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Measuring Secularity

At the home of the first secular studies undergraduate program, amid dozens of secularity scholars from around globe, Tommy Coleman’s interview with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John Shook tackles big questions about the measurement of secularity and secularism, the positionality of secularity scholars, and the state of secular studies as a field. The 3rd annual conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) at Pitzer College, which I too attended, was indeed the perfect place for this conversation. Secularity scholars from all over, both geographically and epistemologically, came together to debate and discuss these very questions. In the interview, Zuckerman and Shook describe a burgeoning “field of secular studies,” and, for me, this conference was evidence of just that. Here, I will build on their points about measurement and positionality, arguing that the heterogeneity among those who claim no religion requires more attention than it has been given and that the emerging field of secular studies shows definite signs of rising to that challenge.

To start, Zuckerman and Shook emphasize that “secularity” is a much broader phenomenon than most scholarly research acknowledges and they have given themselves the task of putting together the Oxford Handbook of Secularism to begin addressing the gaps in secular studies that have historically focused solely on atheists and atheism. Many others at the NSRN conference made similar points, and presentations detailing the variety of labels, beliefs, and behaviors found among the secular dominated the panels. This is encouraging and, I would argue, a long time coming. The rise of the “nones” as a category in social science research, while a step in the right direction, is far from sufficient to address the increasing presence and diversity of the religiously disaffiliated.

Referring to a research project in which he attempted to measure the amount of atheists globally (Zuckerman 2007), Zuckerman admits that measuring secularity is no easy task. He questions the validity of global statistics on irreligion and both he and Shook discuss the importance of being sensitive to regionality and culture when measuring secularity outside of a Western, Christian context. I agree, but want to emphasize that we are still far from sufficiently measuring secularity and its effects within Western contexts. Most quantitative research claiming to say something about what the “nones” do and do not do, in contrast to the religious, typically collapses all of those who claim no religious belief or affiliation into one category. These studies often make claims about the benefits of religion based on comparisons with the “nones”, and the religiously affiliated have been found to be happier, healthier, and more engaged with their communities. However, while often rigorously testing for variance among the religious, these studies treat the irreligious as if they have a static identity, resulting in an elision of the range of beliefs and behaviors that have been found within this growing group.

Zuckerman calls on the three Bs – belief, belonging, and behavior – to define what it means to “be secular.” Social scientists often use these categories to measure religiosity, as these three ways of being religious have been found to have distinct, and often contradictory, influences on social attitudes and behaviors. The utility of parsing out these categories among the “nones” is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, Zuckerman details how an individual can be secular in one way and not in another. Someone can go to church while not believing in god(s), or, indeed, can believe in god(s) without affiliating with any religious institution. Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam (2010) found that Americans who claim no religious affiliation one year often join a religious institution the next, highlighting the fluidity and “liminality” of religious and secular belief, belonging, and behavior (see also Keysar 2014). However, Zuckerman asserts that one cannot be truly secular if they believe in god(s). While you can agree or disagree with his definition, the important point is that when these distinct ways of being secular are conflated, the result is often invalid categories and incomplete conclusions (see Joseph Blankholm’s insightful post on the same topic).

At the American Mosaic Project, a survey project I’m a part of at the University of Minnesota, one of our goals is to speak to this gap in the research. We have multiple measures of secular belonging and behavior, including four separate measures for irreligious belonging (atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, and nothing in particular). Analyses indicate important distinctions among all four categories, as well as between those who take on a “none” label, those who have atheistic beliefs, and those who do not attend church. Other studies have found these distinctions as well, for example, Baker and Smith (2009) find that American atheists, agnostics, and unchurched believers each have distinct political beliefs and varying stances on religion’s place in public life.

A second aspect of measuring secularity discussed in the interview deals with its relation to religion. For Zuckerman, secularity is and always has to be in relation to religion. He argues, “If there was no religion, secularity would not have to be invented, we wouldn’t have to have a word for it.” Shook disagrees, rebutting, “There is no magic in language. Words don’t bring things into existence.” For Shook, secularism is an objective, measurable phenomenon that can exist with or without the presence of religion. He argues, “Just because the term serves as a contrary doesn’t mean that its existence is dependent on the contrary.” Their discussion in many ways parallels a conversation among scholars of nonbelief identities and communities. Scholars like Smith (2011) and Guenther (2014) argue that atheism in America is a “rejection identity” formed out of a rejection of religious belief and belonging. In contrast, LeDrew (2013) and Cimino and Smith (2014) highlight the ways that atheists and other nonbelievers are forming groups based on beliefs that they share instead of beliefs they reject.

What these discussions ultimately show is that individual and collective expressions of secularity vary across time and space, evolving even within the same community. In short, context matters. The political, cultural, and religious contexts of a given society influence the way secular ideals and beliefs are interpreted and enacted. Secularity, Shook explains, is set up in opposition to religion in some societies, like in the United States, but not all, and this can vary both between societies and within them. The research highlighted in this response has shown that there is a growing diversity of secular identities and ideologies, and what I’m seeing in the emerging field of secular studies is an increased sensitivity to the contexts and subjectivities under which these identities are taking shape.

References

Baker, Joseph and Buster Smith. 2009. “None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48(4): 719-733

Cimino, Richard and Christopher Smith. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Oxford University Press

Guenther, Katja. 2014. “Bounded by Disbelief: How Atheists in the United States Differentiate Themselves from Religious Believers.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 29(1): 1-16

Keysar, Ariela. 2014. “Shifts Along the American Religious-Secular Spectrum.” Secularism and Nonreligion 3(1): 1-16

LeDrew, Stephen. 2013. “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity

and Activism.” Sociology of Religion 74(4): 431-45

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49(4): 596-618

Smith, Jesse. 2011. “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism.” Sociology of Religion. 72(2): 215-237

Zuckerman, Phil. 2007. “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns.” Pp. 47-62 in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by M. Martin. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press

 

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

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References

  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Secular, Spiritual, Religious: American Religion Beyond the Baby Boomers

In his wide-ranging interview with Dusty Hoesly, Wade Clark Roof both re-emphasizes the importance of the baby boomer generation and suggests some ways to think beyond it. In the second half of the interview, in particular, he offers two different narratives for understanding the boomers, their uniqueness, and their place in the history of American religion. Looking at each in turn, this short essay uses recent scholarship to build on Roof’s observations and point to some facets of the current sea change in American religion.

Roof’s first historical narrative culminates in a deadlocked polarization. He suggests that the 1960s were a time of upheaval, and he sees the conservatism of the 1980s and Generation X as a direct response. This story of antagonism is consistent with Robert Wuthnow’s account in The Restructuring of American Religion (1988). Throughout the 1980s, the cleavage between religious conservatives and liberals began to correspond to that between political conservatives and liberals. The 1990s inaugurated a period in which high levels of religiosity began predicting membership in the Republican party—with Catholics and Black Protestants as notable exceptions (Campbell and Putnam 2010:290-321). Religious antagonism that grew out of a backlash against the 1960s became so polarized that it began predicting political antagonism, as well.

Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer (2002) narrate this polarization as one of the catalysts behind the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, or the so-called “nones,” who now comprise around a fifth of the American population (Funk, Smith, and Lugo 2012). The percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation doubled through the 1990s, jumping from 7 to 14% after remaining relatively stable for the two decades prior. Hout and Fischer explain this change in two ways. The first is demographic: more Americans than ever were raised with no religion in the wake of 1960s counterculture. In the second, they argue that the rise of the Religious Right led political moderates and liberals with weak religious attachments to disavow their religious affiliations.

Hout and Fischer show in a recent working paper (2014) that the “nones” reflect a reversal in a longstanding causal trend: political preferences now predict religious affiliation rather than vice-versa. Writing in American Grace in 2010, David Campbell and Robert Putnam agree with Hout and Fischer and argue explicitly that the increasing association of religion with conservative politics spurred a mass exodus from organized religion, especially among young people. In their view, these changes amount to no less than another restructuring of American religion in which the new poles of the spectrum are religion and the secular. Out of the polarization Roof describes between conservatives and liberals, a new polarization has arisen.

And yet, while these statistics might appear to show a growing antagonism between religious and secular Americans, it is important to remember that no religious affiliation does not mean nonreligious. Recent work on the nones has shown that they are a deeply heterogeneous group that includes the spiritual but not religious, unchurched believers, avowed nonbelievers, and those who only intermittently affiliate with a religion (Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2010). In acknowledging how capacious and even misleading the “religiously unaffiliated” label has become, we might wonder if its growth is symptomatic of a taxonomy that has failed to keep pace with restructuring.

Roof’s second historical narrative is supersessionary, and it underscores the challenge of distinguishing between the secular and the religious following this recent sea change. Roof endorses a kind of dialectical model of secularization in which “secularity breeds religious reaction, but the religious reaction is more secular than it would look like in an earlier age.” “Where is the religious? Where is the secular?” he asks rhetorically. “The secular is in religion; religion is in the secular.” Roof then admits that this phrasing is confusing but nonetheless accurate. Though I would question whether this process should be called “secularization,” my own research on organized nonbelievers and secular activism supports Roof’s cryptic formulation, as does other recent scholarship that considers the role of supersessionary narratives in fashioning the boundary between the secular and the religious (Fessenden 2007, Modern 2011, Yelle 2013).

There are clear examples of Americans whose very existence is a challenge to this boundary and who fit awkwardly in the available categories on religious surveys. Along with Alfredo García, a colleague at Princeton, I have built an original dataset that shows that there are roughly 1,400 nonbeliever communities in the United States. A minority of these groups even consider themselves religious, despite being avowedly non-theistic. Religious humanists, for instance, might claim affiliation with an Ethical Culture Society, a Society for Humanistic Judaism, or a Unitarian Universalist Church. They are, therefore, not “nones.” By contrast, many secular humanists and other kinds of nonbelievers, such as atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers, would consciously avoid calling themselves religious or claiming a religious affiliation, even though they might also consider themselves to be a part of a “morally intense community” of non-theists (Putnam and Campbell 2010:361).

