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Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

How we can position the study of non-religion within the discipline of Religious Studies? Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Those of you who have been listening to the Religious Studies Project for some time will be somewhat familiar with the emerging sub-field of ‘non-religion’ studies. Perhaps you have listened to our podcast with Lois Lee, the founder of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network, and wanted to know more? Or maybe you have heard Chris’s incessant ‘yes, but what about the ‘ non-religious?’ question in interviews and roundtables and wondered what this all has to do with Religious Studies? Whether or not either of these happened, we hope that you will enjoy this roundtable discussion with Dr Louise Connelly, Christopher Cotter, Dr Frans Jespers, Ethan Quillen, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, and Dr Teemu Taira.

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

At the suggestion of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Chris convened a group of scholars to discuss the study of non-religion within a Religious Studies framework. How do we define non-religion? What does such a demarcation have to offer our discipline? What is the scholar’s role in assigning labels such as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious to individuals or groups who may eschew such labels? Are the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to be considered ‘non-religious’? And why would we even want to use the term ‘non-religion’ anyway? These questions and more form the basis of what became quite a lively discussion.

L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.

 

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, oracademia.edu page for a full CV.

Frans Jespers is associate professor of Science of Religion at the Faculty of Theology of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Frans, please do send a bio when you get a chance – sorry about our lack of information in English!)

 

 

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Redefinition of the eclectic group-identity

In a way, when registering themselves, non-institutional religious groups take a step toward being more institutional and possibly even hierarchical – even if there is not much of hierarchy within the group to begin with.

Redefinition of the eclectic group-identity

By Essi Mäkelä

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 31 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Suzanne Owen on Druidry and the Definition of Religion (29 October 2012).

In the podcast Suzanne Owen refers to the Druidry’s manifold self-identification situation. It seems to me this is a wide-spread phenomenon where there are conflicting ideas about how ‘religion’ should be defined in practice of less institutional groups and more or less eclectic individuals as opposed to what it seems to be in the traditional and institutional context. When written tradition is forced on non-written tradition, conflicts of definition are bound to happen. Druidry is mostly used as a term for a tribute to the ”ancient Druidic ways” that are believed to have been the practice in Britain. The quality of the details is then dependent on how an indivual – or a group – uses this idea of Druidry. Similarly, in Discordianism – a parody at it’s birth – there is an idea of it being a religion since it has a Goddess, a book and so on, but in practice the ideas of freedom and humour as salvation are more important to an individual than what is written about Eris, the Greek goddess of discord (Cusack, 2010; Mäkelä, 2012).

Like in religious devoutness, there are different levels of commitment in the way an ideology or a tradition is used – be it as a religious practice, philosophy or folklorism or something completely different. In my own studies with Discordians, I have come to learn that the use of Discordianism varies from political to philosophical to religious or plain humorous depending on the individual, the time and the place. The membership of the Archibishop of Canterbury in a Druidic society does not necessarily affect the status of Druidry as a religion in itself. For the Archibishop it might indeed not be an individual religion – or an institutional one that would question the so called authority of the Anglican church. For him, Druidry might be more of a traditional and even political practice – as discussed in the podcast – but for other members the definition might be something else. For Druidry, it seems, this is not a problem since it uses the so called eclectic approval of many pagan traditions: an individual does not have to commit to only one tradition at the expense of other traditions. The Anglican Church might have a different policy, but since Druidry – as other pagan traditions – can be used very differently depending on the needs of the individuals, this does not have to be a conflict of terms.

I agree with Owen that instead of trying to define these mixed groups as religion or not, it is more interesting to ask why and in what situations does a group or an individual define their tradition as a religion or something else. Also, it is an interesting concept how these societies come to register themselves as religious charity or religious communities and by doing so, end up writing a sort of definition of their religion that was never before actually official. A Finnish group, called Karhun kansa (”Bear Tribe”), is trying to register themselves as a religious community in Finland. As I write this, the application is still being handled. As with the Druid Network in Britain, Karhun kansa has now given a written definition of their Finnish folk faith tradition. Should they be registered, I believe this definition could end up being more definitive about the whole faith than what, perhaps, the founders of the group had in mind.

In a way, when registering themselves, non-institutional religious groups take a step toward being more institutional and possibly even hierarchical – even if there is not much of hierarchy within the group to begin with. It might be interesting to study these emerging registered group-identities compared to the non-registered groups that claim to follow the same tradition as the registered one – but with a different agenda. Also the individual idea of ‘religion’ as a definition from outside as opposed to the religious or spiritual needs from within could be a subject for a closer analysis in the future. What are some of the individual definitions of ‘religion’ and how often and how closely do they coincide with the concepts defined within the different national registering systems? This could be a good starting point for possible renewal of these registering systems to better suit the needs of these emerging religious community-trends.

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:

Essi Mäkelä, MA, graduated from the University of Helsinki in the summer of 2012. She did her Thesis on Discordianism within the theoretical framework of “liquid religion”. New religious movements are in her special interests. At the moment, among others, she is working on the Finnish translation of the Discordian book Principia Discordia. She is also the author of the Religious Studies Project Feature, Finding religiosity within a parody.

