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Ideal Types, Semantic Anarchy, and the Study of Atheism (etc.)

By Christopher R. Cotter, in response to an interview with Chris Silver on “Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension”. Listening to Chris Silver’s recent podcast on Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension was a thoroughly pleasant experience. I enjoyed hearing a colleague who I first met in 2011, and who quickly came on board the nascent RSP team (as interviewer, editor, writer, and more), taking his well-earned place on the ‘other’ side of the microphone. Like Chris, I recognize the problems associated with treating atheists, agnostics, ‘nones’, etc., as distinct groups with coherent attitudinal correspondences. I’ve also used grounded theory and social constructionism in my approach to ‘non-religion’ and recognize the issue of one’s work being taken out of context. I welcomed hearing of broad-ranging, quantitative work being carried out within the psychology of religion with an eye to debates in the broader, critical study of religion, and the new developments in his work relating to status loss, New Religious Movements, and more. Despite the many positives of the approach outlined by Silver,  critical problems with it—exemplified in my own work, too—concern the construction of ideal types, and the proliferation of idiosyncratic terminology. In what follows, I’ll discuss each of these issues in turn before proposing a discursive solution.

Ideal Types

Referring to the ‘insubstantial’ secular, Lois Lee pithily observes that ‘it is not possible to organize absence into types’ (2015, 51). However, this isn’t the case with substantive understandings of ‘non-religion’ and in 2011 I set out with similar ambitions to Silver, producing a typology of non-religion in my Masters dissertation (Cotter 2011, 2015). This project was conducted amongst the undergraduate student body of the University of Edinburgh taking a grounded theoretical approach which elicited narratives via electronic questionnaires and qualitative interviews. Two of the key insights suggested were that:    
  • The ways in which students negotiated (non-)religious terminology throughout their narratives allowed the development of five ideal types which were seemingly independent of established religious categories: naturalistic, humanistic, philosophical, familial, and spiritual.
  • Regardless of the salience of the students’ (non-)religious identifications, they appeared to be keenly aware of where they stood when religion or non-religion were perceived to interact with what mattered to them
A significant reason I have felt unease with these insights as they stand is my somewhat lofty and obfuscating attempt to provide an exhaustive ideal-typical account of non-religion. Ideal Types are commonly understood as ‘analytical tools to be used to facilitate comparison’ (Barker 2010, 188 fn. 2), as ‘pragmatic constructs’ which can in no way ‘be regarded as essential categories or ontological realities’ (Cox 2006, 83). Recent relevant examples would be Lois Lee’s five types of ‘existential culture’ (2015, 161–72), John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism (2018)Silver and colleagues’ ‘six types of non-belief’ (Silver et al. 2014), or my own five-fold typology of ‘non-religion’. Even when writing my dissertation, I was clearly uneasy concerning the correlation between these types and my data:

“These narrative-based types cannot be assumed to be constant, and must be understood as firmly rooted in the context in which they were revealed. However, they reflect what individuals actually say, and give priority to individual self-representations, providing a much ‘truer’ representation of what (non)religion means to these individuals than wide-ranging, quantitative, typologies which suffer from the same contextual constraints.” (2011, 76)

Although I, and most others who employ ideal types, have never claimed that classifying individuals is a simple matter, and have emphasized that there is much overlap between types, it is almost invariably the case that their artificial and constructed nature becomes lost in translation (see Silver’s comments about misrepresentations of his work in the media), giving the false impression that individuals can be easily boxed off into discrete types. Whilst such work is valuable for macro-level analysis, it fundamentally breaks down at the level of the individual where heterogeneity and contextuality abound: there is ‘no such thing as a perfect or ideal-typical form’ of difference to ‘religion’ (Lee 2015, 44).  ‘Religious, spiritual, secular, and non-religious identities are not stable, unitary formations’ (Hoesly 2015), but rather what Jean-François Bayart refers to as ‘operational acts of identification’ (2005, 92). However, in relation to the study of ‘Atheism’, Ethan Quillen argues that prevalent ideal-typical generalizations are perhaps ‘nothing more than a product of the current scholarly study of Atheism’s predominant focus on the social-scientific attempt at making sense of “Atheism-in-general,” rather than “Atheism-in-specific”’ (2015a, 30), the ‘attempt at finding an identity in the numerous applications of an ambiguous word’ (Baird 1991, 11).

Semantic Anarchy 

Going further, these problems are clearly connected to issues surrounding terminology. The contemporary situation has been described as verging on ‘a situation of semantic anarchy, in which individual scholars work with idiosyncratic definitions’ (Jong 2015, 19). Indeed, Quillen argues that the whole discourse on ‘types of atheism’, or indeed the very terminology of ‘ir-religion,’ ‘un-belief,’ ‘non-religion’, etc., is ‘not unlike that which complicates the definition of “religion”’ (2015b, 132), and falls foul of much of the critique levelled at the term (see RSP podcasts with Timothy FitzgeraldRussell McCutcheonJames CoxBrent NongbriTeemu Taira and others). In addition, ‘The conceptual balkanisation that results from the proliferation of idiosyncratic definitions makes […] fruitful collaboration more difficult’ between scholars doing empirical work in different contexts (Jong 2015, 19). We need not despair, though. This situation of proliferating ideal types and idiosyncratic terminology can be remedied by scholars being ‘vigilantly specific about the aspect of “nonreligion” that they are interested in’ (Jong 2015, 20), restricting themselves to very particular contexts—historical, textual, ethnographic, etc. Alternatively, my preferred route is to take a discursive approach.

Discursive Approaches

As I’ve previously argued, we can fruitfully 

“conceptualize non-religion as part of a religion-related field comprising ‘all phenomena that are generally (or according to a certain definition of “religion”) considered to be not religious, but stand in a determinable and relevant relationship to the religious field.’ This relationship can take the form of criticism, competition, collaboration, mirroring, functional equivalence, interest, etc. Such an understanding sees […] ‘descriptions, claims, reports, allegations, and assertions’ about non-/religion [as] the topic of the analysis, rather than ‘religion’ or ‘non-religion’ themselves. Thus, we arrive at a critically-engaged, relational concept of ‘non-religion’ which can be operationalized empirically in a non-stipulative manner and which emphasizes that religion need not be a dominant, normative, or positive term in the contexts studied.”

Although discursive questions were not the driver for my Masters project, it can clearly be interpreted as having focused on the way ‘religion is organized, discussed, and discursively materialized’ (von Stuckrad 2010, 166) in a particular context, by individuals who self-described aspects of their individual practice, beliefs, attitudes and/or identity as different from their subjective self-definitions of religion. It can be viewed as discerning a range of discourses, which could be classified as spiritual, familial, philosophical, humanistic and naturalistic, surrounding a variety of negotiated phenomena—identities, practices, attitudes, beliefs—in a field of discourse with boundaries dictated by the logics of the research project, i.e. substantiating the ‘non-religiosity’ of Edinburgh students, in 2010–11, whose self-descriptions were ‘non-religious’, and so on. Returning to the two key insights of the project, this discursive re-reading allows them to be reframed as follows:  
  • In these narratives, these students primarily invoked five types of discourse when they engaged with topics related to religion, non-religion, and related categories. These discourses appeared to operate at a level independent of the specific terminology—the discursive objects—in question. 
  • Regardless of the salience of these discourses in individuals’ lives, they were invoked when the students were confronted with phenomena that were deemed to be related to—i.e. which meaningfully intersected with—the field of discourse on religion, non-religion, and related categories. 
This move from types of atheism/non-religion to types of discourse shifts the focus to ‘the social effects of the way people talk, rather than the apparent meaning of their words’ (Martin 2017, 104). People employ multiple discourses, situationally; they can say things in many different ways, depending on the discursive resources available to them in a particular cultural context.  A shift in focus from the individual to the discourse they employ, from the person to what they say, and how they say it, allows the individual to be incorporated analytically into the wider societal conversation of which they are inherently a part. As Bayart argues, no speech act can be attributed to a single individual, but is a product of the broader complex social situation in which it occurs, as well as its historical context: ‘every utterance is related to earlier utterances’ (2005, 112). There is much more I could say here, and I’m not claiming that discursive study is the only way to study ‘non-religion’ critically. However, it is one way in which we can usefully sidestep some of the issues associated with the construction of typologies in the social sciences. Whether this helps us to avoid the ‘misinterpretation’ of our work when it takes on a life of its own is another matter. One of many Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion.

References 

  • Baird, Robert D. 1991. Category Formation and the History of Religions. 2nd ed., with A new pref. Religion and Reason 1. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Barker, Eileen. 2010. “The Church Without and the God Within: Religiosity and/or Spirituality?” In The Centrality of Religion in Social Life: Essays in Honour of James A. Beckford, edited by Eileen Barker, 187–202. Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Bayart, Jean-François. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students.” Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2015. “Without God yet Not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-Religion among Scottish University Students.” In Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts, edited by Lori G. Beaman and Steven Tomlins, 171–94. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Cox, James L. 2006. A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion: Key Figures, Formative Influences and Subsequent Debates. London: Continuum.
  • Gray, John. 2018. Seven Types of Atheism. London: Allen Lane.
  • Hoesly, Dusty. 2015. “‘Need a Minister? How About Your Brother?’: The Universal Life Church between Religion and Non-Religion.” Secularism and Nonreligion4 (1). 
  • Jong, Jonathan. 2015. “On (Not) Defining (Non)Religion.” Science, Religion and Culture2 (3): 15–24.
  • Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Nonreligious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Quillen, Ethan G. 2015a. “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism.” Science, Religion and Culture2 (3): 25–25.
  • ———. 2015b. “Everything Is Fiction: An Experimental Study in the Application of Ethnographic Criticism to Modern Atheist Identity.” Unpublished PhD Thesis, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
  • Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr., and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17 (10): 990–1001.
  • Stuckrad, Kocku von. 2010. “Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 22 (2): 156–69.

Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension

Extensive research has been conducted in exploration of the American religious landscape; however, only recently has social science research started to explore nonbelief in any detail. Research on nonbelief has been limited as most research focuses on the popularity of the religious “nones” or the complexities of alternative faith expressions such as spirituality. Through two studies, one qualitative and one quantitative, Dr. Christopher F. Silver’s research explored how nonbelievers’ self-identify. Study 1 (the qualitative study) discovered that individuals have shared definitional agreement but use different words to describe different types of nonbelief. Through thematic coding, a typology of six different types of nonbelief was observed. Those are Academic Atheists, Activist Atheist/Agnostics, Seeker Agnostics, Antitheists, Non-Theists, and the Ritual Atheists. Study 2 explored the empirical aspects of these types related to the Big Five Domain, Ryff Psychological Well-Being, Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Multidimensional Anger Inventory, Rokeach Dogmatism Scale, and intersections related to religious and spiritual ontology.

If you enjoyed this podcast, check out Chris Silver’s podcasts about grad school and academia with “The Unlikely Academics” here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension

Podcast with Chris Silver (8 April 2019).

Interviewed by Kris Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Silver_-_Atheism,_New_Religious_Movements_and_Cultural_Tension_1.1

 

Kris Black (KB): How many kinds of atheism are there? Are there different kinds of atheists, different kinds of atheism, and what’s the deal between new religious movements, non-religious belief and cultural tension? Dr Chris Silver joins me today – and welcome, Chris!

Chris Silver (CS): Thank you!

KB: We’re here to talk about your wonderful previous work and your current work in atheism and new religious movements. Why don’t we just start with visiting briefly your previous work on the six different type of atheism?

CS: Sure. Well, I should also mention I got my start as one of the assistant editors of the Religious Studies Project!

KB: That’s right!

CS: Back in 2011-2012. So it’s strange to be on the other side of the microphone.

KB: In the other chair! (Laughs).

CS: Yes. It’s really weird so hopefully I don’t embarrass Chris, David and Tommy. So here goes, guys, I’ll try. Yes. So a number of years ago Tommy Coleman and I . . . Tommy Coleman’s now at Coventry University in the UK, a former both under-grad and graduate student of mine. I was in the process of working on a doctoral degree in Learning and Leadership at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and was really, really interested in a sort of fallacy – particularly in psychology but even wider in sociology – that some others had about atheism and agnosticism. So, for example, you’d see a lot of surveys and you’d have all, you know, where people would identify their beliefs or their religious and spiritual associations. And you’d always see “atheism” and “agnosticism”. Sometimes you’d see “none”: n-o-n-e-s, or “unaffiliated”. But, you know, with that community growing – we’ve seen this in Pew Forum and . . .

KB: Fastest growing demographic.

CS: Yes. So it just bothered me because, you know, I thought there was more complexity there, and I was afraid that by us collapsing all that variability into a nominal variable we’re missing some richness that could be captured. But through the inquiry I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to be the most efficient way to do that. So I’d both say that I was blessed to do this study, and I also apologise profusely! Because when you’re the first person to try to do something like this you don’t know what you’re doing! So I don’t ever claim that it has predictive power, although we have got a lot of anecdotal feedback from atheists and agnostics saying that it really resonates. So anyway, we set out originally, Tommy and I did, and we conducted a series of interviews with people from all around the US and we started discovering exactly what . . . . We started finding very common themes.

KB: Themes of non-belief?

CS: No. Of non-belief and how they identify to others, you know, other things like their opinions of religious believers and how they interact with them. And how they interact with families. And so what we did was we sort-of did a mix of both grounded theory and then sort-of social constructionism with a little sprinkle of phenomenology on top!

KB: (Laughs). That’s nice!

CS: And basically we’re trying to look at what is the shared reality. Initially we set out to try to find what terms of identity they used. But we failed miserably!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: I mean, because everyone had a different (understanding) depending on who they were reading. If somebody was reading Sam Harris or somebody was reading Dawkins . . . everybody had . . . . They used the (same) terms, but the definitions were radically different. But the sort-of diamond in the rough here was, when we said “Alright, well, if we don’t have agreement with the terms, we’ve got to do the definitions.” And all of a sudden, just cleanly, these themes started emerging of agreement. And so all of a sudden we started finding that there are attitudinal behavioural dimensions common among different kinds, including like how they saw the world and those kinds of things. So Tommy and I – who’s an editor of the RSP, I believe, still – he and I then started thematically pulling those together and sharpening them.(5:00) And so, for a second study, we then started using various psychometrics like the Big Five and the Ryff Psychological Wellbeing Scale. We used the Rokeach Dogmatism Scale.

