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Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

The idea of long-running clash between the domains of “science” and “religion” has not only been central to western discourses on modernity, but has increasingly become a central supposition in the history of science itself – informing not just the rhetoric of the New Atheists, but also the broader public understanding of the issue.  But is this historically accurate?

In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison (formerly Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford) outlines the flaws in this supposition by providing a historical perspective on the categories “science” and “religion” and the way that they were formerly considered separate virtues (scientia and religio) instead of incompatible domains of knowledge.  Far from the current narrative being correct – often focusing on episodes such as the Church’s response to the Galileo controversy – Professor Harrison explains that religious institutions were originally (and for a long time) key supporters of scientific activity, which was considered broadly as a theological attempt to unlock The Book of Nature.   The middle section of the interview looks at the complex relationship between theological commitment and scientific activity from Newton to Darwin, and in the final section discusses continuing complexities of the relationship in the post-Darwinan western world, right down to problematic assumptions at play in contemporary New Atheism as well as debates about Islamic militancy.

This interview was recorded at the meeting of the Australian Religious History Association in July 2014.  For those interested in the themes of the interview, the keynote talk of the RHA meeting was delivered by one of Professor Harrison’s key collaborators, Ronald Numbers (on a similar topic, focusing especially on the Galileo episode).   A number of related talks and interviews can be found on the CHED website.

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Resisting Conformity at the Margins of Marginal Christianity

In what her interviewer has reckoned to be the first Religious Studies Project podcast to focus solely on the study of an expression of contemporary Christianity, Gladys Ganiel introduces listeners to a modern religious orientation that deserves sustained scholarly attention. The Emerging Church Movement (the ECM) might be numerically small but it is, she suggests, far from insignificant.

Despite a growing number of ethnographies of individual emerging church congregations, as well as critical overviews of the emerging church conversation as an identifiable form of religious discourse, many scholars of religion have either never heard of the ECM or claim, as Josh Packard suggests, that emerging Christianity must ‘join the mainstream or die out’.[1] It is assumed that it is merely a ‘transitional reaction’ against modern evangelicalism that will merge with the liberal mainstream, especially if, as Robert Warner declares, ‘post-evangelicals define themselves negatively and seem unlikely to develop a sustainable and distinct theological agenda’.[2]

But against such assessments, as I have argued elsewhere, emerging Christianity is structured around identifiable sets of values, beliefs and practices that lend it cohesion and relative stability whilst also enabling divergence.[3] Ganiel’s book, The Deconstructed Church (co-authored with Gerardo Martí), is an important academic analysis that also takes the ECM seriously as a phenomenon that is organised around a clear (albeit contested and continually ‘deconstructed’) set of activities.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Acknowledging the difficulties surrounding the identification and definition of a subject of study that is not only deliberately diverse but also intentionally resistant to definition, Ganiel and Martí nonetheless discern within emerging Christianity a distinct religious orientation built around the practice of deconstruction. The Deconstructed Church illustrates in particular how these practices encourage the creation of pluralist congregations and of what Ulrich Beck calls ‘cooperative egoism’,[4] facilitating a strategic form of religiosity through which participants undertake ‘meaning work’ that maintains tensions between individualism and collective identity. Such practices are driven by what Ganiel and Martí call ‘the religious institutional entrepreneurs’ who seek to resist the institutionalization of this orientation under pressures to conform to inherited forms of Christianity – primarily what participants see as the ‘Seeker Megachurch’ and the ‘Solemn Mainline’ models. As James S. Bielo has observed, the emerging church is therefore a particularly rich research site for the empirical study of interacting Christianities, since its religious and cultural critique is dependent upon prevailing traditions as interlocutors.[5] The question of this deconstructive orientation’s ultimate sustainability is, as Ganiel acknowledges, open to debate. But it is also ripe for scholarly study, and for critical consideration from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

My own research has focused on understanding how the identifiable social or cultural imaginaries that structure what I call the emerging church discursive milieu interact with continental philosophy and radical theologies.[6] As Charles Taylor has noted, when theory ‘penetrates and transforms’ an imaginary, new practices are either taken up or improvised.[7] It is the innovative communicative practices and expressive acts of an emerging church imaginary, which is transformed when emerging Christians engage with the philosophical traditions of deconstruction and materialism, that most interest me – and I see emerging church figures like Peter Rollins (a founder of Ikon, Belfast) and Kester Brewin (a founder of Vaux, London) as catalysts for such an engagement.

In The Deconstructed Church, however, Ganiel and Martí focus on deconstruction as a sociological process that enables the ECM to ‘establish competitive arenas in response to pressures for conformity’ whilst nonetheless continuing to conceive of God in the ‘relatively concrete terms’ of conventional Christian theism.[8] This means that Ganiel and Martí are better able to more adequately represent the mainstream of the ECM than I am, for entrepreneurs like Rollins and Brewin push the emerging church conversation in more radical directions as they engage the work of thinkers like John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek. Popular figures in North American emerging Christianity would not understand crucifixion and resurrection in the ways that Rollins does and would not state their disbelief in a personal God or divine salvation as Brewin has.

‘What makes emerging Christianity “Christian”?’, Ganiel is asked in this interview. In her response, she sympathises with those within the ECM who treat this question as one that deflects from more primary issues of concern. She refers to an instance – recounted more fully here – that also recalls the response Rollins gives to the question of the historical resurrection of Jesus. He says, ‘Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ’, by which he means that he does so every time he fails to ‘serve at the feet of the oppressed’ and yet also affirms that resurrection in those ‘few and far between’ moments when he stands up ‘for those who are forced to live on their knees’.[9]

Such an apparently evasive answer frustrates not only researchers seeking clarity about the beliefs held by emerging church entrepreneurs like Rollins, as Ganiel notes, but also those who wish them to conform either to traditional theistic belief or to modern atheistic belief.

Rollins’ critique of religious idolatry and ideology is intended as more than a corrective to conventional Christianity that would enable Christians to discover the God beyond the idol ‘God’ and a richer faith beyond instrumental religion without challenging more fundamentally their continued reliance on what he might call – following Žižek – ‘a subject supposed to believe’ on their behalf; namely, priests, Christ, God, the community of believers, the church structures themselves (the buildings, the liturgies, the statements of faith), etc., that sustain the fantasy of the presence and coherence of meaning, purpose, value and truth. On the other hand, however, the experience of the death of such a subject does not result in conventional atheism, since it is not only God that dies (i.e., that does not exist) but a transcendent source of or an absolute justification for any universal principle or set of principles, including those provided by reason as well as by revelation.

Rollins and Brewin are on the margins of a numerically marginal expression of Christianity. However, just as the significance of the ECM lies not in its relative size but in its manifestation of a religious orientation that seeks to resist conformity with inherited models of Christianity, the significance of these two marginal figures lies in the ways in which they seek to resist conformity with both modern western theism and modern western atheism. Rollins and Brewin are, therefore, two of the ‘expert theorizers’[10] within the ECM whose engagement with continental philosophy and radical theology is contributing to the construction of what I call an emerging a/theistic cultural imaginary.[11]

Both Rollins and Brewin propose that there is revolutionary political potential in the kinds of spaces that they advocate, and I am interested in exploring how to measure that claim, even if, as Ganiel notes, there are methodological difficulties in determining the impact of emerging Christianity on society more broadly. I would especially like to examine further the discursive motif of suspension in their work and to investigate empirically the communal practices that enable such a suspension of belief and identity. These religious (or, rather, ir/religious) spaces are imagined to be individually and collectively transformative, temporarily subtracting participants from their social roles and relations and allowing them to envision new forms of interaction and association: ‘we not only affirm one another in excess of our culturally given identities but expose these identities as contingent’, Rollins writes, concluding that thereby ‘we can more productively engage in exploring how to transform society’.[12] But the efficacy of these practices of suspension has yet to be documented. What kinds of sociality are exhibited in and encouraged by participation in ‘suspended space’? And what is the relationship between such spaces and participants’ wider social, political and economic lives?

 

Bibliography

Beck, Ulrich, 2010, A God of One’s Own: Religion’s Capacity for Peace and Potential for Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich, and Johannes Willms, 2004, Conversations with Ulrich Beck, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bielo, James S., 2009, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America: Notes on the Interaction of Christianities’, Religion 39/3, pp. 219-32.

Ganiel, Gladys, and Gerardo Martí, 2014, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement: Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective’, Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, 1/1, pp. 26-47.

Martí, Gerardo, and Gladys Ganiel, 2014, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moody, Katharine Sarah. 2010, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”: Emerging Spiritualities in the UK Emerging Church Milieu’, The Expository Times 121/10, pp. 495-503.

  • forthcoming, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices, Ashgate.

Packard, Josh, 2012, The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers / First Forum Press.

Rollins, Peter, 2009, ‘My Confession: I Deny The Resurrection’, (January 01) http://peterrollins.net/2009/01/my-confession-i-deny-the-resurrection/

Taylor, Charles. 2004, Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

  • 2007, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Warner, Robert, 2007, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1996-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study, Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

 

Notes

[1] Packard, The Emerging Church, p. 31. Growing academic interest in emerging Christianity is starting to be reflected in the programmes of some of the major conferences in the field of religious studies. For example, in August this year there was a panel on the ECM and the transformation of ‘conventional’ Christianity at the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual conference. And there will be sessions on emerging Christianity at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conferences as well.

[2] Warner, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, p. 230, fn. 62.

[3] See Moody, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”’.

[4] See Beck, A God of One’s Own and Beck and Willms, Conversations with Ulrich Beck.

[5] See Bielo, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America’.

[6] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[7] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 172 and 175. See also Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries.

[8] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 26 (italics removed); and Ganiel and Martí, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement’, p. 45.

[9] Rollins, ‘My Confession’.

[10] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 81.

[11] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[12] Rollins, ‘The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity’, p. 84.

When Atheists Pray…

In his interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, Dr.Kevin Ladd talks about his research on prayer. Dr. Ladd explains how he got interested in the topic, clarifies some of the basic assumptions that need to be made up front, and then continues to answer questions about how this research is done and what it can tell us about prayer.

We must admit that when we first heard about empirical prayer studies, we were skeptical to what degree they could be free from obvious biases, which could lead to an apologetic motivation for the experiments and hence would hinder objectivity. Fortunately, Dr. Ladd explicitly addresses this problem in the interview when asked what questions can be answered with science concerning prayer. He explains how he sees prayer as a psychological phenomenon motivated by theological conceptions and reasoning which should be explained in psychological terms such as behavior and affect, and that research on this issue has to remain free of metaphysics. Ladd is clear that psychological research on prayer must exclude one’s own preoccupations with that issue. The focus is to understand how and why people pray. This is an important point, because otherwise research will be biased, preferring either an atheist’s or a believer’s point of view, each trying to justify their own assumptions.

Apart from our early apprehension, there were two things that especially caught our interest. The first is that Dr. Ladd does not give a universal definition of what prayer is, and the second is the idea of an atheistic or secular form of praying.

To define prayer is a very challenging task. In his bookThe Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, which Dr. Ladd wrote in collaboration with Dr. B. Spilka, prayer is largely defined as “an appeal to a higher power, invariably a deity conceptualized in a relational sense” (p. 12). Prayer can be performed in numerous ways out of a variety of different motivations and is influenced largely by religious doctrines and institutions. Sadly this definition does not overcome the bias that prayer must necessarily be addressed to a deity and is, as such, too narrow to include all forms of prayers, especially prayer among atheists.

”’Atheism’ designates a position… that includes or asserts no god(s)” (Eller, 2000,p. 1). So, for example, animism, as a religious worldview without any god, could involve praying, where the higher power appealed to is some sort of natural spirit, which is not a deity. This form of praying would not fit in the definition given above, although it should probably be considered. Apparently, this is not the problem that comes to mind most readily to people when they try to figure out what it means when an atheist prays. How can someone who rejects the “God Hypothesis” pray to a God?

At the beginning of theinterview, Dr. Ladd refers to a breast cancer survivors group called Reach to Recovery. This group got him interested in studying prayer after he had found out that many people who said praying was essential to their recovery also claimed they were atheists. We assume these people were not just praying to natural spirits but were explicitly praying to a god in a theistic sense. This leaves us with an obvious contradiction, which we think points towards a form of prayer that does not require the concept of a higher power in a relational sense. Maybe an atheist can conceptualize a deity and pray to it without assuming a relationship between them, because he (or she) is not convinced that the addressed conception is real. In fact, we think this may be the only way an atheist can pray to a theistic deity. Another example for this would be people who pray together with their family on Thanksgiving or who attend church out of tradition and pray there, although their worldview does not include a god or prayer typically.

Since there has not been a consensus on a universal definition for prayer yet and Dr.Ladd encourages different approaches towards the subject, we suggest defining prayer as an appeal to the concept of a higher power that can, but does not have to, be seen in a relational sense between the power and the person who prays. An atheist could perform all kinds of prayer in the exact same way a believer does but would not necessarily perceive his (or her) actions to be connected to a higher power. We think this might be the key difference between these two forms of praying.

