stances, the discursive machinations that are going on, showing how it’s all fluid, removes some of the mystifying power of the “religion” category by demonstrating that it is a discursive construct that’s utilized tactically by people as they navigate their place in the contemporary modern world, where that category of religion has had a lot of power invested in it throughout modern history.
Now we’ve really just run over the, forgive me for saying–the first part of the book almost comes across as almost like a textbook, I guess. Sort of like a textbook on the history of non-religion, particularly–sorry, the study of religion, particularly in the UK. I think that you generally focus more there. But then the book sort of moves away from that, and we get really into the chunk of your study. Now, your study is focused in the South Side of Edinburgh. And, before we get into the nitty gritty of what you found, I’m interested in, having gone through all of that literature, how did you frame your methodology in order to place your study in that critical realm, as you’ve said, but also to navigate around the missteps on the journey in the study of “non-religion” thus far? So, my question really is, how did you create your methodology for your study in South Side Edinburgh?
Well, obviously, it took a long time, as one does when one is doing a PhD. And the initial project, of course, didn’t end up being what ended up happening. Because scholars never talk enough about that, I think, an excellent project–and maybe another RSP podcast–might be to get scholars to talk about what their original doctoral proposal was for their research project and how it changed into the final product at the end. But I’ve always been interested in non-elite discourse. Again, one of the issues with the study of “non-religion” that had been emerging was an inordinate amount of attention being paid to these, like, the New Atheists, the boisterous, older white males. So, I was always keen to employ non-elite discourse in what I was doing. And another key thing that developed from my Master’s was the desire to try and avoid placing people into these “religious” or “non-religious” boxes from the outset and using a tick box exercise. And then if people said they were not religious, using that as my way to find them and speak to them.
So, I was always keen to avoid that sort of immediate dismissal of individuals. Because I’d already developed this notion that these categories are fluid and relational. And when social actors are confronted with certain circumstances, they might be more inclined to utilize “religious” or religion-related discourse and other times to position themselves as not in a religious category or to use other discursive resources altogether. But when I started the project, I wasn’t using the word “discourse” really at all. And part of the reason I ended up going down that route–and here’s where we end up with “Journeys,” I suppose–is I was based at Lancaster University working with Kim Knott. And Lancaster, unbeknownst to me, whilst also being the first Department of Religious Studies in the UK, set up by Ninian Smart, was also, and still is, a major hub for critical discourse analysis, with Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak, particularly. And I ended up, when I was searching around for a methodology, in my first year taking a 10 week course with Karin Tusting on discourse analysis, which really grounded me in that methodological approach, which is social constructivist in nature. And again, we’ve got an interview with Kocku von Stuckrad speaking about discourse analysis and the study of religion to check out.
But it was social constructivist in nature. And we perceive reality, but we can only describe it in language. People might accuse it of being overly linguistic, but ultimately experiences, practices, beliefs, etc., are all articulated in language. But rather than taking the language as being inherently meaningful, what discourse analysis does is it takes those speech acts and breaks them down, looks for metaphors, synecdoches, looks at the silences, looks for the common sense tropes and things, and tries to see what is being encoded into them. So, I went for a discursive approach. And that helped me actually get around that initial fear of bounding people into “religious” or “non-religious” categories. Because it was like, I am studying discourse on the category of religion. I can just talk to people about it, consider myself as part of that discourse, as part of a conversation, and just roll with it. So, I went for discourse analysis. And this was also a trend that was starting to dominate in religious studies at the time. We had a few big articles by Kocku von Stuckrad, Teemu Taira, and others coming out just at the time I was doing this.
At the same time, the Culture on the Edge collaborative emerged, with Russell McCutcheon, Craig Martin, Leslie Dorrough-Smith, and others, of which I’m now also a part. And they were making use of the French social theorist Jean-François Bayart and his notion of shifting identity talk to talk of “identifications.” So again, that tied in very well with that discursive approach that I was encountering at Lancaster, and again helped my thinking in terms of “let’s not think about what people’s identities are.” Rather, what are the identificatory moves that they are making in social contexts?