KB: Oh, right.

CS: And yeah. So when we made all these measures we ended up finding some decent effects between the different groups, and significant differences and different aspects. And so it was cool. And so we actually promised our participants, you know . . . . We shared the results. We set up this webpage so that they could see what their efforts went towards. And all of a sudden one of the participants, it turned out, was actually a journalist.

KB: Oh?

CS: And he picked up our results. And the next thing you know we’re on the Christian Post, CNN and I mean . . . I didn’t know what to do! And we had some wild stuff happen! Like, first of all, some folks mispresented our work – but I still appreciated the shout out! Like the Christian Post, for example: their leading head was, “Atheist Might be Standing Next to You in Church”!

KB: Oh! (Laughs)

CS: Because one of our groups that we found was this, what we call “ritual atheist agnostics”, which are basically their atheists but they still . . .

KB: Right. Active non-believers.

CS: And since then, there’s been evidence in the Netherlands, and a few other places, that have found similar patterns.

KB: Yeah. So what was the name of that? If someone wanted to find out about that article . . .

CS: I think we, what did we call it? Atheists and non-belief . . . six types. . . (Correction: The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative)

KB: Six types of atheists and non-belief?

CS: Something like that. I’m a terrible scholar! I can’t even remember my own work!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But yeah. It was in that. And so it’s been published. It’s in, most appropriately it’s actually in Psychology of Religion and Mental Health (Correction: Mental Health, Religion and Culture)

KB: There you go. In that journal.

CS: Yes. And so that’s a good international journal. So it’s not Tier One, but they do some really great interdisciplinary work. And that’s why we went for them versus some of the others, because we wanted to have a wider range . . .

KB: A wider audience . . .

CS: Even though they may not have as many readers, they have great interdisciplinary work. So, perfect.

KB: OK. So what was the feedback that you got from that?

CS: So, you know, we’ve had . . . interestingly, not one secular community ended up really . . . and I mean secular in a broader sense . . . . I mean, a lot of folks said that it resonated with them. I got invited to the Center for Inquiry at Buffalo, New York, to present. I’m very humbled by that. I’ve been invited to various universities around, to sort-of share some of the results.

KB: Oh, that’s great!

CS: And of course, I always lead with the disclaimer that this is just an attempt, it’s not going to be perfect. I’m sure that there are amazing statisticians out there who could do light years better cool stuff than I ever could. Originally, the goal that Tommy and I had was to start the conversation.

KB: And that’s what it’s done.

CS: And Tommy’s gone on to do some really, really cool stuff in atheism. He’s written some very powerful pieces in terms of theory which have been really good, so I’m incredibly proud of him for that. Also I’ve got my graduate student now, who just presented, actually, on concealment and disclosure. He just created a non-belief concealment scale and has had really robust results, regional differences that are really interesting. I’ll use the stats terms and then put it in English. It’s got a really interesting factor structure, which means that there’s very clean sub-scales that are there, that have been used.

KB: So you can project trends?

CS: It’s like an institutional kind of concealment, versus a personal kind of concealment.

KB: Right

CS: And so, warmly received by sociologists and psychologists. He’s got some really good feedback, but also, people went: “Yes! This needed to happen!” So, really proud of Cameron Mackey. I should mention his name! Because I’m very, very proud of him. This was his big day. He did a good job.

KB: Wonderful!

CS: And so, yeah. I’ve been very, very lucky.

KB: Yeah. Well, I’m sure that work will take on even more projects in future. So we’ll look forward to that.

CS: I hope so.

KB: That would be great. OK. So let’s just shift a little bit now to your current work on the new religious movements, and the cultural tension that’s happening between religious belief and non-belief.

CS: Yes. (10:00) So for a long time – and I need to give a shout out to some other colleagues who have been working on it – for about since 2000 I’ve been working with colleagues from Bielefeld, Germany, on . . . research originally started on faith development, but we’ve actually shifted to faith styles. We’ve got a number of books as well. There’s academic publications on the topic. So my shout out would be to Dr Heinz Streib who’s at Bielefeld University, Dr Barbara Keller who’s at Bielefeld University, Ramona Bullik who’s been a long time on the project manager and she’s been working on her doctorate at Bielefeld. And then, of course, I was academically born and raised by Dr Ralph Hood. And so I’ve been working with him since the early days. And so we’ve collaborated with Bielefeld now for eighteen years. That’s half my life! And so we’ve got to co-author a book. And you’ve got to realise in my mind I’m a nobody! So I mean, seriously, I really am. I’m not saying that like some kind of “humble start” or something. I really am nobody. So we did a book on spirituality. Multiple chapters of qualitative quantitative, mixed methods design. And we’re working on some other . . . . We’ve got two more books in the works that we’re working on right now, as well as a couple of manuscripts. But we’re actually going to do a longitudinal study of people’s changes in their belief and faith. And we’ve actually been able to find some of the original participants from eighteen years ago!

KB: Oh, wow!

CS: And then we’ve also got some, over the years, that we’re tracking now. So we’ve had generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation, we’re now actually going to some pretty heavy, longitudinal, mixed-methods work. And I’m sure you can appreciate how that’s a massive thing. . .

KB: Yes.

CS: So one of the things I’ve been looking at is, I’ve been interested in social cohesion and how ideology sort-of signals group membership. And so this is sort-of a spin-off of Streib, Keller and Hood’s work but it’s not to say that it is there work – and I want to make sure there’s some clarity on that – although I do have their support in terms of the data analysis and things I’ve done thus far. But the way that the theory goes – and there’s been some preliminary findings already – is that, if you think of . . . I assume the audience is probably mostly academics and theologians, social science researchers,

KB: Students.

CS: Students, yeah. If you think of a particular cultural context anywhere – it could be Utah, it could be Tennessee, it could be New Zealand or Africa – you’d sort-of accept the fact that there’s this cultural norm of a particular tradition which is, like, in the middle – they’re not really controversial, or anything like that – but everybody knows this is the norm, right? We’ve actually theorised that . . . we call that group in our book . . . . Well, we borrow from David Bromley’s work on apostasy and style of exit from back in the early 2000s. But we call that an “integrated” group, meaning like, they’re just culturally . . . there’s virtually no social tension. So that group could be Methodists in Eastern Tennessee, it could be Mormons in Utah. It’s whoever the norm is in that geographic context. Then, the more you’re sort-of moving away from the centre of the bell curve and you start moving out into the maybe say . . . The bottom line is, we’re starting to move away from the norm that you get in that middle area. We call those “accommodating”. It means they participate in society, but there may be certain behaviours, rituals, attitudes, beliefs; something that still makes them stand out just enough to create cultural tension. But they still tend to participate. So if you think of being, say, Mormon, you know, in Southern Georgia, right? So, yes, you go to church on Sunday like everybody else, but you have this additional theology which they would go . . . they’d look at you a little . . .

KB: Mmm. A little suspect.

CS: (15:00) Like in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is where I’m from, an example would actually be the Seventh Day Adventists. They’re actually pretty common, because they’ve got a university there, they’ve got Seventh Day Adventist churches but in their mind, they think that others, of course, are judging them for being a little different. Sometimes they aren’t and sometimes they are. But that would be like an accommodating group. But then – and this answers your question – there’s what we call “opposition” groups. Which are broadly called subversives. These are groups that have no real interests in participating in the larger culture. In some cases they make their own micro-culture, so that they sustain themselves and they try not to participate as much as possible. An example I would use is, in Chattanooga we have this group called the Twelve Tribes. They started there. And they’re a new religious movement. I don’t like the term cult because it now . . . while in the sixties it was used as a sociological term, it now carries this media stigma. Quite frankly, there are some incredibly wonderful people that I’ve gotten to know in that tradition. But yeah, their beliefs are very much different from others. And so oppositional doesn’t mean that there’s something bad about them. It just means that they plainly stand out from . . .

KB: From the norm.

CS: So the way . . . so my modification, where I’m going with this theory, is that I believe that much like a bell curve, the more you get out on the tails the more distance there is between the members, in position. I actually have a view that the more a group differs from the norm, the more social tension there is – and therefore, the more likely that there’s going to be inter-group prejudice.

KB: Interesting.

CS: This is my argument

KB: Within both groups?

CS: Yes. Because, if you think about it . . . . So, if you think of the bell curve and the mean’s right in the middle, one side would be like religious and spiritual groups, right, that are inter-normative – everyone accepts they’re part of the culture, I mean, yeah, you get a weirdo now and again, but most everybody’s, you know, pretty cool. But then you start moving out, and you start getting into not only more fundamentalism, and more sort-of . . . if you think about institutional and structural authoritarianism, rigidity . . . depending on which discipline of sociology or psychology you’re using, there’s different terms.

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But the more you’re moving out to the tails: a) the more protective you are of your group and you’re looking for any signal – be it verbal, behavioural – but you’re trying to look for authenticity of who’s in your group, versus those that are outside. Right? So the more you’re out this way, the more prejudiced you’re going to be of the norm. But here’s the other thing: from the norm’s perspective, the more prejudiced you’re going to be of the outside.

KB: Right.

CS: Now, that’s only one side of the bell curve. So, then, think about the other side of the bell curve. This is where we get into spiritual. So, folks who are spiritual, not religious. They’re not trying to half-identify with something. But it’s moving into a more individualised belief system as opposed to more structural. So, you know, as you’re moving out you start getting into non-affiliated, religious nones, agnosticism and then atheism. Here’s the beauty of it: it’s like the bell curve plots one side on the other. In theory the tension should be the same, the behaviours would be the same, the attitudinal dimensions of rigidity would be the same.

KB: Yeah. That’s fascinating!

CS: And from our six types data we already know that anti-theists are just as dogmatic as fundamentalists!

KB: Right.

CS: So the point is, we’ve already got some evidence of this. And when I say we, I mean . . . this is, of course, where I deviate from my colleagues although I hope it doesn’t create confusion that they’re doing this too. They’ve been very kind and given me some of their data. But what’s interesting is . . . I will give a shout out to Dr Streib that he has this measure called the “religious styles scale”. It predicts these categories really well. And what’s funny is, he didn’t make the scale with this intention.

KB: Oh really? But it fits perfectly?

CS: Yeah. So we did . . . . I’ll give the stats term and then I’ll translate in English. So what I did is, I did binomial regression which allows us to create group identity. So, essentially, you’re predicting nominal identity and you’re looking to see, what are the certain measures that contributed to variants of that prediction? So, “Does a measure predict the group?” in English. Sure enough, at least with the integrated and accommodating groups, it’s good and it’s strong. And so there is some interesting potential there. So one of the things I’m going to speak about tomorrow is that I actually think that the oppositional should be the same way. I mean, you’ve already got some clean evidence. (20:00) We’ve already got somewhat related evidence in some of these other studies that not just me, but some much more brilliant people like Cotter, Lois Lee, Ryan Cragun, definitely, on the atheism side. And even on the new religious movements’ side, you look at Gordon Melton, again Bromley, shout out to Lorne Dawson who was one of my professors when I was at Milford Laurier University, a long time ago. They’ve got some really interesting stuff that does seem to parallel what I’m suggesting.

KB: It sounds like you’ve got a really good theoretical lens, a good foundation there, a really good base that you can . . .

CS: We’ll see what happens! But, again the problem I have is there’s so many brilliant people out in the world, but I still feel compelled to study it. So what I’m trying to do . . . before . . . I was trying to do it as just me, but then I started to collaborate with other people, because that way they can help me. And I’m also completing a doctorate in social psychology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and I’m working with a wonderful advisor by the name of Dr Michael Olson who does dual process theory research which is cognitive . . .

KB: Oh, right.

CS: And what I like about what I’m working on here is that it taps into some of that. So there’s this sort of . . . if you think about it in social terms, you know, when somebody’s so radically different than you could have these sort-of feelings of disgust for somebody that’s so radically different. Not to mention anxiety, prejudice, anger, sadness. And so, interestingly enough, my current dissertation – as soon as I get it proposed and can start pulling data (almost done – the proposal, anyway!) – is to actually study high status individuals like Christians, mainly integrated Christians, who believe they’re stigmatised.

KB: Ah. Yes.

CS: In the post-Trump era we’ve seen some . . . but it’s been around for a while, this theory. But I want to look and see, you know: do we see the same kinds of psychological patterns for someone who is high status, who has enjoyed “privilege” to use the sort-of liberal term . . .

KB: And by high status you mean like someone who’s been the norm, who’s already experiencing circumstantial privilege?

CS: That’s right. They’re in the norm. They’ve enjoyed privilege but then at the same time, for whatever reason, they feel like they’ve been discriminated against. But mainly, the big thing is that if they lose status will they self-report feeling stigmatised? And so we have an experiment where we actually tell them they’re losing status, versus a condition where we say they’re not.

KB: And kind-of see what the reaction is?

CS: Yes. So, we’ll see.

KB: I know there are some groups who use persecution and loss of status as a kind-of confirmation of themselves. Is that the kind of thing . . .?

CS: Yes. That’s kind-of it, it’s interesting. But we’re also going to look at white males, too. So that way we’re not just making it about religion. We’re going to see, what do white males believe? And again there’s some at least preliminary correlational data that seems to indicate that some people feel this way. It’s not to say everyone who’s Christian feels that way, or every male. But in (audio unclear), because I’m an Appalachian kid, so I’m from the country – I’m sure you can’t tell from my accent at all!

KB: (Laughs). No.

CS: But the other side of it is that you think about those who’ve grown up in Appalachia, in extreme poverty, and they’re being told they have privilege. And so that creates a certain interesting level of cognitive dissonance. So how would the person who’s grown up in that environment, how would they respond to sort-of diversity initiatives, and what is that there? It’s not a judgement that I’m making. I’m just saying that from a psychological perspective, what does that look like socially?

KB: Yes. And what does that mean out in society?