The notion of atheists praying may be puzzling. If being an atheist means that someone does not believe in God, higher beings, etc., then what would be the purpose of a prayer? How can a prayer be performed? Who is the prayer´s addressee? One possible explanation can be found in the conceptof horizontal self-transcendence (SoMe questionnaire; Schnell, 2009), which suggests a non-theistic frame of reference becoming relevant for the development of one’s own meaning in life. Horizontal self-transcendence means committing oneself to a greater goal that is not determined by God or higher beings. For example, gaining self-knowledge or greater health are examples of such goals, but it could also involve feeling close to nature. In this sense, it is imaginable that practices like yoga, meditation, or mindfulness-based relaxation techniques are structurally similar to the practice of praying. Structural similarity can be seen in bodily postures or dedication to certain contents of consciousness. While praying (at least in a Christian context), one usually is in a calm, inside-bound pose, typically with eyes closed and hands folded. Concerning contents, persons praying as well as persons meditating often forget about the current processes that happen in the outside world and concentrate on what is happening inside. We see that calmness, inward orientation, and dedication to something bigger than oneself are also elements of practices like meditation or yoga. Can such practices really be seen as prayers? In common understanding, prayer means getting in contact with a higher entity and therefore implies an aspect of verticality. Therefore, it is questionable to what extent practices that are not bound to an entity bigger than oneself can be interpreted as ‘prayer’.

Nevertheless, what is it that makes praying a personal resource? Ladd & McIntosh (2008) show that praying is about perceiving oneself in a larger social context. Support is received and provided via a perceived connection to other praying persons as well as to a higher power. This thought can be a starting point for a better understanding of the positive effects praying has, e.g. on health.

Speaking of the nexus between prayer and healing, does it make a difference for someone who prays if the prayer’s aim (e.g. the recovery of a family member’s health) is notfulfilled? People pray even though they cannot prevent the death of a beloved person, but to them this may not mean that the prayer was ineffective. What then is it that makes people continue to pray even if the prayer does not seem to have the desired effect? Is it a mere cognitive bias that sticks believers to praying? Do believers think God is reluctant to answer their hopes and wishes? Are injustice, illness, and death seen as an ordeal in order not to unsettle one’s own beliefs? These questions go too far to be answered in a short interview but can contribute to a better comprehension of the practice of praying.

Furthermore, there could be a European perspective added to Ladd’s research. In “Meaning, God and Prayer” (2008), Ladd and McIntosh write about the use of prayer in non-religious contexts, which we tend to imagine as less conceivable in societies like Austria or Germany, in which a large group of people do not believe: Only 43% of Germans describe themselves as religious – among them especially elderly people (Köcher 2010). What is the role of praying in such societies? Are there differences to societies in which most of the people are believers? What does that mean for the practice of praying – will it be extinguished, or will some of its elements survive in other practices such as meditation?

 

References

Eller, J. D. (2009). What is Atheism? In P. Zuckerman (Ed.), Atheism and Secularity (pp. 1-18). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Ladd, K.L. & McIntosh, D.L. (2008). Meaning, God, and prayer: Physical and metaphysical aspects of social support. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 11(1), 23-38.

Köcher, R. (2010, June 23). Schwere Zeiten für die Kirchen. Last access 2014, Feb 03 from faz.net: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/allensbach-analyse-schwere-zeiten-fuer-die-kirchen-1996617.html

Schnell,T. (2009). The Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe): Relations to demographics and well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 483-499.

Spilka, B. & Ladd, K. L. The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach. New York: Guilford Press.

An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

In his book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Dr. Ara Norenzayan addresses two “puzzles” about human existence.  First, how were large-scale societies able to develop?  That is, how did small, tight-knit communities develop into the large and relatively anonymous societies that exist today?  Second, with all the potential flavors of supernatural agents, why are “Big Gods” a common theme dominating many religious traditions?  The concept of “Big Gods” refers to the omniscient and omnipotent higher powers that are prevalent across many major religious traditions today.

Norenzayan (2013) offers a cohesive, well-informed answer to these two seemingly separate questions.  Drawing from a large base of literature, from social psychology to cultural anthropology to behavioral economics, the central argument is that belief in “Big Gods” paved the way for small groups of people to develop into large-scale societies with powerful supernatural agents fostering the type of cooperation necessary for such groups to be successful.  As a result, successful societies of people who believed in “Big Gods” were able to dominate the cultural landscape, “winning out” over other religions.

The purpose of this post is to briefly describe eight principles that are central to Norenzayan’s (2013) new book and to complement his recent RSP interview with Thomas J. Coleman.  Dr. Norenzayan provides a broad range of supporting evidence for the following eight principles that supports his thesis (see pg. xiii):

1.     Watched people are nice people

2.     Religion is more in the situation than in the person

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete

 

Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

The first principle suggests that people are nicer, or act in more prosocial ways, when they are being watched.  An important caveat is that people act in such prosocial ways even when they think they are being watched – such as by a watchful God.  Various studies have demonstrated that even in the mere presence of eyes, people tend to act cooperatively – dubbed as the “eye effect.”  For example, Ernest-Jones, Nettle, and Bateson (2011) found that anti-littering posters were more effective in reducing actual littering behavior if the poster included a set of eyes.  Related to God as a watchful agent, Gervais and Norenzayan (2012) found experimental evidence that, when primed with the concept of God, people responded in more socially desirable ways (see Study 3).  Thus, a concept of God as an all-seeing agent who monitors human behavior should help to foster cooperation within groups of people.  Importantly, cooperative societies are successful societies.

 

Principle Two: Religion is More in the Situation than in the Person

Norenzayan’s (2013) second principle is that individuals’ religiosity, or at least expression of religiosity, is largely shaped by the situation.  This principle is counter to the ways that many researchers and religious scholars tend to view religion – that is, religion as a relatively stable characteristic that individuals bring with them across situations.  However, Norenzayan provides empirical evidence that demonstrates how the influence of religion on behavior is qualified by the power of the situation.  For example, Norenzayan discusses, both in his book and in the interview, the “Sunday Effect” whereby some religious people behave in greater accord with their religious beliefs on Sundays.  Such religious behavior includes donating more money and being less likely to engage in “sinful” acts (e.g., viewing pornography).  Thus, as one’s religion becomes more salient, religious individuals are likely to align their religious beliefs with their behavior “in the moment.”

 

Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

The third principle underlying Dr. Norenzayan’s argument is that Hell is stronger than heaven.  In one study, Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) found that general beliefs in God did not predict undergraduate students’ engagement in cheating behavior.  However, when belief in God was distilled into belief in a mean God (i.e., vengeful, and punishing) versus belief in a nice God (i.e., compassionate and forgiving), participants endorsing a mean-God concept were less likely to cheat relative to nice-God supporters.  Thus, there appears to be evidence that  “mean Gods make good people” (p. 44).  Having a God that people both love and fear helps motivate people to behave in desirable, prosocial, and cooperative ways.

 

Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

Since the early works of Allport and Ross (1967), researchers have been interested in the relationship between religion and attitudes toward out-groups.  The theoretical and empirical work in this area is complicated.  On the one hand, religion could foster positive attitudes toward members of out-groups.  Many religious faiths share basic tenets such as loving one’s “neighbor” and even one’s enemies, treating people of all kinds fairly and compassionately (Terry, 2007).  On the other hand, religion could foster intergroup hostility and intolerance (Silberman, 2005).  Such hostility is likely when the out-group violates the value systems of one’s religion (Whitley, 2009).  For example, atheism runs against the very grain of religious worldviews, which poses a particular threat for religious individuals.  People largely distrust atheists (Gervais, 2011), and privately and even publically reject such individuals (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006).  According to this fourth principle, religion serves as one rather important marker on which to base trust.

 

Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

The fifth principle proposes that religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words.  This principle addresses a potential problem facing many religious groups: that some people might feign their religiousness to be part of the in-group and reap rewards in a selfish, free-rider manner.  With costly behaviors associated with a religion, however, religious hypocrites have a harder time faking their religious commitments.  Proscription of certain dietary practices and adherence to strict marital and sexual practices, for example, helps to monitor religious adherents.  As Norenzayan (2013) suggests, such strict religious behaviors keep possible free-riders at check, which ultimately helps to maintain group solidarity.

 

Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

Norenzayan’s (2013) sixth principle is linked to the prior fifth principle.  Without committed followers, who demonstrate potentially costly behaviors such as sacrifices of “time, effort, and wealth” and behavioral restrictions (e.g., dietary restrictions), Gods lose the ability to attract followers (pg. 111).  Demonstrations of costly behaviors, though, give rise to powerful Gods that have the potential to draw in religious converts.  As religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words, high levels of expressed commitment breeds powerful Gods.

 

Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

Studies among small-scale, hunter-gather groups demonstrate that belief in “Big Gods” is the exception rather than the rule.  Such small groups, like the ones from which modern-day societies developed, believe in Gods that rarely interfere with human affairs (Norenzayan, 2013).  As groups increase in size and social complexity, however, belief in “Big Gods,” or moralizing Gods, increases (Roes & Raymond, 2003).  Many large and industrialized societies around the world believe in Gods that are all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally-concerned.  The relationship between the size of groups and tendencies for belief in “Big Gods” supports Norenzayan’s (2013) seventh principle of “Big Gods” for “Big Groups.”

 

Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

The last principle proposes that prosocial religions have “won out” over other types of religions throughout history.  Such religions, with “group-beneficial norms that suppress selfishness and increase social cohesion,” have come to dominate the cultural landscape today (Norenzayan, 2013, p. 147).  Evidence exists demonstrating that religions with “Big Gods” facilitate group stability and eventual longevity.  Additionally, such religions have been successful in gaining converts though multiple strategies (e.g., conquests) and have propagated large numbers of followers through reproductive successes.  It is through processes of cultural evolution that we have had a few religious groups, and religious characteristics more generally (i.e., belief in “Big Gods”), dominate across different cultures and societies.

The book Big Gods ends with a timely discussion regarding the rise of atheism, or non-religion more generally, in several industrialized societies (e.g., Sweden).  Norenzayan (2013) argues that, under certain social conditions, countries might successfully adopt worldviews that are less influenced by religions.  Such secular societies will have “climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away” (p. 172).  Effective secular authorities in such nonreligious countries seem to have replaced religion as a motivator for cooperation.  In these societies, religion no longer serves as a characteristic by which to judge a person’s trustworthiness.  Indeed, recent research highlights the role that secular authorities (e.g., police, government, ect.) play in reducing distrust toward atheists (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Norenzayan & Gervais, 2013).  What remains unclear is whether cultural pressures will favor both secular and religious societies equally, if religious societies will continue to dominate, or if secular societies will grow in appeal, eventually replacing “Big Gods” with “Big Secular Institutions.”

References

Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 5(4), 432.

Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as ‘other’: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review71, 211-234.

Ernest-Jones, M., Nettle, D., & Bateson, M. (2011). Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(3), 172-178.

Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: Perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 543-556.

Gervais, W. M. & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/0956797611429711.

Gervais, W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2012) Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 298-302.

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, A., & Gervais, W. M. (2013). Secular rule of law erodes believers’ political intolerance of atheists. Religion, Brain & Behavior, (ahead-of-print), 1-12.

Roes, F. L., & Raymond, M. (2003). Belief in moralizing gods. Evolution and human behavior, 24(2), 126-135.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods make good people: Different views of God predict cheating behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85-96.

Silberman, I. (2005). Religious violence, terrorism, and peace: A meaning system analysis. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of religion and spirituality (pp. 529–549). New York: Guilford.

Terry, H. (2007). Golden rules and silver rules of humanity: Universal wisdom of civilization. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Whitley, B. Jr. (2009). Religiosity and attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: A meta-analysis. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion19, 21-38.

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.

 References:

Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

The motto of the Council for Secular Humanism is “Beyond atheism.  Beyond agnosticism.  Secular Humanism.”  Yet, the Council for Secular Humanism is just one place beyond nonbelief that atheists and agnostics can go to explore what it means to be a nonbeliever.  Indeed, as Mr. Flynn notes in his RSP interview, despite the increase in the number of people not identifying with a religion, the ranks of the Council for Secular Humanism have not grown.  The newly nonreligious are not going to Secular Humanism for community or intellectual stimulation after exiting from religious belief.  What, then, do the nonreligious find unappealing about Secular Humanism?

Mr. Flynn describes Secular Humanism as a “comprehensive life stance.”  At its core, however, it is simply the exhortation to be good as judged by reason instead of God or gods.  Perhaps the fact that I can use the word “simply” in this context is evidence that the Council for Secular Humanism has been incredibly effective, historically, at changing the conversation around morality, even if it is no longer attracting the nonreligious as members.