Recent efforts by groups in the U.S. and the U.K. to found “godless congregations” have spurred controversy among observers and especially among nonbelievers who choose not to organize. Yet they have also tapped into a great deal of latent interest. For instance, in late 2012 the Humanist Community at Harvard and the American Humanist Association began partnering to found “godless congregations”—a term that many secularists would find an oxymoron. Emboldened by tremendous growth in their budgets, staff, and membership over the past decade, these organizations hope they can create spaces for religious belonging and even religious practice without religious belief, and usually without the term “religious.” Many involved in these groups see themselves creating hybrids of religion and the secular, and they pursue interfaith partnerships and invite believers of various stripes to attend their godless services. They are challenging us to ask whether these godless congregations are religious or secular, and in so doing, they are consciously trying to mend fences and to undermine the polarization of the secular and the religious.

What do religious belonging, believing, and behaving look like in a country in which a third of its young people have no religious affiliation and describe themselves using complicated negations like “spiritual but not religious,” “nonreligious,” and “nonbeliever”? Are they secular if they believe and behave religiously but do not belong? Or what if they belong but do not believe or behave? Who gets to decide whether something is secular or religious, and what are the stakes of that decision (Blankholm 2014)? Like Roof, I find this blurry boundary and the questions it raises central to understanding the present restructuring of American religion.

 

References

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4): 775-790.

Campbell, David E. and Robert D. Putnam. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fessenden, Tracy. 2007. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Funk, Cary, Greg Smith, and Luis Lugo. 2012. “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Retrieved November 24, 2012

Hout, Michael, and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165.

———. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” NYU Population Center Working Paper Series. Working Paper No. 2014-03.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49:4 (2010): 596–618.

Modern, John. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1988. The Restructuring of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yelle, Robert. 2013. The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Psychology of What? Religion, Spirituality, or Meaning: In Search of a Proper Name for The Field of Psychology of Religion

Psychology of religion provides an avenue of theoretical and methodologically empirical inquiry into the study of belief and experience. Particularly, the individual’s experience, both personal and social, is explored through a variety of methods. One popular method of measuring experience is through measures of religiosity. Religiosity scales (mostly Christian) increased enough to be published as a book (Hill and Hood, 1999) which is still one of the most important sources in the field. In the course of time, many scholars discussed the problem of developing religiosity measures in non-western and non-Christian cultures and religiosity scales for other religious traditions like Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam were added to the literature (see APA Handbook of Psychology of Religion, first volume). And, more recently, the term spirituality has gained an expanding place in academia with some arguing that it is a separate concept from religion/religiosity. A fourfold classification (religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, both, neither) began to be used as a variable in research. Whether as a typology or used as dimensions, the spiritual/religious distinction continues to generate much research and debate. Meanwhile, the “none” category drew academic attention and the terms non-belief, irreligion, and secularity became current issues in the field. Furthermore, Silver’s research put forth that the nonbelievers are more diversely grouped than originally imagined. Among the diversity of being religious, spiritual, agnostic, skeptic, and atheist and so on, Dr. Schnell’s interview presents us a new perspective based on meaning instead of belief/non-belief.

Insisting on the importance of meaning, Dr. Schnell has a unique approach to understand human experience. Her comprehensive study is one of the best examples of how psychology of religion could broaden its scope. She and her colleagues have designed a study to find out not only the first meanings which come to participants’ minds but also their ultimate meanings. Dr. Schnell states that people usually answer with “family”, “friends”, “work” etc. when they are asked about their sources of meaning. However, it is unclear what their statements actually mean. She continues, saying “work can mean so many different things”. For one person, it is the possibility to be creative, for another it is community with colleagues, and for yet another it is the possibility to expand one’s knowledge. Thus, Dr. Schnell asks further detailed questions in order to discover the interviewees’ ultimate meanings. She summarizes her deep research and analysis by stating that “sources of meaning are not conscious. We are not really aware of them but we can reflect upon them.” As researchers we are familiar with this idea both from academia, as Victor Frankl’s (1992) Man’s Search for Meaning, and, indeed, from our personal lives and from others around us. However, what makes Dr. Schnell’s study unique is the scale she developed, The Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe) which provides a mirror to reflect ultimate meanings. It has already been translated into 11 languages.

Scale / Dimension Description Factors
VERTICAL SELFTRANSCENDENCE Commitment to an immaterial, supernatural reality Implicit Religiosity, Spirituality
HORIZONTAL SELFTRANSCENDENCE Commitment to worldly affairs beyond one’s immediate concerns Unison with Nature, Social Commitment, etc.
SELFACTUALIZATION Commitment to the employment, Challenge and Promotion ofone’s capacities Development, Individualism, etc.
ORDER Commitment to principles, common sense and the tried and tested Tradition, Practicality, etc.
WELL-BEING AND RELATEDNESS Commitment to enjoyment, sensitivity and warmth in privacy and company Community, Love, etc.

 

What We Mean by Meaning

One of the most impressive aspects of Dr. Schnell’s perspective is her clear conceptual analysis of meaning and her success in reflecting this clarity in her scale. Psychological literature focuses upon meaning from many different perspectives such as values, religiosity, spirituality, well-being, and happiness. Many studies use the term “meaning” almost synonymously with these concepts, which leads to differences and sometimes confusion about their definitions. Dr. Schnell offers clear explanations about the meanings of these key constructs of the field.

Meanings vs. Values

One can easily see that meanings and values are usually used together in the literature. Insisting on a difference between these terms, Dr. Schnell clarifies:

“Values are rather normative. How should it be, what is right etc.? People tell us a lot when we ask them what values they find important but then, if you look at what they’re actually doing, they have a big gap between actual behavior and what the values are. The sources of meaning are what people really do in their lives.”

This differentiation is of vital importance for psychology of religion. Because people tend to answer the questions “as they ought to be” instead of “as they are,” many researchers recognize a big challenge both in qualitative and quantitative studies. Positive attitude scales, like altruism and gratitude scales, are particularly at risk. Although there are some research techniques that enable us to minimize the risk, Dr. Schnell’s questionnaire presents a new approach. She claims that SoMe actually measures what people do and what they find important.

Meanings vs. Religiosity / Spirituality

Religion is usually regarded as a source of meaning in the literature. Likewise, almost all studies on spirituality claim that spirituality is related to meaningfulness. However, even the boundaries of these terms are not clear enough, especially in non-western countries. For instance it is not easy to investigate religiosity and spirituality in a Muslim culture even in a more secular one such as Turkey. Although Islam has an organizational dimension, it cannot be compared with ecclesiastical institutions and denominations.  Religiosity in Muslim countries is still considered as a deeply personal phenomenon as a result of the absence of a certain organization representing religion. Therefore, it is not easy to distinguish religiosity and spirituality from each other as western literature does, insisting on organizational and personal aspects of them.

On the other hand, many theorists and researchers attach value to religiosity and/or (more likely) spirituality. In many writings, the term spirituality is credited with the positive and the term religiosity is credited with the negative (see Zinnbauer and Pargament, 2005).  Dr. Schnell shifts the focus from the content and valence of these concepts to how valuable these concepts are for individuals. Instead of just labeling religion / spirituality as a source of meaning she expresses that these concepts have an effect on individuals as far as religion / spirituality is important for them. Thus, she clarifies the links between religiosity, spirituality, and meaning to some degree.

Meaning vs. Well Being / Happiness

Meaning has also usually been emphasized in studies on well-being. Many writings suggest that meaning is necessary for life satisfaction.  Not surprisingly, since both are understood to involve meaning, well-being and spirituality are frequently associated with each other. A general assumption in the literature is as follows:

There is an ongoing discussion about spirituality, well-being, and meaning. Some scholars, like Koenig (2008), criticize the use of positive psychological traits like meaning in the definitions of spirituality. He argues that it is tautological to look at relationships between spirituality and mental health or well-being, since spirituality scales contain items assessing mental health. On the other hand, Visser (2013) asserts that most of the dimensions of spirituality, including meaning in life, are distinct from well-being. As with spirituality, Dr. Schnell approaches the subject with an emphasis on meaning rather than on well-being. She distinguishes between (eudaimonic) well-being and meaning. She says that the “good life is not necessarily the pleasant life”, which parallels Frankl’s (1992) idea that suffering can be turned into victory. Explaining herself concisely, Schell says, “Meaning is not always happiness.”

 Further Questions on the Sources of Meaning

The other most impressive aspect of Dr. Schnell’s podcast is its success in directing us to ask further questions. Here are some examples:

1)  Dr. Schnell reports that “when comparing an atheist with a religious person you might not think in many ways they have very similar commitments but one has a vertical transcendence believing in God and the other has not, but what they actually live is very similar.” This finding forces a reader to question the meanings of being Jewish, Buddhist, skeptic, or agnostic. If identities based on belief have less influence on behavior than previously imagined, should the typical classifications in psychology of religion be reviewed?

2)  Dr. Schnell insists on the importance of environmental effects on a person’s sources of meaning, saying “meaning has to do with the systems you are part of.” If the social dimension of meaning is so important, is it possible to speak of copied or unconsciously learned meanings?

3)  According to Dr. Schnell, people from different religious or spiritual traditions and even non-believers may share similar meanings, and individuals’ relationships affect their meanings. So, do people from similar environments and cultures choose similar meanings?

4)  Dr. Schnell claims that meaning-making is not relative but relational. Besides, it is known that globalism, secularism, technological developments, and post-modernism offers (or even forces) certain life-styles and values. So do people choose their meanings or do they remain exposed to them?

5)  One of Dr. Schnell’s most important findings is the fact that “so many people do not live a meaningful life but they do not have any problem with that. They do not suffer from a crisis of meaning, but they do not think their life is in any way meaningful.” She called this situation existential indifference (See Schnell, 2010). 35% of her sample from Germany belonged to this group. If a remarkable percentage of people have a superficial life -from home to work and from work to home- how could the universality of meaning be interpreted?

Actually, one may find some answers to these questions in Dr. Schnell’s publications. However, further questions need to be investigated. More importantly these questions show how inspiring Dr. Schnell’s perspective is.

Psychology of Meaning?

Dr. Schnell points out that “in Europe, less and less people attend church activities. The church loses influence on everyday life but not so many people suffer from a crisis of meaning,” and the first question that came to her mind was “so, what is the basis of their life?” Following her elaborated study, she proposes the centrality of meaning among religiosity, spirituality, non-belief, values, well-being and so on. She indicates that meaning is a core concept in the field.