CS: Absolutely. And so when you have a West Virginia coal miner who’s supporting Trump, you know, who’s like “We’re going to bring coal back. And we’re going to . . .” you know. And because I think in some ways . . . I think I can say this with some certainty, from my own anecdotal experience, is that they feel like they’ve not been a part of the national narrative.

KB: Right. They haven’t been part of the network. They haven’t had that status.

CS: That’s right. And so, if you define privilege in terms of things like seeing themselves on TV – absolutely. The definition works. But if we talk about in terms of opportunity for employment, opportunities for resources (25:00) . . .

KB: Power to make change.

CS: Education access. In many respects I see very similar patterns with my students – my undergrads, at least – those who are first generation college students from Appalachia, and some urban folks. Now, the urban folks probably have more adverse kinds of challenges but the point is, I gave a diversity talk one day at our university, about dual process theory (Thankyou, Dr Olson!). And what was fascinating was, was I’d made this similar argument and would you believe after I gave the talk I had a number of folks who were sort-of the minority advocates, and – wait for it – conservative opinions and beliefs, all come up and say that they agreed with my view.

KB: Wow!

CS: Radical positions that were like, “Yeah. What you said makes complete sense.”

KB: It really resonated with them.

CS: And what was crazy was – remember this is post-Trump – they were talking amongst themselves about how they agree about their socioeconomic inequities, and that is what brought them together. And they actually had a constructive conversation. I almost cried!

KB: Yes.

CS: Because, when you think . . .

KB: Well and that’s what I was wondering about this polarisation, that there is such a big divide. Is there a place for that type of coming together?

CS: Yeah. And I think we’re . . . I’m totally pulling a Chris Silver and going down a rabbit hole, I’m sorry!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But I think we’re in an interesting moment here in history. Because for the first time, not only do we have access to any information we ever wanted, we’re highly diverse, we interact with far more people than any of our ancestors ever did. So there’s interesting both social, cognitive, evolutionary . . .

KB: On every level.

CS: Yes. So we’re at a weird nexus in history and I think, for some of us, we’ve moved too fast. And I think some of the things we’re seeing is that they a feel that they don’t have a voice, but also I think they haven’t had time to adjust to all the change.

KB: Right.

CS: And in many respects some changes need to happen and they’ve got to make that change. But then at the same time . . . I think a lot of this uncertainty and fear that we have about change is also driving some of our closed-minded attitudes. And I’d say this from not just the right but also it’s now on the left.

KB: Awesome

CS: But it’s an interesting time. It’s a really interesting time. So cultural tension, for me – I ‘m going to circle back round – cultural tension, for me, is a really interesting aspect and that, to me, how we signal to others our group membership, it’s no longer about discourse, it’s about tribalism.

KB: Ah. Wow!

CS: Sorry I’ve just . . .

KB: Fascinating stuff here! Really look forward to reading more of your work. And best of luck with your dissertation and your continued success with Six Types of Atheism.

CS: Yes, I don’t know what we’re going to do next. I’d like at some point to talk to more intelligent people. Might buy Ryan Cragun a beer!

KB: There you go! (Laughs).

CS: Chris Cotter would be interesting.

KB: (Laughs). Alright. Well, thanks for joining us!

CS: No, thank you again. And shout out to all my old buddies at the Religious Studies Project! Thank you, guys.


Citation Info: Silver, Christopher and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/atheism-new-religious-movements-and-cultural-tension/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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“Unbelief” or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Imprecise Terminology

A response to “From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field…

by Alex Uzdavines[1]

Read more

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

The twenty-first century has witnessed growing academic and popular interest in a variety of categories which are related to ‘religion’ but conceptualized as ‘other’… atheism, non-religion, secularity, religious indifference, and so on. Each of these categories can be conceptualized as aspects of the general category ‘unbelief’—‘used in a wide sense, implying a generalized lack of belief in a God or gods’ (Lee and Bullivant 2016).

Back in 2012, Chris sat down – with friend and colleague Ethan Quillen – to speak to Lois Lee, on the topic of ‘non-religion’. Since then, a lot has changed. Lee has climbed the academic ladder, publishing her first monograph with OUP in 2015 – Recognizing the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular – and currently serving as project leader on the Understanding Unbelief programme. This is a major new research programme aiming to advance scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’ around the world through core research and an additional £1.25 million being spent on additional projects and public engagement activities. Chris’s career has also progressed, with recent work including co-editing New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, and beginning a postdoctoral project engaging in a comparative study of ‘unbelief’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In this podcast, we check in with the state of the field, discuss developments beyond the Anglophone “West”, some of the many exciting projects being worked on under the “Understanding Unbelief” banner, the utility and pitfalls of the terminology of “unbelief”, and some of the critical issues surrounding the reification of survey categories.

Of relevance to the themes discussed, include Marta Trzebiatowska’s blog post on gender issues in non-religion studies: Not for Girls? Gender and Researching Nonreligion. This blog is part of the NSRN/SSNB blog series on research methods. The full series is introduced here: Research Methods for the Scientific Study of Nonreligion, by Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, Nonreligion & Secularity Research Network, 2016.

Specific Understanding Unbelief projects mentioned in the podcast include:

* Mapping the Psychology of Unbelief Across Contexts and Cultures, PI: Jonathan Jong, Psychology, Coventry University, UK
* Nonreligious Childhood: Growing Up Unbelieving in Contemporary Britain, PI: Dr Anna Strhan, Religious Studies, University of Kent, UK,

Listeners may also be interested in our podcasts on “Understanding the Secular“, “Permutations of Secularism“, “Non-Religion”, “Secular Humanism“. “The Post-Secular“, “Studying Non-Religion within Religious Studies“, “The Secularization Thesis” and more…

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when finding UNBELIEVABLE deals on academic texts, strawberry jam, vintage clothing, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field

Podcast with Lois Lee (26 February 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lee_-_Non-Religion_to_Unbelief_-_A_Developing_Field_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Greetings, Religious Studies Project listeners! I am speaking to you from London, in the abode of Dr Lois Lee, who’s returning to the Religious Studies Project. Hi, Lois.

Lois Lee (LL): Hi. Lovely to be here again.

CC: Lois was one of our first interviewees back in 2012. I can’t remember the specific date, or why it was happening. I can remember sitting in a seminar room in New College – along with my then colleague, and still good friend Ethan Quillen – talking about the concept of non-religion with Lois. And now, five, well possibly six years on – depending how we calculate that – we’re checking in again to talk about non-religion, unbelief, the development of the field, how we go about studying this, other major developments that are happening in the field at the moment, and anything else that we can fit into the next 25 minutes! So, when we last spoke to you I remember you saying, “If we’re still having this conversation in 10 years about non-religion, something’s gone wrong.”

LL: Yes.

CC: We’re not quite having the same conversation – but maybe I’ll just throw that at you as a way to kick things off.

LL: And we’re not quite ten years on – so I don’t have to falsify the thesis, or prove or disprove it at this stage! But no, it’s very interesting to reflect on that. I remember saying that, and I’ve referred to that quite often since then. A bold claim from someone who’s argued that we need to look at non-religion and that there’s practical, methodological and analytic utility in using that concept to research religion, and something we might think about as religion, religious-like, or religion-related. But I was saying at the time, “Look, it’s a means to an end. And ten years on, hopefully, we won’t need that means to an end anymore.” I would revise that view now, which is good: we need to be moving forward and so on. Because I think that the discursive study of non-religion is much, much more important than I was engaging with in my work at the time. Not that it wasn’t recognised, because work of critical secular scholars and critical religion scholars were showing that quite clearly. So Johannes Quack worked on and so on – these non-religious discourses are very widespread. They are, as all these scholars show and would argue, definitional of a whole epoch, perhaps, and vast swathes of the world. So I think there’s actually a lot of water in looking at – and Jim Beckford has made this point very clearly – that we really need a strong discursive study of non-religion. And I don’t see that disappearing any time soon. So we’re going to need non-religion in the longer term and be engaging with it. But I’m going to stand by the spirit of the claim, if not the letter of the claim, in that what I was getting at was that – and probably this points to my own research interests – is that many people and things that are identified as non-religious are identified because of attachments that are not purely discursive. They’re not just about relationality to religion, they’re a way of describing lots of different things. And I’ve been particularly interested in what I’ve called in my book “existential cultures”, what Baker and Smith call “cosmic meaning systems”, what other scholars refer to as “worldviews”. And what we see now – and this is very timely to address this question now, because all of the work I’ve just mentioned has been published in the last three years at the longest – is a lot of play around working with how we’re going to describe this stuff that is underlying what’s expressed as “non-religious identities”, “non-religious practices” and “positionalities” and so on. Or analytic language: so, identifying as scholars identifying people as non-religious. And really, what we have in mind are, for example, naturalist worldviews and so on. So I feel totally vindicated in fact, in that claim, in that I think in five years, a lot of the work that’s fallen within the language on non-religion – that we use the language of non-religion to identify – we won’t be using that language any more. (5:00)And it’s precisely because there’s so much dynamism at the moment around developing better analytic categories – to get at what a lot of us have been getting at. And learning from our research and so on, that’s important to the people we’re talking with. So a lot of the work that we talk about in terms of non-religion is going to fall within – well, I’m not going to say what, just now! But maybe it’s the study of worldviews, maybe it’s existentiality, maybe it’s cosmic meaning systems, who knows?

CC: Excellent. I’ve just realised that I completely omitted to properly introduce you at this beginning of this interview!

LL: (Laughs) But surely I need no introduction, Chris?

CC: Exactly! But you’ve already touched on it, just there. So, Lois is a research fellow at the University of Kent, where she’s currently principal investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme, which is something that we’ll get to very shortly. She’s also a founding director of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network, which you’ll have heard plenty about on this podcast thus far. And her 2015 book with OUP was called Recognising the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular. So you’ve heard about the book, just there. And we’ll get on to some of this just now. Maybe the book’s actually something to springboard from, since again we didn’t speak about that last time.

LL: Yes

CC: Maybe just tell us about your own trajectory, and how you got to this stage of being PI in a project looking at unbelief.

LL: That’s right. Well, I suppose when we last talked it was a twinkle in the eye! But the book is a culmination of what we were talking about in that earlier podcast, which I’m sure is available to listeners, if they’re interested, to return to it. And as you say, I’ve already sort of alluded to some of the work in that book, which was about identifying and engaging with populations. In particular, I was most interested in populations we identify as non-religious, and saying we need to understand them in their capacity of identifying as non-religious or being identified as others, by others as non-religious. And that many of the claims that are made about the religious would be partial if we didn’t work much more closely with that population. That book arose from work that began in 2006, when sociology – my area – but the human sciences more broadly had not really engaged with this non-religious population, in any detail. They’d had sporadic forays – significant, but sporadic forays – into that area. So the book was very much a kind-of “call to arms” in way. But the title sort-of summarises, I guess, recognising the non-religious: that as researchers we need to recognise the non-religious, as societies we need to recognise the non-religious. I talk a bit about the commitments, investments, social attachments and so on, of non-religious people that lead them to feel a sense of grievance if societies only recognise the analogous needs of religious people. So there’s a political argument there in the end. So where have we got to? How does that lead to the Understanding Unbelief programme?

CC: Yes.

LL: Well, I think we’ve touched on that trajectory slightly already, which is that my kind-of emerging interest was particularly in the kinds of what I shall call “existential beliefs and cultures”. The “worldviews” is a more commonplace word we might think about. I think it’s slightly problematic, and we probably don’t have time to get into that. But I think it’s going to lead to some really interesting conversations with people really engaging closely with that concept, and critically, which hasn’t happened around worldview in the same way it’s happened with religion. So it will be really interesting to see that work. But what I’m interested in is the way in which humans conceptualise their own existence and the nature of reality. That conceptualisation is intrinsically transcendent – so it’s stepping back to take to a perspective on reality and existence – and, in that way, is something that is very much shared between, well, cuts across religious and non-religious divides. Whether all humans are as interested in this conceptualisation is a very open question. And that’s very much where the book ends up, is saying there are lots of things going on when people self-identify or are identified as others, by others as non-religious. There are lots of political things going on. There are lots of socio-cultural things, some of which we might feel very sympathetic to and some of which we might be very, very concerned about (10:00). There’s a lot going on. But one important thing that’s going on is that non-religious people have worldviews and they aren’t recognised clearly enough in the conceptual language we have, or in the academy, for example, or other places in public life. So we have the Sociology of Religion, and it’s not clear how well that makes space for the sociology of non-traditional, nonreligious worldviews, and I’m very much arguing we should do that. The Unbelief programme builds on that in that . . . . So, the focus on belief – there’s a couple of different reasons we’re using the term “unbelief”. And we always use it in scare quotes. I think it’s important to say that one of the reasons that we have turned to that term is that we think it’s very obviously a folk category that emerged from Christian traditions. It can’t be confused with a viable analytic concept. And we had some concerns about atheism, secularism – and non-religion, actually – that they had acquired a kind of veneer of analytic coherence that wasn’t always borne out. And so we wanted to . . . . And this arises from conversations with others in the field about where the field was at. We wanted to slightly step back from that and invite people to be a bit critical about what they’re doing and not close off questions, as well. For example, I’ve spoken recently about the disproportionate focus on positive atheists over and above strong agnostics in research. We now have an emerging scholarship around Atheism, with a capital A, and very little about agnostics. But there are lots of people who make the strong agnostic claim that humans can’t know about the nature of human reality and existence, or God, or whoever. We didn’t want to foreclose on that by having a programme on atheism, for example. So, partly, one of the strengths of unbelief is that it’s very, very broad. It allows people to focus on different things that are going on within that rubric, to not imagine they’ve got a specific or coherent analytic category to start off with, but to think about what they’re doing. But it is a word that includes belief. That’s partly because one stage that I think the field is at is that there’s been a lot of energy in the last ten years . . . . The Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network: I founded that in 2008, so we’re ten years on now. And in that period there’s been a kind of intense period of field-building in lots of different human science disciplines. A group who discussed the formation of this programme said that one of the issues in the field was that there was no longer strong communication between different human science disciplines within the field. At the beginning there was, because there was so little scholarship we were absolutely thrilled to read anything that emerged. Now that it’s a success story it’s great. There’s lots to read. And one of the kind-of unintended consequences of that is that some of that interdisciplinary engagement has faded. You know, it’s enough to keep up with the Sociology of Non-Religion or Secularism – as it might be called in the US – as well as trying to keep up with the Psychology of Atheism which is probably the favoured term in Psychology. And that’s fine, but also a shame, because we could learn from each other and from that material. And, partly, the language of belief just reflects different disciplinary conventions: a focus on the cognitive in Cognitive Anthropology, Cognitive Science; belief is very meaningful and significant within Psychology and Social Psychology. So, we’re trying to kind-of bring those things together and find a language that makes sense to different researchers.