And then thirdly, I was working with Kim Knott. Kim Knott is perhaps best known for her book on this called The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis, although she’s done a lot of work in Hinduism and in security threats and other things. But she was quite rooted in an ethnographic approach, looking at specific localities. And at the time I was grappling around with–I want to look at discursive data. And I want to prioritize non-elite social actors. But how do I justify bounding the data? You need to have a sort of organizing frame for your research. You can’t just go in and say I’m going to speak to a bunch of people who will speak to me. You need to have some sort of way of containing the data, and “locality” emerged as a way to at least guarantee some sense of coherence to the body of discourse that I ended up studying.
So, I landed on Edinburgh South Side after thinking about various other diverse locations that I could maybe look at which might have lots of discourse on religion happening. But I’d lived in the South Side of Edinburgh for about 14 years by that point. It’s a small area in the City of Edinburgh in Scotland with about 20- to 25,000 inhabitants. On many scales, it would perhaps not be that diverse, but in terms of Scotland and Edinburgh in general, it is very diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion-related background and socioeconomic status and so on, but also the high concentration of individuals who were ticking the “none” box to the religion question on the 2011 census. So it seemed like a good fit to investigate religion-related discourse. And I’m wittering on, but I used the South Side as my means of soliciting interviews. So, I solicited people as South Siders first, rather than saying, “hey, I want to speak to you about religion.” Although I didn’t lie about that. It was on the poster and on all the things but, you know, the big thing was, “are you a South Sider? Then I want to speak to you.” And I did about 20-25 interviews for that project.
My Master’s project had also been based in the same area, which added in another 11 interviews, I think. And then I also got access to an historic data set that the City of Edinburgh Council had produced in the mid ’90s for a different project, but which it also focused on religion in part. So, I ended up with about 70-75 interviews informing my study that give me a historical triangulation point as well. But then also, I was embedded in the area for over a decade and continued with participant observation and observations in the linguistic landscape and newspapers and so on. So, I ended up with quite a body of data to examine.
Well, now it’s time for the big question, which is, what did that data tell us? In nine minutes.
Well, one of the things I did was I tried to group–so, I had all this discursive data, and then it’s hundreds of thousands of words. And then you end up breaking it down not just by themes and so on, but I produced eight discursive groupings that you clearly see discursive strands going throughout the data. I’ll not go into the details of what they are, but there were four key points that came out for me that are perhaps of most interest here. I mean, the first was the power that the category of “religion” exerted in certain areas of discourse, and the power it did not exert in others. Some of these discursive strands that I encounter were heavily implicated in the historic machinations of religion in the South Side of Edinburgh and in the UK. The predominance of Christianity, the complete bind between people’s notions of morality, and being a good Christian, and so on, there are certain areas in which religion-related discourse was heavily implicated. And then there are other areas in which you could describe the contours of the discourse without ever making any reference to religion-related categories at all.
And although this seems a fairly banal point to make, the conclusion here was that being “non-religious,” or positioning oneself as “religious” or “not religious” matters more in certain contexts than it does in others. There are certain points at which that contested category of “religion” holds a lot more power, and that positions need to be taken, and the stakes are higher, and other areas in which it doesn’t seem to matter very much at all. And that’s an important point because, well, obviously surveys, that’s a point at which a position must be made, right? And that’s the thing that we tend to measure. But even if you think about the way people get on in everyday life, people can rub along quite well alongside people of different ideological positions much of the time, but there are certain key areas in which suddenly certain identifications come to the fore, certain positions have to be taken. So, I would just urge a much more nuanced look at these contours and at where these points are. And I think a lot of studies will either focus on these points where things seem to be totally hunky dory or on these points where there’s conflict, rather than appreciating that these are particular discursive strands. And that a broader view of the entire field may indicate that the relationship between “religion” and “non-religion” is much more complicated.
I think one of the areas before–sorry, I’m just interrupting you–I think one of the areas you mentioned in the book has been one where religion was referred to, was actually in relationships. So, between the respondent and the people in their household, for example. Do you have an example you can give us of a respondent really bringing religion to the fore in that regard?
One of the first things I would say is that when religion was spoken of in concrete rather than abstract terms, that tended to be through relationships. You know, people will quite happily talk about grand ideas and religion in abstract ways. But when they had lived experience of a perspective that wasn’t theirs, it invariably was through some sort of “close personal relationship.” A quote that I always jump to is a French student called Severine who said that she was definitely, definitely an atheist, but that her grandmother was quite an old lady and she wouldn’t want to cause her any upset. “So, I don’t think that I’m an atheist for my grandmother.” And that is an example of how people situationally identify and how people will prioritize certain social discourses there on the importance of family, on respect for elders, on preserving the peace, on all sorts of things, over their commitments in other areas such as in relation to whether they think there’s a deity or not.