 

 

 

References:

  • Cusack, Carole 2010: Invented Religions – Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, England)
  • Mäkelä, Essi 2012: Parodian ja uskonnon risteyksessä : Notkea uskonto suomalaisten diskordianistien puheessa (Unpublished MA Thesis for the University of Helsinki)

Druidry and the Definition of Religion

Contemporary Druidry often presents itself as the native spirituality of the British Isles. However, there is not one form of Druidry and there are also significant numbers of Christian and atheist Druids as well as those that combine Druidry with Wiccan or other perspectives and practices. From international organisations to local ‘groves’, there are diverse types of Druid groups, as well as lone practitioners. Chris and David are joined this week by Dr Suzanne Owen to talk in-depth about this fascinating subject, and its implications for wider understandings of the category ‘religion’.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Redefinition of the eclectic group identity.

The modern roots of Druidry, detailed in Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe: the History of the Druids in Britain (Yale UP, 2009), began largely with the seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarians who formed various societies and fraternities, some of which still exist. Many features of contemporary Druidry originated with Edward Williams (1747-1826), who took the bardic name Iolo Morganwg and founded the Gorsedd (gathering of Bards). It is difficult to determine a common element between the various groups, though many contemporary Druids recognise awen, the ‘inspiration’ of bards and Druids, and have an interest in trees and tree lore. To find out more, have a listen to the podcast and/or check out some of Suzanne’s publications.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK,  in all aspects of Religious Studies (especially method and theory and south Asian traditions) and researches indigeneity and contemporary indigenous traditions, particularly in North America. She is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD from the University of Edinburgh focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. More recently, she has been researching Druidry and has given papers on this topic in relation to indigeneity or religion at several international conferences, and written the following piece for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which listeners should be interested in: Religion / Not Religion – A Discourse Analysis.

This interview was recorded at the University of Edinburgh in April 2012, and we are very grateful for Suzanne’s help in compiling this post and, of course, for a great interview.

Suzanne and David at the 2012 BASR Conference in Winchester

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.

So What Is Religion Anyway? Power, Belief, the Vestigial State

Editors Note: To contextualise this piece, you may also wish to read Naomi Goldenberg’s post on the Critical Religion blog, entitled Gender and the Vestigial State of Religion.

Prof. Goldenberg’s interview raises as many questions as it answers, in a good way. It seems to square the circle. She puts the topic of “religion” into context by making it disappear — or, to put it less cryptically, she insists that the codes by which we understand religion to be defined, and perhaps “made official”, are in fact no different from any other codes of law. Religion is a force that structures our social world, and so the study of religions is necessarily the study of politics. The division between church and state is arbitrary: religion is politics.

A religion is a vestigial state because it can do many of the same things a modern, functioning state does. Depending on the situation, it might provide an identity, govern behaviour, apportion powers, legitimate violence — in short, structure the community that belongs to it. Prof. Goldenberg underlines very strongly that she is looking at religion in terms of its impact on, and presence in, ordinary people’s lives.

Her caution around her own term ‘vestigial state’, and indeed ‘religion’, reflects a classically Feminist position. She endorses the evidence first and the terminology second. This should also make sense to those for whom religion is real: those who respect the fact that religion, however we understand that term, plays a very strong role in shaping our life and customs. This is especially important for the regularly oppressed category of women. I am reminded of work by Sally Haslanger, who looks at another tricky word, ‘gender’, and considers it to be a social class [article].

Prof. Goldenberg’s insistence on a functional view of religion, a perspective that describes it in terms of its role, also suggests a point of view very different from that of a classical believer. If religion is part of culture, and culture is a tool that we use, then religion is also a tool. God, and the series of texts that explain him, serves us — not the other way around. This is what might be described as a focal analysis — again, comparable to Prof. Haslanger’s work in describing gender.

It might be unnerving for some to understand the subtext to Prof. Goldenberg’s statement that this does not do away with the concept of God because every state, she suspects, probably depends on some sort of abstraction. What we are asked to consider is a spectrum of cultures, practices, organizations, each with their own abstraction — perhaps the identity of a people, perhaps “America”, perhaps God, to give three examples — that the population reveres. From an Abrahamic prespective, it might well be peculiar to see it suggested that God might be not separate, not ‘special’, but rather a particular version of a range of abstractions that exist or have existed in every society.

The suggestion of a range of God-concepts – perhaps a multidimensional range or field – is an appealing one for students of human nature. At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg wants us to consider historical contingency very carefully.  When our focus is so practical, so earthbound and concerned with everyday people and experiences, we suddenly realize that everyday experience is very different for different times, places, people. The statement might seem banal until we realize that, as Prof. Goldenberg reminds us, ‘religion’ as a term of argument is a confused, unstable, even incoherent category. We will discover, if we compare (for example) Roman ritual beliefs with Medieval Christianity with modern Islam with contemporary Buddhism, that each of these — cultures? Belief systems? — does many things for the people who espouse them, but that those many things are never identical from one “religion” to another, and certainly not one time to another.

These ideas seem to strike a chord with certain developments from literary theory. Consider, for example, how she highlights the need for scholars in religious studies (indeed, perhaps, any field of cultural studies) to remember the constructed nature of our tools. We should always remember that our ideas are never truly independent from their makers. This reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s suggestion that we should consider “la structuralité d’une structure”, the quality that a framework has of creating relationships. A conceptual framework becomes a differential field, of differential meanings, with both local and general biases.

At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg’s focus on how these structuralities can produce bitter consequences for living people – again, women in particular – is a much more direct, and serious, attitude towards the subject than Derrida’s playfulness. She seems to be closer in spirit to Eve Sedgwick, who reminds us that power in culture is often filtered through a series of systems, codes, and different bodies of law, present and struggling at the same time (Sedgwick 1991: 46-47). Sedgwick discusses concepts regarding another ill-defined concept, ‘sexuality’. She observes that recent scholarship concerning sexuality has, in her view, done away with many outmoded concepts and definitions of it. However, she also reminds us that these ‘outmoded’ concepts are both popularly held by many, and a constitutive force in many jurisdictions, including the one she lives in (North Carolina in the early 1990s, for that text). Her humanitarian crique is very comparable with Goldenberg’s enquiry into ‘religion’, which focuses on effect rather than justification or truth (claimed or otherwise).