CC: Yes. I mean, I can see perhaps some of our listeners bristling in that we’ve been trying – “we” in Religious Studies – to get way from a belief-centred model of religion, in a sense. You know, because it’s so much more than that, potentially. So then, to take this other side of the coin, and then also say it’s “unbelief”, it’s potentially got the same problems as reifying belief. But it’s under-theorised. It doesn’t have that cachet – as you were saying – that it’s potentially an analytic term. And it also . . . And I’ve got to say that my current project is a comparative study of unbelief in Scotland and Northern Ireland, partly piggy-backing on the UU programme. But also, I found that was a much easier word to utilise with funders, and people who were assessing applications who were outside of these debates. Unbelief wasn’t as problematic in a sense as religion, non-religion – a lot less baggage, but made a bit of intuitive sense (15:00). So that’s part of it.

LL: I think that’s really important point, actually. And I think, sometimes, there are different modes of scholarship. My mode has been to work out what concepts are useful to me and what aren’t and then run away with the ones that are useful to me. But that shuts off a lot of conversation with people who are using different concepts. And unbelief, I think, is really useful, because it’s sort-of salient and intelligent to broader populations. They know where you’re at. Some of the preparatory work for this programme was developed in a programme called the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief. And if you’ve read work around relational theories of non-religion, non-religious belief is something that makes sense. But if you haven’t, and this is something that in earlier iterations of the project we came up against, you are not clear what a non-religious belief is. “Is that just any belief, that isn’t religious?” “Well, no. That’s not what we meant.” But that kind of confusion isn’t always helpful to having kind-of knowledge exchange with different kinds of audiences and research partners in a way that unbelief is helpful. It draws out its controversies, too. But a lot of that discussion can be very helpful. I think we have a sense that one of the major goals of the project, which is very descriptive in its intention . . . . So, you can summarise its core research question as being: “To summarise the nature and diversity of – scare quotes – “unbelief”. And I tend to think of one of the major outcomes of the programme being the ability to identify different profiles of unbelievers within national populations, and maybe breaking that down further still. We could think about them as denominations of unbelievers perhaps, but maybe that’s not a helpful way of going about it.

CC: Hmm.

LL: But I think, in doing that, we should be able to identify much more concrete positive language that will hopefully replace, in many ways, the concept of unbelief. I think unbelief is . . . . I’d be interested to know what you think, with your project. But for me, I’m not sure there’s going to be analytic validity usefulness. It’s quite clearly a kind of folk category.

CC: Mmm.

LL: But it’s a gateway to hopefully identifying a set of better, more interesting concepts – better and more interesting also than atheism and secularism and non-religion. And again, that’s a bit of a concern with those concepts, because they’re slightly helpful. They are all helpful in lots of different ways, but because they’re helpful they sort-of close down options to push further in certain directions. Whereas, in a way, unbelief is so clearly a sort-of folk category, it sort of invites us to think: “Well, what am I talking about here?” So I might be inclined to say, again, that unbelief is another transitional concept, like non-religion. And, if I’m still using the concept in 10 years’ time . . . . (Laughs)

CC: (Laughs) Why not?

LL: So we can meet again in a few years, and see what’s come to pass.

CC: Exactly, and what new . . .

LL: I think it’s a productive conversation. And in the programme we’re also concerned to broaden out the conversation from academia and engage much more effectively with broader audiences. And again, a sort of language that makes sense to broader audiences will help us to do that and help us to learn from perspectives outside of academia.

CC: Excellent. Now, there’s a few directions we could go in here. And part of me is wanting to push that button again about: are we potentially reifying groups here, by talking about types of unbelievers and dichotomising the world? But, listen to our previous interview – listen to my interview with Johannes Quack, back from 2015 and also read some of Lois’s work, some of my work where we do engage with this, alright?

LL: (Laughs)

CC: To skip to a debate that hasn’t been had before – well this will just be re-treading ground – but tell us about this Understanding Unbelief programme, then. So, there are four other . . . . You are the principal investigator, there’s a core team and then there’s a whole bunch of other different projects going on?

LL: There’s a lots of people- I won’t mention everyone by name. I hope they’re not offended. But there’s a lot going on

CC: So what is it? What is going on?

LL: I think it does say something about where the field has got to. So, as I sort-of said earlier, I think there’s been a phase of field-building which has been a lot of conceptual work, which has involved a lot of making the argument about why we need to study this group to our colleagues in academia (20:00). And that’s something that you’ve been involved with, and several others have been involved with. And I think that argument has clearly been won, aided and abetted by broader social contexts in which there’s a recognition of non-religious actors: people describing themselves as non-religious. So I think that’s great. And we’re moving into a new phase now, where we’re concreting or pushing that more general work further. There are lots of different ways in which people are seeking to break down those populations and be more specific again. That’s something you’ve done in your work, and I’ve done in my work. So, when we first started discussing this programme there was a sense that . . . . I mentioned some sort-of field-wide interests and concerns: about the usefulness of some inter-disciplinary work; about moving on from some of the conceptual debates we’ve been having; not encouraging a new round of work about concepts, but really getting involved in empirical settings. But, very chiefly, was a sense that, empirically, we needed to work outside of the West; that learning about atheists, people who identify as atheists and go to the atheist church, for example, or read new atheist material, was something that had been quite well-covered in the field by that point. And we needed to think beyond that, so: outside of Anglophone settings; outside of Northern European settings and the US and Canada; but also – within those settings and beyond – thinking about demographic groups that had not been well studied. Matt Sheard has a paper in Secularism and Non-Religion about non-elite, non-religious people within the UK and how little they’ve been researched. I agree. I agree: non-white, women, agnostics rather than atheist. So, there’s a very big population. We’ve done the work of saying: “This is why we need to engage with them. Here are some ways of engaging with all these different groups.” And now we really need to do it. And also, yes, get outside of the kind-of well-worn tracks. So, we wanted to consolidate some of the work that had been done. And from that basis, really, hopefully be part of ushering in this new phase. Which . . . I think there’s lots of other work that’s going on concurrently, which is a part of that. So the approach has been . . . I’m working with a multi-disciplinary team to lead the programme. So we have Jonathan Lanman who’s a cognitive anthropologist, Miguel Farias who’s a social psychologist, and Stephen Bullivant who’s a theologian and also a sociologist with expertise in quantitative work. I’m a sociologist with a focus on qualitative work. So that team – we’re doing research across five different countries, I can’t think how many continents, a few continents – is kind-of the centre of that project. But we also now have 21 project teams working around the world to do work much, much more widely than a small team could ever do, given that, as I’ve already sort of alluded to, actually the empirical work was fairly narrow. And in order to answer questions about the nature and diversity of non-belief we really needed to be very broad. Our core project is working strategically with five countries that are revealing about broader global trends and so on. But actually, it’s great to have work going on in lots of different places. So one of the projects which is grounded in Psychology is working with – I can’t think in total how many countries it is – ten or so countries that have very high numbers of people who identify as non- religious. So that includes South Korea, Australia, Japan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam and so forth. So, a really diverse set of countries that they’ll be going to and using psychological methods to engage with those populations. At the same time, we have close ethnographic research going on. A project based . . . . I should say all of the information on these projects and all the other projects is available on our website.

CC: Which is?

LL: The easiest URL is understanding-unbelief.net. It also lives with the University of Kent system, but you can find it there. And no doubt it will be available on the podcast website. (25:00) I say that, because there are so many projects, and they’re very exciting and so much worth looking at

CC: Yes, we could spend an hour talking about each one.

LL: Yes. But, to just to give a sense of the kind of contrast, there’s an ethnographic project that’s looking at magical thinking in two different European settings and working very closely, very much exploring kind-of unbelief: people who are cast as and cast themselves as unbelievers. And they’re working with a very typical population of rationalist thinkers. But looking at things we might identify, and they, as anthropologists, are used to identifying as magical thinking within those populations. So between those very broad quantitative studies, and those very detailed and nuanced qualitative studies, we’re hoping . . . we’re not going to be able to map the world of unbelievers, but we’re hoping to be able to join a lot of dots and get a much, much broader picture of . . . . How are they described? Is it the fourth-largest faith group in the world? The non-religious, or people who don’t affiliate with a religion are the third-largest religion, and unbelievers are the fourth-largest faith group. To put it somewhat crudely.

CC: Right.

LL: So there’s a lot to learn. And we hope to learn something about that group.

CC: Excellent. And listeners can keep an eye on that website over the coming couple of years. So when’s the project wrapping up? It’s 2019, isn’t it?

LL: Yes. I think it officially ends in late 2019, but there’ll be activity ongoing I would think – with a sense of all these different projects and work coming through from that – for the longer term, I would think.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up to sort-of the end of our time. I’m going to ask you a question now that I didn’t prep you with, so feel free if I have to rewind. But we were saying, before we started recording, that there’s maybe a sort of dearth of female voices speaking in this area and researching in this area. So I just wondered if you have any comments on that. A final thought as a sort-of leading light in this area?

LL: A topical theme in societies more broadly. No, that’s a good thing to focus on. A good question, thank you. Yes, in the last project I was involved with – the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief- we had a series of blogs on methods, one of which focuses on gender and talks about a concern, in the study of non-religion and atheism, about the way in which both that field is gendered and the study of that area is gendered. Partly this comes down to kind of quite interesting feedback loops. So, for example, we have studies that show that the language of atheism is slightly more popular with men than it is with women. And that’s reflected in research. So I am a woman. And I quickly said, “I don’t like atheism, that’s not my main framework – I prefer non-religion.” And that’s typical, actually, of quite a lot of researchers, to slightly generalise. But there is a kind of way of engaging with very male dominated atheist cultures – like the New Atheism and so on – that interests men. And then other voices – really interesting work that prefers concepts like non-religion or secularity, or secularism, and so on – that’s sort-of been lost a bit. I’ve noticed that happening. And there are several collections that are very male-dominated. And as much as this is not distinctive to our field, there is, as I say, a sort of relationship between what we’re studying and how we study it that is specific to our field. And actually, that sort-of brings us back to the topic of agnosticism. So we, in my field, are very generally acquainted – and so are sociologists of religion – with the idea that religious people are more likely to be women, and non-religious people are more likely to be men. So wherever you’re coming from, this gendered phenomenon is known. It shouldn’t be overstated, but it is marked. And it’s interesting, within the non-religious field, if you break that down between people who have strong atheistic beliefs and have sort-of strong agnostic beliefs, then the gender profile looks quite different. And the agnostics are more female overall and atheists are more male. So again, there’s that concern that gender may be a factor in what we’re researching, what we’re choosing to research, and what’s being neglected. In the UK the agnostics are a larger group than the atheists. Why haven’t we looked at them? (30:00) Part of the answer to that question is about gender, and it’s by no means the whole answer to that question, but I think it’s an element – or something we should at least be exploring and concerned about. I’m really thrilled, actually, that we have so many research teams on the Understanding Unbelief programme and it is a very gender-balanced set of researchers. And because of the way in which our own perspective shapes the questions we ask and how we look at them, and so on, I think that’s a very good sign for the work we’ll . . . what we’ll learn through the programme. But I do think it’s an interesting topic for us to reflect upon. As I say, there’s an NSRN blog that’s been written on it and I think there’s scope for a bit more work around reflecting on . . . . It’s sort of the other side of the coin of the focus on the study of elites – even within particular cultural settings – is thinking about who’s researching them. And that very much relates to broader questions in academia at the moment about non-elite voices having space to be heard. And the perspectives we might be missing. You know, I think it’s a question of good and bad science in those kinds of terms. Because we will find out new things if we include a broader range of perspectives. This we know. This we know. So yes, I think that would be a good thing for us to be reflecting on as field, going forward into the next phase. I can’t remember if we’re reflecting on the last 5 years or the last 10 years, but . . . looking forward anyway!

CC: Well, reflecting on a lot, anyway! Good. And hopefully the Understanding Unbelief programme will contribute a lot to that as well. So, we’re out of time, Lois. But it’s been wonderful to speak to you.

LL: And you.

CC: And I’m sure the listeners will come back in another 5 years and we’ll see where the conversation is next time. Alright.

LL: (Laughs).

Citation Info: Lee, Lois, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/from-non-religion-to-unbelief-a-developing-field/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions

New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

Since September we have been running a series of podcasts, co-produced with the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The series was entitled “New Horizons in British Sociology of Religion”, and began with “An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion” with Grace Davie, and has featured interviews with Dawn Llewellyn (on “Religion and Feminism“), Anna Strhan (on “Evangelicalism and Civic Space“), Naomi Thompson (on “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality“), Mat Francis (on “Researching Radicalization“) and Titus Hjelm & Paul-Francois Tremlett (on “The Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies“). To conclude this series, we invited scholars from a variety of fields to contribute to a collaborative compilation episode, under the title “New Horizons in the earth-rising-sun-desktop-backgroundSociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?”

In this longer-than-usual episode, Chris and David provide an interlinking narrative between Grace Davie, Joe Webster, Carole Cusack, Jonathan Jong, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Linda Woodhead and Kim Knott, reflecting on current or future developments in the sociology of religion which challenge the ubiquity of the secularization thesis, problematize it, or go beyond it. The key question: beyond secularization, what is the sociology of religion for you?

Many thanks to SOCREL for supporting this collaboration. Remember that you can keep the conversation going in the comments below each podcast and response, on our social media feeds, or by sending an email to the editors.

Also, check out some of our other great compilation podcasts: After the World Religions Paradigm…?; What is the future of Religious Studies?; and Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Turducken, dinosaur slippers, and more.