Then she discusses the name for the field of psychology of religion and/or spirituality. When she says that “religiosity is rather institutional, and spirituality is too vague, so meaning is a broader concept,” she implies a new name for the field. Although it is questionable to restrict the field to the issues people attribute meaning to, this valiant attempt is inspiring for the development of psychology of religion or whatever its name might be.

Dr. Schnell’s podcast has shown, once again, that social sciences in general and the psychology of religion in particular have the potential to produce new perspectives, theories, and research for understanding the human condition. Academic collaborations from different cultures, backgrounds, religious/spiritual/non-religious traditions are needed to contribute to (and improve) these perspectives and studies. Dr. Schnell’s scale, SoMe, which can be adapted to other cultures and languages might be a good step to serve this purpose. Undoubtedly, future studies will add new dimensions to the field.

 References

APA, (2013), APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, (Ed. Kenneth I. Pargament),1st volume, New York:  American Psychological Association.

Frankl, Victor (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning, (4th ed). Boston: Beacon Press.

Hill, Peter C. and Hood, Ralph W. Jr. (eds.) (1999). Measures of Religiosity, Birmingham: Religious Education Press.

Koenig, Harold G. (2008). Concerns About Measuring “Spirituality” in Research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196 (5), 349-355.

Schnell, Tatjana (2010). Existential Indifference: Another Quality of Meaning in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 50 (3) 351 –373.

Visser, Anja (2013). Is being spiritual the same as experiencing well-being?, Paper presented at IAPR 2013 Congress in Switzerland.

Zinnbauer, Brian J. and Pargament, Kenneth. I. (2005). Religiousness and Spirituality. Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Eds. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Parks. New York: The Guilford Press, 21-42.

 

To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]

References

  • Anttonen, Veikko. 2000. ‘Sacred’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 271–282. London: Cassell.
  • ———. 2005. ‘Space, Body and the Notion of Boundary: A Category-Theoretical Approach to Religion’. Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 41 (2): 185–201.
  • 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.
  • ———. 2012. ‘Scottish Students, Their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular: Borders, Boundaries and Transgressions in the Study of “Nonreligion”’. In  University of Winchester.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. ‘Researching Belief Without Asking Religious Questions’. Fieldwork in Religion 4 (1): 86–104.
  • ———. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. ‘The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?’ In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2011. ‘NSRN Glossary (unpublished Paper)’. In NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf
  • ———. 2012a. ‘Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • ———. 2012b. ‘Being Secular: Toward Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion and Epistemological Culture’. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  • Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Quack, Johannes. 2011. ‘Modes of Non-religiosity’. In  NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-terminology-conference-5-may-2011-johannes-quack-nonreligion-stream1.pdf.

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Lois Lee on Non-religion (8 October 2012).

With the advent of cultural and religious pluralism within western society, the theme of secularity and non-belief has gained momentum within academic discussion. Non-belief is a growing trend in Western Europe and North America. While countries such as the United States claim to be religious the percentage of non-affiliated individuals is increasing. Roozen (1980) discovered that 46% of American’s were relatively uninvolved in religious services for 2 years or more. In ISSP 2008 survey data, 2.8% agree with the statement “I don’t believe in God”, while 5% agreed with “I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe that there is a way to find out,”, and 10.3% agreed with “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind,” appearing to confirm an agnostic viewpoint on the existence of God.  Similar trends in data were observed in the American Religious Identification Survey results. 2.3% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “there is no such thing (as God)” while 4.3% agreed that “there is no way to know”. 12.1% agreed with the statement “there is a higher power but no personal God” (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). Such data seems to support Steve Bruce’s (2011) secularization paradigm or at least a shift away from organized religious association even within the “religious” United States. Obviously with a social shift away from institutionalized belief and individual faith would certainly assume social structures and institutions would shift to nonreligious culturally relative inclusive structures of meaning.  In other words people would begin to seek to find alternatives in social rituals, symbols, and contexts. An alternative perspective to consider is that of non-religion or those social systems and contexts which share similarity to religious systems but unto themselves are their own distinct non-religious phenomena.

Non-religion and Cross-Disciplinary Research

Dr. Lee’s perspective is an excellent view of how new fields emerge within human studies in academia. A couple of important themes emerge within this Podcast.  The first is related to the reference point of what is non-religion. Such conversations of delineation are challenging as they are juxtaposed within the much larger epistemological framework of an established field.  They begin within the definitional boundary not only of what non-religion is but also what it is not. For example, Dr. Lee notes within the podcast: that non-religion is the “Practice or perspective that differs from religion, something that is defined by how it differs from religion. So it is religious like (in) some way we consider (it) meaningful but beyond that, we need to know more.”  Dr. Lee goes on to say non-religion is a “Space or object where non-religion takes religion as its primary reference point.” Such a conversation has a variety of perspectives as well as establishing an implicit sequitur in meaning.  For Lee the definitional boundaries are necessary if this new field is to have utility. Non-religion appears to be set within the social structural meaning. Its distinction is embedded in the social system and symbols which give the society meaning. In other words, non-religion is related to the social frame of human experience where systems which were originally rooted within the religious order have replaced, adapted, or yielded to more secular frames of reference. It appears that some social systems such as humanism, ecology, environmental awareness, and others may have religious like values or beliefs but lack the religious connections or reference points which would define other social systems. Therefore such social systems fit the nonreligious classifications. These examples – which are socially engaged advocacy groups – fit Hood, Hill & Spilka’s (2009) definitional term of “horizontal transcendence” which assumes that there are movements which give non-religious affiliated individuals a deeper meaning in life but do not require a “vertical transcendence” or religious cosmology in which to find meaning. As Hood and colleagues demonstrate, other social systems provide greater meaning in the lives of people who may not be religious affiliated. This viewpoint is further reinforced with the work of Kohls and Walach (2006) whose work has shown that experiences can be “exceptional” without the interpretative medium of religion to provide transcendental reference point.  While exceptional experience can include newly emergent phenomena such as spirituality, they also include other experiences which may or may not be socially defined. Certainly within the field of Psychology, there has been an effort to capitalize on such experience – exceptional and non-religious meaning – in providing tools for increasing psychological health and well-being (Pargament, 1997). While much of Pargament’s work deals in the realm of Psychology of Religion and coping there are also other experiences observed by Pargament which provide mediums for treatment as well. Such possibilities should be explored further to determine to what extent non-religious experience can provide meaning during traumatic times in people’s lives. Understandably there are wide theoretical and cross-disciplinary possibilities within the study of non-religion which should be collaboratively explored further.  Dr. Lee’s attempt at broadening meaningful human experience certainly has broader implications. The definitional boundary of the field leads to the next point which is the politics of the academic domain in which the non-belief theory operates.

The Politics of Academia

Dr. Lee spends much of the Podcast discussing the scholarly boundaries with other social science and humanities fields such as sociology/secularism and theology/theism. For example, theist academic departments concern themselves with theoretical definitions in which to identify their study. Social science departments may seek operational definitions in which to pose their methodological inquiry. Thus theoretical definitions provide the philosophical paradigm which shapes inquiry. Obviously one’s academic training certainly may determine how non-religion is explored. In the field of psychology for example, non-religious institutions could be studied through the organization of atheists and agnostics. It could be that in the case of socially engaged secular groups, one’s personal ontology juxtaposes their social interests with others of similar view. Religious Studies may approach the perspective very differently by examining the nature of non-religion versus religion looking for ontological patterns of similarity or difference between them. Such considerations of academic consent remind me of Russell McCutcheon’s (1997) work on Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. In this work McCutcheon discusses the sui generis aspects of religious studies or, more simply put, the study of religion simply for its own purposes. McCutcheon believes that religion is not unique from any other academic enterprise but rather should be critiqued and analyzed by a similar measure of other academic disciplines.  While McCutcheon’s work discusses a variety of issues providing evidence of a scholarly impasse for the legitimacy of traditional modes religious studies education, one theme relates to Dr. Lee’s perspective here. That perspective is the legitimacy of inquiry as posed within budgetary constraints and departmental politics. As these new fields – such as non-religion – form, certainly academic inquiry should not be limited to a particular academic field. As McCutcheon suggests, the study of social systems such as religion in his example or non-religion in Dr. Lee’s example should be an interdisciplinary exercise. While this response has focused primarily on the study of non-religion in post-secondary education such as colleges and universities, certainly there is a larger implication as well. In countries where secondary education includes religious education, there is the potential for non-religious education. In considering the politics of this new field, scholars and educators may benefit from discussing these non-religious systems as modes of exceptional experience as noted by much of the work of Kohls and Walach. This could provide additional legitimacy for the field to address the dreaded issues of departmental politics and funding, but also as sub-segment of the much larger focus on religion and spirituality.

Terminology of a New Theory

One could argue that the primary reference point for a new theoretical term should incorporate similar language used by its parentally proceeding terminology. In this case, it appears the field of non-religion is an evolving social system, changing, adapting, and incorporating new meaning and ideas. While the social and ritual systems have similarity, it is unclear if the connection to old religious systems are a result of needing structure or if simply they serve as theoretical cynosure. In other words researchers are concerned with making the ontological and epistemological leap beyond the parental social systems which govern human behavior and structure symbolic meaning. If the new social phenomenon is to exist and, by relation, be studied on its own terms, one possible theme to consider would be to shift the term away from using religion as its terminology primary reference point.

While the space and ritual may seem similar to that of religion, as non-religion begins to form its own social structure it will become more alien to the religious meanings – explicitly or implicitly. While it will always have a historical connection to religion, the social appraisal of the system will be gained through its continued use ergo it gains value of its own as it gains complexity and is routinized in tradition. Following McCutcheon’s perspective, it will create a space where the value of non-religious discourse is on its own terms as the function and structure of a human social system. Scholars should study non-religion for the utility it brings in better understanding the human condition not because it is attached to religiosity in some way.

Certainly new research and scholarly enterprises have been spawned from other older research discourse. Why should non-religion be any different?  Rather than calling these systems non-religious as Lee suggests, consider a phrase such as the Latin ritus insula – insular, or insulate – where the definition reflects the individuality of people and value as well as the social system in which they participate. So instead of speaking of non-religious rituals we would call them ritus insula rituals, endowing the term with an alternative meaning. As the term is adopted and accepted, it begins to epitomize its own meaning in defining these social systems which are shifting away from religious meaning and connection. Dr. Lee and her colleagues should consider the theoretical and research methodological possibilities inherent in shifting the term away from religion.