One reason that the Council for Secular Humanism has not been effective at gaining new members is that Secular Humanism speaks of process rather than conclusion.  People may be more likely to join a group that has a reached a specific conclusion regarding ethics with which they agree than one which endorses a broad process for reaching ethical decisions.  For example, both atheist libertarian Penn Jillette and atheist liberal P.Z. Meyers probably could agree that reason, science, and free inquiry should be the motivating force behind ethics, but I would be hard pressed to lump their ethical systems together.  Instead, atheists concerned with ethical life seem to join other groups organized around more specific stances, such as the nascent Atheism+ group.  The Council for Secular Humanism produces some excellent material in their magazine Free Inquiry, and they have a significant place in the history of ethical approaches within nonbelief, but it is not obvious what they add to the discussion of morality today.

If nonbelievers aren’t going to the Council for Secular Humanism, where are the nonreligious going?  What nonbelief communities are they joining?  Where do they express and explore their nonbelief?  Well, they have plenty of choices.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to aggressively nonreligious organizations.  In his interview with Mr. Coleman, Mr. Flynn identified one organization that has seen its ranks grow over the past several years: American Atheists.  This organization, with Dave Silverman as President, is the “bad cop” in the nonbeliever ecosystem.  Mr. Silverman aggressively took on Bill O’Reilly and became an Internet meme.  They place controversial billboards across the country.  They are loud and proud and get a lot of media attention.  They have a great name, and a significant media presence, so it is no wonder that they have been growing as the nonbeliever population grows.

It could be that the nonreligious are “going” to science, by which I mean that the nonreligious may be organizing around dedication to a scientific outlook on life, the universe, and everything.  A thriving international network of blogs and podcasts focusing on science and skepticism exists, covering topics from medicine to Bigfoot.  This may reflect a trend in the broader culture.  The idea of science has quite a bit of pop culture cachet – indeed, “science” was just named “2013 Word of the Year” by Merriam-Webster!  Groups dedicated to promoting scientific skepticism, such as the James Randi Educational Foundation, have also experienced some growth.  The JREF’s annual convention has grown year over year in the past decade.  Skepticon, a free convention for skeptics, has also experienced significant growth in its five-year history.  It makes sense that atheists would be drawn to scientific skepticism: my own research suggests that atheists are far more likely to report intellectual reasons for nonbelief than any other emotional, social, intuitive, or experiential reasons for nonbelief.  If this self-report is accurate, then it makes sense that the process that drives people to nonbelief would serve as a source of commonality between nonbelievers.  However, if there’s one thing we know in psychology, it’s that self-report is not always accurate.  It can be hard for individuals to recognize the unconscious factors that lead to their beliefs and actions.  But even if we doubt the veracity of nonbelievers’ self-report, and assume that nonbelief is largely or exclusively due to intuitive, social, emotional, or experiential factors, rather than intellectual factors, the very fact that they perceive themselves (or wish to be perceived) as being influenced by the intellect makes “science” a natural rallying point for nonbelievers.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to the bar.  Much of Mr. Flynn’s analysis focused on large national organizations, but as the stigma of nonbelief begins to subside (though not disappear), more and more nonbelievers may gather together in small local communities.  One manifestation of this is that the nonbeliever could head down to the local bar once a month and enjoy fellowship over a pint of beer.  Or, a nonbeliever could join the atheist church movement, where avowed atheists gather together to sing songs, hear messages of hope and guidance, and build communities much in the same way churches do.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to college.  The Secular Student Alliance, an organization of nonbelief groups on college and high school campuses, has experienced growth, as have other organizations such as Center for Inquiry on Campus.  This makes sense, given that younger cohorts are more likely to be nonreligious than older cohorts (PDF) – 26% of Millennials are nonreligious, compared to only 13% of the Baby Boomer generation.  College is one area, along with the military chaplaincy corps, where Humanism is trying to provide a sense of community and informal counseling that is so appealing to many people about religion.  While on campus, the nonreligious at a handful of colleges may be able to make use of a professional Humanist chaplain just as a Catholic student might be able to make use of a Catholic chaplain for guidance and community.

It could be that the nonreligious are going forward.  I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Christmas (er, “holiday”) season.  This was my eighth Christmas as an atheist, after two decades of observance of the holiday as a Christian.  The Christmas season, for me, is about friends, family, reflection, presents, charity, respite from classes – and Handel’s The Messiah (time for another listen – just to make sure I’m linking to a good recording, of course.  I’ll be back in 2 hours, 30 minutes).  I’m not the only atheist who sees beauty and pleasure in religious music: there is a group of atheists who perform Renaissance-era Christian hymns on the streets of New York City on a regular basis over the past 50 years.

Last – but certainly not least – it could be that the nonreligious are not going anywhere.  Disaffiliation with religion does not imply affiliation with nonbelief.  Many of the religious “nones,” the term used to describe those who do not identify with a religion, have deeply held spiritual, mystical, or New Age beliefs that are antithetical to the values of Secular Humanism and most of the explicitly nonreligious institutions I mentioned above.  It may be no surprise, then, that the steep rise in religious non-affiliation has not resulted in a similarly steep rise in the number of people identifying as explicitly atheist or agnostic.  Others are happy to remain apathetic toward religion – the “apatheists.”

Understanding the diversity of the nonbelief community is where my nascent research focuses.  I am not alone.  The Council for Secular Humanism’s Free Inquiry magazine published an article by Dr. Luke Galen detailing significant differences among nonbelievers.  Dr. Christopher Silver has conducted research exploring the existence of six types of nonbelievers.  As more research is conducted in this area, a clearer picture should start to emerge about who the nonbelievers are and how to meet their different, individual needs.  This information should be useful in helping therapists, policy makers, and nonbelief leaders such as Mr. Flynn understand the people they aim to help serve.

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

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References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special

This week we are delighted to bring you a very special bonus podcast, and a first for the RSP!

The RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special took place during the Dr. Christopher F. Silver and Thomas J. Coleman III for arranging and moderating the panel.

You can also download this audio recording, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes and other podcatchers. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying any of your books, birthday presents, or other paraphernalia.

Psychologists of Religion Coleman ,Streib, Hood, Brandt & Silver

Psychologists of Religion Coleman ,Streib, Hood, Brandt & Silver

Five Lectures on Atheism, Nonreligion, and Secularity, from the NSRN

In partnership with the NSRN (Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network), it is our pleasure to bring you the audio recordings of five very important lectures.

The first is the NSRN Annual Lecture from April 2011, recorded at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham:

The other four are the keynote lectures from the NSRN’s Biennial Conference, recorded at Goldsmiths University, London, in July 2012:

Chris, one of the Religious Studies Project’s (RSP) ‘editors-in-chief’, is also Managing Editor of the NSRN’s website and therefore, when the NSRN wanted to make available some podcasts from recent events, it seemed like a win-win situation for both organizations for the RSP to host and disseminate these podcasts on behalf of the NSRN. These lectures come as part of an extensive series of podcasts from the RSP which touch on the study of non-religion – from our recent roundtable discussion on Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies, to our interviews with Linda Woodhead, Callum Brown, and Lois Lee. We appreciate that not all of our visitors will be particularly interested in this area of research, and for that reason we have released all of these lectures at the same time,and avoided placing them on iTunes. However, we are sure that every listener will find something of interest in these recordings, and wish you happy listening over the ‘Christmas’ period.

For those of you who don’t know the NSRN, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network is an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers founded in 2008 which aims to centralise existing research on the topic of non-religion and secularity and to facilitate discussion in this area. The NSRN run a series of events including their biennial conference and annual lecture series, in addition to maintaining a vibrant website with extensive collection of resources, publications, and listings for teachers and students working in the area of non-religion and secularity.

Due to the lecture style of these recordings, it is somewhat inevitable that the audio quality will be lower than we would like, and that there might be references to PowerPoint presentations or other events happening in the room. However, we know that these will be minor irritations when compared with the stimulating scholarship that you are about to hear, and we are very grateful to the NSRN for working with us to bring you these lectures.

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.

References:

  • 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.

Non-religion

The two concepts of non-religion and secularity are intended to summarise all positions which are necessarily defined in reference to religion but which are considered to be other than religious. […This encapsulates] a range of perspectives and experiences, including the atheistic, agnostic, religiously indifferent or areligious, as well as some forms or aspects of secularism,  humanism and, indeed, religion itself. (Lee 2009)

It is fast becoming a tradition in ‘nonreligion’ research to acknowledge that Colin Campbell’s seminal call in Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971) for a widespread sociological analysis’ of ‘nonreligion’ had until very recently been ignored (Bullivant and Lee 2012). Although there has been a steady stream of output on secularisation, and more recently on atheism, these publications rarely dealt with ‘nonreligion’ as it is ‘actually lived, expressed, or experienced […]in the here and now’ (Zuckerman 2010, viii). One scholar who has been leading the way in theorising and empirically populating this emerging field is Lois Lee, the founding director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, who joins Chris and Ethan in this podcast, recorded in May 2012 in Edinburgh.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Dr Lois Lee is Associate Lecturer in Religious Studies and Sociology at the University of Kent. Her work deals with theories of thought and action in differentiated and highly mediated societies, and her empirical research has focused on British nonreligious and secularist cultures. She is recently completed her doctoral thesis at the University of Cambridge and is currently developing the thesis into a monograph, provisionally titled, Separating Sociologies: Religion, Nonreligion and Secularity in Society and Social Research. She was guest co-editor of a special issue of Journal of Contemporary Religion, entitled  ’Nonreligion and Secularity: New Empirical Perspectives’, with Stephen Bullivant (January 2012). She has publications in (or forthcoming in) the Annual Review of Sociology of Religion, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism and Critique and Humanism, and will contribute to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Atheism (2013). Lois is founding director of the NSRN, the co-editor of its website, co-editor of the journal Secularism and Nonreligion (NSRN and ISSSC), and features editor for the LSE-based journal, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism (Wiley-Blackwell). She lectures and teaches the study of religion (and nonreligion), sociology of religion, social theory of modernity, introduction to sociology, and qualitative social research methods.

Lee’s basic definition of ‘nonreligion’ is ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’ (Lee 2012, 131), yet related to this relatively simple definition are a host of conceptual, methodological and terminological issues. At an individual level, when they are given discrete options, many otherwise ‘non-religious’ individuals will inevitably self-categorise themselves using ‘religious’ labels (for a variety of different reasons, see Day 2011; Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann 2006). However, the labels that individuals utilise are rarely as important as the contexts in which they use them, their motivations for doing so, and the meanings attached to them. When permitted to select multiple (non-)religious identity terms, many welcome the opportunity to articulate multiple identities. Different identities may be enacted in different contexts (Cotter 2011b), and a superficial non-religiosity can mask beliefs and practices sometimes termed ‘spiritual’ by the individual in question. To complicate matters further, people are apt to utilise (non-)religious terminology in situations where their sacred values are (un)consciously called into question, yet for much of the time these sacred values and the associated terminology ‘lie dormant and, as such, invisible’ (Knott 2013).

Institutionally, there are many organisations which can be explicitly labelled as ‘non-religious’, each exhibiting a collection of distinct-yet-interrelated attitudes and emphases (see Pasquale 2010, 66–69; Cimino and Smith 2007, 420–422; Budd 1977, 266), and in which much of what actually happens on the ground is arguably mundane and/or secular. However, the non-religious tend not to join specifically non-religious groups (Bullivant 2008, 364), and it is therefore unclear how representative these groups are likely to be. Other public institutions – such as a museum, a hospital chaplaincy, or a ‘religious’ NGO –  can be similarly ambiguous. ‘Religious’ institutions are utilised by non-religious people for a variety of reasons (Day 2011), and if we attend to the materiality and embodiment of public and private social interactions it becomes clear that a sound, a smell, or the mere presence of another person, can change the sacred, profane or mundane nature of (non-)religious and secular experiences.

The ambiguities described in the previous paragraphs suggest that scholars attempting to engage with non-religion face particular terminological and methodological challenges. Terminologically, it is self-evident that the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ are ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This relationship has led to a situation where the prevalent terminology used to refer to the non-religious in the social science of religion has often been ambiguous, imprecise, and even biased and derogatory (Cragun and Hammer 2011; Cotter 2011b; Pasquale 2007; Lee 2012). Methodologically, there is the attendant risk of constructing non-religion simply through the act of study. By asking questions specifically relating to (non-)religion, studies can exclude the possibility of (non-)religious indifference, whilst religion concurrently ‘serves as a “language” in which many people who may no longer be associated with any religious organisations still choose to express their strongest fears, sorrows, aspirations, joys and wishes’ (Beckford 1999, 25). The researcher must therefore be aware both of the limitations of the narrative interview, and of the different meanings attached to terms in different discourses (Stringer 2013). All of these issues and more are complicated by problems of locating potential research data for all but the most explicit forms of non-religion and by emergent problems in the assessment of religion-equivalent non-religious practices, and, indeed, the appropriateness of doing so (Cotter 2011a; Cotter, Aechtner, and Quack 2012). This interview with Lois Lee addresses these issues and more, and provides a valuable reflexive discussion on what ‘nonreligion’ is, and why we might be interested in studying it from a Religious Studies perspective.