So, the second point before I so rudely interrupted you, I’ll let you take off with that one.
It’s quite all right. It was just focusing right in on that point of Jean-François Bayart, about identifications rather than identities. Again, a classic example would be from another student informant who had a whole variety of different identities. Part of the process was presenting them with a whole list of identificatory terms and allowing them to select any ones that they thought were applicable. And then we discussed what those terms meant, the contexts in which they might use them. And I think, you know, they had things like “humanist,” “agnostic,” “atheist,” “secular.” But for each one of these, they were saying, “Well, that seems more to me like, well, if I was asked to identify on a survey, it would be that. If you were talking about my belief in a deity, well it would be that. But also ‘atheist’ is too harsh to use in social interactions. So, I’d probably move to ‘agnostic,’ more, depending who I was talking to. But ‘humanist’ would be the one that would describe my worldview. In that way, ‘atheist’ doesn’t seem that relevant a term to me, although it is a term that applies.” And so on.
So again, that doesn’t sound like too much of a grand statement to make, but identities are not these static things that we fit into and that we move about the world with, but rather every act of identification, every moment in which an identity is claimed or even brought to the surface…You know, we’re all different things. We’re all gendered, classed, we’re in certain jobs, we’ve got racial identities. We’re seeing differently because of the teams we support, because of our age, because of our family relationships, and so on. We carry all of these identifications with us, and many of those are fluid even within themselves. But it’s the relational social interaction that makes these things come to the surface and have people positioned in relation to those identity categories.
So, when it comes to “religion” and “non-religion,” again, there are certain things out there in the social world that will push particular individuals into one side or another, but things are much more fluid. And, as we know, even within a “religious” tradition plenty of adherents will not necessarily wish to identify with their tradition in some circumstances, or in others they’ll not subscribe to everything that they’re supposed to subscribe to. This is normal stuff. But by using this approach where I tried to set aside that distinction between “religion” and “non-religion” and look at what was happening on the ground, I think I showed some really illuminating things about how this fluidity manifests itself and the power that these identifications hold. Again, going back to the previous point, being positioned as “religious” or “non-religious” matters more in certain contexts than it does in others. And understanding those points is important.
It sort of brings to mind some very classical work like [Erving] Goffman and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and even [Paul] Tillich with “ultimate concern.” And the fact that dredging those things up in my mind brings me back to something you said earlier in that there has been sort of a lack of critical theory to the study of God and religion. And it sounds like you’re really turning that up in this book and really focusing on that real critical aspect as the title would tell us.
My next question is, do you think that the methodology and the approach you’ve taken in this book is specific to the study of non-religion, or will it be useful elsewhere?
I don’t think it’s specific to non-religion at all. But the guiding argument I always provide for the book is that, particularly with the study of non-religion, there seem to be two broad camps out there. There’s the critical scholars of religion, who tend to look askance at what’s going on in non-religion studies because they see all those critical problems I identified earlier: the reification of the category of “religion,” the construction of social groups, and so on. And they tend to say studying non-religion substantively is just a further entrenching of that problem, and it’s all somewhat worthless. I’m generalizing. And then the other side, you’ve got plenty of scholars who are quite happy to just dive in and find new data and substantiate what’s going on without paying any attention to those very important problems of power and category formation and all the rest that would animate the critical study of religion. And I saw this book as providing a bridge between the two, saying, “what happens if we do empirical work, ask empirical questions, get out there speak to ‘real people,’ find out what’s going on ‘on the ground’ and so on. But do that in a critically engaged manner, with attention to all those key questions that might animate the critical study of religion. You know, who are making claims about what, why, to what effect?”