Podcasts

Ideal Types, Semantic Anarchy, and the Study of Atheism (etc.)

By Christopher R. Cotter, in response to an interview with Chris Silver on “Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension”. Listening to Chris Silver’s recent podcast on Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension was a thoroughly pleasant experience. I enjoyed hearing a colleague who I first met in 2011, and who quickly came on board the nascent RSP team (as interviewer, editor, writer, and more), taking his well-earned place on the ‘other’ side of the microphone. Like Chris, I recognize the problems associated with treating atheists, agnostics, ‘nones’, etc., as distinct groups with coherent attitudinal correspondences. I’ve also used grounded theory and social constructionism in my approach to ‘non-religion’ and recognize the issue of one’s work being taken out of context. I welcomed hearing of broad-ranging, quantitative work being carried out within the psychology of religion with an eye to debates in the broader, critical study of religion, and the new developments in his work relating to status loss, New Religious Movements, and more. Despite the many positives of the approach outlined by Silver,  critical problems with it—exemplified in my own work, too—concern the construction of ideal types, and the proliferation of idiosyncratic terminology. In what follows, I’ll discuss each of these issues in turn before proposing a discursive solution.

Ideal Types

Referring to the ‘insubstantial’ secular, Lois Lee pithily observes that ‘it is not possible to organize absence into types’ (2015, 51). However, this isn’t the case with substantive understandings of ‘non-religion’ and in 2011 I set out with similar ambitions to Silver, producing a typology of non-religion in my Masters dissertation (Cotter 2011, 2015). This project was conducted amongst the undergraduate student body of the University of Edinburgh taking a grounded theoretical approach which elicited narratives via electronic questionnaires and qualitative interviews. Two of the key insights suggested were that:    
  • The ways in which students negotiated (non-)religious terminology throughout their narratives allowed the development of five ideal types which were seemingly independent of established religious categories: naturalistic, humanistic, philosophical, familial, and spiritual.
  • Regardless of the salience of the students’ (non-)religious identifications, they appeared to be keenly aware of where they stood when religion or non-religion were perceived to interact with what mattered to them
A significant reason I have felt unease with these insights as they stand is my somewhat lofty and obfuscating attempt to provide an exhaustive ideal-typical account of non-religion. Ideal Types are commonly understood as ‘analytical tools to be used to facilitate comparison’ (Barker 2010, 188 fn. 2), as ‘pragmatic constructs’ which can in no way ‘be regarded as essential categories or ontological realities’ (Cox 2006, 83). Recent relevant examples would be Lois Lee’s five types of ‘existential culture’ (2015, 161–72), John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism (2018)Silver and colleagues’ ‘six types of non-belief’ (Silver et al. 2014), or my own five-fold typology of ‘non-religion’. Even when writing my dissertation, I was clearly uneasy concerning the correlation between these types and my data:

“These narrative-based types cannot be assumed to be constant, and must be understood as firmly rooted in the context in which they were revealed. However, they reflect what individuals actually say, and give priority to individual self-representations, providing a much ‘truer’ representation of what (non)religion means to these individuals than wide-ranging, quantitative, typologies which suffer from the same contextual constraints.” (2011, 76)

Although I, and most others who employ ideal types, have never claimed that classifying individuals is a simple matter, and have emphasized that there is much overlap between types, it is almost invariably the case that their artificial and constructed nature becomes lost in translation (see Silver’s comments about misrepresentations of his work in the media), giving the false impression that individuals can be easily boxed off into discrete types. Whilst such work is valuable for macro-level analysis, it fundamentally breaks down at the level of the individual where heterogeneity and contextuality abound: there is ‘no such thing as a perfect or ideal-typical form’ of difference to ‘religion’ (Lee 2015, 44).  ‘Religious, spiritual, secular, and non-religious identities are not stable, unitary formations’ (Hoesly 2015), but rather what Jean-François Bayart refers to as ‘operational acts of identification’ (2005, 92). However, in relation to the study of ‘Atheism’, Ethan Quillen argues that prevalent ideal-typical generalizations are perhaps ‘nothing more than a product of the current scholarly study of Atheism’s predominant focus on the social-scientific attempt at making sense of “Atheism-in-general,” rather than “Atheism-in-specific”’ (2015a, 30), the ‘attempt at finding an identity in the numerous applications of an ambiguous word’ (Baird 1991, 11).

Semantic Anarchy 

Going further, these problems are clearly connected to issues surrounding terminology. The contemporary situation has been described as verging on ‘a situation of semantic anarchy, in which individual scholars work with idiosyncratic definitions’ (Jong 2015, 19). Indeed, Quillen argues that the whole discourse on ‘types of atheism’, or indeed the very terminology of ‘ir-religion,’ ‘un-belief,’ ‘non-religion’, etc., is ‘not unlike that which complicates the definition of “religion”’ (2015b, 132), and falls foul of much of the critique levelled at the term (see RSP podcasts with Timothy FitzgeraldRussell McCutcheonJames CoxBrent NongbriTeemu Taira and others). In addition, ‘The conceptual balkanisation that results from the proliferation of idiosyncratic definitions makes […] fruitful collaboration more difficult’ between scholars doing empirical work in different contexts (Jong 2015, 19). We need not despair, though. This situation of proliferating ideal types and idiosyncratic terminology can be remedied by scholars being ‘vigilantly specific about the aspect of “nonreligion” that they are interested in’ (Jong 2015, 20), restricting themselves to very particular contexts—historical, textual, ethnographic, etc. Alternatively, my preferred route is to take a discursive approach.

Discursive Approaches

As I’ve previously argued, we can fruitfully 

“conceptualize non-religion as part of a religion-related field comprising ‘all phenomena that are generally (or according to a certain definition of “religion”) considered to be not religious, but stand in a determinable and relevant relationship to the religious field.’ This relationship can take the form of criticism, competition, collaboration, mirroring, functional equivalence, interest, etc. Such an understanding sees […] ‘descriptions, claims, reports, allegations, and assertions’ about non-/religion [as] the topic of the analysis, rather than ‘religion’ or ‘non-religion’ themselves. Thus, we arrive at a critically-engaged, relational concept of ‘non-religion’ which can be operationalized empirically in a non-stipulative manner and which emphasizes that religion need not be a dominant, normative, or positive term in the contexts studied.”

Although discursive questions were not the driver for my Masters project, it can clearly be interpreted as having focused on the way ‘religion is organized, discussed, and discursively materialized’ (von Stuckrad 2010, 166) in a particular context, by individuals who self-described aspects of their individual practice, beliefs, attitudes and/or identity as different from their subjective self-definitions of religion. It can be viewed as discerning a range of discourses, which could be classified as spiritual, familial, philosophical, humanistic and naturalistic, surrounding a variety of negotiated phenomena—identities, practices, attitudes, beliefs—in a field of discourse with boundaries dictated by the logics of the research project, i.e. substantiating the ‘non-religiosity’ of Edinburgh students, in 2010–11, whose self-descriptions were ‘non-religious’, and so on. Returning to the two key insights of the project, this discursive re-reading allows them to be reframed as follows:  
  • In these narratives, these students primarily invoked five types of discourse when they engaged with topics related to religion, non-religion, and related categories. These discourses appeared to operate at a level independent of the specific terminology—the discursive objects—in question. 
  • Regardless of the salience of these discourses in individuals’ lives, they were invoked when the students were confronted with phenomena that were deemed to be related to—i.e. which meaningfully intersected with—the field of discourse on religion, non-religion, and related categories. 
This move from types of atheism/non-religion to types of discourse shifts the focus to ‘the social effects of the way people talk, rather than the apparent meaning of their words’ (Martin 2017, 104). People employ multiple discourses, situationally; they can say things in many different ways, depending on the discursive resources available to them in a particular cultural context.  A shift in focus from the individual to the discourse they employ, from the person to what they say, and how they say it, allows the individual to be incorporated analytically into the wider societal conversation of which they are inherently a part. As Bayart argues, no speech act can be attributed to a single individual, but is a product of the broader complex social situation in which it occurs, as well as its historical context: ‘every utterance is related to earlier utterances’ (2005, 112). There is much more I could say here, and I’m not claiming that discursive study is the only way to study ‘non-religion’ critically. However, it is one way in which we can usefully sidestep some of the issues associated with the construction of typologies in the social sciences. Whether this helps us to avoid the ‘misinterpretation’ of our work when it takes on a life of its own is another matter. One of many Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion.

References 

  • Baird, Robert D. 1991. Category Formation and the History of Religions. 2nd ed., with A new pref. Religion and Reason 1. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Barker, Eileen. 2010. “The Church Without and the God Within: Religiosity and/or Spirituality?” In The Centrality of Religion in Social Life: Essays in Honour of James A. Beckford, edited by Eileen Barker, 187–202. Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Bayart, Jean-François. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students.” Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2015. “Without God yet Not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-Religion among Scottish University Students.” In Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts, edited by Lori G. Beaman and Steven Tomlins, 171–94. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Cox, James L. 2006. A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion: Key Figures, Formative Influences and Subsequent Debates. London: Continuum.
  • Gray, John. 2018. Seven Types of Atheism. London: Allen Lane.
  • Hoesly, Dusty. 2015. “‘Need a Minister? How About Your Brother?’: The Universal Life Church between Religion and Non-Religion.” Secularism and Nonreligion4 (1). 
  • Jong, Jonathan. 2015. “On (Not) Defining (Non)Religion.” Science, Religion and Culture2 (3): 15–24.
  • Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Nonreligious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Quillen, Ethan G. 2015a. “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism.” Science, Religion and Culture2 (3): 25–25.
  • ———. 2015b. “Everything Is Fiction: An Experimental Study in the Application of Ethnographic Criticism to Modern Atheist Identity.” Unpublished PhD Thesis, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
  • Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr., and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17 (10): 990–1001.
  • Stuckrad, Kocku von. 2010. “Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 22 (2): 156–69.

Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension

Extensive research has been conducted in exploration of the American religious landscape; however, only recently has social science research started to explore nonbelief in any detail. Research on nonbelief has been limited as most research focuses on the popularity of the religious “nones” or the complexities of alternative faith expressions such as spirituality. Through two studies, one qualitative and one quantitative, Dr. Christopher F. Silver’s research explored how nonbelievers’ self-identify. Study 1 (the qualitative study) discovered that individuals have shared definitional agreement but use different words to describe different types of nonbelief. Through thematic coding, a typology of six different types of nonbelief was observed. Those are Academic Atheists, Activist Atheist/Agnostics, Seeker Agnostics, Antitheists, Non-Theists, and the Ritual Atheists. Study 2 explored the empirical aspects of these types related to the Big Five Domain, Ryff Psychological Well-Being, Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Multidimensional Anger Inventory, Rokeach Dogmatism Scale, and intersections related to religious and spiritual ontology.

If you enjoyed this podcast, check out Chris Silver’s podcasts about grad school and academia with “The Unlikely Academics” here.

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Swedish Fish, comic books, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension

Podcast with Chris Silver (8 April 2019).

Interviewed by Kris Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Silver_-_Atheism,_New_Religious_Movements_and_Cultural_Tension_1.1

 

Kris Black (KB): How many kinds of atheism are there? Are there different kinds of atheists, different kinds of atheism, and what’s the deal between new religious movements, non-religious belief and cultural tension? Dr Chris Silver joins me today – and welcome, Chris!

Chris Silver (CS): Thank you!

KB: We’re here to talk about your wonderful previous work and your current work in atheism and new religious movements. Why don’t we just start with visiting briefly your previous work on the six different type of atheism?

CS: Sure. Well, I should also mention I got my start as one of the assistant editors of the Religious Studies Project!

KB: That’s right!

CS: Back in 2011-2012. So it’s strange to be on the other side of the microphone.

KB: In the other chair! (Laughs).

CS: Yes. It’s really weird so hopefully I don’t embarrass Chris, David and Tommy. So here goes, guys, I’ll try. Yes. So a number of years ago Tommy Coleman and I . . . Tommy Coleman’s now at Coventry University in the UK, a former both under-grad and graduate student of mine. I was in the process of working on a doctoral degree in Learning and Leadership at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and was really, really interested in a sort of fallacy – particularly in psychology but even wider in sociology – that some others had about atheism and agnosticism. So, for example, you’d see a lot of surveys and you’d have all, you know, where people would identify their beliefs or their religious and spiritual associations. And you’d always see “atheism” and “agnosticism”. Sometimes you’d see “none”: n-o-n-e-s, or “unaffiliated”. But, you know, with that community growing – we’ve seen this in Pew Forum and . . .

KB: Fastest growing demographic.

CS: Yes. So it just bothered me because, you know, I thought there was more complexity there, and I was afraid that by us collapsing all that variability into a nominal variable we’re missing some richness that could be captured. But through the inquiry I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to be the most efficient way to do that. So I’d both say that I was blessed to do this study, and I also apologise profusely! Because when you’re the first person to try to do something like this you don’t know what you’re doing! So I don’t ever claim that it has predictive power, although we have got a lot of anecdotal feedback from atheists and agnostics saying that it really resonates. So anyway, we set out originally, Tommy and I did, and we conducted a series of interviews with people from all around the US and we started discovering exactly what . . . . We started finding very common themes.

KB: Themes of non-belief?

CS: No. Of non-belief and how they identify to others, you know, other things like their opinions of religious believers and how they interact with them. And how they interact with families. And so what we did was we sort-of did a mix of both grounded theory and then sort-of social constructionism with a little sprinkle of phenomenology on top!

KB: (Laughs). That’s nice!

CS: And basically we’re trying to look at what is the shared reality. Initially we set out to try to find what terms of identity they used. But we failed miserably!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: I mean, because everyone had a different (understanding) depending on who they were reading. If somebody was reading Sam Harris or somebody was reading Dawkins . . . everybody had . . . . They used the (same) terms, but the definitions were radically different. But the sort-of diamond in the rough here was, when we said “Alright, well, if we don’t have agreement with the terms, we’ve got to do the definitions.” And all of a sudden, just cleanly, these themes started emerging of agreement. And so all of a sudden we started finding that there are attitudinal behavioural dimensions common among different kinds, including like how they saw the world and those kinds of things. So Tommy and I – who’s an editor of the RSP, I believe, still – he and I then started thematically pulling those together and sharpening them.(5:00) And so, for a second study, we then started using various psychometrics like the Big Five and the Ryff Psychological Wellbeing Scale. We used the Rokeach Dogmatism Scale.