The following quotation from Frank Pasquale serves as a suitable point of conclusion:

The closer people’s worldviews are probed – even among self-described secular or nonreligious individuals – the more difficult it is to neatly place many into the major categories that frame Western discourse on “theism” and “atheism” or “religion” or “irreligion” (2010, 63)

As we are all aware, study of ‘religion’ (and by definition, ‘nonreligion’) generally occurs within a Western, Christianised context which tends to assume a position of normative religiosity, and reify an academically constructed dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’. Whilst this interview (and many ongoing studies) focuses on one side of the ‘religion’-’nonreligion’ dichotomy, ultimately it can be seen as an attempt to ‘argue for the currently unfashionable side of [a] polar opposition, […] to unsettle the assumption that any polarity can properly describe a complex reality’ (Silverman 2007, 144).

Listener’s may also be interested in our previous interview with Callum Brown on Historical Approaches to Losing Religion, and with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis.

References:

  • Beckford, James A. 1999. “The Politics of Defining Religion in Secular Society: From a Taken for Granted Institution to a Contested Resource.” In The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests, ed. Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk, 23–40. Leiden: Brill.
  • Budd, Susan. 1977. Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850-1960. London: Heinemann.
  • Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363–368.
  • Bullivant, Stephen, and Lois Lee. 2012. “Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan.
  • Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. 2007. “Secular Humanism and Atheism Beyond Progressive Secularism.” Sociology of Religion 68 (4): 407–424.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011a. Qualitative Methods Workshop (NSRN Methods for Nonreligion and Secularity Series). NSRN  Events Report Series [online]. NSRN. http://www.nsrn.net/events/events-reports.
  • ———. 2011b. “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students”. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
  • Cotter, Christopher R., Rebecca Aechtner, and Johannes Quack. 2012. Non-Religiosity, Identity, and Ritual Panel Session. Hungarian Culture Foundation, Budapest, Hungary: NSRN. http://nsrn.net/1523-2/.
  • Cragun, R., and J.H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate Is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us About Pro-religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity and Society 35: 159–175.
  • Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review 71 (2) (April): 211–234.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. “The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?” In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2009. “NSRN Website – About”. Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://www.nsrn.co.uk/About.html. (Accessed March 2011)
  • ———. 2012. “Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • Pasquale, Frank L. 2007. “Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect Of.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Tom Flynn, 760–766. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
  • ———. 2010. “A Portrait of Secular Group Affiliates.” In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 43–87. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
  • Silverman, David. 2007. A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Qualitative Research. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE.
  • Stringer, Martin D. 2013. “The Sounds of Silence: Searching for the Religious in Everyday Discourse.” In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Zuckerman, Phil. 2010. “Introduction.” In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, vii–xii. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion

Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2008), may be the best interpreter of environmentalism as a religious project working today.  His latest book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), argues that the constellation of spiritual and naturalistic worldviews which hold nature as sacred can be described as part of a new religious movement, one that might replace traditional religions and help save our planet from ecological disaster.

In the wide-ranging interview for the The Religious Studies Project, Taylor traces the history of the greening of religion, the growth of a naturalistic cosmology based on Darwinian science (that for many has replaced traditional religions like Christianity), the coalescence of a new form of religiosity Taylor dubs “dark green religion,” how conceptualizing this phenomena as religion can be analytically useful, how the narrow-mindedness of new atheists like Richard Dawkins can limit their analyses, and whether dark green religion will transform human culture and the future of life on earth.

In this response, I will focus on a few key points that Taylor makes in the interview, and then offer a brief reflection about his book Dark Green Religion.

In the interview, Taylor begins by critiquing the “greening of religion” hypothesis, which holds that (primarily Western) religions can respond effectively to the environmental crisis by becoming more environmentally-friendly [cf. Roger Gottlieb’s A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (2006)].  For Taylor, it is not clear whether traditional religions like Christianity are actually turning green or whether they are just reflecting the society in which they are situated (as society is becoming more environmentally conscious).  Insufficient evidence exists to support the claim that religion is driving people to become better caretakers of the earth, he claims.  Despite the plethora of optimistic research about the greening of religion, I think Taylor is correct to sound this note of caution in interpreting earth-friendly religions like contemporary liberal Christianities.  Even after greening these religions, the tradition-bound, dominion-theology roots of our ecological crisis will remain.  Still, Taylor should provide a fuller explanation of why this is so.  However, pushing further, I wish Taylor would address the often-uncritical embrace of Eastern and indigenous religions as paragons of environmentalist ideas and practices.  Sometimes the portraits of non-Western religions painted by environmentalists are too rosy, belying complicated relationships with nature that remain underexplored.  For example, many of the dark green religion subjects Taylor discusses in his book do not think critically about the social and physical construction of wilderness, still assuming an idyllic natural state untouched by humans, one granting little to no agency to indigenous populations, as if native peoples leave no footprints.  Taylor could have complicated and improved his analysis by discussing this issue.

Next, tackling the perceived division between science and religion, Taylor discusses three major responses to Darwinian evolution in Western culture: rejecting evolution, grafting an evolutionary worldview onto a religious one (e.g. Catholicism, liberal religions), or embracing atheism and agnosticism.  However, for Taylor, even atheists and agnostics seek meaning and a moral sensibility, often finding them in nature, such as through the mythic meaning-providing aspects of the Darwinian evolutionary narrative.  Many who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious” may fit into this mold, in a more pagan or animistic vein, as might the scores of scientists who use religious rhetoric to describe their findings and experiences in nature.  Even an atheist like James Cameron, the director of Avatar, has deep environmental concerns and passions, such as kinship ethics, a theory of intrinsic value, an awareness of the interdependence of all life on earth, a humble sense of being one species amongst others (even noting cross-species continuities and animal consciousness), and an evolutionist, cosmological narrative of common origins.  Following E. O. Wilson, Taylor argues that kinship ethics, for example, is part of the emotional repertoire of human beings, that spiritualities of fellow-feeling are cross-culturally present across time.  Thus, as Taylor rightly shows, the supposed divide between religion and science—as well as between religion and irreligion—is messier than most commentators allow.

While Richard Dawkins and other so-called new atheists argue that religion is always poisonous, Taylor claims that their narrow view of what constitutes religion occludes from them phenomena that they support and about which they might agree.  Many atheist scholars use romantic language to describe their wonder at nature, for example.  Additionally, atheistic nature spirituality of the sort Taylor describes has wide cultural traction.  Dawkins should ratchet back his anti-religious rhetoric and read more religious studies literature, such as Taylor’s book, thus nuancing his view of religion.  If he did so, Dawkins might find that dark green religion describes his own naturalistic worldview (see Dark Green Religion: 158-160, 177-179).  New atheists should heed Taylor’s call for greater attention to the contested category of religion and to ways in which they may share central convictions with dark green religion.

In an optimistic mood, Taylor maintains that dark green religion is likely to become a global civil religion, especially as we better understand ecological science and our contemporary environmental predicaments.  Dark green religion may not replace traditional religions ultimately, but it could be the small piece upon which we can all agree.  While it is admittedly difficult to predict the future, Taylor claims that we could be in a gestalt period, a world-transformative moment in our religious and cultural life, one in which the fate of our planet hangs in the balance.  For Taylor, it is reasonable to speculate that religions which originated thousands of years ago will be less prevalent thousands of years into the future, and that dark green religion characteristics will be more prevalent than today’s traditional religions.  Although I am not inclined to indulge Taylor’s crystal ball-gazing, it is clear that he describes a major shift in ecological consciousness and spiritual belonging in his latest book, to which I now turn.

Taylor’s extremely well-read survey of contemporary environmentalist nature religiosity, Dark Green Religion, employs literary, ethnographic, and material cultural accounts to chart a global spiritual movement that seeks to protect the earth and reshape humanity’s role in it.  Chapters in the book define what he terms “dark green religion,” portray its historical tributaries and luminaries, analyze radical environmentalist and surfing spiritualities, examine the globalization of dark green religion through documentaries and the arts and sciences, and explore the role of global institutions such as UNESCO and global sustainability summits as they promote dark green religion.  Traits of dark green religion include an awareness of ecological interdependence, spiritualities of connection and belonging, kinship ethics, a sense of the intrinsic value of all life, contact with nature, and an evolutionist cosmogony (83, 149-151).  Throughout the book, Taylor acknowledges the hybridity and bricolage of dark green religion and its various sources and manifestations, noting that pinning it down to any particular creed, person, or institution would over-simplify a complex phenomenon.  Even in defining dark green religion, Taylor is careful to preserve such flexibility as it suits his interpretive purposes (101, 125).  Wary of using other terms that might carry unintended baggage, such as pantheism, deep ecology, or even nature religion [of the sort described by Catherine Albanese in Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (1990)], Taylor acknowledges that his new interpretive category may have limited utility beyond the scope of his book’s arguments (223-224).  In the end, he finds dark green religion to be a global, civic earth religion capable of replacing all other religions and perhaps thereby saving the planet.

One of the strengths of this book is Taylor’s eclecticism, as he draws from many and varied sources to make his argument, pulling quotes from nature writers, magazine ads, nature documentaries, and environmental legislation, for example.  He successfully brings these strands together into a cohesive whole, providing strong evidence for dark green religion’s existence.  He also adroitly explores how naturalistic accounts of the universe can be religious, in a way that moves beyond the claim that science is like religion since it is a totalizing worldview.  As a hybridizing and dynamic religious worldview, dark green religion is evolving and sprouting new forms, a fact that Taylor suggests will help it grow and flourish (185, 189).

Taylor labels dark green religion as “dark” because he wants to show its depth as well as its shadow side, such as elitism and radicalism (e.g. eco-terrorism).  However, he ultimately dismisses the dark side as a fringe that does not represent the mainstream of dark green religion.  This dismissal is unfortunate because it undermines the complexity that Taylor seeks to show, that this religion also has a significant dark side which has resulted in bodily injuries, damaged property, and loss of income.  Moreover, even within environmentalist kinship ethics, troubling choices have to be made, such as those that pit one community’s needs against another’s.  Dark green religion is not a panacea for the world’s problems or for resolving human conflicts.

In its bricolage, dark green religion takes from indigenous spiritualities across the globe and blends them with Western spiritual, cultural, and political ideals.  Taylor fairly represents the appropriation issues at stake, and he also highlights the viewpoints of indigenous peoples in global environmental summits, showing how race and religion become hot buttons within dark green religion.  However, there are also a few places where Taylor and his dark green religion subjects seem to compare apes to indigenous peoples, searching to find our most primitive and commonest characteristics while also raising the status of nonhumans (e.g. 30).  In an evolutionary perspective, comparing people to apes is not necessarily a bad thing, but when only indigenous peoples are compared to apes, then it begins to sound prejudiced.  I would like to hear Taylor’s response to this kind of under-the-surface bias.

The end of the book veers into advocacy of environmentalism and even dark green religion itself, as Taylor claims it can help preserve our planet and our species.  In this vein, he criticizes Christianity and other religions as unable to correct their anthropocentrism; he sees no hope in the greening of religion, instead encouraging readers to embrace the dark green religion he describes (178, 197, 206-207, 218, 221-222, 286).  However, in the book, Taylor needs to provide more evidence as to why other religious worldviews will necessarily fail us, and to engage more fully with Eastern and indigenous religions.  And some readers may question Taylor’s switch from description and analysis to advocacy.

Despite the few quibbles I present here, I admire Taylor’s work greatly.  Although there are many scholars examining nature and religion, few do so as thoroughly and thoughtfully as he does, and no one has presented as convincing a case for a global new religious movement based on environmentalist beliefs and practices.

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

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics.

Bibliography

Albanese, Catherine L. Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Gottlieb, Roger S. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Psychological Approaches to the Study of Religion

In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach.

Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 47.

Psychology of religion involves the application of psychological methods and interpretive frameworks to religious institutions, as well as to individuals of all religious or noreligious persuasions. Last November, Chris had the pleasure of chatting to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi about the psychological approach, how one applies it to the study of religion, and the various challenges and advantages contained therein. This interview was recorded in the heart of New York City, and we can only hope that the ambient noise adds to the character of the interview.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi studied clinical psychology in Israel and the U.S. and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Haifa. He has published extensively in the critical theory of academic psychology with focus on the psychopathology of religion. His books include Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel (1992), Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion: A Critical Assessment (1996) and The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience (1997) with Michael Argyle. He is also author of The Israeli Connection (Pantheon 1987), concerning the Israeli armaments industry, and Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Olive Branch 1993), a counter-mystification of the origins, accomplishments, contradictions, and betrayals of Zionism.

In answer to the question “what can science say about atheism?”, Professor Beit-Hallahmi published the article “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion, and Erica Salomon’s response essay.