The question of terminology lingers over this discussion. ‘Vestigial’ does imply a negative teleology, a dwindling, which seems to be at odds with religion’s continuing influence in culture. ‘Once and future’ also fits ill, given that religion is effective now, if only to a degree. ‘Partial state’? This suggests that every state needs a religion. Given the breadth of possible definitions of religion this seems to be true, but the simplicity of that formula looks too risky – too prone to abuse if it were applied to the material world.

I like the term ‘metastate’. Religion can provide a narrative that justifies a power system – so, by extension, it is about a state as well as constituting one. The etymological root meanings of ‘adjacent’ and ‘beyond’ also appeal, although this might reflect my own bias as a Westerner. I am used to a culture with several sets of partially-integrated rules.

Whatever term proves to work best, there is no escaping the force of Prof. Goldenberg’s suggestion that religion fundamentally is about power. If we can agree that religion is the combination of power and belief, we will have her to thank for helping us pin down this evasive, volatile concept.

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.

 

References

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” 1966. Trans. Alan Bass.            Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Ed. David Lodge. Rev. ed. Harlow: Longman, 1997. 108-23.

Haslanger, Sally.Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?The Philosopher’s Annual 23 (2000). 2 Nov 2007.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Weatsheaf, 1991.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment

The South Fork Dam once stood high above the city of Johnstown Pennsylvania, erected to supply water to one of the many canal systems that made up the early American interstate trade route.  Purchased by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing club in 1881, the massive body of water behind the dam, Lake Conemaugh, was made part of an exclusive mountain resort for the wealthy from nearby Pittsburgh.  Over the next eight years frequent inspections found the South Fork Dam to have many foundational flaws, as well as a number of recurring surface cracks.  With gilded aesthetics in mind these cracks were mended by rudimentary patchwork, a temporary slathering of mud and straw.  On the rainy afternoon of May 31st, 1889 the dam melted under the pressure of the swelling lake, releasing a surging wall of water onto the city below.  By the time the water receded 2,209 people had perished in one of the worst “natural” disasters in US history.

As anecdotes go, this is a pretty good one.  The impudence of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club contributed to the idea that by solving surface issues with a little patchwork the real problem at the foundation would equally be resolved.  In the field of academia we come across this sort of logic quite regularly; more so, it seems, in the category of religious studies.

Sean Bean as Odysseus in the movie ‘Troy’

It seems fair to say that ours is a rather dangerous vocation, not dangerous in the way a dam keeper’s job might be dangerous on an afternoon of heavy rain, but dangerous in that we bravely tread the waters of humanity’s inner-most sacred beliefs and practices.  This is not a gentle sea by any means.  Tempests rise up unexpectedly, detouring our crossing with tangential distractions—much like those which plagued that long adrift Greek hero, Odysseus.  Like him, we too seem impassioned to return to something genuine and practical, longing to once again stand on familiar soil; and we are ever creative in our ways of doing so.

Recently, Professor Jay Demerath took up such a challenge, which formed the basis for his interview with Chris Cotter.  Promoting the replacement of the ambiguous term “religion” with the functional term “sacred,” Demerath’s novel approach at interpreting that which stands out against the profane or secular comes with two critical issues: definition and application.

Definition

Demerath originally proposed this turn from “religion” to “sacred” in his deliberately misquoted “Varieties of Sacred Experience,” nominally linking his amended term with the foundations of religious studies in William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  This calculated revision brings Demerath’s proposition into the context of debate between experience and belief as designated by the modern ambiguity of “religion” and his novelized sobriquet, “sacred.”  As he states, “religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred,” (Demerath 2000) and that the ambiguity which anchors itself to the definition of religion can easily be weighed by defining it substantively, while interpreting its consequences, “the sacred,” functionally.  This is a methodological proposition which focuses not on the encompassing importance of “religion” but rather on what it is that individuals—or groups—take to be “sacred.”  By divesting religion and sacred between substantive and functionalist, assigning “religion” to the “category of activity” and seeing the “sacred” as a “statement of function” both terms seem to work in their application

This is further demonstrated in his polythetic method of deciphering that which individuals and social groups set apart as being “sacred.”  In the interview, when asked how sociologists navigate the ambiguity of what is sacred or not, he suggests a sort of polythetic taxonomy when it comes to deciphering what is sacred to the people under examination.  By developing a “kind of a checklist of behaviors that are associated with what might be a sacred commitment,” such as is found in certain categorical methodologies (Saler 1993, Smith 1996, Smart 1997), he believes we can properly decipher what “people do, what they don’t do, what they believe, what they don’t believe, what they observe and don’t observe.”  Furthermore, this alludes to a stipulation of terms, rather than a dependence on real definitions (Baird 1971).  Both techniques reveal a method which assists us in accessing the “priority” of the religious person’s “commitments, the commitments in their life, and the convictions in their life.” (Demerath 2012).