A Moment of Reflexivity

As I write this response, I find myself in an inner struggle as a Social Scientist. In one sense Dr Lee’s podcast and my subsequent response beg a question of causation. For me the question has its origins in the psychological. Does atheism and/or agnosticism lead to secularization and by proxy non-religious systems of meaning? Or as a social movements continue to gain adherents, do we see a diffusion of new ideas. As is noted by scholars of innovation such as Everett Rogers (2003) there are early adopters who embrace new ideas early while there are others who are slowly drawn to the idea as popularity increases. According to Rogers – and Interestingly – a small segment of the population who are the first to adopt a new idea are called the innovators. This group typically makes up 2.5% of the population. This could map on to the ISSP data and the American Religious Identification Survey as noted earlier where there are now individuals who simply do not believe in God. This would also lead to the conclusion that European samples are much more along the Rogers continuum of diffusion. Rogers argues that as an idea is disseminated and saturated, it becomes a part of the overall culture. It can be part of cultural identity of a group. While Roger’s work was likely more concerned with products and services, such data coupled with Rogers theory would indicate that secularization is inevitable. As human society changes and more people identify with non-belief and Lee’s concept of non-religion, religious systems and beliefs as they are practiced today will cease to be. Therefore it can be assumed that such products of non-belief such as the social systems of non-religion will gain additional opportunities for observation and study. Therefore the difficultly in identifying populations and samples of non-religion may lessen over time.

This response has attempted to show the vast possibilities in collaboration, academic adaptation, and locution of non-religion as an academic study. Through the advent of globalization and with more complex social theories, new human systems of meaning are emerging within academic literature. The challenge that scholars such as Dr. Lee have is interpreting these elaborate and intricate social systems and their implications for humanity. Non-religion makes an excellent area of focus, as it appears to be an emerging phenomenon along with other research areas of atheism, secularization, and spirituality.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu.

References:

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C. & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: an empirical approach. (4th ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Kohls, N. & Walach H. (2006). Exceptional experiences and spiritual practice: a new measurement approach. Spirituality and Heath International.  7. 125–150.
  • Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Kosmin, B. A., & Keysar, A. (Eds.) (2007). Secularism and secularity: Contemporary international perspectives. Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.
  • Roozen, D. A. (1980). Church dropouts: changing patterns of disengagement and re-entry. Review of Religious Research, 21(4), 427-450.

Non-religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

By Katie Aston, Goldsmiths, University of London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanist spaces 

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

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

Conway Hall’s website states:

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

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

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

Landscapes – Historical, Spatial, Horizontal and Vertical

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

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

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

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

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

References:

 

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on ‘Religion’ and Mystification (4 June 2012).

In the interview regarding ‘religion, non-religion and mystification’ Timothy Fitzgerald is quite correct to chide many for failing to critically reflect on the terms they employ. Like all of the core concepts of the Social Sciences: culture, society, politics, ethnicity and ritual are concepts which have been handed down to us from the West and were greatly transformed in the modern era, though ideology is the only one to be specifically coined in this period. The fact that these concepts have a specific history should hardly surprise us, and they can still pick out underlying currents of human life if they are utilised with critical awareness.

Though etymology and discourse analysis are important parts of the toolkit of the Social Sciences, I find Fitzgerald’s assertion that the field’s primary task is to analyse the usage of words to be a troubling retreat from the analysis of what human beings actually do and think. A focus on words and their protean etymologies can be misleading and be detrimental to the study of the phenomena actually present in the context. Would we confine ‘culture’ only to those who possess the systematic category which emerged in the modern era? Would we do the same for ideology? Surely a person could still recognise that there are ingrained, meaningful differences in lifestyle and worldview among communities and that certain ideas may function to justify these, before a concept is constructed or adapted to analyse this.

The compartmentalisation of categories is deeply problematic but because they only show their value when they work in tandem. Religions would not be especially interesting or valuable if ‘religious’ beliefs and practices did not affect politics and society, if they were purely individual or speculative. If it is easier for us to conceive of the workings of society as ‘politics’ influencing ‘religion’ and ‘religion’ influencing ‘politics’ then so be it.  I would not maintain however that a scholar is bound to use common terminology if they find them unhelpful but others may find them perfectly helpful. The concept of culture can cause problems if it creates the notion of a specific set, identifiable number of hermetically sealed ‘cultures’ or the notion that community must have a set number of traditions or folklore to be a viable community. Religions are hardly the only types of community which can be reified and essentialised, but to simply identify groups is not to reify them.

In attempting to set out my own approach I will draw on a theoretical model used by Fitzgerald in his 2000 book Ideology of Religious Studies, because I have found it useful for my own research. He argued that definitions and theories of ‘religion’ have a tendency to be either theological or vague. The two poles being theories which defined religion as some kind of universal essence, specific responses to ‘the Divine’ on the one hand and those which defined religion in a way that picks out nothing distinctive, identifying it with anything meaningful or important to human beings. To his credit however he did not leave it at that which would have served his purposes well enough, but admitted that there were many theories which lay somewhere in the middle. Religion could be defined clearly and scientifically and it is this course that I have sought to trace back to one of its key ancestors, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and his 1871 Primitive Culture.

Tylor defined religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’ rooted in the notion that human beings had a soul which gave them life and which could survive the death of the body. This was extended to include soul-like beings in the cosmos, either disembodied or embodied in natural phenomena (animism), personal beings in the cosmos which were causal agents with whom human beings needed to establish relationships. The notion of the soul, naturally enough gave rise to the idea of afterlives and spirit worlds.

Fitzgerald has rightly queried the often uncritical usage of the concepts like ‘god’ (or ‘spirit’), but comparison is based as much on difference as it is similarity. What is most amazing is simply the fact that these beings are postulated at all and throughout the world. This demands Social Scientific analysis. The term ‘supernatural’ has been quite understandably referred to as a ‘peek-a-boo’ term because it is a vague concept, which the vague concept of religion can hide behind; it is also a peek-a-boo concept because it appears to be very difficult to exorcise. Religion appears to be haunted by ‘the supernatural’ and even theories which attempt to define it in a different way are forced to address this. I would argue that it is time to acknowledge that this is the heartland of religion.

The concept of religion that we have is undeniably linked to the scientific worldview: but it could exist without it. Sharpe wrote that the first comparative religionist was the person to recognise that people in other places worshipped different gods. Comparison can be and routinely is, mounted from a non-scientific, faith based perspective, however even that would not quite be the same without the history of modern science. Certainly terms like the ‘supernatural’ can only emerge with the scientific view of nature. I do not believe that this is a problem; as Thomas Tweed has argued, it is impossible for the scholar to be truly un-situated, and we are attempting to pursue a Science of Religion after all. I am not certain that religious pluralism and secular government are as closely linked as Fitzgerald argues: the history of the Roman Empire, China, India or even the early secularising West would appear to be pluralist but not ‘secular’ in the modern sense. Even Medieval Catholicism spread its sacred canopy over much diversity and division.

Religion for me refers to the institutionalised belief in and practices based around ‘extra-natural’ phenomena or the ‘socialised supernatural’, however the phenomena is not necessarily considered to be ‘above’ nature. This includes gods, spirits, souls, other realms, afterlives and forces like the Dao or Karma. It is an etic perspective because for religious believers these are inherently part of the order of the cosmos, but they are additions to that shared core of human experience mediated through individual and cultural factors: the senses, the mind, culture etc. It is important to stress that human beings do inhabit largely the same cognitive universe and that is the (phenomenal) world of experience as opposed to the world as it really is which is unknowable (the noumenal), to borrow a distinction from Immanuel Kant. Religions for their believers provide the key to the complete picture, “the really real” as Clifford Geertz put it. Science also provides extensions to this shared core of human experience, including a variety of hidden phenomena like atoms and other dimensions but the difference is that these are revealed through the application of reason and empiricism, as opposed to tradition.

These phenomena may not be conceived as non-corporeal, even spiritual let alone metaphysical, as Stewart Guthrie is keen to argue, but they are ‘hidden’, so that those not inculcated with belief in them may seriously doubt their existence. One process that Tylor claimed to uncover that I think has enough grain of truth to repeat, is that these phenomena tend to become more mysterious and further removed as scientific knowledge expands. Tylor argued that the spirits were initially conceived as ethereal yet material beings, the gods were located in a physical Heaven above the firmament or on a mountaintop, the sun really was driven across the sky and the land of the dead was found in the West, on a mysterious island or a gloomy cavern. Increasing knowledge drove these phenomena into another realm and drove the spirits out of matter. This meant that such phenomena became more and more based around faith but also simply cannot be truly falsified empirically because their properties are outside of empirical analysis.

Despite this, religious people really do have experiences attributed to such phenomena and in many cases do attempt to instigate this in some way. Felicitas Goodman argued that religion was based around belief in an ‘alternate reality’ which was unique to each culture and was experienced through ritual and trance states provoking altered states of consciousness. These experiences provide all the ‘proof’ many religious people need and is possibly the reason that Ninian Smart put so much stock in ‘the experiential dimension’.

As Fitzgerald asks in the interview, what becomes of the phenomena defined as non-religious? This is a deeply pertinent question and it should give scholars serious pause for reflection because our role is neither to denigrate nor promote religions, including over non-religion. Religion could potentially have different positions in relation to wider society and the state; it is part of its utility as an analytical category that we can make such distinctions. Religion is often claimed to be ‘bound up with’ or ‘inseparable’ from life but in what ways? In Medieval Christianity or classical Islam all aspects of life were considered to be subservient to religion and could never be outside its purview. Indigenous Religions are often claimed to be subservient to the needs of everyday life, personal and social welfare or certain systems of values. Fitzgerald himself has argued convincingly that relationships with the Kami in Shinto are governed by and subservient to the same system of values which govern relationships with human beings. Even the beings or forces postulated by believers are not necessarily conceived of as much higher either in power or virtue than human beings, they are not necessarily the Summum Bonum, the highest good or value.

The exact border between religion and non-religion is difficult to pinpoint, as with the border between other key concepts, however as long as a conceptual heartland and borderland are acknowledged I believe it can still be of use. Nonetheless I will attempt to chart as much of these marches as I can. I would probably consider belief in cryptids such as the Loch Ness monster to be just shy of the dividing line, partially because they are purported to be biological but far more importantly that other than perhaps a hesitation to swim in the waters or a propensity to drag expensive scanning equipment across them, belief does not affect behaviour and is not especially institutionalised among even a loose community. Maintaining a distinction may appear to be pointless but it allows us to understand the processes by which such phenomena could transform into a religion and can allow us to recognise new religions when they emerge.