Podcasts

Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

The idea of long-running clash between the domains of “science” and “religion” has not only been central to western discourses on modernity, but has increasingly become a central supposition in the history of science itself – informing not just the rhetoric of the New Atheists, but also the broader public understanding of the issue.  But is this historically accurate?

In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison (formerly Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford) outlines the flaws in this supposition by providing a historical perspective on the categories “science” and “religion” and the way that they were formerly considered separate virtues (scientia and religio) instead of incompatible domains of knowledge.  Far from the current narrative being correct – often focusing on episodes such as the Church’s response to the Galileo controversy – Professor Harrison explains that religious institutions were originally (and for a long time) key supporters of scientific activity, which was considered broadly as a theological attempt to unlock The Book of Nature.   The middle section of the interview looks at the complex relationship between theological commitment and scientific activity from Newton to Darwin, and in the final section discusses continuing complexities of the relationship in the post-Darwinan western world, right down to problematic assumptions at play in contemporary New Atheism as well as debates about Islamic militancy.

This interview was recorded at the meeting of the Australian Religious History Association in July 2014.  For those interested in the themes of the interview, the keynote talk of the RHA meeting was delivered by one of Professor Harrison’s key collaborators, Ronald Numbers (on a similar topic, focusing especially on the Galileo episode).   A number of related talks and interviews can be found on the CHED website.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Resisting Conformity at the Margins of Marginal Christianity

In what her interviewer has reckoned to be the first Religious Studies Project podcast to focus solely on the study of an expression of contemporary Christianity, Gladys Ganiel introduces listeners to a modern religious orientation that deserves sustained scholarly attention. The Emerging Church Movement (the ECM) might be numerically small but it is, she suggests, far from insignificant.

Despite a growing number of ethnographies of individual emerging church congregations, as well as critical overviews of the emerging church conversation as an identifiable form of religious discourse, many scholars of religion have either never heard of the ECM or claim, as Josh Packard suggests, that emerging Christianity must ‘join the mainstream or die out’.[1] It is assumed that it is merely a ‘transitional reaction’ against modern evangelicalism that will merge with the liberal mainstream, especially if, as Robert Warner declares, ‘post-evangelicals define themselves negatively and seem unlikely to develop a sustainable and distinct theological agenda’.[2]

But against such assessments, as I have argued elsewhere, emerging Christianity is structured around identifiable sets of values, beliefs and practices that lend it cohesion and relative stability whilst also enabling divergence.[3] Ganiel’s book, The Deconstructed Church (co-authored with Gerardo Martí), is an important academic analysis that also takes the ECM seriously as a phenomenon that is organised around a clear (albeit contested and continually ‘deconstructed’) set of activities.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Acknowledging the difficulties surrounding the identification and definition of a subject of study that is not only deliberately diverse but also intentionally resistant to definition, Ganiel and Martí nonetheless discern within emerging Christianity a distinct religious orientation built around the practice of deconstruction. The Deconstructed Church illustrates in particular how these practices encourage the creation of pluralist congregations and of what Ulrich Beck calls ‘cooperative egoism’,[4] facilitating a strategic form of religiosity through which participants undertake ‘meaning work’ that maintains tensions between individualism and collective identity. Such practices are driven by what Ganiel and Martí call ‘the religious institutional entrepreneurs’ who seek to resist the institutionalization of this orientation under pressures to conform to inherited forms of Christianity – primarily what participants see as the ‘Seeker Megachurch’ and the ‘Solemn Mainline’ models. As James S. Bielo has observed, the emerging church is therefore a particularly rich research site for the empirical study of interacting Christianities, since its religious and cultural critique is dependent upon prevailing traditions as interlocutors.[5] The question of this deconstructive orientation’s ultimate sustainability is, as Ganiel acknowledges, open to debate. But it is also ripe for scholarly study, and for critical consideration from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

My own research has focused on understanding how the identifiable social or cultural imaginaries that structure what I call the emerging church discursive milieu interact with continental philosophy and radical theologies.[6] As Charles Taylor has noted, when theory ‘penetrates and transforms’ an imaginary, new practices are either taken up or improvised.[7] It is the innovative communicative practices and expressive acts of an emerging church imaginary, which is transformed when emerging Christians engage with the philosophical traditions of deconstruction and materialism, that most interest me – and I see emerging church figures like Peter Rollins (a founder of Ikon, Belfast) and Kester Brewin (a founder of Vaux, London) as catalysts for such an engagement.

In The Deconstructed Church, however, Ganiel and Martí focus on deconstruction as a sociological process that enables the ECM to ‘establish competitive arenas in response to pressures for conformity’ whilst nonetheless continuing to conceive of God in the ‘relatively concrete terms’ of conventional Christian theism.[8] This means that Ganiel and Martí are better able to more adequately represent the mainstream of the ECM than I am, for entrepreneurs like Rollins and Brewin push the emerging church conversation in more radical directions as they engage the work of thinkers like John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek. Popular figures in North American emerging Christianity would not understand crucifixion and resurrection in the ways that Rollins does and would not state their disbelief in a personal God or divine salvation as Brewin has.

‘What makes emerging Christianity “Christian”?’, Ganiel is asked in this interview. In her response, she sympathises with those within the ECM who treat this question as one that deflects from more primary issues of concern. She refers to an instance – recounted more fully here – that also recalls the response Rollins gives to the question of the historical resurrection of Jesus. He says, ‘Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ’, by which he means that he does so every time he fails to ‘serve at the feet of the oppressed’ and yet also affirms that resurrection in those ‘few and far between’ moments when he stands up ‘for those who are forced to live on their knees’.[9]

Such an apparently evasive answer frustrates not only researchers seeking clarity about the beliefs held by emerging church entrepreneurs like Rollins, as Ganiel notes, but also those who wish them to conform either to traditional theistic belief or to modern atheistic belief.

Rollins’ critique of religious idolatry and ideology is intended as more than a corrective to conventional Christianity that would enable Christians to discover the God beyond the idol ‘God’ and a richer faith beyond instrumental religion without challenging more fundamentally their continued reliance on what he might call – following Žižek – ‘a subject supposed to believe’ on their behalf; namely, priests, Christ, God, the community of believers, the church structures themselves (the buildings, the liturgies, the statements of faith), etc., that sustain the fantasy of the presence and coherence of meaning, purpose, value and truth. On the other hand, however, the experience of the death of such a subject does not result in conventional atheism, since it is not only God that dies (i.e., that does not exist) but a transcendent source of or an absolute justification for any universal principle or set of principles, including those provided by reason as well as by revelation.

Rollins and Brewin are on the margins of a numerically marginal expression of Christianity. However, just as the significance of the ECM lies not in its relative size but in its manifestation of a religious orientation that seeks to resist conformity with inherited models of Christianity, the significance of these two marginal figures lies in the ways in which they seek to resist conformity with both modern western theism and modern western atheism. Rollins and Brewin are, therefore, two of the ‘expert theorizers’[10] within the ECM whose engagement with continental philosophy and radical theology is contributing to the construction of what I call an emerging a/theistic cultural imaginary.[11]

Both Rollins and Brewin propose that there is revolutionary political potential in the kinds of spaces that they advocate, and I am interested in exploring how to measure that claim, even if, as Ganiel notes, there are methodological difficulties in determining the impact of emerging Christianity on society more broadly. I would especially like to examine further the discursive motif of suspension in their work and to investigate empirically the communal practices that enable such a suspension of belief and identity. These religious (or, rather, ir/religious) spaces are imagined to be individually and collectively transformative, temporarily subtracting participants from their social roles and relations and allowing them to envision new forms of interaction and association: ‘we not only affirm one another in excess of our culturally given identities but expose these identities as contingent’, Rollins writes, concluding that thereby ‘we can more productively engage in exploring how to transform society’.[12] But the efficacy of these practices of suspension has yet to be documented. What kinds of sociality are exhibited in and encouraged by participation in ‘suspended space’? And what is the relationship between such spaces and participants’ wider social, political and economic lives?

 

Bibliography

Beck, Ulrich, 2010, A God of One’s Own: Religion’s Capacity for Peace and Potential for Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich, and Johannes Willms, 2004, Conversations with Ulrich Beck, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bielo, James S., 2009, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America: Notes on the Interaction of Christianities’, Religion 39/3, pp. 219-32.

Ganiel, Gladys, and Gerardo Martí, 2014, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement: Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective’, Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, 1/1, pp. 26-47.

Martí, Gerardo, and Gladys Ganiel, 2014, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moody, Katharine Sarah. 2010, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”: Emerging Spiritualities in the UK Emerging Church Milieu’, The Expository Times 121/10, pp. 495-503.

  • forthcoming, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices, Ashgate.

Packard, Josh, 2012, The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers / First Forum Press.

Rollins, Peter, 2009, ‘My Confession: I Deny The Resurrection’, (January 01) http://peterrollins.net/2009/01/my-confession-i-deny-the-resurrection/

Taylor, Charles. 2004, Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

  • 2007, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Warner, Robert, 2007, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1996-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study, Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

 

Notes

[1] Packard, The Emerging Church, p. 31. Growing academic interest in emerging Christianity is starting to be reflected in the programmes of some of the major conferences in the field of religious studies. For example, in August this year there was a panel on the ECM and the transformation of ‘conventional’ Christianity at the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual conference. And there will be sessions on emerging Christianity at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conferences as well.

[2] Warner, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, p. 230, fn. 62.

[3] See Moody, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”’.

[4] See Beck, A God of One’s Own and Beck and Willms, Conversations with Ulrich Beck.

[5] See Bielo, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America’.

[6] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[7] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 172 and 175. See also Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries.

[8] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 26 (italics removed); and Ganiel and Martí, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement’, p. 45.

[9] Rollins, ‘My Confession’.

[10] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 81.

[11] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[12] Rollins, ‘The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity’, p. 84.

When Atheists Pray…

In his interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, Dr.Kevin Ladd talks about his research on prayer. Dr. Ladd explains how he got interested in the topic, clarifies some of the basic assumptions that need to be made up front, and then continues to answer questions about how this research is done and what it can tell us about prayer.

We must admit that when we first heard about empirical prayer studies, we were skeptical to what degree they could be free from obvious biases, which could lead to an apologetic motivation for the experiments and hence would hinder objectivity. Fortunately, Dr. Ladd explicitly addresses this problem in the interview when asked what questions can be answered with science concerning prayer. He explains how he sees prayer as a psychological phenomenon motivated by theological conceptions and reasoning which should be explained in psychological terms such as behavior and affect, and that research on this issue has to remain free of metaphysics. Ladd is clear that psychological research on prayer must exclude one’s own preoccupations with that issue. The focus is to understand how and why people pray. This is an important point, because otherwise research will be biased, preferring either an atheist’s or a believer’s point of view, each trying to justify their own assumptions.

Apart from our early apprehension, there were two things that especially caught our interest. The first is that Dr. Ladd does not give a universal definition of what prayer is, and the second is the idea of an atheistic or secular form of praying.

To define prayer is a very challenging task. In his bookThe Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, which Dr. Ladd wrote in collaboration with Dr. B. Spilka, prayer is largely defined as “an appeal to a higher power, invariably a deity conceptualized in a relational sense” (p. 12). Prayer can be performed in numerous ways out of a variety of different motivations and is influenced largely by religious doctrines and institutions. Sadly this definition does not overcome the bias that prayer must necessarily be addressed to a deity and is, as such, too narrow to include all forms of prayers, especially prayer among atheists.

”’Atheism’ designates a position… that includes or asserts no god(s)” (Eller, 2000,p. 1). So, for example, animism, as a religious worldview without any god, could involve praying, where the higher power appealed to is some sort of natural spirit, which is not a deity. This form of praying would not fit in the definition given above, although it should probably be considered. Apparently, this is not the problem that comes to mind most readily to people when they try to figure out what it means when an atheist prays. How can someone who rejects the “God Hypothesis” pray to a God?

At the beginning of theinterview, Dr. Ladd refers to a breast cancer survivors group called Reach to Recovery. This group got him interested in studying prayer after he had found out that many people who said praying was essential to their recovery also claimed they were atheists. We assume these people were not just praying to natural spirits but were explicitly praying to a god in a theistic sense. This leaves us with an obvious contradiction, which we think points towards a form of prayer that does not require the concept of a higher power in a relational sense. Maybe an atheist can conceptualize a deity and pray to it without assuming a relationship between them, because he (or she) is not convinced that the addressed conception is real. In fact, we think this may be the only way an atheist can pray to a theistic deity. Another example for this would be people who pray together with their family on Thanksgiving or who attend church out of tradition and pray there, although their worldview does not include a god or prayer typically.

Since there has not been a consensus on a universal definition for prayer yet and Dr.Ladd encourages different approaches towards the subject, we suggest defining prayer as an appeal to the concept of a higher power that can, but does not have to, be seen in a relational sense between the power and the person who prays. An atheist could perform all kinds of prayer in the exact same way a believer does but would not necessarily perceive his (or her) actions to be connected to a higher power. We think this might be the key difference between these two forms of praying.