However, Demerath is also navigating very dangerous waters here, steering between narrow straights where on one side awaits the swirling temptress of a definition of religion, and on the other the horrifically multifaceted monster of misapplication.  For example, if removed from his sociological context, how does his term “sacred” differ from that of “religious?”  One of the advantages with stipulative definitions is that they must be anchored to a particular study, the borders of which Demerath’s proposition seems to push against.  Consider if we categorically formed a stipulative interpretation of the traditional term “religious” as pertaining to the consequences of the practitioner’s “religion,” would we not be able to equally balance out the ambiguity found in “religion?”  Would using a stipulated interpretation of “religious” as the function of a person acting under the substantive form of “religion” not be the same?  While Demerath responds to a similar question in the interview by legitimating his use of the “sacred” as something that does not need to transcend our world to some other-worldly deity, he is limiting himself to a “definition” of religion devoted to a transcendental relationship between man and deity.  This seems, again, a difference between “religion” and “religious” as equally as it pertains to the difference between “religion” and the “sacred.”  This is an issue of definition and application.  Where his turn from the sociology of religion to the sociology of the sacred succeeds and fails is within this issue.  By pushing against these borders his stipulation begins to sink into the periphery of real definition.  Fortunately he saves himself with the life-raft of an applicative example.

Application

Ethan

Ethan Quillen

The decision of United States vs. Seeger is about as close to a “definition” of religion the United States Supreme Court is legally allowed to make.  The disestablishment clause of the 1st Amendment—Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion—is a collection of ten words which make the United States exceptional to religiously established nations such as England and Scotland.  It also creates quite the conundrum when cases like these come to the Court’s attention.  The Seeger case did not occur ex nihilo, but was rather the result of the decisions in Everson vs. Board and Torcaso vs. Watkins, steps made by the court over twenty years of social and political change in a country seeking an umbrellic identity between the end of World War II and the turbulent second half of a decade that saw the assassination of John F. Kennedy at one end, and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon at the other.

This brief circumnavigation speaks directly to Demerath’s application of the term sacred.  When seen through the lens of American legal amendments, wherein the “belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes,” and a religious “faith in a purely ethical creed” amounts to a “a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God,” what is construed as “sacred,” the “ultimate concern” may seem counter to even the most liberal applications of “religion.” (U.S. vs. Seeger)  By amending the qualifications of article 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act to accommodate Daniel Seeger’s philosophical views, the function of Tillich’s substantive definition, as accepted by the Court as a standard by which to measure the religiousness of the individual, “religious” and “sacred” become stipulative suggestions, pliable by what might justify a sacred belief.  Thus, in a nation devoted to a sense of individual sacralization, the nation of Sheilaism (Bellah et al.), Demerath’s reassignment of transcendental “religion” with “sacred” seems justified.

Conclusion

While the legitimation of his using “sacred” rather than “religion” seems justified in the above sample, it still seems a patchwork fix rather than a foundational repair.  It should be said, though, that this is not so much a critique of Demerath’s thesis, but of the idea in promoting a new term as the replacement of an old one.  Perhaps this is due to the definitive style it seems to imply at the suggestion of “sacred studies” rather than “religious studies.”  New terms are not always the best way to fix a foundational issue such as the ambiguity of “religion” in a global context.  Instead, we would benefit far greater by digging up and unpacking what we mean by terms when studying the practitioners who make them sacred in specific contexts.  The stipulation of an established, utilitarian term like “religious” to mean the actions of individuals seeking what they deem foundationally sacred relieves the pressures of ambiguity just as equally as “sacred,” especially because of its relationship and differentiation from “religion.”  Perhaps a good argument against Demerath’s contextual use of “sacred” might be a change from the “sociology of religion” to the “sociology of the religious.”

Definitions of religion seem the ever-widening Charybdis in the field of religious studies—in all its forms.  In our contemporary world we tend to find ourselves more absent-mindedly sailing toward the yawning mouth of that swirling vortex known as “a definition of religion.”  We need to be cautious with the application of new terms.  We seem too often prone to kneejerk patchwork, slathering layer upon layer of temporary fixes, either impudent in our knowledge of foundational issues, or victims of deep denial.  We long to resolve ambiguity by applying more ambiguity, when we should just dig up the foundation and rebuild.  These waters are dangerous, and without precaution we appear more and more drawn into the riptide of circular academia where, once swallowed up, we run the risk of drowning in a sea of uncertainty.

References and Suggested Reading

  • Robert D. Baird.  Category Formations and the History of Religions.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah.  Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah, et al.  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • James L. Cox.  “Afterword: Separating Religion from the ‘Sacred:’ Methodological Agnosticism and the Future of Religious Studies” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Jay Demerath.  “The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove” in the Journal for theScientific Study of Religion, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000.
  • ———.   “Defining Religion and Modifying Religious “Bodies:” Secularizing the Sacred and Sacralizing the Secular” in Phil Zuckerman, ed.  Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.
  • ———. Religious Studies Project Interview with Jay Demerath on Substantive Religion and the Functionalist Sacred (12 March 2012).
  • David McCullough. The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating “Natural” Disasters America has Ever Known. NewYork: Touchstone, 1987.
  • Ethan Gjerset Quillen, 2011. Rejecting the Definitive: A Contextual Examination of Three Historical Stages of Atheism and the Legality of an American Freedom from Religion.  MA Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
  • Bensor Saler.  Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories.  New York: E.J. Brill, 1993.
  • Ninian Smart.  Dimensions of the Sacred: Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs.  New York: Fontana Press, 1997.
  • Jonathan Z. Smith  “A Matter of Class: Taxonomies of Religion” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, 1996.
  • Terence Thomas.  “‘The Sacred’ as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
  • United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)
  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)

Podcasts

Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

How we can position the study of non-religion within the discipline of Religious Studies? Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Those of you who have been listening to the Religious Studies Project for some time will be somewhat familiar with the emerging sub-field of ‘non-religion’ studies. Perhaps you have listened to our podcast with Lois Lee, the founder of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network, and wanted to know more? Or maybe you have heard Chris’s incessant ‘yes, but what about the ‘ non-religious?’ question in interviews and roundtables and wondered what this all has to do with Religious Studies? Whether or not either of these happened, we hope that you will enjoy this roundtable discussion with Dr Louise Connelly, Christopher Cotter, Dr Frans Jespers, Ethan Quillen, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, and Dr Teemu Taira.