KB: Oh, right.

CS: And yeah. So when we made all these measures we ended up finding some decent effects between the different groups, and significant differences and different aspects. And so it was cool. And so we actually promised our participants, you know . . . . We shared the results. We set up this webpage so that they could see what their efforts went towards. And all of a sudden one of the participants, it turned out, was actually a journalist.

KB: Oh?

CS: And he picked up our results. And the next thing you know we’re on the Christian Post, CNN and I mean . . . I didn’t know what to do! And we had some wild stuff happen! Like, first of all, some folks mispresented our work – but I still appreciated the shout out! Like the Christian Post, for example: their leading head was, “Atheist Might be Standing Next to You in Church”!

KB: Oh! (Laughs)

CS: Because one of our groups that we found was this, what we call “ritual atheist agnostics”, which are basically their atheists but they still . . .

KB: Right. Active non-believers.

CS: And since then, there’s been evidence in the Netherlands, and a few other places, that have found similar patterns.

KB: Yeah. So what was the name of that? If someone wanted to find out about that article . . .

CS: I think we, what did we call it? Atheists and non-belief . . . six types. . . (Correction: The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative)

KB: Six types of atheists and non-belief?

CS: Something like that. I’m a terrible scholar! I can’t even remember my own work!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But yeah. It was in that. And so it’s been published. It’s in, most appropriately it’s actually in Psychology of Religion and Mental Health (Correction: Mental Health, Religion and Culture)

KB: There you go. In that journal.

CS: Yes. And so that’s a good international journal. So it’s not Tier One, but they do some really great interdisciplinary work. And that’s why we went for them versus some of the others, because we wanted to have a wider range . . .

KB: A wider audience . . .

CS: Even though they may not have as many readers, they have great interdisciplinary work. So, perfect.

KB: OK. So what was the feedback that you got from that?

CS: So, you know, we’ve had . . . interestingly, not one secular community ended up really . . . and I mean secular in a broader sense . . . . I mean, a lot of folks said that it resonated with them. I got invited to the Center for Inquiry at Buffalo, New York, to present. I’m very humbled by that. I’ve been invited to various universities around, to sort-of share some of the results.

KB: Oh, that’s great!

CS: And of course, I always lead with the disclaimer that this is just an attempt, it’s not going to be perfect. I’m sure that there are amazing statisticians out there who could do light years better cool stuff than I ever could. Originally, the goal that Tommy and I had was to start the conversation.

KB: And that’s what it’s done.

CS: And Tommy’s gone on to do some really, really cool stuff in atheism. He’s written some very powerful pieces in terms of theory which have been really good, so I’m incredibly proud of him for that. Also I’ve got my graduate student now, who just presented, actually, on concealment and disclosure. He just created a non-belief concealment scale and has had really robust results, regional differences that are really interesting. I’ll use the stats terms and then put it in English. It’s got a really interesting factor structure, which means that there’s very clean sub-scales that are there, that have been used.

KB: So you can project trends?

CS: It’s like an institutional kind of concealment, versus a personal kind of concealment.

KB: Right

CS: And so, warmly received by sociologists and psychologists. He’s got some really good feedback, but also, people went: “Yes! This needed to happen!” So, really proud of Cameron Mackey. I should mention his name! Because I’m very, very proud of him. This was his big day. He did a good job.

KB: Wonderful!

CS: And so, yeah. I’ve been very, very lucky.

KB: Yeah. Well, I’m sure that work will take on even more projects in future. So we’ll look forward to that.

CS: I hope so.

KB: That would be great. OK. So let’s just shift a little bit now to your current work on the new religious movements, and the cultural tension that’s happening between religious belief and non-belief.

CS: Yes. (10:00) So for a long time – and I need to give a shout out to some other colleagues who have been working on it – for about since 2000 I’ve been working with colleagues from Bielefeld, Germany, on . . . research originally started on faith development, but we’ve actually shifted to faith styles. We’ve got a number of books as well. There’s academic publications on the topic. So my shout out would be to Dr Heinz Streib who’s at Bielefeld University, Dr Barbara Keller who’s at Bielefeld University, Ramona Bullik who’s been a long time on the project manager and she’s been working on her doctorate at Bielefeld. And then, of course, I was academically born and raised by Dr Ralph Hood. And so I’ve been working with him since the early days. And so we’ve collaborated with Bielefeld now for eighteen years. That’s half my life! And so we’ve got to co-author a book. And you’ve got to realise in my mind I’m a nobody! So I mean, seriously, I really am. I’m not saying that like some kind of “humble start” or something. I really am nobody. So we did a book on spirituality. Multiple chapters of qualitative quantitative, mixed methods design. And we’re working on some other . . . . We’ve got two more books in the works that we’re working on right now, as well as a couple of manuscripts. But we’re actually going to do a longitudinal study of people’s changes in their belief and faith. And we’ve actually been able to find some of the original participants from eighteen years ago!

KB: Oh, wow!

CS: And then we’ve also got some, over the years, that we’re tracking now. So we’ve had generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation, we’re now actually going to some pretty heavy, longitudinal, mixed-methods work. And I’m sure you can appreciate how that’s a massive thing. . .

KB: Yes.

CS: So one of the things I’ve been looking at is, I’ve been interested in social cohesion and how ideology sort-of signals group membership. And so this is sort-of a spin-off of Streib, Keller and Hood’s work but it’s not to say that it is there work – and I want to make sure there’s some clarity on that – although I do have their support in terms of the data analysis and things I’ve done thus far. But the way that the theory goes – and there’s been some preliminary findings already – is that, if you think of . . . I assume the audience is probably mostly academics and theologians, social science researchers,

KB: Students.

CS: Students, yeah. If you think of a particular cultural context anywhere – it could be Utah, it could be Tennessee, it could be New Zealand or Africa – you’d sort-of accept the fact that there’s this cultural norm of a particular tradition which is, like, in the middle – they’re not really controversial, or anything like that – but everybody knows this is the norm, right? We’ve actually theorised that . . . we call that group in our book . . . . Well, we borrow from David Bromley’s work on apostasy and style of exit from back in the early 2000s. But we call that an “integrated” group, meaning like, they’re just culturally . . . there’s virtually no social tension. So that group could be Methodists in Eastern Tennessee, it could be Mormons in Utah. It’s whoever the norm is in that geographic context. Then, the more you’re sort-of moving away from the centre of the bell curve and you start moving out into the maybe say . . . The bottom line is, we’re starting to move away from the norm that you get in that middle area. We call those “accommodating”. It means they participate in society, but there may be certain behaviours, rituals, attitudes, beliefs; something that still makes them stand out just enough to create cultural tension. But they still tend to participate. So if you think of being, say, Mormon, you know, in Southern Georgia, right? So, yes, you go to church on Sunday like everybody else, but you have this additional theology which they would go . . . they’d look at you a little . . .

KB: Mmm. A little suspect.

CS: (15:00) Like in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is where I’m from, an example would actually be the Seventh Day Adventists. They’re actually pretty common, because they’ve got a university there, they’ve got Seventh Day Adventist churches but in their mind, they think that others, of course, are judging them for being a little different. Sometimes they aren’t and sometimes they are. But that would be like an accommodating group. But then – and this answers your question – there’s what we call “opposition” groups. Which are broadly called subversives. These are groups that have no real interests in participating in the larger culture. In some cases they make their own micro-culture, so that they sustain themselves and they try not to participate as much as possible. An example I would use is, in Chattanooga we have this group called the Twelve Tribes. They started there. And they’re a new religious movement. I don’t like the term cult because it now . . . while in the sixties it was used as a sociological term, it now carries this media stigma. Quite frankly, there are some incredibly wonderful people that I’ve gotten to know in that tradition. But yeah, their beliefs are very much different from others. And so oppositional doesn’t mean that there’s something bad about them. It just means that they plainly stand out from . . .

KB: From the norm.

CS: So the way . . . so my modification, where I’m going with this theory, is that I believe that much like a bell curve, the more you get out on the tails the more distance there is between the members, in position. I actually have a view that the more a group differs from the norm, the more social tension there is – and therefore, the more likely that there’s going to be inter-group prejudice.

KB: Interesting.

CS: This is my argument

KB: Within both groups?

CS: Yes. Because, if you think about it . . . . So, if you think of the bell curve and the mean’s right in the middle, one side would be like religious and spiritual groups, right, that are inter-normative – everyone accepts they’re part of the culture, I mean, yeah, you get a weirdo now and again, but most everybody’s, you know, pretty cool. But then you start moving out, and you start getting into not only more fundamentalism, and more sort-of . . . if you think about institutional and structural authoritarianism, rigidity . . . depending on which discipline of sociology or psychology you’re using, there’s different terms.

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But the more you’re moving out to the tails: a) the more protective you are of your group and you’re looking for any signal – be it verbal, behavioural – but you’re trying to look for authenticity of who’s in your group, versus those that are outside. Right? So the more you’re out this way, the more prejudiced you’re going to be of the norm. But here’s the other thing: from the norm’s perspective, the more prejudiced you’re going to be of the outside.

KB: Right.

CS: Now, that’s only one side of the bell curve. So, then, think about the other side of the bell curve. This is where we get into spiritual. So, folks who are spiritual, not religious. They’re not trying to half-identify with something. But it’s moving into a more individualised belief system as opposed to more structural. So, you know, as you’re moving out you start getting into non-affiliated, religious nones, agnosticism and then atheism. Here’s the beauty of it: it’s like the bell curve plots one side on the other. In theory the tension should be the same, the behaviours would be the same, the attitudinal dimensions of rigidity would be the same.

KB: Yeah. That’s fascinating!

CS: And from our six types data we already know that anti-theists are just as dogmatic as fundamentalists!

KB: Right.

CS: So the point is, we’ve already got some evidence of this. And when I say we, I mean . . . this is, of course, where I deviate from my colleagues although I hope it doesn’t create confusion that they’re doing this too. They’ve been very kind and given me some of their data. But what’s interesting is . . . I will give a shout out to Dr Streib that he has this measure called the “religious styles scale”. It predicts these categories really well. And what’s funny is, he didn’t make the scale with this intention.

KB: Oh really? But it fits perfectly?

CS: Yeah. So we did . . . . I’ll give the stats term and then I’ll translate in English. So what I did is, I did binomial regression which allows us to create group identity. So, essentially, you’re predicting nominal identity and you’re looking to see, what are the certain measures that contributed to variants of that prediction? So, “Does a measure predict the group?” in English. Sure enough, at least with the integrated and accommodating groups, it’s good and it’s strong. And so there is some interesting potential there. So one of the things I’m going to speak about tomorrow is that I actually think that the oppositional should be the same way. I mean, you’ve already got some clean evidence. (20:00) We’ve already got somewhat related evidence in some of these other studies that not just me, but some much more brilliant people like Cotter, Lois Lee, Ryan Cragun, definitely, on the atheism side. And even on the new religious movements’ side, you look at Gordon Melton, again Bromley, shout out to Lorne Dawson who was one of my professors when I was at Milford Laurier University, a long time ago. They’ve got some really interesting stuff that does seem to parallel what I’m suggesting.

KB: It sounds like you’ve got a really good theoretical lens, a good foundation there, a really good base that you can . . .

CS: We’ll see what happens! But, again the problem I have is there’s so many brilliant people out in the world, but I still feel compelled to study it. So what I’m trying to do . . . before . . . I was trying to do it as just me, but then I started to collaborate with other people, because that way they can help me. And I’m also completing a doctorate in social psychology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and I’m working with a wonderful advisor by the name of Dr Michael Olson who does dual process theory research which is cognitive . . .

KB: Oh, right.

CS: And what I like about what I’m working on here is that it taps into some of that. So there’s this sort of . . . if you think about it in social terms, you know, when somebody’s so radically different than you could have these sort-of feelings of disgust for somebody that’s so radically different. Not to mention anxiety, prejudice, anger, sadness. And so, interestingly enough, my current dissertation – as soon as I get it proposed and can start pulling data (almost done – the proposal, anyway!) – is to actually study high status individuals like Christians, mainly integrated Christians, who believe they’re stigmatised.

KB: Ah. Yes.

CS: In the post-Trump era we’ve seen some . . . but it’s been around for a while, this theory. But I want to look and see, you know: do we see the same kinds of psychological patterns for someone who is high status, who has enjoyed “privilege” to use the sort-of liberal term . . .

KB: And by high status you mean like someone who’s been the norm, who’s already experiencing circumstantial privilege?

CS: That’s right. They’re in the norm. They’ve enjoyed privilege but then at the same time, for whatever reason, they feel like they’ve been discriminated against. But mainly, the big thing is that if they lose status will they self-report feeling stigmatised? And so we have an experiment where we actually tell them they’re losing status, versus a condition where we say they’re not.

KB: And kind-of see what the reaction is?

CS: Yes. So, we’ll see.

KB: I know there are some groups who use persecution and loss of status as a kind-of confirmation of themselves. Is that the kind of thing . . .?

CS: Yes. That’s kind-of it, it’s interesting. But we’re also going to look at white males, too. So that way we’re not just making it about religion. We’re going to see, what do white males believe? And again there’s some at least preliminary correlational data that seems to indicate that some people feel this way. It’s not to say everyone who’s Christian feels that way, or every male. But in (audio unclear), because I’m an Appalachian kid, so I’m from the country – I’m sure you can’t tell from my accent at all!

KB: (Laughs). No.

CS: But the other side of it is that you think about those who’ve grown up in Appalachia, in extreme poverty, and they’re being told they have privilege. And so that creates a certain interesting level of cognitive dissonance. So how would the person who’s grown up in that environment, how would they respond to sort-of diversity initiatives, and what is that there? It’s not a judgement that I’m making. I’m just saying that from a psychological perspective, what does that look like socially?

KB: Yes. And what does that mean out in society?