Religion would become an impossibly wide concept if it included all beliefs or convictions held without empirical evidence. I would adapt the philosophical maxim that we must separate ‘is’ systems, accounts of reality from ‘ought’ systems of how they should be, at least ideal-typically. I can also appreciate Fitzgerald’s reasons for equating belief in God with belief in self-regulating markets which certainly does appear to be nothing short of a modern myth. However the primary difference is the fact that such a belief is dependent on the (much softer than it will frequently admit) science of economics based on analysis of the production and exchange of resources and on mathematics and to an extent is subject to it: what authority it has is dependent upon it and can simply be described as bad economics.

What is the difference between belief in an abstract notion like a Nation or Democracy and a religious belief? Well there certainly is an underlying similarity, they are not physical but do have great social power. These ideas can be classed as ‘Durkheimian gods’ in that they have a hold over a group of people, affect the way they act and relate to one another and are greater than the sum of their parts, acting within and without the individual and can never truly be false in this sense. However I feel I can say as a ‘believer’ or ‘adherent’ of a Nation myself that, for example, the Scottish Nation is still conceived to be nothing more than a body of people, their institutions, traditions, sense of collective self and history. Belief in an actual divine being fits all of these criteria and can be described perfectly as a ‘Durkheimian god’ but is also additionally a ‘Tylorian god’, which is really conceived to exist ontologically, to act as a causal agent which can play an explanatory role. No honest engagement with these beliefs as found among human communities can truly deny this.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Liam Sutherland is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree in 2009. His dissertation was subsequently published in Literature & Aesthetics (2011), entitled “The Survival of Indigenous Australian Spirituality in Contemporary Australia”. Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project. Recently, Liam has failed to defy RS stereotypes and ended up working part time for a Church.

Bibliography:

Berger, P. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1990) Anchor

Cox, J.L. From Primitive to Indigenous in the Academic Study of Religion (2007) Ashgate

Durkheim, É. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (2001) OUP

Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) OUP

Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books

Goodman, F. Ecstasy, Ritual and the Alternate Reality (1988) Indiana University Press

Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) OUP

Kant, I. “Critique of Practical Reason” in (1888) K. Abbot (ed.) Kant’s Theory of Ethics 4th edition Longmans Green & co.

Sharpe, E.J Comparative Religion: A History (1986) Duckworth

Smart, N. The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989) CUP

Tweed, T. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2008) Harvard University Press 

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom (1871) Volumes 1 & 2: John Murray

Insider and Outsider: An Anthropological Perspective

 

If an anthropologist holds the same religious beliefs as ‘the natives’ – or even, some might say, any at all – the implicit concern of the discipline is that he or she might be surrendering too much anthropological authority. But as Ewing argues, belief remains an ’embarrassing possibility’ that stems from ‘a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist’ (1994:571; see also Harding 1987). The problem of belief, then, is the problem of remaining at the proper remove from ‘natives’ inner lives’ (Geertz 1976:236). (Engelke, 2002: 3)

 

Map of Relations between Fields of Knowledge, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 931

At the heart of ethnographers’ method of participant observation, is the paradox of being at once participant and observer; attempting to be both objective and subjective. I want in this short report to flag up some issues of interest and some texts from anthropology which speak both to the insider/outsider problem and to the broader methodological issue in anthropology of subjective and objective data collection. My response to this interview is informed by my own fieldwork with a non-religious organised group and the epistemological issues raised in the process.

This paper is intended to be broad-based; to be read beside, not against the interview. I want to think about the methodological issues which it brought to mind and suggest that – at least within anthropology – being either or both insider and outsider is an inevitable part of the fieldwork setup. The methodological issues raised relate to the balance of access to tacit knowledge vs. the ability to remain objective in the ultimate analysis which seems to present in the insider/outsider problem. It is possible to suggest that while gaining greater access as an insider you forfeit your ability for objective empirical observance.

Acceptance and Accessibility

Two issues which particularly emerge from Chryssides’ interview are those of acceptance and accessibility – and the ability to understand the subject which derives from this. Access, for example, may come more freely if you are not “other” or if you even hold a religious faith yourself, but this is more complicated. To talk only of religion as an isolated phenomena that we can be inside and outside of suggests that we are all doing (or in the case of the atheist ‘not doing’) religion all the time and may even fail to recognise the multiple identities we hold.  Gender or class, for example, may intersect or even interfere with other aspects of insider/outsider status. Being the correct gender may play a more important role in access than religious persuasion in the case of research within a gender segregated religious institution. In attending to the issue of the outsider and insider in the more broadly ethnographic sense, we may gain a reflexive position, attending to our whole positionality, not only that of our religious (or non-religious) position to another.

The problem can also be addressed in terms of a broader epistemological question of how we can know and, especially, how we can attend to the knowledge of another. I would suggest that looking at this broader set of questions may go some way to addressing the issue of the insider and outsider. Chryssides indeed does discuss this in an early and interesting point relating to truth claims: that the key question is not whether people have access to, and practice the truth, but to demonstrate what people understand to be true and how this manifests. .

There are a number of important anthropological works on the possibilities of knowledge and the limits of accessing tacit knowledge; a favourite of mine is Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think. There are a significant number of studies of religions, religion-like and supernatural phenomena (notably almost all from the “outsider” perspective). Yet, a survey essay by Dr Matthew Engelke on the problem of belief in anthropological fieldwork, suggests that prominent anthropologists Victor Turner and Edward Evans-Pritchard ultimately argued that they were not total outsiders, but maintained the ability to access participants due to their own Catholic beliefs. In this work, Engelke addresses Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande, in which Evans-Pritchard treats beliefs analytically as social facts: ‘beliefs are for [the social anthropologist] sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965:1). So we return to Chryssides’ point above, regarding the nature of the “truth” you seek to find. Evans-Pritchard also speaks to assumptions regarding the internal or external nature of religious phenomena.

Both Engelke and Evans-Pritchard argue that fieldwork is essential. The method allows for access to practice and “this is how anthropologists can best understand religion as a social fact”. But what is also demonstrated by Engelke, is Evans-Pritchard’s belief that it is better to have some form of religion or religious “inner life” in order to access or understand the inner lives of “others” regardless of the context of that religious “inner life”, than to be an atheist. The argument is that the scientific study is the relation of religious practice to the social world and these are better understood if the relations are shared (even partially) between participants. Engelke then turns to the work of Victor Turner, whose view is perhaps more fatalistic: the study of religion is doomed to fail since ‘religion is not determined by anything other than itself’ (Turner in Engleke, 2002: 8). Regardless of the position of the researcher, is it simply the case that religion cannot be researched at all? In summary of this work, Engelke draws on an important critique that can be drawn more broadly across the insider/outsider issue – that of ‘belief.’ If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.

Is it better to be religious or have no religion at all – the case of non-religion

At the end of this interview, Christopher Cotter asks: instead of considering which religion makes you an insider and outsider (as implied throughout the interview, in which Chryssides frequently refers to his Christian background), what of those researchers who have no religion at all? Chryssides does not seem to follow the logic within this question and in many ways this may be an answer in itself: it perhaps demonstrates an assumption that having a religion would be a necessity. But what of the atheist researcher, in the religious or the non-religious setting?

I would suggest that people wanting to learn more about the position of the non-believer in the religious setting (in this case Pentecostal) look to the work of Ruy Llera Blanes.  In a short discussion of his method, entitled “The Atheist Anthropologist”, Blanes explores his reticence to hide his atheism and the rhetorical shifting which evolved between himself and participants in order to find mutual respect and fend off questions of the possibility of his own conversion. When speaking to one participant outside a church, all seems to go well until the question of his own faith, or lack thereof, arises: he is literally shunned by the participant who turns his back. Following this, Blanes approaches the leader of the church who is more able to accept the outsider to the church. We have here two members of a church, with different statuses and perhaps levels of interest in this research, which is another important point to consider and indeed one made by Chryssides. But Blane’s work also speaks to the multiple intersections discussed above, regarding the general issue of being insider and outsider in the research setting. He is aware of the position of his participants as part of the Gypsy community and the different levels of access and sensitivity that this brings with it, demonstrating that a range of considerations may influence the involvement of a researcher.

My own experience in the field – inside an organisation which describes itself as non-religious – provides different, sometimes contradictory answers to this question. I am myself non-religious, but with a religious family, my Father being a Vicar. This is common knowledge among my research participants, and people’s attitudes towards this fact have ranged from active interest to indifference and even to expressions of pity and mock sympathy. The point here is that the division of insider/outsider is often not particularly clear cut and is certainly not fixed amongst individuals within one group or setting. People in the given group may share, for the convenience of research sampling, one aspect of interest to that researcher, but their biographical and temperamental differences make acceptance a complex issue. In my own research setting, I represent the piggy in the middle, bridging the religious and nonreligious worlds, as I have intimately experienced both in my own life. I have been asked by my own research participants, with genuine interest and sometimes bafflement, about the role of the vicar and how it must be to be part of a religious family, especially when I don’t believe, the usual question being “how do your parents feel about you doing this research?”.

What my own position may speak to is the categorisation of “religion”; when talked of in isolation, “religion” remains something fixed and visible. But in fact it intersects heavily across cultural domains, and having been in this ‘piggy in the middle’ situation, it is interesting to note the Christian heritage which is shared both by my family, myself and my non-religious participants: we are all insiders to a point.   So when we discuss this issue, I would think it important to address what we feel inside or outside of; is this cultural or religious division? Or is it one relating to our world view, morals and values?

By way of a summary, or to tack on some further thoughts for consideration – I should stress on the part of the insider/outsider issue in the anthropological project – the final transformation of data. As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique. We need then to then assess a third and final role, as the outsider, the anthropology academic, who has almost always written in the secular, empirical tradition.  We also need to pay further attention to the strong critiques of the religious and non-religious categories (McCutcheon, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Masuzawa, 2005), on the basis of their historical construction.  At present I am working within a climate-change in anthropology, which is attempting to critique and address its own historical relationship to the secularisation thesis put forward by the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences: Weber, Marx and Durkheim. I am excited and interested to see what unfolds and where this reflexivity takes us in regard to the consideration of religions and the general issue of access to ‘inner life’. As we consider the possibilities offered by these works and their continued critique, will it be possible to draw such a simple line implied by the notion of insider and outsider?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

Blanes, Ruy Llera (2006), “The Atheist Anthropologist. Believers and Non-Believers in Anthropological Fieldwork”, Social Anthropology 14 (2), pp. 223-234.

Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy Westview Press

Engelke, Matthew (2002) “The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life.”. Anthropology today, 18 (6). pp. 3-8. I

Geertz, Clifford (1976). ‘From  the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological  Understanding.  In K.H.  Basso & H.A. Selby (eds)  Meaning  in anthropology,  pp.231-237. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico  Press

Masazawa, Tomoko (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism University of Chicago Press

McCutcheon , Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford University Press

Podcasts

Measuring Secularity

At the home of the first secular studies undergraduate program, amid dozens of secularity scholars from around globe, Tommy Coleman’s interview with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John Shook tackles big questions about the measurement of secularity and secularism, the positionality of secularity scholars, and the state of secular studies as a field. The 3rd annual conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) at Pitzer College, which I too attended, was indeed the perfect place for this conversation. Secularity scholars from all over, both geographically and epistemologically, came together to debate and discuss these very questions. In the interview, Zuckerman and Shook describe a burgeoning “field of secular studies,” and, for me, this conference was evidence of just that. Here, I will build on their points about measurement and positionality, arguing that the heterogeneity among those who claim no religion requires more attention than it has been given and that the emerging field of secular studies shows definite signs of rising to that challenge.

To start, Zuckerman and Shook emphasize that “secularity” is a much broader phenomenon than most scholarly research acknowledges and they have given themselves the task of putting together the Oxford Handbook of Secularism to begin addressing the gaps in secular studies that have historically focused solely on atheists and atheism. Many others at the NSRN conference made similar points, and presentations detailing the variety of labels, beliefs, and behaviors found among the secular dominated the panels. This is encouraging and, I would argue, a long time coming. The rise of the “nones” as a category in social science research, while a step in the right direction, is far from sufficient to address the increasing presence and diversity of the religiously disaffiliated.

Referring to a research project in which he attempted to measure the amount of atheists globally (Zuckerman 2007), Zuckerman admits that measuring secularity is no easy task. He questions the validity of global statistics on irreligion and both he and Shook discuss the importance of being sensitive to regionality and culture when measuring secularity outside of a Western, Christian context. I agree, but want to emphasize that we are still far from sufficiently measuring secularity and its effects within Western contexts. Most quantitative research claiming to say something about what the “nones” do and do not do, in contrast to the religious, typically collapses all of those who claim no religious belief or affiliation into one category. These studies often make claims about the benefits of religion based on comparisons with the “nones”, and the religiously affiliated have been found to be happier, healthier, and more engaged with their communities. However, while often rigorously testing for variance among the religious, these studies treat the irreligious as if they have a static identity, resulting in an elision of the range of beliefs and behaviors that have been found within this growing group.

Zuckerman calls on the three Bs – belief, belonging, and behavior – to define what it means to “be secular.” Social scientists often use these categories to measure religiosity, as these three ways of being religious have been found to have distinct, and often contradictory, influences on social attitudes and behaviors. The utility of parsing out these categories among the “nones” is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, Zuckerman details how an individual can be secular in one way and not in another. Someone can go to church while not believing in god(s), or, indeed, can believe in god(s) without affiliating with any religious institution. Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam (2010) found that Americans who claim no religious affiliation one year often join a religious institution the next, highlighting the fluidity and “liminality” of religious and secular belief, belonging, and behavior (see also Keysar 2014). However, Zuckerman asserts that one cannot be truly secular if they believe in god(s). While you can agree or disagree with his definition, the important point is that when these distinct ways of being secular are conflated, the result is often invalid categories and incomplete conclusions (see Joseph Blankholm’s insightful post on the same topic).

At the American Mosaic Project, a survey project I’m a part of at the University of Minnesota, one of our goals is to speak to this gap in the research. We have multiple measures of secular belonging and behavior, including four separate measures for irreligious belonging (atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, and nothing in particular). Analyses indicate important distinctions among all four categories, as well as between those who take on a “none” label, those who have atheistic beliefs, and those who do not attend church. Other studies have found these distinctions as well, for example, Baker and Smith (2009) find that American atheists, agnostics, and unchurched believers each have distinct political beliefs and varying stances on religion’s place in public life.

A second aspect of measuring secularity discussed in the interview deals with its relation to religion. For Zuckerman, secularity is and always has to be in relation to religion. He argues, “If there was no religion, secularity would not have to be invented, we wouldn’t have to have a word for it.” Shook disagrees, rebutting, “There is no magic in language. Words don’t bring things into existence.” For Shook, secularism is an objective, measurable phenomenon that can exist with or without the presence of religion. He argues, “Just because the term serves as a contrary doesn’t mean that its existence is dependent on the contrary.” Their discussion in many ways parallels a conversation among scholars of nonbelief identities and communities. Scholars like Smith (2011) and Guenther (2014) argue that atheism in America is a “rejection identity” formed out of a rejection of religious belief and belonging. In contrast, LeDrew (2013) and Cimino and Smith (2014) highlight the ways that atheists and other nonbelievers are forming groups based on beliefs that they share instead of beliefs they reject.

What these discussions ultimately show is that individual and collective expressions of secularity vary across time and space, evolving even within the same community. In short, context matters. The political, cultural, and religious contexts of a given society influence the way secular ideals and beliefs are interpreted and enacted. Secularity, Shook explains, is set up in opposition to religion in some societies, like in the United States, but not all, and this can vary both between societies and within them. The research highlighted in this response has shown that there is a growing diversity of secular identities and ideologies, and what I’m seeing in the emerging field of secular studies is an increased sensitivity to the contexts and subjectivities under which these identities are taking shape.

References

Baker, Joseph and Buster Smith. 2009. “None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48(4): 719-733

Cimino, Richard and Christopher Smith. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Oxford University Press

Guenther, Katja. 2014. “Bounded by Disbelief: How Atheists in the United States Differentiate Themselves from Religious Believers.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 29(1): 1-16

Keysar, Ariela. 2014. “Shifts Along the American Religious-Secular Spectrum.” Secularism and Nonreligion 3(1): 1-16

LeDrew, Stephen. 2013. “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity

and Activism.” Sociology of Religion 74(4): 431-45

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49(4): 596-618

Smith, Jesse. 2011. “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism.” Sociology of Religion. 72(2): 215-237

Zuckerman, Phil. 2007. “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns.” Pp. 47-62 in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by M. Martin. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press

 

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References

  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Secular, Spiritual, Religious: American Religion Beyond the Baby Boomers

In his wide-ranging interview with Dusty Hoesly, Wade Clark Roof both re-emphasizes the importance of the baby boomer generation and suggests some ways to think beyond it. In the second half of the interview, in particular, he offers two different narratives for understanding the boomers, their uniqueness, and their place in the history of American religion. Looking at each in turn, this short essay uses recent scholarship to build on Roof’s observations and point to some facets of the current sea change in American religion.

Roof’s first historical narrative culminates in a deadlocked polarization. He suggests that the 1960s were a time of upheaval, and he sees the conservatism of the 1980s and Generation X as a direct response. This story of antagonism is consistent with Robert Wuthnow’s account in The Restructuring of American Religion (1988). Throughout the 1980s, the cleavage between religious conservatives and liberals began to correspond to that between political conservatives and liberals. The 1990s inaugurated a period in which high levels of religiosity began predicting membership in the Republican party—with Catholics and Black Protestants as notable exceptions (Campbell and Putnam 2010:290-321). Religious antagonism that grew out of a backlash against the 1960s became so polarized that it began predicting political antagonism, as well.

Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer (2002) narrate this polarization as one of the catalysts behind the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, or the so-called “nones,” who now comprise around a fifth of the American population (Funk, Smith, and Lugo 2012). The percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation doubled through the 1990s, jumping from 7 to 14% after remaining relatively stable for the two decades prior. Hout and Fischer explain this change in two ways. The first is demographic: more Americans than ever were raised with no religion in the wake of 1960s counterculture. In the second, they argue that the rise of the Religious Right led political moderates and liberals with weak religious attachments to disavow their religious affiliations.

Hout and Fischer show in a recent working paper (2014) that the “nones” reflect a reversal in a longstanding causal trend: political preferences now predict religious affiliation rather than vice-versa. Writing in American Grace in 2010, David Campbell and Robert Putnam agree with Hout and Fischer and argue explicitly that the increasing association of religion with conservative politics spurred a mass exodus from organized religion, especially among young people. In their view, these changes amount to no less than another restructuring of American religion in which the new poles of the spectrum are religion and the secular. Out of the polarization Roof describes between conservatives and liberals, a new polarization has arisen.

And yet, while these statistics might appear to show a growing antagonism between religious and secular Americans, it is important to remember that no religious affiliation does not mean nonreligious. Recent work on the nones has shown that they are a deeply heterogeneous group that includes the spiritual but not religious, unchurched believers, avowed nonbelievers, and those who only intermittently affiliate with a religion (Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2010). In acknowledging how capacious and even misleading the “religiously unaffiliated” label has become, we might wonder if its growth is symptomatic of a taxonomy that has failed to keep pace with restructuring.

Roof’s second historical narrative is supersessionary, and it underscores the challenge of distinguishing between the secular and the religious following this recent sea change. Roof endorses a kind of dialectical model of secularization in which “secularity breeds religious reaction, but the religious reaction is more secular than it would look like in an earlier age.” “Where is the religious? Where is the secular?” he asks rhetorically. “The secular is in religion; religion is in the secular.” Roof then admits that this phrasing is confusing but nonetheless accurate. Though I would question whether this process should be called “secularization,” my own research on organized nonbelievers and secular activism supports Roof’s cryptic formulation, as does other recent scholarship that considers the role of supersessionary narratives in fashioning the boundary between the secular and the religious (Fessenden 2007, Modern 2011, Yelle 2013).