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

At the suggestion of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Chris convened a group of scholars to discuss the study of non-religion within a Religious Studies framework. How do we define non-religion? What does such a demarcation have to offer our discipline? What is the scholar’s role in assigning labels such as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious to individuals or groups who may eschew such labels? Are the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to be considered ‘non-religious’? And why would we even want to use the term ‘non-religion’ anyway? These questions and more form the basis of what became quite a lively discussion.

L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.

 

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, oracademia.edu page for a full CV.

Frans Jespers is associate professor of Science of Religion at the Faculty of Theology of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Frans, please do send a bio when you get a chance – sorry about our lack of information in English!)

 

 

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Redefinition of the eclectic group-identity

In a way, when registering themselves, non-institutional religious groups take a step toward being more institutional and possibly even hierarchical – even if there is not much of hierarchy within the group to begin with.

Redefinition of the eclectic group-identity

By Essi Mäkelä

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 31 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Suzanne Owen on Druidry and the Definition of Religion (29 October 2012).

In the podcast Suzanne Owen refers to the Druidry’s manifold self-identification situation. It seems to me this is a wide-spread phenomenon where there are conflicting ideas about how ‘religion’ should be defined in practice of less institutional groups and more or less eclectic individuals as opposed to what it seems to be in the traditional and institutional context. When written tradition is forced on non-written tradition, conflicts of definition are bound to happen. Druidry is mostly used as a term for a tribute to the ”ancient Druidic ways” that are believed to have been the practice in Britain. The quality of the details is then dependent on how an indivual – or a group – uses this idea of Druidry. Similarly, in Discordianism – a parody at it’s birth – there is an idea of it being a religion since it has a Goddess, a book and so on, but in practice the ideas of freedom and humour as salvation are more important to an individual than what is written about Eris, the Greek goddess of discord (Cusack, 2010; Mäkelä, 2012).

Like in religious devoutness, there are different levels of commitment in the way an ideology or a tradition is used – be it as a religious practice, philosophy or folklorism or something completely different. In my own studies with Discordians, I have come to learn that the use of Discordianism varies from political to philosophical to religious or plain humorous depending on the individual, the time and the place. The membership of the Archibishop of Canterbury in a Druidic society does not necessarily affect the status of Druidry as a religion in itself. For the Archibishop it might indeed not be an individual religion – or an institutional one that would question the so called authority of the Anglican church. For him, Druidry might be more of a traditional and even political practice – as discussed in the podcast – but for other members the definition might be something else. For Druidry, it seems, this is not a problem since it uses the so called eclectic approval of many pagan traditions: an individual does not have to commit to only one tradition at the expense of other traditions. The Anglican Church might have a different policy, but since Druidry – as other pagan traditions – can be used very differently depending on the needs of the individuals, this does not have to be a conflict of terms.

I agree with Owen that instead of trying to define these mixed groups as religion or not, it is more interesting to ask why and in what situations does a group or an individual define their tradition as a religion or something else. Also, it is an interesting concept how these societies come to register themselves as religious charity or religious communities and by doing so, end up writing a sort of definition of their religion that was never before actually official. A Finnish group, called Karhun kansa (”Bear Tribe”), is trying to register themselves as a religious community in Finland. As I write this, the application is still being handled. As with the Druid Network in Britain, Karhun kansa has now given a written definition of their Finnish folk faith tradition. Should they be registered, I believe this definition could end up being more definitive about the whole faith than what, perhaps, the founders of the group had in mind.

In a way, when registering themselves, non-institutional religious groups take a step toward being more institutional and possibly even hierarchical – even if there is not much of hierarchy within the group to begin with. It might be interesting to study these emerging registered group-identities compared to the non-registered groups that claim to follow the same tradition as the registered one – but with a different agenda. Also the individual idea of ‘religion’ as a definition from outside as opposed to the religious or spiritual needs from within could be a subject for a closer analysis in the future. What are some of the individual definitions of ‘religion’ and how often and how closely do they coincide with the concepts defined within the different national registering systems? This could be a good starting point for possible renewal of these registering systems to better suit the needs of these emerging religious community-trends.

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:

Essi Mäkelä, MA, graduated from the University of Helsinki in the summer of 2012. She did her Thesis on Discordianism within the theoretical framework of “liquid religion”. New religious movements are in her special interests. At the moment, among others, she is working on the Finnish translation of the Discordian book Principia Discordia. She is also the author of the Religious Studies Project Feature, Finding religiosity within a parody.