CS: Absolutely. And so when you have a West Virginia coal miner who’s supporting Trump, you know, who’s like “We’re going to bring coal back. And we’re going to . . .” you know. And because I think in some ways . . . I think I can say this with some certainty, from my own anecdotal experience, is that they feel like they’ve not been a part of the national narrative.

KB: Right. They haven’t been part of the network. They haven’t had that status.

CS: That’s right. And so, if you define privilege in terms of things like seeing themselves on TV – absolutely. The definition works. But if we talk about in terms of opportunity for employment, opportunities for resources (25:00) . . .

KB: Power to make change.

CS: Education access. In many respects I see very similar patterns with my students – my undergrads, at least – those who are first generation college students from Appalachia, and some urban folks. Now, the urban folks probably have more adverse kinds of challenges but the point is, I gave a diversity talk one day at our university, about dual process theory (Thankyou, Dr Olson!). And what was fascinating was, was I’d made this similar argument and would you believe after I gave the talk I had a number of folks who were sort-of the minority advocates, and – wait for it – conservative opinions and beliefs, all come up and say that they agreed with my view.

KB: Wow!

CS: Radical positions that were like, “Yeah. What you said makes complete sense.”

KB: It really resonated with them.

CS: And what was crazy was – remember this is post-Trump – they were talking amongst themselves about how they agree about their socioeconomic inequities, and that is what brought them together. And they actually had a constructive conversation. I almost cried!

KB: Yes.

CS: Because, when you think . . .

KB: Well and that’s what I was wondering about this polarisation, that there is such a big divide. Is there a place for that type of coming together?

CS: Yeah. And I think we’re . . . I’m totally pulling a Chris Silver and going down a rabbit hole, I’m sorry!

KB: (Laughs).

CS: But I think we’re in an interesting moment here in history. Because for the first time, not only do we have access to any information we ever wanted, we’re highly diverse, we interact with far more people than any of our ancestors ever did. So there’s interesting both social, cognitive, evolutionary . . .

KB: On every level.

CS: Yes. So we’re at a weird nexus in history and I think, for some of us, we’ve moved too fast. And I think some of the things we’re seeing is that they a feel that they don’t have a voice, but also I think they haven’t had time to adjust to all the change.

KB: Right.

CS: And in many respects some changes need to happen and they’ve got to make that change. But then at the same time . . . I think a lot of this uncertainty and fear that we have about change is also driving some of our closed-minded attitudes. And I’d say this from not just the right but also it’s now on the left.

KB: Awesome

CS: But it’s an interesting time. It’s a really interesting time. So cultural tension, for me – I ‘m going to circle back round – cultural tension, for me, is a really interesting aspect and that, to me, how we signal to others our group membership, it’s no longer about discourse, it’s about tribalism.

KB: Ah. Wow!

CS: Sorry I’ve just . . .

KB: Fascinating stuff here! Really look forward to reading more of your work. And best of luck with your dissertation and your continued success with Six Types of Atheism.

CS: Yes, I don’t know what we’re going to do next. I’d like at some point to talk to more intelligent people. Might buy Ryan Cragun a beer!

KB: There you go! (Laughs).

CS: Chris Cotter would be interesting.

KB: (Laughs). Alright. Well, thanks for joining us!

CS: No, thank you again. And shout out to all my old buddies at the Religious Studies Project! Thank you, guys.


Citation Info: Silver, Christopher and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/atheism-new-religious-movements-and-cultural-tension/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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“Unbelief” or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Imprecise Terminology

A response to “From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field…

by Alex Uzdavines[1]

Read more

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

The twenty-first century has witnessed growing academic and popular interest in a variety of categories which are related to ‘religion’ but conceptualized as ‘other’… atheism, non-religion, secularity, religious indifference, and so on. Each of these categories can be conceptualized as aspects of the general category ‘unbelief’—‘used in a wide sense, implying a generalized lack of belief in a God or gods’ (Lee and Bullivant 2016).

Back in 2012, Chris sat down – with friend and colleague Ethan Quillen – to speak to Lois Lee, on the topic of ‘non-religion’. Since then, a lot has changed. Lee has climbed the academic ladder, publishing her first monograph with OUP in 2015 – Recognizing the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular – and currently serving as project leader on the Understanding Unbelief programme. This is a major new research programme aiming to advance scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’ around the world through core research and an additional £1.25 million being spent on additional projects and public engagement activities. Chris’s career has also progressed, with recent work including co-editing New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, and beginning a postdoctoral project engaging in a comparative study of ‘unbelief’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In this podcast, we check in with the state of the field, discuss developments beyond the Anglophone “West”, some of the many exciting projects being worked on under the “Understanding Unbelief” banner, the utility and pitfalls of the terminology of “unbelief”, and some of the critical issues surrounding the reification of survey categories.

Of relevance to the themes discussed, include Marta Trzebiatowska’s blog post on gender issues in non-religion studies: Not for Girls? Gender and Researching Nonreligion. This blog is part of the NSRN/SSNB blog series on research methods. The full series is introduced here: Research Methods for the Scientific Study of Nonreligion, by Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, Nonreligion & Secularity Research Network, 2016.

Specific Understanding Unbelief projects mentioned in the podcast include:

* Mapping the Psychology of Unbelief Across Contexts and Cultures, PI: Jonathan Jong, Psychology, Coventry University, UK
* Nonreligious Childhood: Growing Up Unbelieving in Contemporary Britain, PI: Dr Anna Strhan, Religious Studies, University of Kent, UK,

Listeners may also be interested in our podcasts on “Understanding the Secular“, “Permutations of Secularism“, “Non-Religion”, “Secular Humanism“. “The Post-Secular“, “Studying Non-Religion within Religious Studies“, “The Secularization Thesis” and more…

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when finding UNBELIEVABLE deals on academic texts, strawberry jam, vintage clothing, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field

Podcast with Lois Lee (26 February 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lee_-_Non-Religion_to_Unbelief_-_A_Developing_Field_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Greetings, Religious Studies Project listeners! I am speaking to you from London, in the abode of Dr Lois Lee, who’s returning to the Religious Studies Project. Hi, Lois.

Lois Lee (LL): Hi. Lovely to be here again.

CC: Lois was one of our first interviewees back in 2012. I can’t remember the specific date, or why it was happening. I can remember sitting in a seminar room in New College – along with my then colleague, and still good friend Ethan Quillen – talking about the concept of non-religion with Lois. And now, five, well possibly six years on – depending how we calculate that – we’re checking in again to talk about non-religion, unbelief, the development of the field, how we go about studying this, other major developments that are happening in the field at the moment, and anything else that we can fit into the next 25 minutes! So, when we last spoke to you I remember you saying, “If we’re still having this conversation in 10 years about non-religion, something’s gone wrong.”

LL: Yes.

CC: We’re not quite having the same conversation – but maybe I’ll just throw that at you as a way to kick things off.

LL: And we’re not quite ten years on – so I don’t have to falsify the thesis, or prove or disprove it at this stage! But no, it’s very interesting to reflect on that. I remember saying that, and I’ve referred to that quite often since then. A bold claim from someone who’s argued that we need to look at non-religion and that there’s practical, methodological and analytic utility in using that concept to research religion, and something we might think about as religion, religious-like, or religion-related. But I was saying at the time, “Look, it’s a means to an end. And ten years on, hopefully, we won’t need that means to an end anymore.” I would revise that view now, which is good: we need to be moving forward and so on. Because I think that the discursive study of non-religion is much, much more important than I was engaging with in my work at the time. Not that it wasn’t recognised, because work of critical secular scholars and critical religion scholars were showing that quite clearly. So Johannes Quack worked on and so on – these non-religious discourses are very widespread. They are, as all these scholars show and would argue, definitional of a whole epoch, perhaps, and vast swathes of the world. So I think there’s actually a lot of water in looking at – and Jim Beckford has made this point very clearly – that we really need a strong discursive study of non-religion. And I don’t see that disappearing any time soon. So we’re going to need non-religion in the longer term and be engaging with it. But I’m going to stand by the spirit of the claim, if not the letter of the claim, in that what I was getting at was that – and probably this points to my own research interests – is that many people and things that are identified as non-religious are identified because of attachments that are not purely discursive. They’re not just about relationality to religion, they’re a way of describing lots of different things. And I’ve been particularly interested in what I’ve called in my book “existential cultures”, what Baker and Smith call “cosmic meaning systems”, what other scholars refer to as “worldviews”. And what we see now – and this is very timely to address this question now, because all of the work I’ve just mentioned has been published in the last three years at the longest – is a lot of play around working with how we’re going to describe this stuff that is underlying what’s expressed as “non-religious identities”, “non-religious practices” and “positionalities” and so on. Or analytic language: so, identifying as scholars identifying people as non-religious. And really, what we have in mind are, for example, naturalist worldviews and so on. So I feel totally vindicated in fact, in that claim, in that I think in five years, a lot of the work that’s fallen within the language on non-religion – that we use the language of non-religion to identify – we won’t be using that language any more. (5:00)And it’s precisely because there’s so much dynamism at the moment around developing better analytic categories – to get at what a lot of us have been getting at. And learning from our research and so on, that’s important to the people we’re talking with. So a lot of the work that we talk about in terms of non-religion is going to fall within – well, I’m not going to say what, just now! But maybe it’s the study of worldviews, maybe it’s existentiality, maybe it’s cosmic meaning systems, who knows?

CC: Excellent. I’ve just realised that I completely omitted to properly introduce you at this beginning of this interview!

LL: (Laughs) But surely I need no introduction, Chris?

CC: Exactly! But you’ve already touched on it, just there. So, Lois is a research fellow at the University of Kent, where she’s currently principal investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme, which is something that we’ll get to very shortly. She’s also a founding director of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network, which you’ll have heard plenty about on this podcast thus far. And her 2015 book with OUP was called Recognising the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular. So you’ve heard about the book, just there. And we’ll get on to some of this just now. Maybe the book’s actually something to springboard from, since again we didn’t speak about that last time.

LL: Yes

CC: Maybe just tell us about your own trajectory, and how you got to this stage of being PI in a project looking at unbelief.

LL: That’s right. Well, I suppose when we last talked it was a twinkle in the eye! But the book is a culmination of what we were talking about in that earlier podcast, which I’m sure is available to listeners, if they’re interested, to return to it. And as you say, I’ve already sort of alluded to some of the work in that book, which was about identifying and engaging with populations. In particular, I was most interested in populations we identify as non-religious, and saying we need to understand them in their capacity of identifying as non-religious or being identified as others, by others as non-religious. And that many of the claims that are made about the religious would be partial if we didn’t work much more closely with that population. That book arose from work that began in 2006, when sociology – my area – but the human sciences more broadly had not really engaged with this non-religious population, in any detail. They’d had sporadic forays – significant, but sporadic forays – into that area. So the book was very much a kind-of “call to arms” in way. But the title sort-of summarises, I guess, recognising the non-religious: that as researchers we need to recognise the non-religious, as societies we need to recognise the non-religious. I talk a bit about the commitments, investments, social attachments and so on, of non-religious people that lead them to feel a sense of grievance if societies only recognise the analogous needs of religious people. So there’s a political argument there in the end. So where have we got to? How does that lead to the Understanding Unbelief programme?

CC: Yes.

LL: Well, I think we’ve touched on that trajectory slightly already, which is that my kind-of emerging interest was particularly in the kinds of what I shall call “existential beliefs and cultures”. The “worldviews” is a more commonplace word we might think about. I think it’s slightly problematic, and we probably don’t have time to get into that. But I think it’s going to lead to some really interesting conversations with people really engaging closely with that concept, and critically, which hasn’t happened around worldview in the same way it’s happened with religion. So it will be really interesting to see that work. But what I’m interested in is the way in which humans conceptualise their own existence and the nature of reality. That conceptualisation is intrinsically transcendent – so it’s stepping back to take to a perspective on reality and existence – and, in that way, is something that is very much shared between, well, cuts across religious and non-religious divides. Whether all humans are as interested in this conceptualisation is a very open question. And that’s very much where the book ends up, is saying there are lots of things going on when people self-identify or are identified as others, by others as non-religious. There are lots of political things going on. There are lots of socio-cultural things, some of which we might feel very sympathetic to and some of which we might be very, very concerned about (10:00). There’s a lot going on. But one important thing that’s going on is that non-religious people have worldviews and they aren’t recognised clearly enough in the conceptual language we have, or in the academy, for example, or other places in public life. So we have the Sociology of Religion, and it’s not clear how well that makes space for the sociology of non-traditional, nonreligious worldviews, and I’m very much arguing we should do that. The Unbelief programme builds on that in that . . . . So, the focus on belief – there’s a couple of different reasons we’re using the term “unbelief”. And we always use it in scare quotes. I think it’s important to say that one of the reasons that we have turned to that term is that we think it’s very obviously a folk category that emerged from Christian traditions. It can’t be confused with a viable analytic concept. And we had some concerns about atheism, secularism – and non-religion, actually – that they had acquired a kind of veneer of analytic coherence that wasn’t always borne out. And so we wanted to . . . . And this arises from conversations with others in the field about where the field was at. We wanted to slightly step back from that and invite people to be a bit critical about what they’re doing and not close off questions, as well. For example, I’ve spoken recently about the disproportionate focus on positive atheists over and above strong agnostics in research. We now have an emerging scholarship around Atheism, with a capital A, and very little about agnostics. But there are lots of people who make the strong agnostic claim that humans can’t know about the nature of human reality and existence, or God, or whoever. We didn’t want to foreclose on that by having a programme on atheism, for example. So, partly, one of the strengths of unbelief is that it’s very, very broad. It allows people to focus on different things that are going on within that rubric, to not imagine they’ve got a specific or coherent analytic category to start off with, but to think about what they’re doing. But it is a word that includes belief. That’s partly because one stage that I think the field is at is that there’s been a lot of energy in the last ten years . . . . The Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network: I founded that in 2008, so we’re ten years on now. And in that period there’s been a kind of intense period of field-building in lots of different human science disciplines. A group who discussed the formation of this programme said that one of the issues in the field was that there was no longer strong communication between different human science disciplines within the field. At the beginning there was, because there was so little scholarship we were absolutely thrilled to read anything that emerged. Now that it’s a success story it’s great. There’s lots to read. And one of the kind-of unintended consequences of that is that some of that interdisciplinary engagement has faded. You know, it’s enough to keep up with the Sociology of Non-Religion or Secularism – as it might be called in the US – as well as trying to keep up with the Psychology of Atheism which is probably the favoured term in Psychology. And that’s fine, but also a shame, because we could learn from each other and from that material. And, partly, the language of belief just reflects different disciplinary conventions: a focus on the cognitive in Cognitive Anthropology, Cognitive Science; belief is very meaningful and significant within Psychology and Social Psychology. So, we’re trying to kind-of bring those things together and find a language that makes sense to different researchers.