There are clear examples of Americans whose very existence is a challenge to this boundary and who fit awkwardly in the available categories on religious surveys. Along with Alfredo García, a colleague at Princeton, I have built an original dataset that shows that there are roughly 1,400 nonbeliever communities in the United States. A minority of these groups even consider themselves religious, despite being avowedly non-theistic. Religious humanists, for instance, might claim affiliation with an Ethical Culture Society, a Society for Humanistic Judaism, or a Unitarian Universalist Church. They are, therefore, not “nones.” By contrast, many secular humanists and other kinds of nonbelievers, such as atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers, would consciously avoid calling themselves religious or claiming a religious affiliation, even though they might also consider themselves to be a part of a “morally intense community” of non-theists (Putnam and Campbell 2010:361).

Recent efforts by groups in the U.S. and the U.K. to found “godless congregations” have spurred controversy among observers and especially among nonbelievers who choose not to organize. Yet they have also tapped into a great deal of latent interest. For instance, in late 2012 the Humanist Community at Harvard and the American Humanist Association began partnering to found “godless congregations”—a term that many secularists would find an oxymoron. Emboldened by tremendous growth in their budgets, staff, and membership over the past decade, these organizations hope they can create spaces for religious belonging and even religious practice without religious belief, and usually without the term “religious.” Many involved in these groups see themselves creating hybrids of religion and the secular, and they pursue interfaith partnerships and invite believers of various stripes to attend their godless services. They are challenging us to ask whether these godless congregations are religious or secular, and in so doing, they are consciously trying to mend fences and to undermine the polarization of the secular and the religious.

What do religious belonging, believing, and behaving look like in a country in which a third of its young people have no religious affiliation and describe themselves using complicated negations like “spiritual but not religious,” “nonreligious,” and “nonbeliever”? Are they secular if they believe and behave religiously but do not belong? Or what if they belong but do not believe or behave? Who gets to decide whether something is secular or religious, and what are the stakes of that decision (Blankholm 2014)? Like Roof, I find this blurry boundary and the questions it raises central to understanding the present restructuring of American religion.

 

References

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4): 775-790.

Campbell, David E. and Robert D. Putnam. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fessenden, Tracy. 2007. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Funk, Cary, Greg Smith, and Luis Lugo. 2012. “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Retrieved November 24, 2012

Hout, Michael, and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165.

———. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” NYU Population Center Working Paper Series. Working Paper No. 2014-03.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49:4 (2010): 596–618.

Modern, John. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1988. The Restructuring of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yelle, Robert. 2013. The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Psychology of What? Religion, Spirituality, or Meaning: In Search of a Proper Name for The Field of Psychology of Religion

Psychology of religion provides an avenue of theoretical and methodologically empirical inquiry into the study of belief and experience. Particularly, the individual’s experience, both personal and social, is explored through a variety of methods. One popular method of measuring experience is through measures of religiosity. Religiosity scales (mostly Christian) increased enough to be published as a book (Hill and Hood, 1999) which is still one of the most important sources in the field. In the course of time, many scholars discussed the problem of developing religiosity measures in non-western and non-Christian cultures and religiosity scales for other religious traditions like Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam were added to the literature (see APA Handbook of Psychology of Religion, first volume). And, more recently, the term spirituality has gained an expanding place in academia with some arguing that it is a separate concept from religion/religiosity. A fourfold classification (religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, both, neither) began to be used as a variable in research. Whether as a typology or used as dimensions, the spiritual/religious distinction continues to generate much research and debate. Meanwhile, the “none” category drew academic attention and the terms non-belief, irreligion, and secularity became current issues in the field. Furthermore, Silver’s research put forth that the nonbelievers are more diversely grouped than originally imagined. Among the diversity of being religious, spiritual, agnostic, skeptic, and atheist and so on, Dr. Schnell’s interview presents us a new perspective based on meaning instead of belief/non-belief.

Insisting on the importance of meaning, Dr. Schnell has a unique approach to understand human experience. Her comprehensive study is one of the best examples of how psychology of religion could broaden its scope. She and her colleagues have designed a study to find out not only the first meanings which come to participants’ minds but also their ultimate meanings. Dr. Schnell states that people usually answer with “family”, “friends”, “work” etc. when they are asked about their sources of meaning. However, it is unclear what their statements actually mean. She continues, saying “work can mean so many different things”. For one person, it is the possibility to be creative, for another it is community with colleagues, and for yet another it is the possibility to expand one’s knowledge. Thus, Dr. Schnell asks further detailed questions in order to discover the interviewees’ ultimate meanings. She summarizes her deep research and analysis by stating that “sources of meaning are not conscious. We are not really aware of them but we can reflect upon them.” As researchers we are familiar with this idea both from academia, as Victor Frankl’s (1992) Man’s Search for Meaning, and, indeed, from our personal lives and from others around us. However, what makes Dr. Schnell’s study unique is the scale she developed, The Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe) which provides a mirror to reflect ultimate meanings. It has already been translated into 11 languages.

Scale / Dimension Description Factors
VERTICAL SELFTRANSCENDENCE Commitment to an immaterial, supernatural reality Implicit Religiosity, Spirituality
HORIZONTAL SELFTRANSCENDENCE Commitment to worldly affairs beyond one’s immediate concerns Unison with Nature, Social Commitment, etc.
SELFACTUALIZATION Commitment to the employment, Challenge and Promotion ofone’s capacities Development, Individualism, etc.
ORDER Commitment to principles, common sense and the tried and tested Tradition, Practicality, etc.
WELL-BEING AND RELATEDNESS Commitment to enjoyment, sensitivity and warmth in privacy and company Community, Love, etc.

 

What We Mean by Meaning

One of the most impressive aspects of Dr. Schnell’s perspective is her clear conceptual analysis of meaning and her success in reflecting this clarity in her scale. Psychological literature focuses upon meaning from many different perspectives such as values, religiosity, spirituality, well-being, and happiness. Many studies use the term “meaning” almost synonymously with these concepts, which leads to differences and sometimes confusion about their definitions. Dr. Schnell offers clear explanations about the meanings of these key constructs of the field.

Meanings vs. Values

One can easily see that meanings and values are usually used together in the literature. Insisting on a difference between these terms, Dr. Schnell clarifies:

“Values are rather normative. How should it be, what is right etc.? People tell us a lot when we ask them what values they find important but then, if you look at what they’re actually doing, they have a big gap between actual behavior and what the values are. The sources of meaning are what people really do in their lives.”

This differentiation is of vital importance for psychology of religion. Because people tend to answer the questions “as they ought to be” instead of “as they are,” many researchers recognize a big challenge both in qualitative and quantitative studies. Positive attitude scales, like altruism and gratitude scales, are particularly at risk. Although there are some research techniques that enable us to minimize the risk, Dr. Schnell’s questionnaire presents a new approach. She claims that SoMe actually measures what people do and what they find important.

Meanings vs. Religiosity / Spirituality

Religion is usually regarded as a source of meaning in the literature. Likewise, almost all studies on spirituality claim that spirituality is related to meaningfulness. However, even the boundaries of these terms are not clear enough, especially in non-western countries. For instance it is not easy to investigate religiosity and spirituality in a Muslim culture even in a more secular one such as Turkey. Although Islam has an organizational dimension, it cannot be compared with ecclesiastical institutions and denominations.  Religiosity in Muslim countries is still considered as a deeply personal phenomenon as a result of the absence of a certain organization representing religion. Therefore, it is not easy to distinguish religiosity and spirituality from each other as western literature does, insisting on organizational and personal aspects of them.

On the other hand, many theorists and researchers attach value to religiosity and/or (more likely) spirituality. In many writings, the term spirituality is credited with the positive and the term religiosity is credited with the negative (see Zinnbauer and Pargament, 2005).  Dr. Schnell shifts the focus from the content and valence of these concepts to how valuable these concepts are for individuals. Instead of just labeling religion / spirituality as a source of meaning she expresses that these concepts have an effect on individuals as far as religion / spirituality is important for them. Thus, she clarifies the links between religiosity, spirituality, and meaning to some degree.

Meaning vs. Well Being / Happiness

Meaning has also usually been emphasized in studies on well-being. Many writings suggest that meaning is necessary for life satisfaction.  Not surprisingly, since both are understood to involve meaning, well-being and spirituality are frequently associated with each other. A general assumption in the literature is as follows:

There is an ongoing discussion about spirituality, well-being, and meaning. Some scholars, like Koenig (2008), criticize the use of positive psychological traits like meaning in the definitions of spirituality. He argues that it is tautological to look at relationships between spirituality and mental health or well-being, since spirituality scales contain items assessing mental health. On the other hand, Visser (2013) asserts that most of the dimensions of spirituality, including meaning in life, are distinct from well-being. As with spirituality, Dr. Schnell approaches the subject with an emphasis on meaning rather than on well-being. She distinguishes between (eudaimonic) well-being and meaning. She says that the “good life is not necessarily the pleasant life”, which parallels Frankl’s (1992) idea that suffering can be turned into victory. Explaining herself concisely, Schell says, “Meaning is not always happiness.”

 Further Questions on the Sources of Meaning

The other most impressive aspect of Dr. Schnell’s podcast is its success in directing us to ask further questions. Here are some examples:

1)  Dr. Schnell reports that “when comparing an atheist with a religious person you might not think in many ways they have very similar commitments but one has a vertical transcendence believing in God and the other has not, but what they actually live is very similar.” This finding forces a reader to question the meanings of being Jewish, Buddhist, skeptic, or agnostic. If identities based on belief have less influence on behavior than previously imagined, should the typical classifications in psychology of religion be reviewed?

2)  Dr. Schnell insists on the importance of environmental effects on a person’s sources of meaning, saying “meaning has to do with the systems you are part of.” If the social dimension of meaning is so important, is it possible to speak of copied or unconsciously learned meanings?

3)  According to Dr. Schnell, people from different religious or spiritual traditions and even non-believers may share similar meanings, and individuals’ relationships affect their meanings. So, do people from similar environments and cultures choose similar meanings?

4)  Dr. Schnell claims that meaning-making is not relative but relational. Besides, it is known that globalism, secularism, technological developments, and post-modernism offers (or even forces) certain life-styles and values. So do people choose their meanings or do they remain exposed to them?

5)  One of Dr. Schnell’s most important findings is the fact that “so many people do not live a meaningful life but they do not have any problem with that. They do not suffer from a crisis of meaning, but they do not think their life is in any way meaningful.” She called this situation existential indifference (See Schnell, 2010). 35% of her sample from Germany belonged to this group. If a remarkable percentage of people have a superficial life -from home to work and from work to home- how could the universality of meaning be interpreted?