The notion of atheists praying may be puzzling. If being an atheist means that someone does not believe in God, higher beings, etc., then what would be the purpose of a prayer? How can a prayer be performed? Who is the prayer´s addressee? One possible explanation can be found in the conceptof horizontal self-transcendence (SoMe questionnaire; Schnell, 2009), which suggests a non-theistic frame of reference becoming relevant for the development of one’s own meaning in life. Horizontal self-transcendence means committing oneself to a greater goal that is not determined by God or higher beings. For example, gaining self-knowledge or greater health are examples of such goals, but it could also involve feeling close to nature. In this sense, it is imaginable that practices like yoga, meditation, or mindfulness-based relaxation techniques are structurally similar to the practice of praying. Structural similarity can be seen in bodily postures or dedication to certain contents of consciousness. While praying (at least in a Christian context), one usually is in a calm, inside-bound pose, typically with eyes closed and hands folded. Concerning contents, persons praying as well as persons meditating often forget about the current processes that happen in the outside world and concentrate on what is happening inside. We see that calmness, inward orientation, and dedication to something bigger than oneself are also elements of practices like meditation or yoga. Can such practices really be seen as prayers? In common understanding, prayer means getting in contact with a higher entity and therefore implies an aspect of verticality. Therefore, it is questionable to what extent practices that are not bound to an entity bigger than oneself can be interpreted as ‘prayer’.

Nevertheless, what is it that makes praying a personal resource? Ladd & McIntosh (2008) show that praying is about perceiving oneself in a larger social context. Support is received and provided via a perceived connection to other praying persons as well as to a higher power. This thought can be a starting point for a better understanding of the positive effects praying has, e.g. on health.

Speaking of the nexus between prayer and healing, does it make a difference for someone who prays if the prayer’s aim (e.g. the recovery of a family member’s health) is notfulfilled? People pray even though they cannot prevent the death of a beloved person, but to them this may not mean that the prayer was ineffective. What then is it that makes people continue to pray even if the prayer does not seem to have the desired effect? Is it a mere cognitive bias that sticks believers to praying? Do believers think God is reluctant to answer their hopes and wishes? Are injustice, illness, and death seen as an ordeal in order not to unsettle one’s own beliefs? These questions go too far to be answered in a short interview but can contribute to a better comprehension of the practice of praying.

Furthermore, there could be a European perspective added to Ladd’s research. In “Meaning, God and Prayer” (2008), Ladd and McIntosh write about the use of prayer in non-religious contexts, which we tend to imagine as less conceivable in societies like Austria or Germany, in which a large group of people do not believe: Only 43% of Germans describe themselves as religious – among them especially elderly people (Köcher 2010). What is the role of praying in such societies? Are there differences to societies in which most of the people are believers? What does that mean for the practice of praying – will it be extinguished, or will some of its elements survive in other practices such as meditation?

 

References

Eller, J. D. (2009). What is Atheism? In P. Zuckerman (Ed.), Atheism and Secularity (pp. 1-18). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Ladd, K.L. & McIntosh, D.L. (2008). Meaning, God, and prayer: Physical and metaphysical aspects of social support. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 11(1), 23-38.

Köcher, R. (2010, June 23). Schwere Zeiten für die Kirchen. Last access 2014, Feb 03 from faz.net: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/allensbach-analyse-schwere-zeiten-fuer-die-kirchen-1996617.html

Schnell,T. (2009). The Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe): Relations to demographics and well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 483-499.

Spilka, B. & Ladd, K. L. The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach. New York: Guilford Press.

An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

In his book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Dr. Ara Norenzayan addresses two “puzzles” about human existence.  First, how were large-scale societies able to develop?  That is, how did small, tight-knit communities develop into the large and relatively anonymous societies that exist today?  Second, with all the potential flavors of supernatural agents, why are “Big Gods” a common theme dominating many religious traditions?  The concept of “Big Gods” refers to the omniscient and omnipotent higher powers that are prevalent across many major religious traditions today.

Norenzayan (2013) offers a cohesive, well-informed answer to these two seemingly separate questions.  Drawing from a large base of literature, from social psychology to cultural anthropology to behavioral economics, the central argument is that belief in “Big Gods” paved the way for small groups of people to develop into large-scale societies with powerful supernatural agents fostering the type of cooperation necessary for such groups to be successful.  As a result, successful societies of people who believed in “Big Gods” were able to dominate the cultural landscape, “winning out” over other religions.

The purpose of this post is to briefly describe eight principles that are central to Norenzayan’s (2013) new book and to complement his recent RSP interview with Thomas J. Coleman.  Dr. Norenzayan provides a broad range of supporting evidence for the following eight principles that supports his thesis (see pg. xiii):

1.     Watched people are nice people

2.     Religion is more in the situation than in the person

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete

 

Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

The first principle suggests that people are nicer, or act in more prosocial ways, when they are being watched.  An important caveat is that people act in such prosocial ways even when they think they are being watched – such as by a watchful God.  Various studies have demonstrated that even in the mere presence of eyes, people tend to act cooperatively – dubbed as the “eye effect.”  For example, Ernest-Jones, Nettle, and Bateson (2011) found that anti-littering posters were more effective in reducing actual littering behavior if the poster included a set of eyes.  Related to God as a watchful agent, Gervais and Norenzayan (2012) found experimental evidence that, when primed with the concept of God, people responded in more socially desirable ways (see Study 3).  Thus, a concept of God as an all-seeing agent who monitors human behavior should help to foster cooperation within groups of people.  Importantly, cooperative societies are successful societies.

 

Principle Two: Religion is More in the Situation than in the Person

Norenzayan’s (2013) second principle is that individuals’ religiosity, or at least expression of religiosity, is largely shaped by the situation.  This principle is counter to the ways that many researchers and religious scholars tend to view religion – that is, religion as a relatively stable characteristic that individuals bring with them across situations.  However, Norenzayan provides empirical evidence that demonstrates how the influence of religion on behavior is qualified by the power of the situation.  For example, Norenzayan discusses, both in his book and in the interview, the “Sunday Effect” whereby some religious people behave in greater accord with their religious beliefs on Sundays.  Such religious behavior includes donating more money and being less likely to engage in “sinful” acts (e.g., viewing pornography).  Thus, as one’s religion becomes more salient, religious individuals are likely to align their religious beliefs with their behavior “in the moment.”

 

Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

The third principle underlying Dr. Norenzayan’s argument is that Hell is stronger than heaven.  In one study, Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) found that general beliefs in God did not predict undergraduate students’ engagement in cheating behavior.  However, when belief in God was distilled into belief in a mean God (i.e., vengeful, and punishing) versus belief in a nice God (i.e., compassionate and forgiving), participants endorsing a mean-God concept were less likely to cheat relative to nice-God supporters.  Thus, there appears to be evidence that  “mean Gods make good people” (p. 44).  Having a God that people both love and fear helps motivate people to behave in desirable, prosocial, and cooperative ways.

 

Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

Since the early works of Allport and Ross (1967), researchers have been interested in the relationship between religion and attitudes toward out-groups.  The theoretical and empirical work in this area is complicated.  On the one hand, religion could foster positive attitudes toward members of out-groups.  Many religious faiths share basic tenets such as loving one’s “neighbor” and even one’s enemies, treating people of all kinds fairly and compassionately (Terry, 2007).  On the other hand, religion could foster intergroup hostility and intolerance (Silberman, 2005).  Such hostility is likely when the out-group violates the value systems of one’s religion (Whitley, 2009).  For example, atheism runs against the very grain of religious worldviews, which poses a particular threat for religious individuals.  People largely distrust atheists (Gervais, 2011), and privately and even publically reject such individuals (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006).  According to this fourth principle, religion serves as one rather important marker on which to base trust.

 

Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

The fifth principle proposes that religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words.  This principle addresses a potential problem facing many religious groups: that some people might feign their religiousness to be part of the in-group and reap rewards in a selfish, free-rider manner.  With costly behaviors associated with a religion, however, religious hypocrites have a harder time faking their religious commitments.  Proscription of certain dietary practices and adherence to strict marital and sexual practices, for example, helps to monitor religious adherents.  As Norenzayan (2013) suggests, such strict religious behaviors keep possible free-riders at check, which ultimately helps to maintain group solidarity.

 

Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

Norenzayan’s (2013) sixth principle is linked to the prior fifth principle.  Without committed followers, who demonstrate potentially costly behaviors such as sacrifices of “time, effort, and wealth” and behavioral restrictions (e.g., dietary restrictions), Gods lose the ability to attract followers (pg. 111).  Demonstrations of costly behaviors, though, give rise to powerful Gods that have the potential to draw in religious converts.  As religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words, high levels of expressed commitment breeds powerful Gods.

 

Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

Studies among small-scale, hunter-gather groups demonstrate that belief in “Big Gods” is the exception rather than the rule.  Such small groups, like the ones from which modern-day societies developed, believe in Gods that rarely interfere with human affairs (Norenzayan, 2013).  As groups increase in size and social complexity, however, belief in “Big Gods,” or moralizing Gods, increases (Roes & Raymond, 2003).  Many large and industrialized societies around the world believe in Gods that are all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally-concerned.  The relationship between the size of groups and tendencies for belief in “Big Gods” supports Norenzayan’s (2013) seventh principle of “Big Gods” for “Big Groups.”

 

Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

The last principle proposes that prosocial religions have “won out” over other types of religions throughout history.  Such religions, with “group-beneficial norms that suppress selfishness and increase social cohesion,” have come to dominate the cultural landscape today (Norenzayan, 2013, p. 147).  Evidence exists demonstrating that religions with “Big Gods” facilitate group stability and eventual longevity.  Additionally, such religions have been successful in gaining converts though multiple strategies (e.g., conquests) and have propagated large numbers of followers through reproductive successes.  It is through processes of cultural evolution that we have had a few religious groups, and religious characteristics more generally (i.e., belief in “Big Gods”), dominate across different cultures and societies.

The book Big Gods ends with a timely discussion regarding the rise of atheism, or non-religion more generally, in several industrialized societies (e.g., Sweden).  Norenzayan (2013) argues that, under certain social conditions, countries might successfully adopt worldviews that are less influenced by religions.  Such secular societies will have “climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away” (p. 172).  Effective secular authorities in such nonreligious countries seem to have replaced religion as a motivator for cooperation.  In these societies, religion no longer serves as a characteristic by which to judge a person’s trustworthiness.  Indeed, recent research highlights the role that secular authorities (e.g., police, government, ect.) play in reducing distrust toward atheists (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Norenzayan & Gervais, 2013).  What remains unclear is whether cultural pressures will favor both secular and religious societies equally, if religious societies will continue to dominate, or if secular societies will grow in appeal, eventually replacing “Big Gods” with “Big Secular Institutions.”

References

Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 5(4), 432.

Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as ‘other’: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review71, 211-234.

Ernest-Jones, M., Nettle, D., & Bateson, M. (2011). Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(3), 172-178.

Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: Perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 543-556.

Gervais, W. M. & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/0956797611429711.

Gervais, W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2012) Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 298-302.

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, A., & Gervais, W. M. (2013). Secular rule of law erodes believers’ political intolerance of atheists. Religion, Brain & Behavior, (ahead-of-print), 1-12.

Roes, F. L., & Raymond, M. (2003). Belief in moralizing gods. Evolution and human behavior, 24(2), 126-135.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods make good people: Different views of God predict cheating behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85-96.

Silberman, I. (2005). Religious violence, terrorism, and peace: A meaning system analysis. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of religion and spirituality (pp. 529–549). New York: Guilford.

Terry, H. (2007). Golden rules and silver rules of humanity: Universal wisdom of civilization. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Whitley, B. Jr. (2009). Religiosity and attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: A meta-analysis. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion19, 21-38.

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.

 References:

Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

The motto of the Council for Secular Humanism is “Beyond atheism.  Beyond agnosticism.  Secular Humanism.”  Yet, the Council for Secular Humanism is just one place beyond nonbelief that atheists and agnostics can go to explore what it means to be a nonbeliever.  Indeed, as Mr. Flynn notes in his RSP interview, despite the increase in the number of people not identifying with a religion, the ranks of the Council for Secular Humanism have not grown.  The newly nonreligious are not going to Secular Humanism for community or intellectual stimulation after exiting from religious belief.  What, then, do the nonreligious find unappealing about Secular Humanism?

Mr. Flynn describes Secular Humanism as a “comprehensive life stance.”  At its core, however, it is simply the exhortation to be good as judged by reason instead of God or gods.  Perhaps the fact that I can use the word “simply” in this context is evidence that the Council for Secular Humanism has been incredibly effective, historically, at changing the conversation around morality, even if it is no longer attracting the nonreligious as members.