CC: Yes. I mean, I can see perhaps some of our listeners bristling in that we’ve been trying – “we” in Religious Studies – to get way from a belief-centred model of religion, in a sense. You know, because it’s so much more than that, potentially. So then, to take this other side of the coin, and then also say it’s “unbelief”, it’s potentially got the same problems as reifying belief. But it’s under-theorised. It doesn’t have that cachet – as you were saying – that it’s potentially an analytic term. And it also . . . And I’ve got to say that my current project is a comparative study of unbelief in Scotland and Northern Ireland, partly piggy-backing on the UU programme. But also, I found that was a much easier word to utilise with funders, and people who were assessing applications who were outside of these debates. Unbelief wasn’t as problematic in a sense as religion, non-religion – a lot less baggage, but made a bit of intuitive sense (15:00). So that’s part of it.

LL: I think that’s really important point, actually. And I think, sometimes, there are different modes of scholarship. My mode has been to work out what concepts are useful to me and what aren’t and then run away with the ones that are useful to me. But that shuts off a lot of conversation with people who are using different concepts. And unbelief, I think, is really useful, because it’s sort-of salient and intelligent to broader populations. They know where you’re at. Some of the preparatory work for this programme was developed in a programme called the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief. And if you’ve read work around relational theories of non-religion, non-religious belief is something that makes sense. But if you haven’t, and this is something that in earlier iterations of the project we came up against, you are not clear what a non-religious belief is. “Is that just any belief, that isn’t religious?” “Well, no. That’s not what we meant.” But that kind of confusion isn’t always helpful to having kind-of knowledge exchange with different kinds of audiences and research partners in a way that unbelief is helpful. It draws out its controversies, too. But a lot of that discussion can be very helpful. I think we have a sense that one of the major goals of the project, which is very descriptive in its intention . . . . So, you can summarise its core research question as being: “To summarise the nature and diversity of – scare quotes – “unbelief”. And I tend to think of one of the major outcomes of the programme being the ability to identify different profiles of unbelievers within national populations, and maybe breaking that down further still. We could think about them as denominations of unbelievers perhaps, but maybe that’s not a helpful way of going about it.

CC: Hmm.

LL: But I think, in doing that, we should be able to identify much more concrete positive language that will hopefully replace, in many ways, the concept of unbelief. I think unbelief is . . . . I’d be interested to know what you think, with your project. But for me, I’m not sure there’s going to be analytic validity usefulness. It’s quite clearly a kind of folk category.

CC: Mmm.

LL: But it’s a gateway to hopefully identifying a set of better, more interesting concepts – better and more interesting also than atheism and secularism and non-religion. And again, that’s a bit of a concern with those concepts, because they’re slightly helpful. They are all helpful in lots of different ways, but because they’re helpful they sort-of close down options to push further in certain directions. Whereas, in a way, unbelief is so clearly a sort-of folk category, it sort of invites us to think: “Well, what am I talking about here?” So I might be inclined to say, again, that unbelief is another transitional concept, like non-religion. And, if I’m still using the concept in 10 years’ time . . . . (Laughs)

CC: (Laughs) Why not?

LL: So we can meet again in a few years, and see what’s come to pass.

CC: Exactly, and what new . . .

LL: I think it’s a productive conversation. And in the programme we’re also concerned to broaden out the conversation from academia and engage much more effectively with broader audiences. And again, a sort of language that makes sense to broader audiences will help us to do that and help us to learn from perspectives outside of academia.

CC: Excellent. Now, there’s a few directions we could go in here. And part of me is wanting to push that button again about: are we potentially reifying groups here, by talking about types of unbelievers and dichotomising the world? But, listen to our previous interview – listen to my interview with Johannes Quack, back from 2015 and also read some of Lois’s work, some of my work where we do engage with this, alright?

LL: (Laughs)

CC: To skip to a debate that hasn’t been had before – well this will just be re-treading ground – but tell us about this Understanding Unbelief programme, then. So, there are four other . . . . You are the principal investigator, there’s a core team and then there’s a whole bunch of other different projects going on?

LL: There’s a lots of people- I won’t mention everyone by name. I hope they’re not offended. But there’s a lot going on

CC: So what is it? What is going on?

LL: I think it does say something about where the field has got to. So, as I sort-of said earlier, I think there’s been a phase of field-building which has been a lot of conceptual work, which has involved a lot of making the argument about why we need to study this group to our colleagues in academia (20:00). And that’s something that you’ve been involved with, and several others have been involved with. And I think that argument has clearly been won, aided and abetted by broader social contexts in which there’s a recognition of non-religious actors: people describing themselves as non-religious. So I think that’s great. And we’re moving into a new phase now, where we’re concreting or pushing that more general work further. There are lots of different ways in which people are seeking to break down those populations and be more specific again. That’s something you’ve done in your work, and I’ve done in my work. So, when we first started discussing this programme there was a sense that . . . . I mentioned some sort-of field-wide interests and concerns: about the usefulness of some inter-disciplinary work; about moving on from some of the conceptual debates we’ve been having; not encouraging a new round of work about concepts, but really getting involved in empirical settings. But, very chiefly, was a sense that, empirically, we needed to work outside of the West; that learning about atheists, people who identify as atheists and go to the atheist church, for example, or read new atheist material, was something that had been quite well-covered in the field by that point. And we needed to think beyond that, so: outside of Anglophone settings; outside of Northern European settings and the US and Canada; but also – within those settings and beyond – thinking about demographic groups that had not been well studied. Matt Sheard has a paper in Secularism and Non-Religion about non-elite, non-religious people within the UK and how little they’ve been researched. I agree. I agree: non-white, women, agnostics rather than atheist. So, there’s a very big population. We’ve done the work of saying: “This is why we need to engage with them. Here are some ways of engaging with all these different groups.” And now we really need to do it. And also, yes, get outside of the kind-of well-worn tracks. So, we wanted to consolidate some of the work that had been done. And from that basis, really, hopefully be part of ushering in this new phase. Which . . . I think there’s lots of other work that’s going on concurrently, which is a part of that. So the approach has been . . . I’m working with a multi-disciplinary team to lead the programme. So we have Jonathan Lanman who’s a cognitive anthropologist, Miguel Farias who’s a social psychologist, and Stephen Bullivant who’s a theologian and also a sociologist with expertise in quantitative work. I’m a sociologist with a focus on qualitative work. So that team – we’re doing research across five different countries, I can’t think how many continents, a few continents – is kind-of the centre of that project. But we also now have 21 project teams working around the world to do work much, much more widely than a small team could ever do, given that, as I’ve already sort of alluded to, actually the empirical work was fairly narrow. And in order to answer questions about the nature and diversity of non-belief we really needed to be very broad. Our core project is working strategically with five countries that are revealing about broader global trends and so on. But actually, it’s great to have work going on in lots of different places. So one of the projects which is grounded in Psychology is working with – I can’t think in total how many countries it is – ten or so countries that have very high numbers of people who identify as non- religious. So that includes South Korea, Australia, Japan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam and so forth. So, a really diverse set of countries that they’ll be going to and using psychological methods to engage with those populations. At the same time, we have close ethnographic research going on. A project based . . . . I should say all of the information on these projects and all the other projects is available on our website.

CC: Which is?

LL: The easiest URL is understanding-unbelief.net. It also lives with the University of Kent system, but you can find it there. And no doubt it will be available on the podcast website. (25:00) I say that, because there are so many projects, and they’re very exciting and so much worth looking at

CC: Yes, we could spend an hour talking about each one.

LL: Yes. But, to just to give a sense of the kind of contrast, there’s an ethnographic project that’s looking at magical thinking in two different European settings and working very closely, very much exploring kind-of unbelief: people who are cast as and cast themselves as unbelievers. And they’re working with a very typical population of rationalist thinkers. But looking at things we might identify, and they, as anthropologists, are used to identifying as magical thinking within those populations. So between those very broad quantitative studies, and those very detailed and nuanced qualitative studies, we’re hoping . . . we’re not going to be able to map the world of unbelievers, but we’re hoping to be able to join a lot of dots and get a much, much broader picture of . . . . How are they described? Is it the fourth-largest faith group in the world? The non-religious, or people who don’t affiliate with a religion are the third-largest religion, and unbelievers are the fourth-largest faith group. To put it somewhat crudely.

CC: Right.

LL: So there’s a lot to learn. And we hope to learn something about that group.

CC: Excellent. And listeners can keep an eye on that website over the coming couple of years. So when’s the project wrapping up? It’s 2019, isn’t it?

LL: Yes. I think it officially ends in late 2019, but there’ll be activity ongoing I would think – with a sense of all these different projects and work coming through from that – for the longer term, I would think.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up to sort-of the end of our time. I’m going to ask you a question now that I didn’t prep you with, so feel free if I have to rewind. But we were saying, before we started recording, that there’s maybe a sort of dearth of female voices speaking in this area and researching in this area. So I just wondered if you have any comments on that. A final thought as a sort-of leading light in this area?

LL: A topical theme in societies more broadly. No, that’s a good thing to focus on. A good question, thank you. Yes, in the last project I was involved with – the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief- we had a series of blogs on methods, one of which focuses on gender and talks about a concern, in the study of non-religion and atheism, about the way in which both that field is gendered and the study of that area is gendered. Partly this comes down to kind of quite interesting feedback loops. So, for example, we have studies that show that the language of atheism is slightly more popular with men than it is with women. And that’s reflected in research. So I am a woman. And I quickly said, “I don’t like atheism, that’s not my main framework – I prefer non-religion.” And that’s typical, actually, of quite a lot of researchers, to slightly generalise. But there is a kind of way of engaging with very male dominated atheist cultures – like the New Atheism and so on – that interests men. And then other voices – really interesting work that prefers concepts like non-religion or secularity, or secularism, and so on – that’s sort-of been lost a bit. I’ve noticed that happening. And there are several collections that are very male-dominated. And as much as this is not distinctive to our field, there is, as I say, a sort of relationship between what we’re studying and how we study it that is specific to our field. And actually, that sort-of brings us back to the topic of agnosticism. So we, in my field, are very generally acquainted – and so are sociologists of religion – with the idea that religious people are more likely to be women, and non-religious people are more likely to be men. So wherever you’re coming from, this gendered phenomenon is known. It shouldn’t be overstated, but it is marked. And it’s interesting, within the non-religious field, if you break that down between people who have strong atheistic beliefs and have sort-of strong agnostic beliefs, then the gender profile looks quite different. And the agnostics are more female overall and atheists are more male. So again, there’s that concern that gender may be a factor in what we’re researching, what we’re choosing to research, and what’s being neglected. In the UK the agnostics are a larger group than the atheists. Why haven’t we looked at them? (30:00) Part of the answer to that question is about gender, and it’s by no means the whole answer to that question, but I think it’s an element – or something we should at least be exploring and concerned about. I’m really thrilled, actually, that we have so many research teams on the Understanding Unbelief programme and it is a very gender-balanced set of researchers. And because of the way in which our own perspective shapes the questions we ask and how we look at them, and so on, I think that’s a very good sign for the work we’ll . . . what we’ll learn through the programme. But I do think it’s an interesting topic for us to reflect upon. As I say, there’s an NSRN blog that’s been written on it and I think there’s scope for a bit more work around reflecting on . . . . It’s sort of the other side of the coin of the focus on the study of elites – even within particular cultural settings – is thinking about who’s researching them. And that very much relates to broader questions in academia at the moment about non-elite voices having space to be heard. And the perspectives we might be missing. You know, I think it’s a question of good and bad science in those kinds of terms. Because we will find out new things if we include a broader range of perspectives. This we know. This we know. So yes, I think that would be a good thing for us to be reflecting on as field, going forward into the next phase. I can’t remember if we’re reflecting on the last 5 years or the last 10 years, but . . . looking forward anyway!

CC: Well, reflecting on a lot, anyway! Good. And hopefully the Understanding Unbelief programme will contribute a lot to that as well. So, we’re out of time, Lois. But it’s been wonderful to speak to you.

LL: And you.

CC: And I’m sure the listeners will come back in another 5 years and we’ll see where the conversation is next time. Alright.

LL: (Laughs).

Citation Info: Lee, Lois, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/from-non-religion-to-unbelief-a-developing-field/

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New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

Since September we have been running a series of podcasts, co-produced with the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The series was entitled “New Horizons in British Sociology of Religion”, and began with “An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion” with Grace Davie, and has featured interviews with Dawn Llewellyn (on “Religion and Feminism“), Anna Strhan (on “Evangelicalism and Civic Space“), Naomi Thompson (on “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality“), Mat Francis (on “Researching Radicalization“) and Titus Hjelm & Paul-Francois Tremlett (on “The Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies“). To conclude this series, we invited scholars from a variety of fields to contribute to a collaborative compilation episode, under the title “New Horizons in the earth-rising-sun-desktop-backgroundSociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?”

In this longer-than-usual episode, Chris and David provide an interlinking narrative between Grace Davie, Joe Webster, Carole Cusack, Jonathan Jong, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Linda Woodhead and Kim Knott, reflecting on current or future developments in the sociology of religion which challenge the ubiquity of the secularization thesis, problematize it, or go beyond it. The key question: beyond secularization, what is the sociology of religion for you?

Many thanks to SOCREL for supporting this collaboration. Remember that you can keep the conversation going in the comments below each podcast and response, on our social media feeds, or by sending an email to the editors.

Also, check out some of our other great compilation podcasts: After the World Religions Paradigm…?; What is the future of Religious Studies?; and Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Turducken, dinosaur slippers, and more.