 

 

 

References:

  • Cusack, Carole 2010: Invented Religions – Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, England)
  • Mäkelä, Essi 2012: Parodian ja uskonnon risteyksessä : Notkea uskonto suomalaisten diskordianistien puheessa (Unpublished MA Thesis for the University of Helsinki)

Druidry and the Definition of Religion

Contemporary Druidry often presents itself as the native spirituality of the British Isles. However, there is not one form of Druidry and there are also significant numbers of Christian and atheist Druids as well as those that combine Druidry with Wiccan or other perspectives and practices. From international organisations to local ‘groves’, there are diverse types of Druid groups, as well as lone practitioners. Chris and David are joined this week by Dr Suzanne Owen to talk in-depth about this fascinating subject, and its implications for wider understandings of the category ‘religion’.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Redefinition of the eclectic group identity.

The modern roots of Druidry, detailed in Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe: the History of the Druids in Britain (Yale UP, 2009), began largely with the seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarians who formed various societies and fraternities, some of which still exist. Many features of contemporary Druidry originated with Edward Williams (1747-1826), who took the bardic name Iolo Morganwg and founded the Gorsedd (gathering of Bards). It is difficult to determine a common element between the various groups, though many contemporary Druids recognise awen, the ‘inspiration’ of bards and Druids, and have an interest in trees and tree lore. To find out more, have a listen to the podcast and/or check out some of Suzanne’s publications.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK,  in all aspects of Religious Studies (especially method and theory and south Asian traditions) and researches indigeneity and contemporary indigenous traditions, particularly in North America. She is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD from the University of Edinburgh focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. More recently, she has been researching Druidry and has given papers on this topic in relation to indigeneity or religion at several international conferences, and written the following piece for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which listeners should be interested in: Religion / Not Religion – A Discourse Analysis.

This interview was recorded at the University of Edinburgh in April 2012, and we are very grateful for Suzanne’s help in compiling this post and, of course, for a great interview.

Suzanne and David at the 2012 BASR Conference in Winchester

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.

So What Is Religion Anyway? Power, Belief, the Vestigial State

Editors Note: To contextualise this piece, you may also wish to read Naomi Goldenberg’s post on the Critical Religion blog, entitled Gender and the Vestigial State of Religion.

Prof. Goldenberg’s interview raises as many questions as it answers, in a good way. It seems to square the circle. She puts the topic of “religion” into context by making it disappear — or, to put it less cryptically, she insists that the codes by which we understand religion to be defined, and perhaps “made official”, are in fact no different from any other codes of law. Religion is a force that structures our social world, and so the study of religions is necessarily the study of politics. The division between church and state is arbitrary: religion is politics.

A religion is a vestigial state because it can do many of the same things a modern, functioning state does. Depending on the situation, it might provide an identity, govern behaviour, apportion powers, legitimate violence — in short, structure the community that belongs to it. Prof. Goldenberg underlines very strongly that she is looking at religion in terms of its impact on, and presence in, ordinary people’s lives.

Her caution around her own term ‘vestigial state’, and indeed ‘religion’, reflects a classically Feminist position. She endorses the evidence first and the terminology second. This should also make sense to those for whom religion is real: those who respect the fact that religion, however we understand that term, plays a very strong role in shaping our life and customs. This is especially important for the regularly oppressed category of women. I am reminded of work by Sally Haslanger, who looks at another tricky word, ‘gender’, and considers it to be a social class [article].

Prof. Goldenberg’s insistence on a functional view of religion, a perspective that describes it in terms of its role, also suggests a point of view very different from that of a classical believer. If religion is part of culture, and culture is a tool that we use, then religion is also a tool. God, and the series of texts that explain him, serves us — not the other way around. This is what might be described as a focal analysis — again, comparable to Prof. Haslanger’s work in describing gender.

It might be unnerving for some to understand the subtext to Prof. Goldenberg’s statement that this does not do away with the concept of God because every state, she suspects, probably depends on some sort of abstraction. What we are asked to consider is a spectrum of cultures, practices, organizations, each with their own abstraction — perhaps the identity of a people, perhaps “America”, perhaps God, to give three examples — that the population reveres. From an Abrahamic prespective, it might well be peculiar to see it suggested that God might be not separate, not ‘special’, but rather a particular version of a range of abstractions that exist or have existed in every society.

The suggestion of a range of God-concepts – perhaps a multidimensional range or field – is an appealing one for students of human nature. At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg wants us to consider historical contingency very carefully.  When our focus is so practical, so earthbound and concerned with everyday people and experiences, we suddenly realize that everyday experience is very different for different times, places, people. The statement might seem banal until we realize that, as Prof. Goldenberg reminds us, ‘religion’ as a term of argument is a confused, unstable, even incoherent category. We will discover, if we compare (for example) Roman ritual beliefs with Medieval Christianity with modern Islam with contemporary Buddhism, that each of these — cultures? Belief systems? — does many things for the people who espouse them, but that those many things are never identical from one “religion” to another, and certainly not one time to another.

These ideas seem to strike a chord with certain developments from literary theory. Consider, for example, how she highlights the need for scholars in religious studies (indeed, perhaps, any field of cultural studies) to remember the constructed nature of our tools. We should always remember that our ideas are never truly independent from their makers. This reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s suggestion that we should consider “la structuralité d’une structure”, the quality that a framework has of creating relationships. A conceptual framework becomes a differential field, of differential meanings, with both local and general biases.

At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg’s focus on how these structuralities can produce bitter consequences for living people – again, women in particular – is a much more direct, and serious, attitude towards the subject than Derrida’s playfulness. She seems to be closer in spirit to Eve Sedgwick, who reminds us that power in culture is often filtered through a series of systems, codes, and different bodies of law, present and struggling at the same time (Sedgwick 1991: 46-47). Sedgwick discusses concepts regarding another ill-defined concept, ‘sexuality’. She observes that recent scholarship concerning sexuality has, in her view, done away with many outmoded concepts and definitions of it. However, she also reminds us that these ‘outmoded’ concepts are both popularly held by many, and a constitutive force in many jurisdictions, including the one she lives in (North Carolina in the early 1990s, for that text). Her humanitarian crique is very comparable with Goldenberg’s enquiry into ‘religion’, which focuses on effect rather than justification or truth (claimed or otherwise).