One reason that the Council for Secular Humanism has not been effective at gaining new members is that Secular Humanism speaks of process rather than conclusion.  People may be more likely to join a group that has a reached a specific conclusion regarding ethics with which they agree than one which endorses a broad process for reaching ethical decisions.  For example, both atheist libertarian Penn Jillette and atheist liberal P.Z. Meyers probably could agree that reason, science, and free inquiry should be the motivating force behind ethics, but I would be hard pressed to lump their ethical systems together.  Instead, atheists concerned with ethical life seem to join other groups organized around more specific stances, such as the nascent Atheism+ group.  The Council for Secular Humanism produces some excellent material in their magazine Free Inquiry, and they have a significant place in the history of ethical approaches within nonbelief, but it is not obvious what they add to the discussion of morality today.

If nonbelievers aren’t going to the Council for Secular Humanism, where are the nonreligious going?  What nonbelief communities are they joining?  Where do they express and explore their nonbelief?  Well, they have plenty of choices.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to aggressively nonreligious organizations.  In his interview with Mr. Coleman, Mr. Flynn identified one organization that has seen its ranks grow over the past several years: American Atheists.  This organization, with Dave Silverman as President, is the “bad cop” in the nonbeliever ecosystem.  Mr. Silverman aggressively took on Bill O’Reilly and became an Internet meme.  They place controversial billboards across the country.  They are loud and proud and get a lot of media attention.  They have a great name, and a significant media presence, so it is no wonder that they have been growing as the nonbeliever population grows.

It could be that the nonreligious are “going” to science, by which I mean that the nonreligious may be organizing around dedication to a scientific outlook on life, the universe, and everything.  A thriving international network of blogs and podcasts focusing on science and skepticism exists, covering topics from medicine to Bigfoot.  This may reflect a trend in the broader culture.  The idea of science has quite a bit of pop culture cachet – indeed, “science” was just named “2013 Word of the Year” by Merriam-Webster!  Groups dedicated to promoting scientific skepticism, such as the James Randi Educational Foundation, have also experienced some growth.  The JREF’s annual convention has grown year over year in the past decade.  Skepticon, a free convention for skeptics, has also experienced significant growth in its five-year history.  It makes sense that atheists would be drawn to scientific skepticism: my own research suggests that atheists are far more likely to report intellectual reasons for nonbelief than any other emotional, social, intuitive, or experiential reasons for nonbelief.  If this self-report is accurate, then it makes sense that the process that drives people to nonbelief would serve as a source of commonality between nonbelievers.  However, if there’s one thing we know in psychology, it’s that self-report is not always accurate.  It can be hard for individuals to recognize the unconscious factors that lead to their beliefs and actions.  But even if we doubt the veracity of nonbelievers’ self-report, and assume that nonbelief is largely or exclusively due to intuitive, social, emotional, or experiential factors, rather than intellectual factors, the very fact that they perceive themselves (or wish to be perceived) as being influenced by the intellect makes “science” a natural rallying point for nonbelievers.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to the bar.  Much of Mr. Flynn’s analysis focused on large national organizations, but as the stigma of nonbelief begins to subside (though not disappear), more and more nonbelievers may gather together in small local communities.  One manifestation of this is that the nonbeliever could head down to the local bar once a month and enjoy fellowship over a pint of beer.  Or, a nonbeliever could join the atheist church movement, where avowed atheists gather together to sing songs, hear messages of hope and guidance, and build communities much in the same way churches do.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to college.  The Secular Student Alliance, an organization of nonbelief groups on college and high school campuses, has experienced growth, as have other organizations such as Center for Inquiry on Campus.  This makes sense, given that younger cohorts are more likely to be nonreligious than older cohorts (PDF) – 26% of Millennials are nonreligious, compared to only 13% of the Baby Boomer generation.  College is one area, along with the military chaplaincy corps, where Humanism is trying to provide a sense of community and informal counseling that is so appealing to many people about religion.  While on campus, the nonreligious at a handful of colleges may be able to make use of a professional Humanist chaplain just as a Catholic student might be able to make use of a Catholic chaplain for guidance and community.

It could be that the nonreligious are going forward.  I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Christmas (er, “holiday”) season.  This was my eighth Christmas as an atheist, after two decades of observance of the holiday as a Christian.  The Christmas season, for me, is about friends, family, reflection, presents, charity, respite from classes – and Handel’s The Messiah (time for another listen – just to make sure I’m linking to a good recording, of course.  I’ll be back in 2 hours, 30 minutes).  I’m not the only atheist who sees beauty and pleasure in religious music: there is a group of atheists who perform Renaissance-era Christian hymns on the streets of New York City on a regular basis over the past 50 years.

Last – but certainly not least – it could be that the nonreligious are not going anywhere.  Disaffiliation with religion does not imply affiliation with nonbelief.  Many of the religious “nones,” the term used to describe those who do not identify with a religion, have deeply held spiritual, mystical, or New Age beliefs that are antithetical to the values of Secular Humanism and most of the explicitly nonreligious institutions I mentioned above.  It may be no surprise, then, that the steep rise in religious non-affiliation has not resulted in a similarly steep rise in the number of people identifying as explicitly atheist or agnostic.  Others are happy to remain apathetic toward religion – the “apatheists.”

Understanding the diversity of the nonbelief community is where my nascent research focuses.  I am not alone.  The Council for Secular Humanism’s Free Inquiry magazine published an article by Dr. Luke Galen detailing significant differences among nonbelievers.  Dr. Christopher Silver has conducted research exploring the existence of six types of nonbelievers.  As more research is conducted in this area, a clearer picture should start to emerge about who the nonbelievers are and how to meet their different, individual needs.  This information should be useful in helping therapists, policy makers, and nonbelief leaders such as Mr. Flynn understand the people they aim to help serve.

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

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References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special

This week we are delighted to bring you a very special bonus podcast, and a first for the RSP!

The RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special took place during the Dr. Christopher F. Silver and Thomas J. Coleman III for arranging and moderating the panel.

You can also download this audio recording, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes and other podcatchers. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying any of your books, birthday presents, or other paraphernalia.

Psychologists of Religion Coleman ,Streib, Hood, Brandt & Silver

Psychologists of Religion Coleman ,Streib, Hood, Brandt & Silver

Five Lectures on Atheism, Nonreligion, and Secularity, from the NSRN

In partnership with the NSRN (Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network), it is our pleasure to bring you the audio recordings of five very important lectures.

The first is the NSRN Annual Lecture from April 2011, recorded at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham:

The other four are the keynote lectures from the NSRN’s Biennial Conference, recorded at Goldsmiths University, London, in July 2012:

Chris, one of the Religious Studies Project’s (RSP) ‘editors-in-chief’, is also Managing Editor of the NSRN’s website and therefore, when the NSRN wanted to make available some podcasts from recent events, it seemed like a win-win situation for both organizations for the RSP to host and disseminate these podcasts on behalf of the NSRN. These lectures come as part of an extensive series of podcasts from the RSP which touch on the study of non-religion – from our recent roundtable discussion on Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies, to our interviews with Linda Woodhead, Callum Brown, and Lois Lee. We appreciate that not all of our visitors will be particularly interested in this area of research, and for that reason we have released all of these lectures at the same time,and avoided placing them on iTunes. However, we are sure that every listener will find something of interest in these recordings, and wish you happy listening over the ‘Christmas’ period.

For those of you who don’t know the NSRN, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network is an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers founded in 2008 which aims to centralise existing research on the topic of non-religion and secularity and to facilitate discussion in this area. The NSRN run a series of events including their biennial conference and annual lecture series, in addition to maintaining a vibrant website with extensive collection of resources, publications, and listings for teachers and students working in the area of non-religion and secularity.

Due to the lecture style of these recordings, it is somewhat inevitable that the audio quality will be lower than we would like, and that there might be references to PowerPoint presentations or other events happening in the room. However, we know that these will be minor irritations when compared with the stimulating scholarship that you are about to hear, and we are very grateful to the NSRN for working with us to bring you these lectures.

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.

References:

  • 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.

Non-religion

The two concepts of non-religion and secularity are intended to summarise all positions which are necessarily defined in reference to religion but which are considered to be other than religious. […This encapsulates] a range of perspectives and experiences, including the atheistic, agnostic, religiously indifferent or areligious, as well as some forms or aspects of secularism,  humanism and, indeed, religion itself. (Lee 2009)

It is fast becoming a tradition in ‘nonreligion’ research to acknowledge that Colin Campbell’s seminal call in Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971) for a widespread sociological analysis’ of ‘nonreligion’ had until very recently been ignored (Bullivant and Lee 2012). Although there has been a steady stream of output on secularisation, and more recently on atheism, these publications rarely dealt with ‘nonreligion’ as it is ‘actually lived, expressed, or experienced […]in the here and now’ (Zuckerman 2010, viii). One scholar who has been leading the way in theorising and empirically populating this emerging field is Lois Lee, the founding director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, who joins Chris and Ethan in this podcast, recorded in May 2012 in Edinburgh.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Dr Lois Lee is Associate Lecturer in Religious Studies and Sociology at the University of Kent. Her work deals with theories of thought and action in differentiated and highly mediated societies, and her empirical research has focused on British nonreligious and secularist cultures. She is recently completed her doctoral thesis at the University of Cambridge and is currently developing the thesis into a monograph, provisionally titled, Separating Sociologies: Religion, Nonreligion and Secularity in Society and Social Research. She was guest co-editor of a special issue of Journal of Contemporary Religion, entitled  ’Nonreligion and Secularity: New Empirical Perspectives’, with Stephen Bullivant (January 2012). She has publications in (or forthcoming in) the Annual Review of Sociology of Religion, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism and Critique and Humanism, and will contribute to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Atheism (2013). Lois is founding director of the NSRN, the co-editor of its website, co-editor of the journal Secularism and Nonreligion (NSRN and ISSSC), and features editor for the LSE-based journal, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism (Wiley-Blackwell). She lectures and teaches the study of religion (and nonreligion), sociology of religion, social theory of modernity, introduction to sociology, and qualitative social research methods.

Lee’s basic definition of ‘nonreligion’ is ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’ (Lee 2012, 131), yet related to this relatively simple definition are a host of conceptual, methodological and terminological issues. At an individual level, when they are given discrete options, many otherwise ‘non-religious’ individuals will inevitably self-categorise themselves using ‘religious’ labels (for a variety of different reasons, see Day 2011; Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann 2006). However, the labels that individuals utilise are rarely as important as the contexts in which they use them, their motivations for doing so, and the meanings attached to them. When permitted to select multiple (non-)religious identity terms, many welcome the opportunity to articulate multiple identities. Different identities may be enacted in different contexts (Cotter 2011b), and a superficial non-religiosity can mask beliefs and practices sometimes termed ‘spiritual’ by the individual in question. To complicate matters further, people are apt to utilise (non-)religious terminology in situations where their sacred values are (un)consciously called into question, yet for much of the time these sacred values and the associated terminology ‘lie dormant and, as such, invisible’ (Knott 2013).

Institutionally, there are many organisations which can be explicitly labelled as ‘non-religious’, each exhibiting a collection of distinct-yet-interrelated attitudes and emphases (see Pasquale 2010, 66–69; Cimino and Smith 2007, 420–422; Budd 1977, 266), and in which much of what actually happens on the ground is arguably mundane and/or secular. However, the non-religious tend not to join specifically non-religious groups (Bullivant 2008, 364), and it is therefore unclear how representative these groups are likely to be. Other public institutions – such as a museum, a hospital chaplaincy, or a ‘religious’ NGO –  can be similarly ambiguous. ‘Religious’ institutions are utilised by non-religious people for a variety of reasons (Day 2011), and if we attend to the materiality and embodiment of public and private social interactions it becomes clear that a sound, a smell, or the mere presence of another person, can change the sacred, profane or mundane nature of (non-)religious and secular experiences.

The ambiguities described in the previous paragraphs suggest that scholars attempting to engage with non-religion face particular terminological and methodological challenges. Terminologically, it is self-evident that the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ are ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This relationship has led to a situation where the prevalent terminology used to refer to the non-religious in the social science of religion has often been ambiguous, imprecise, and even biased and derogatory (Cragun and Hammer 2011; Cotter 2011b; Pasquale 2007; Lee 2012). Methodologically, there is the attendant risk of constructing non-religion simply through the act of study. By asking questions specifically relating to (non-)religion, studies can exclude the possibility of (non-)religious indifference, whilst religion concurrently ‘serves as a “language” in which many people who may no longer be associated with any religious organisations still choose to express their strongest fears, sorrows, aspirations, joys and wishes’ (Beckford 1999, 25). The researcher must therefore be aware both of the limitations of the narrative interview, and of the different meanings attached to terms in different discourses (Stringer 2013). All of these issues and more are complicated by problems of locating potential research data for all but the most explicit forms of non-religion and by emergent problems in the assessment of religion-equivalent non-religious practices, and, indeed, the appropriateness of doing so (Cotter 2011a; Cotter, Aechtner, and Quack 2012). This interview with Lois Lee addresses these issues and more, and provides a valuable reflexive discussion on what ‘nonreligion’ is, and why we might be interested in studying it from a Religious Studies perspective.

