Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

What exactly is the mode of existence of social relationships? Are they substantial? natural? or formally abstract? The study of space offers an answer according to which the social relations of production have a social existence to the extent that they have a spatial existence; they project themselves into a space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself. Failing this,...

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Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

By Katie Aston, Goldsmiths, University of London

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 26 September 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality (24 September 2012).

What exactly is the mode of existence of social relationships? Are they substantial? natural? or formally abstract? The study of space offers an answer according to which the social relations of production have a social existence to the extent that they have a spatial existence; they project themselves into a space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself. Failing this, these relations would remain in the realm of ‘pure’ abstraction — that is to say, in the realm of representations and hence of ideology: the realm of verbalism, verbiage and empty words. (Lefebvre 1991: 129)

In this podcast, Knott (or “Can I call you Kim?”), provides a useful and broad introduction to the spatial approaches to the study of religion. In this response I wish to summarise some of the key areas of  this approach I found interesting and write as to why I found the spatial question helpful in thinking about my own work.  I found two ideas regarding space to be hugely interesting; first the notion that “places  gather  things” and her emphasis on the bodily; that body, place and space are all relational.

The “spatial method” that Knott refers to draws heavily on the work of Lefebvre (quoted above), whose notion of space allowed us to understand ways that “production” in space determines that space and in turn, by imprinting on that space, actions are then inscribed by the space. In the book referred to by Knott and Cotter, The Location of Religion (2005), Knott explores this notion of space and the spatial method, using the left hand as a starting point; hands being in themselves places, having dynamic capacity, being related to each other as a pair and a “space for social relations and communication” (Knott, 2005; 134)

Particularly interesting were first  her discussions on the intersectionality of religion in (secular) space. Drawing on the work of Doreen Massey, “space” is seen as “a moment in the intersection of configured social relations”. The emphasis on the interconnectedness of objects – not only events happening simulataneously, but acting on each other and with each other, the spaces of religion are, in other words, dynamic, and religion in secular space and secular space holding religion should both be regarded as dynamically relational . Second,  and following this, she points out the  need to disregard previous definitions of religion in favour of a field of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ forces (2005: 124). The rationale here is  that both traditional definitions and broad, more inclusive definitions tend to make religion simply bigger or smaller as an object, and are accompanied by the agenda of those defining the term.

Crucially, Knott’s method allows us to maintain an approach to religion which does not rely purely on the notion that religion is “believed” and does not rely only on proposition motivating practice. We can also usefully use the method to investigate the alternative to religion – “non-religion” – or forms of non-religion such as humanism and rationalism,  because  the method allows us to understand how practice, the exclusion of practice, and the ‘sacred’ can be read through “space”, which is first and foremost human and social. Indeed the above approach is helpful for my own work which attempts an ethnography which maps contemporary non-religious practice through participant observation at the offices of a humanist magazine, and through observing humanist wedding ceremonies. Below, I give a few examples of where attending to notions of space can illuminate ideas and practice.

In the next section I would like to outline some very embryonic thoughts , gathering aspects of my data collection in direct and unmediated response to the podcast.  For the sake of this paper I am going to discuss just humanism (and Rationalism) as “non-religious” positions (rather than atheism or a more broad “nonreligious” approach). What I take from the above is the need to attend to the place and the space but also to recognise the dynamics of objects in these spaces and the forces and histories which often make these tense encounters.

Humanist spaces 

What does it mean to have an absence of formalised space? Many of my informants tell me that there are no atheist or humanist “spaces”; but the very notion of a shared membership, be this virtual or ideological, makes this method applicable. Even the notion of secularism or disinterest in religion creates spaces of interest. Of course, I also have reason to believe that there are atheist or humanist spaces in the more formal sense, they may just not function communally, locally or indeed like a church.   Let us start with more formal spaces; Conway Hall, Leicester Secular Hall and of course the offices of the New Humanist where I work as a researcher. Leicester Secular Hall was built and opened in 1881, and according to its website:

“As the home of Leicester Secular Society, the oldest secular society in the world, the Hall rises to national heritage significance: a place where the battle for human rights and equality has been fought, where William Morris, Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Tony Benn and many other campaigners have spoken.”

Conway Hall’s website states:

“Conway Hall is owned by South Place Ethical Society and was first opened in 1929. The name was chosen in honour of Moncure Daniel Conway (1832 – 1907), anti-slavery advocate, out-spoken supporter of free thought and biographer of Thomas Paine.  The Hall now hosts a wide variety of lectures, classes, performances, community and social events. It is renowned as a hub for free speech and independent thought” 

The New Humanist offices are currently in Southwark; the magazine has been published by the Rationalist Association since  since1885, both magazine and organisation starting life as the Watts Literary Guide and Rational Press Association. These are united not simply in using the space as a background for humanist or other non-religious ideals, but actively implicate these ideals in the space and the way that the space is used.

How can we locate humanism in less formalised ways? All these “spaces” are currently and historically used as humanist or ethical spaces and certainly are non-religious now. They function and exist because of a practice based humanism or they function to put humanism into practice. They are admittedly small in number, but would there be need for more?  I discussed the notion of community with a celebrant who was living outside of London, and she stated that she would welcome a community centre which functioned for humanism. She surmised that her work connects her to people through networks rather than through locality but still finds it a shame not to have a central, physical space. This gives us a starting point to think about ways in which humanist   “practice” can be thought to function across space and time and between individual actors embedded in their own, distant localities, and also the ways in which physicality functions as a marker for ideology. Where Conway Hall and Leicester Secular Hall have maintained their physical space and purpose, the premises of the New Humanist magazine and Rationalist Association have not remained fixed. We then come across the  possibility  that it is the magazine that is the vehicle or the space around which practice is centred- it is created drawing on the ideas of its time and in keeping with contemporary modes of production. It is then, as an object shared with others,   taken into homes or libraries and used, read, mused over, thought about, thrown away, archived, placed next to the toilet even? For me, the magazine then comes to function much like the isolated left hand – an object. It visually guides the eye and interacts  mentally, planting itself in another social space – our thoughts and memories.

Landscapes – Historical, Spatial, Horizontal and Vertical

What the podcast really made me attend to, as did a recent   training week mentioned below, are the historical roots of space, the layers of action which are embedded and which continue to inform practice. In the examples given above I would certainly think more when analysing the data about how “earlier regimes of space” have been incorporated in the new, and indeed where earlier regimes were drawing from.

I will end here, though there is even more to say about space in my own work which I have not had time to explore for this paper. However, one such avenue could be the emphasis in the humanist wedding on the selling point that “you can have it anywhere”; a democratisation of space, outside the formal rules of marriage law – you can choose your spot for its individual meaning and function. The emphasis is on choice embodying humanism and space then embodying that choice.

I think it worth mention the “Moral Landscape” methods training programme from which I just returned. Throughout the week we discussed notions of the Moral and Sacred (secular umbrella terms under which we were including both religious and nonreligious practice). These terms were understood to become part of a landscape – a historically and culturally shifting dimensional construct which takes care of the spatial and temporal. It may be interesting to those of you who are thinking about the spatial aspects of religion, morality and/or the sacred, to follow the associated website, where video, audio and other outcomes of the sessions are posted.

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:

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.



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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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