The question of terminology lingers over this discussion. ‘Vestigial’ does imply a negative teleology, a dwindling, which seems to be at odds with religion’s continuing influence in culture. ‘Once and future’ also fits ill, given that religion is effective now, if only to a degree. ‘Partial state’? This suggests that every state needs a religion. Given the breadth of possible definitions of religion this seems to be true, but the simplicity of that formula looks too risky – too prone to abuse if it were applied to the material world.

I like the term ‘metastate’. Religion can provide a narrative that justifies a power system – so, by extension, it is about a state as well as constituting one. The etymological root meanings of ‘adjacent’ and ‘beyond’ also appeal, although this might reflect my own bias as a Westerner. I am used to a culture with several sets of partially-integrated rules.

Whatever term proves to work best, there is no escaping the force of Prof. Goldenberg’s suggestion that religion fundamentally is about power. If we can agree that religion is the combination of power and belief, we will have her to thank for helping us pin down this evasive, volatile concept.

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.

 

References

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” 1966. Trans. Alan Bass.            Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Ed. David Lodge. Rev. ed. Harlow: Longman, 1997. 108-23.

Haslanger, Sally.Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?The Philosopher’s Annual 23 (2000). 2 Nov 2007.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Weatsheaf, 1991.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment

The South Fork Dam once stood high above the city of Johnstown Pennsylvania, erected to supply water to one of the many canal systems that made up the early American interstate trade route.  Purchased by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing club in 1881, the massive body of water behind the dam, Lake Conemaugh, was made part of an exclusive mountain resort for the wealthy from nearby Pittsburgh.  Over the next eight years frequent inspections found the South Fork Dam to have many foundational flaws, as well as a number of recurring surface cracks.  With gilded aesthetics in mind these cracks were mended by rudimentary patchwork, a temporary slathering of mud and straw.  On the rainy afternoon of May 31st, 1889 the dam melted under the pressure of the swelling lake, releasing a surging wall of water onto the city below.  By the time the water receded 2,209 people had perished in one of the worst “natural” disasters in US history.

As anecdotes go, this is a pretty good one.  The impudence of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club contributed to the idea that by solving surface issues with a little patchwork the real problem at the foundation would equally be resolved.  In the field of academia we come across this sort of logic quite regularly; more so, it seems, in the category of religious studies.

Sean Bean as Odysseus in the movie ‘Troy’

It seems fair to say that ours is a rather dangerous vocation, not dangerous in the way a dam keeper’s job might be dangerous on an afternoon of heavy rain, but dangerous in that we bravely tread the waters of humanity’s inner-most sacred beliefs and practices.  This is not a gentle sea by any means.  Tempests rise up unexpectedly, detouring our crossing with tangential distractions—much like those which plagued that long adrift Greek hero, Odysseus.  Like him, we too seem impassioned to return to something genuine and practical, longing to once again stand on familiar soil; and we are ever creative in our ways of doing so.

Recently, Professor Jay Demerath took up such a challenge, which formed the basis for his interview with Chris Cotter.  Promoting the replacement of the ambiguous term “religion” with the functional term “sacred,” Demerath’s novel approach at interpreting that which stands out against the profane or secular comes with two critical issues: definition and application.

Definition

Demerath originally proposed this turn from “religion” to “sacred” in his deliberately misquoted “Varieties of Sacred Experience,” nominally linking his amended term with the foundations of religious studies in William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  This calculated revision brings Demerath’s proposition into the context of debate between experience and belief as designated by the modern ambiguity of “religion” and his novelized sobriquet, “sacred.”  As he states, “religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred,” (Demerath 2000) and that the ambiguity which anchors itself to the definition of religion can easily be weighed by defining it substantively, while interpreting its consequences, “the sacred,” functionally.  This is a methodological proposition which focuses not on the encompassing importance of “religion” but rather on what it is that individuals—or groups—take to be “sacred.”  By divesting religion and sacred between substantive and functionalist, assigning “religion” to the “category of activity” and seeing the “sacred” as a “statement of function” both terms seem to work in their application

This is further demonstrated in his polythetic method of deciphering that which individuals and social groups set apart as being “sacred.”  In the interview, when asked how sociologists navigate the ambiguity of what is sacred or not, he suggests a sort of polythetic taxonomy when it comes to deciphering what is sacred to the people under examination.  By developing a “kind of a checklist of behaviors that are associated with what might be a sacred commitment,” such as is found in certain categorical methodologies (Saler 1993, Smith 1996, Smart 1997), he believes we can properly decipher what “people do, what they don’t do, what they believe, what they don’t believe, what they observe and don’t observe.”  Furthermore, this alludes to a stipulation of terms, rather than a dependence on real definitions (Baird 1971).  Both techniques reveal a method which assists us in accessing the “priority” of the religious person’s “commitments, the commitments in their life, and the convictions in their life.” (Demerath 2012).