The following quotation from Frank Pasquale serves as a suitable point of conclusion:

The closer people’s worldviews are probed – even among self-described secular or nonreligious individuals – the more difficult it is to neatly place many into the major categories that frame Western discourse on “theism” and “atheism” or “religion” or “irreligion” (2010, 63)

As we are all aware, study of ‘religion’ (and by definition, ‘nonreligion’) generally occurs within a Western, Christianised context which tends to assume a position of normative religiosity, and reify an academically constructed dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’. Whilst this interview (and many ongoing studies) focuses on one side of the ‘religion’-’nonreligion’ dichotomy, ultimately it can be seen as an attempt to ‘argue for the currently unfashionable side of [a] polar opposition, […] to unsettle the assumption that any polarity can properly describe a complex reality’ (Silverman 2007, 144).

Listener’s may also be interested in our previous interview with Callum Brown on Historical Approaches to Losing Religion, and with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis.

References:

  • Beckford, James A. 1999. “The Politics of Defining Religion in Secular Society: From a Taken for Granted Institution to a Contested Resource.” In The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests, ed. Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk, 23–40. Leiden: Brill.
  • Budd, Susan. 1977. Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850-1960. London: Heinemann.
  • Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363–368.
  • Bullivant, Stephen, and Lois Lee. 2012. “Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan.
  • Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. 2007. “Secular Humanism and Atheism Beyond Progressive Secularism.” Sociology of Religion 68 (4): 407–424.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011a. Qualitative Methods Workshop (NSRN Methods for Nonreligion and Secularity Series). NSRN  Events Report Series [online]. NSRN. http://www.nsrn.net/events/events-reports.
  • ———. 2011b. “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students”. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
  • Cotter, Christopher R., Rebecca Aechtner, and Johannes Quack. 2012. Non-Religiosity, Identity, and Ritual Panel Session. Hungarian Culture Foundation, Budapest, Hungary: NSRN. http://nsrn.net/1523-2/.
  • Cragun, R., and J.H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate Is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us About Pro-religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity and Society 35: 159–175.
  • Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review 71 (2) (April): 211–234.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. “The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?” In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2009. “NSRN Website – About”. Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://www.nsrn.co.uk/About.html. (Accessed March 2011)
  • ———. 2012. “Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • Pasquale, Frank L. 2007. “Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect Of.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Tom Flynn, 760–766. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
  • ———. 2010. “A Portrait of Secular Group Affiliates.” In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 43–87. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
  • Silverman, David. 2007. A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Qualitative Research. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE.
  • Stringer, Martin D. 2013. “The Sounds of Silence: Searching for the Religious in Everyday Discourse.” In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Zuckerman, Phil. 2010. “Introduction.” In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, vii–xii. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion

Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2008), may be the best interpreter of environmentalism as a religious project working today.  His latest book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), argues that the constellation of spiritual and naturalistic worldviews which hold nature as sacred can be described as part of a new religious movement, one that might replace traditional religions and help save our planet from ecological disaster.

In the wide-ranging interview for the The Religious Studies Project, Taylor traces the history of the greening of religion, the growth of a naturalistic cosmology based on Darwinian science (that for many has replaced traditional religions like Christianity), the coalescence of a new form of religiosity Taylor dubs “dark green religion,” how conceptualizing this phenomena as religion can be analytically useful, how the narrow-mindedness of new atheists like Richard Dawkins can limit their analyses, and whether dark green religion will transform human culture and the future of life on earth.

In this response, I will focus on a few key points that Taylor makes in the interview, and then offer a brief reflection about his book Dark Green Religion.

In the interview, Taylor begins by critiquing the “greening of religion” hypothesis, which holds that (primarily Western) religions can respond effectively to the environmental crisis by becoming more environmentally-friendly [cf. Roger Gottlieb’s A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (2006)].  For Taylor, it is not clear whether traditional religions like Christianity are actually turning green or whether they are just reflecting the society in which they are situated (as society is becoming more environmentally conscious).  Insufficient evidence exists to support the claim that religion is driving people to become better caretakers of the earth, he claims.  Despite the plethora of optimistic research about the greening of religion, I think Taylor is correct to sound this note of caution in interpreting earth-friendly religions like contemporary liberal Christianities.  Even after greening these religions, the tradition-bound, dominion-theology roots of our ecological crisis will remain.  Still, Taylor should provide a fuller explanation of why this is so.  However, pushing further, I wish Taylor would address the often-uncritical embrace of Eastern and indigenous religions as paragons of environmentalist ideas and practices.  Sometimes the portraits of non-Western religions painted by environmentalists are too rosy, belying complicated relationships with nature that remain underexplored.  For example, many of the dark green religion subjects Taylor discusses in his book do not think critically about the social and physical construction of wilderness, still assuming an idyllic natural state untouched by humans, one granting little to no agency to indigenous populations, as if native peoples leave no footprints.  Taylor could have complicated and improved his analysis by discussing this issue.

Next, tackling the perceived division between science and religion, Taylor discusses three major responses to Darwinian evolution in Western culture: rejecting evolution, grafting an evolutionary worldview onto a religious one (e.g. Catholicism, liberal religions), or embracing atheism and agnosticism.  However, for Taylor, even atheists and agnostics seek meaning and a moral sensibility, often finding them in nature, such as through the mythic meaning-providing aspects of the Darwinian evolutionary narrative.  Many who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious” may fit into this mold, in a more pagan or animistic vein, as might the scores of scientists who use religious rhetoric to describe their findings and experiences in nature.  Even an atheist like James Cameron, the director of Avatar, has deep environmental concerns and passions, such as kinship ethics, a theory of intrinsic value, an awareness of the interdependence of all life on earth, a humble sense of being one species amongst others (even noting cross-species continuities and animal consciousness), and an evolutionist, cosmological narrative of common origins.  Following E. O. Wilson, Taylor argues that kinship ethics, for example, is part of the emotional repertoire of human beings, that spiritualities of fellow-feeling are cross-culturally present across time.  Thus, as Taylor rightly shows, the supposed divide between religion and science—as well as between religion and irreligion—is messier than most commentators allow.

While Richard Dawkins and other so-called new atheists argue that religion is always poisonous, Taylor claims that their narrow view of what constitutes religion occludes from them phenomena that they support and about which they might agree.  Many atheist scholars use romantic language to describe their wonder at nature, for example.  Additionally, atheistic nature spirituality of the sort Taylor describes has wide cultural traction.  Dawkins should ratchet back his anti-religious rhetoric and read more religious studies literature, such as Taylor’s book, thus nuancing his view of religion.  If he did so, Dawkins might find that dark green religion describes his own naturalistic worldview (see Dark Green Religion: 158-160, 177-179).  New atheists should heed Taylor’s call for greater attention to the contested category of religion and to ways in which they may share central convictions with dark green religion.

In an optimistic mood, Taylor maintains that dark green religion is likely to become a global civil religion, especially as we better understand ecological science and our contemporary environmental predicaments.  Dark green religion may not replace traditional religions ultimately, but it could be the small piece upon which we can all agree.  While it is admittedly difficult to predict the future, Taylor claims that we could be in a gestalt period, a world-transformative moment in our religious and cultural life, one in which the fate of our planet hangs in the balance.  For Taylor, it is reasonable to speculate that religions which originated thousands of years ago will be less prevalent thousands of years into the future, and that dark green religion characteristics will be more prevalent than today’s traditional religions.  Although I am not inclined to indulge Taylor’s crystal ball-gazing, it is clear that he describes a major shift in ecological consciousness and spiritual belonging in his latest book, to which I now turn.

Taylor’s extremely well-read survey of contemporary environmentalist nature religiosity, Dark Green Religion, employs literary, ethnographic, and material cultural accounts to chart a global spiritual movement that seeks to protect the earth and reshape humanity’s role in it.  Chapters in the book define what he terms “dark green religion,” portray its historical tributaries and luminaries, analyze radical environmentalist and surfing spiritualities, examine the globalization of dark green religion through documentaries and the arts and sciences, and explore the role of global institutions such as UNESCO and global sustainability summits as they promote dark green religion.  Traits of dark green religion include an awareness of ecological interdependence, spiritualities of connection and belonging, kinship ethics, a sense of the intrinsic value of all life, contact with nature, and an evolutionist cosmogony (83, 149-151).  Throughout the book, Taylor acknowledges the hybridity and bricolage of dark green religion and its various sources and manifestations, noting that pinning it down to any particular creed, person, or institution would over-simplify a complex phenomenon.  Even in defining dark green religion, Taylor is careful to preserve such flexibility as it suits his interpretive purposes (101, 125).  Wary of using other terms that might carry unintended baggage, such as pantheism, deep ecology, or even nature religion [of the sort described by Catherine Albanese in Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (1990)], Taylor acknowledges that his new interpretive category may have limited utility beyond the scope of his book’s arguments (223-224).  In the end, he finds dark green religion to be a global, civic earth religion capable of replacing all other religions and perhaps thereby saving the planet.

One of the strengths of this book is Taylor’s eclecticism, as he draws from many and varied sources to make his argument, pulling quotes from nature writers, magazine ads, nature documentaries, and environmental legislation, for example.  He successfully brings these strands together into a cohesive whole, providing strong evidence for dark green religion’s existence.  He also adroitly explores how naturalistic accounts of the universe can be religious, in a way that moves beyond the claim that science is like religion since it is a totalizing worldview.  As a hybridizing and dynamic religious worldview, dark green religion is evolving and sprouting new forms, a fact that Taylor suggests will help it grow and flourish (185, 189).

Taylor labels dark green religion as “dark” because he wants to show its depth as well as its shadow side, such as elitism and radicalism (e.g. eco-terrorism).  However, he ultimately dismisses the dark side as a fringe that does not represent the mainstream of dark green religion.  This dismissal is unfortunate because it undermines the complexity that Taylor seeks to show, that this religion also has a significant dark side which has resulted in bodily injuries, damaged property, and loss of income.  Moreover, even within environmentalist kinship ethics, troubling choices have to be made, such as those that pit one community’s needs against another’s.  Dark green religion is not a panacea for the world’s problems or for resolving human conflicts.

In its bricolage, dark green religion takes from indigenous spiritualities across the globe and blends them with Western spiritual, cultural, and political ideals.  Taylor fairly represents the appropriation issues at stake, and he also highlights the viewpoints of indigenous peoples in global environmental summits, showing how race and religion become hot buttons within dark green religion.  However, there are also a few places where Taylor and his dark green religion subjects seem to compare apes to indigenous peoples, searching to find our most primitive and commonest characteristics while also raising the status of nonhumans (e.g. 30).  In an evolutionary perspective, comparing people to apes is not necessarily a bad thing, but when only indigenous peoples are compared to apes, then it begins to sound prejudiced.  I would like to hear Taylor’s response to this kind of under-the-surface bias.

The end of the book veers into advocacy of environmentalism and even dark green religion itself, as Taylor claims it can help preserve our planet and our species.  In this vein, he criticizes Christianity and other religions as unable to correct their anthropocentrism; he sees no hope in the greening of religion, instead encouraging readers to embrace the dark green religion he describes (178, 197, 206-207, 218, 221-222, 286).  However, in the book, Taylor needs to provide more evidence as to why other religious worldviews will necessarily fail us, and to engage more fully with Eastern and indigenous religions.  And some readers may question Taylor’s switch from description and analysis to advocacy.

Despite the few quibbles I present here, I admire Taylor’s work greatly.  Although there are many scholars examining nature and religion, few do so as thoroughly and thoughtfully as he does, and no one has presented as convincing a case for a global new religious movement based on environmentalist beliefs and practices.

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

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics.

Bibliography

Albanese, Catherine L. Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Gottlieb, Roger S. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Psychological Approaches to the Study of Religion

In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach.

Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 47.

Psychology of religion involves the application of psychological methods and interpretive frameworks to religious institutions, as well as to individuals of all religious or noreligious persuasions. Last November, Chris had the pleasure of chatting to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi about the psychological approach, how one applies it to the study of religion, and the various challenges and advantages contained therein. This interview was recorded in the heart of New York City, and we can only hope that the ambient noise adds to the character of the interview.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi studied clinical psychology in Israel and the U.S. and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Haifa. He has published extensively in the critical theory of academic psychology with focus on the psychopathology of religion. His books include Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel (1992), Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion: A Critical Assessment (1996) and The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience (1997) with Michael Argyle. He is also author of The Israeli Connection (Pantheon 1987), concerning the Israeli armaments industry, and Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Olive Branch 1993), a counter-mystification of the origins, accomplishments, contradictions, and betrayals of Zionism.

In answer to the question “what can science say about atheism?”, Professor Beit-Hallahmi published the article “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion, and Erica Salomon’s response essay.