And so, the fact that I use this for “non-religion,” yes, it was useful for me and it provided a useful access point to it, but I’ll certainly be carrying this approach into any work that I do in the future. I mean, academic life is precarious beyond belief just at the moment, but I might have another 34 years here, and I don’t see myself necessarily staying in the non-religion camp for that entire time exclusively. And the approach can absolutely be applied. It’s essentially getting on with solid, detailed, ethnographic, discursive work, but with those critical questions firmly in mind. That comes from a sort of anxiety I suppose I have about the field of study of religion, where we can see things going, in the one way, towards a sort of lived religion [approach]: “Everything’s all hunky dory. Let’s just keep finding out what wonderful, weird, wacky beliefs people have.” And skewing too much along that sort of phenomenological way of thinking that might end up closer to theology. And the other side, the critical religion that ends up undercutting its own very existence by saying that the category of religion is a social construct; it’s problematic and we need to do away with it. Then where does the study of religion go? I think both can be done at the same time. I think that’s probably what I’ve been doing here in this book, and will hopefully continue to do, will be to try and blend both approaches in a constructive way that shows you can have good solid, empirical, interesting, vibrant, exciting work, but also be critically deconstructive at the same time.
Just one last question, because we’re rapidly running out of time. It sort of links to something you just raised there, which is your own academic journey, your own trajectory. And that’s actually something you bring up. In the book, The Critical Study of Non-Religion, very early on, you talk about how your experience as a fledgling PhD student really informed this particular study. And I don’t imagine that was a particularly easy thing to include in the book. But I was just wondering if you could just shed a bit of light on that for us? And the sense of how the academic journey has been for you in the creation of this book?
Well, yes, throughout the book, and particularly in the introduction and conclusion, I try and focus on a lot of the relationships that I’ve built up over the years. I think it’s important to situate yourself, where you’re coming from, where you’re speaking from as an academic. And I am very much the product of a lot of fruitful and collegial, friendly academic interactions. As I described, that sort of move to adopting discourse, identification, and locality. They’re all tied in different scholarly communities, as is my whole approach to the study of religion in that critical, but ethnographically engaged, approach is very much grounded in the Edinburgh context that I had working with people like Jim Cox, Steve Sutcliffe, and even our own Carol Cusack. We came over to Edinburgh at a particularly formative moment for me. And so I certainly try and highlight the importance of all these very positive collaborations and people who, at various points, gave me a chance and took me under their wing and gave me the time that then led to these positive influences on my intellectual formation.
A more negative thing that I worried about including, and I didn’t really know if it was appropriate or not, but I’m glad that I did, was that there was a moment right at the beginning. It was just when I got funding for the PhD, and I was delighted and sharing this around to a few of my network that this happened. And a senior scholar who’d been quite supportive up until that point asked to see my research proposal. And upon seeing the research proposal, decided to send me a message detailing point by point all the things that they thought that I had stolen from their work and all the points of which I was just plagiarizing them and using them to my own gain and how disappointed and shocked they were with me and so on.
Now, you know, I’ve gone back and I’ve read the whole exchange and read everything, and I’m sure there might have been some bits which were influenced by this individual. That happens and particularly when you’re applying for something, your academic rigor’s not going to be what it is now and so on. So, I’m not saying they were entirely wrong. But, at the same time, it had been through numerous other people reading it over. It was my ideas, and a more collegial reaction from them might’ve been, “this is excellent to see how you’re working along the same lines that I’ve been developing in a new context. I’m really excited to see what you come up with. Really, this is going to be great.” Instead, the approach was to sort of stamp on me. And say, really, as I would say, absolutely overblow any sense of what had been going on and that stuck with me. And I would say, pushed me in a much more positive direction. Had I maybe stuck following in that individual’s footsteps, I would probably have ended up with a much less critically engaged, much more naively substantively focused piece of work than what came out at the end. And I think initially, a lot of that came from trying to distance myself and really trying to go. And there was probably a lot of hurt in there thinking, well, you know, if you think that I’m trying to copy you, I’m gonna make very well sure that I’m not doing that.
So, it came out of a place of negativity, but had a real positive impact, I think. And I’m sure others have had similar experiences.
Yeah, I do have to say, reading that in the book, you know, from somebody like yourself who, as a young scholar, I do respect so greatly to know that other people have been there. And you know that the academic journey itself is not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. I really appreciated the candor in the book and the candor that you’ve just shown to us now. So, thank you for that again. And, you know, there’s lots of things we could continue talking about, but unfortunately, we’re out of time. So, I just wanted to thank you again. And let everybody, again, know the title of the book: The Critical Study of Non-Religion by Bloomsbury. Thank you, Chris Cotter.
Citation Info: Christopher R. Cotter and Breann Fallon. 2020. “Developing a Critical Study of Non-Religion”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 23 August 2020. Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver. Version 1.0, 23 August 2020. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/developing-a-critical-study-of-non-religion/
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