However, Demerath is also navigating very dangerous waters here, steering between narrow straights where on one side awaits the swirling temptress of a definition of religion, and on the other the horrifically multifaceted monster of misapplication.  For example, if removed from his sociological context, how does his term “sacred” differ from that of “religious?”  One of the advantages with stipulative definitions is that they must be anchored to a particular study, the borders of which Demerath’s proposition seems to push against.  Consider if we categorically formed a stipulative interpretation of the traditional term “religious” as pertaining to the consequences of the practitioner’s “religion,” would we not be able to equally balance out the ambiguity found in “religion?”  Would using a stipulated interpretation of “religious” as the function of a person acting under the substantive form of “religion” not be the same?  While Demerath responds to a similar question in the interview by legitimating his use of the “sacred” as something that does not need to transcend our world to some other-worldly deity, he is limiting himself to a “definition” of religion devoted to a transcendental relationship between man and deity.  This seems, again, a difference between “religion” and “religious” as equally as it pertains to the difference between “religion” and the “sacred.”  This is an issue of definition and application.  Where his turn from the sociology of religion to the sociology of the sacred succeeds and fails is within this issue.  By pushing against these borders his stipulation begins to sink into the periphery of real definition.  Fortunately he saves himself with the life-raft of an applicative example.

Application

Ethan

Ethan Quillen

The decision of United States vs. Seeger is about as close to a “definition” of religion the United States Supreme Court is legally allowed to make.  The disestablishment clause of the 1st Amendment—Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion—is a collection of ten words which make the United States exceptional to religiously established nations such as England and Scotland.  It also creates quite the conundrum when cases like these come to the Court’s attention.  The Seeger case did not occur ex nihilo, but was rather the result of the decisions in Everson vs. Board and Torcaso vs. Watkins, steps made by the court over twenty years of social and political change in a country seeking an umbrellic identity between the end of World War II and the turbulent second half of a decade that saw the assassination of John F. Kennedy at one end, and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon at the other.

This brief circumnavigation speaks directly to Demerath’s application of the term sacred.  When seen through the lens of American legal amendments, wherein the “belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes,” and a religious “faith in a purely ethical creed” amounts to a “a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God,” what is construed as “sacred,” the “ultimate concern” may seem counter to even the most liberal applications of “religion.” (U.S. vs. Seeger)  By amending the qualifications of article 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act to accommodate Daniel Seeger’s philosophical views, the function of Tillich’s substantive definition, as accepted by the Court as a standard by which to measure the religiousness of the individual, “religious” and “sacred” become stipulative suggestions, pliable by what might justify a sacred belief.  Thus, in a nation devoted to a sense of individual sacralization, the nation of Sheilaism (Bellah et al.), Demerath’s reassignment of transcendental “religion” with “sacred” seems justified.

Conclusion

While the legitimation of his using “sacred” rather than “religion” seems justified in the above sample, it still seems a patchwork fix rather than a foundational repair.  It should be said, though, that this is not so much a critique of Demerath’s thesis, but of the idea in promoting a new term as the replacement of an old one.  Perhaps this is due to the definitive style it seems to imply at the suggestion of “sacred studies” rather than “religious studies.”  New terms are not always the best way to fix a foundational issue such as the ambiguity of “religion” in a global context.  Instead, we would benefit far greater by digging up and unpacking what we mean by terms when studying the practitioners who make them sacred in specific contexts.  The stipulation of an established, utilitarian term like “religious” to mean the actions of individuals seeking what they deem foundationally sacred relieves the pressures of ambiguity just as equally as “sacred,” especially because of its relationship and differentiation from “religion.”  Perhaps a good argument against Demerath’s contextual use of “sacred” might be a change from the “sociology of religion” to the “sociology of the religious.”

Definitions of religion seem the ever-widening Charybdis in the field of religious studies—in all its forms.  In our contemporary world we tend to find ourselves more absent-mindedly sailing toward the yawning mouth of that swirling vortex known as “a definition of religion.”  We need to be cautious with the application of new terms.  We seem too often prone to kneejerk patchwork, slathering layer upon layer of temporary fixes, either impudent in our knowledge of foundational issues, or victims of deep denial.  We long to resolve ambiguity by applying more ambiguity, when we should just dig up the foundation and rebuild.  These waters are dangerous, and without precaution we appear more and more drawn into the riptide of circular academia where, once swallowed up, we run the risk of drowning in a sea of uncertainty.

References and Suggested Reading

  • Robert D. Baird.  Category Formations and the History of Religions.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah.  Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah, et al.  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • James L. Cox.  “Afterword: Separating Religion from the ‘Sacred:’ Methodological Agnosticism and the Future of Religious Studies” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Jay Demerath.  “The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove” in the Journal for theScientific Study of Religion, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000.
  • ———.   “Defining Religion and Modifying Religious “Bodies:” Secularizing the Sacred and Sacralizing the Secular” in Phil Zuckerman, ed.  Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.
  • ———. Religious Studies Project Interview with Jay Demerath on Substantive Religion and the Functionalist Sacred (12 March 2012).
  • David McCullough. The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating “Natural” Disasters America has Ever Known. NewYork: Touchstone, 1987.
  • Ethan Gjerset Quillen, 2011. Rejecting the Definitive: A Contextual Examination of Three Historical Stages of Atheism and the Legality of an American Freedom from Religion.  MA Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
  • Bensor Saler.  Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories.  New York: E.J. Brill, 1993.
  • Ninian Smart.  Dimensions of the Sacred: Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs.  New York: Fontana Press, 1997.
  • Jonathan Z. Smith  “A Matter of Class: Taxonomies of Religion” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, 1996.
  • Terence Thomas.  “‘The Sacred’ as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
  • United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)
  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)