Actually, one may find some answers to these questions in Dr. Schnell’s publications. However, further questions need to be investigated. More importantly these questions show how inspiring Dr. Schnell’s perspective is.

Psychology of Meaning?

Dr. Schnell points out that “in Europe, less and less people attend church activities. The church loses influence on everyday life but not so many people suffer from a crisis of meaning,” and the first question that came to her mind was “so, what is the basis of their life?” Following her elaborated study, she proposes the centrality of meaning among religiosity, spirituality, non-belief, values, well-being and so on. She indicates that meaning is a core concept in the field.

Then she discusses the name for the field of psychology of religion and/or spirituality. When she says that “religiosity is rather institutional, and spirituality is too vague, so meaning is a broader concept,” she implies a new name for the field. Although it is questionable to restrict the field to the issues people attribute meaning to, this valiant attempt is inspiring for the development of psychology of religion or whatever its name might be.

Dr. Schnell’s podcast has shown, once again, that social sciences in general and the psychology of religion in particular have the potential to produce new perspectives, theories, and research for understanding the human condition. Academic collaborations from different cultures, backgrounds, religious/spiritual/non-religious traditions are needed to contribute to (and improve) these perspectives and studies. Dr. Schnell’s scale, SoMe, which can be adapted to other cultures and languages might be a good step to serve this purpose. Undoubtedly, future studies will add new dimensions to the field.

 References

APA, (2013), APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, (Ed. Kenneth I. Pargament),1st volume, New York:  American Psychological Association.

Frankl, Victor (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning, (4th ed). Boston: Beacon Press.

Hill, Peter C. and Hood, Ralph W. Jr. (eds.) (1999). Measures of Religiosity, Birmingham: Religious Education Press.

Koenig, Harold G. (2008). Concerns About Measuring “Spirituality” in Research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196 (5), 349-355.

Schnell, Tatjana (2010). Existential Indifference: Another Quality of Meaning in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 50 (3) 351 –373.

Visser, Anja (2013). Is being spiritual the same as experiencing well-being?, Paper presented at IAPR 2013 Congress in Switzerland.

Zinnbauer, Brian J. and Pargament, Kenneth. I. (2005). Religiousness and Spirituality. Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Eds. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Parks. New York: The Guilford Press, 21-42.

 

To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]

References

  • Anttonen, Veikko. 2000. ‘Sacred’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 271–282. London: Cassell.
  • ———. 2005. ‘Space, Body and the Notion of Boundary: A Category-Theoretical Approach to Religion’. Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 41 (2): 185–201.
  • 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.
  • ———. 2012. ‘Scottish Students, Their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular: Borders, Boundaries and Transgressions in the Study of “Nonreligion”’. In  University of Winchester.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. ‘Researching Belief Without Asking Religious Questions’. Fieldwork in Religion 4 (1): 86–104.
  • ———. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. ‘The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?’ In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2011. ‘NSRN Glossary (unpublished Paper)’. In NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf
  • ———. 2012a. ‘Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • ———. 2012b. ‘Being Secular: Toward Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion and Epistemological Culture’. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  • Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Quack, Johannes. 2011. ‘Modes of Non-religiosity’. In  NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-terminology-conference-5-may-2011-johannes-quack-nonreligion-stream1.pdf.

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Lois Lee on Non-religion (8 October 2012).

With the advent of cultural and religious pluralism within western society, the theme of secularity and non-belief has gained momentum within academic discussion. Non-belief is a growing trend in Western Europe and North America. While countries such as the United States claim to be religious the percentage of non-affiliated individuals is increasing. Roozen (1980) discovered that 46% of American’s were relatively uninvolved in religious services for 2 years or more. In ISSP 2008 survey data, 2.8% agree with the statement “I don’t believe in God”, while 5% agreed with “I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe that there is a way to find out,”, and 10.3% agreed with “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind,” appearing to confirm an agnostic viewpoint on the existence of God.  Similar trends in data were observed in the American Religious Identification Survey results. 2.3% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “there is no such thing (as God)” while 4.3% agreed that “there is no way to know”. 12.1% agreed with the statement “there is a higher power but no personal God” (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). Such data seems to support Steve Bruce’s (2011) secularization paradigm or at least a shift away from organized religious association even within the “religious” United States. Obviously with a social shift away from institutionalized belief and individual faith would certainly assume social structures and institutions would shift to nonreligious culturally relative inclusive structures of meaning.  In other words people would begin to seek to find alternatives in social rituals, symbols, and contexts. An alternative perspective to consider is that of non-religion or those social systems and contexts which share similarity to religious systems but unto themselves are their own distinct non-religious phenomena.

Non-religion and Cross-Disciplinary Research

Dr. Lee’s perspective is an excellent view of how new fields emerge within human studies in academia. A couple of important themes emerge within this Podcast.  The first is related to the reference point of what is non-religion. Such conversations of delineation are challenging as they are juxtaposed within the much larger epistemological framework of an established field.  They begin within the definitional boundary not only of what non-religion is but also what it is not. For example, Dr. Lee notes within the podcast: that non-religion is the “Practice or perspective that differs from religion, something that is defined by how it differs from religion. So it is religious like (in) some way we consider (it) meaningful but beyond that, we need to know more.”  Dr. Lee goes on to say non-religion is a “Space or object where non-religion takes religion as its primary reference point.” Such a conversation has a variety of perspectives as well as establishing an implicit sequitur in meaning.  For Lee the definitional boundaries are necessary if this new field is to have utility. Non-religion appears to be set within the social structural meaning. Its distinction is embedded in the social system and symbols which give the society meaning. In other words, non-religion is related to the social frame of human experience where systems which were originally rooted within the religious order have replaced, adapted, or yielded to more secular frames of reference. It appears that some social systems such as humanism, ecology, environmental awareness, and others may have religious like values or beliefs but lack the religious connections or reference points which would define other social systems. Therefore such social systems fit the nonreligious classifications. These examples – which are socially engaged advocacy groups – fit Hood, Hill & Spilka’s (2009) definitional term of “horizontal transcendence” which assumes that there are movements which give non-religious affiliated individuals a deeper meaning in life but do not require a “vertical transcendence” or religious cosmology in which to find meaning. As Hood and colleagues demonstrate, other social systems provide greater meaning in the lives of people who may not be religious affiliated. This viewpoint is further reinforced with the work of Kohls and Walach (2006) whose work has shown that experiences can be “exceptional” without the interpretative medium of religion to provide transcendental reference point.  While exceptional experience can include newly emergent phenomena such as spirituality, they also include other experiences which may or may not be socially defined. Certainly within the field of Psychology, there has been an effort to capitalize on such experience – exceptional and non-religious meaning – in providing tools for increasing psychological health and well-being (Pargament, 1997). While much of Pargament’s work deals in the realm of Psychology of Religion and coping there are also other experiences observed by Pargament which provide mediums for treatment as well. Such possibilities should be explored further to determine to what extent non-religious experience can provide meaning during traumatic times in people’s lives. Understandably there are wide theoretical and cross-disciplinary possibilities within the study of non-religion which should be collaboratively explored further.  Dr. Lee’s attempt at broadening meaningful human experience certainly has broader implications. The definitional boundary of the field leads to the next point which is the politics of the academic domain in which the non-belief theory operates.

The Politics of Academia

Dr. Lee spends much of the Podcast discussing the scholarly boundaries with other social science and humanities fields such as sociology/secularism and theology/theism. For example, theist academic departments concern themselves with theoretical definitions in which to identify their study. Social science departments may seek operational definitions in which to pose their methodological inquiry. Thus theoretical definitions provide the philosophical paradigm which shapes inquiry. Obviously one’s academic training certainly may determine how non-religion is explored. In the field of psychology for example, non-religious institutions could be studied through the organization of atheists and agnostics. It could be that in the case of socially engaged secular groups, one’s personal ontology juxtaposes their social interests with others of similar view. Religious Studies may approach the perspective very differently by examining the nature of non-religion versus religion looking for ontological patterns of similarity or difference between them. Such considerations of academic consent remind me of Russell McCutcheon’s (1997) work on Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. In this work McCutcheon discusses the sui generis aspects of religious studies or, more simply put, the study of religion simply for its own purposes. McCutcheon believes that religion is not unique from any other academic enterprise but rather should be critiqued and analyzed by a similar measure of other academic disciplines.  While McCutcheon’s work discusses a variety of issues providing evidence of a scholarly impasse for the legitimacy of traditional modes religious studies education, one theme relates to Dr. Lee’s perspective here. That perspective is the legitimacy of inquiry as posed within budgetary constraints and departmental politics. As these new fields – such as non-religion – form, certainly academic inquiry should not be limited to a particular academic field. As McCutcheon suggests, the study of social systems such as religion in his example or non-religion in Dr. Lee’s example should be an interdisciplinary exercise. While this response has focused primarily on the study of non-religion in post-secondary education such as colleges and universities, certainly there is a larger implication as well. In countries where secondary education includes religious education, there is the potential for non-religious education. In considering the politics of this new field, scholars and educators may benefit from discussing these non-religious systems as modes of exceptional experience as noted by much of the work of Kohls and Walach. This could provide additional legitimacy for the field to address the dreaded issues of departmental politics and funding, but also as sub-segment of the much larger focus on religion and spirituality.

Terminology of a New Theory

One could argue that the primary reference point for a new theoretical term should incorporate similar language used by its parentally proceeding terminology. In this case, it appears the field of non-religion is an evolving social system, changing, adapting, and incorporating new meaning and ideas. While the social and ritual systems have similarity, it is unclear if the connection to old religious systems are a result of needing structure or if simply they serve as theoretical cynosure. In other words researchers are concerned with making the ontological and epistemological leap beyond the parental social systems which govern human behavior and structure symbolic meaning. If the new social phenomenon is to exist and, by relation, be studied on its own terms, one possible theme to consider would be to shift the term away from using religion as its terminology primary reference point.

While the space and ritual may seem similar to that of religion, as non-religion begins to form its own social structure it will become more alien to the religious meanings – explicitly or implicitly. While it will always have a historical connection to religion, the social appraisal of the system will be gained through its continued use ergo it gains value of its own as it gains complexity and is routinized in tradition. Following McCutcheon’s perspective, it will create a space where the value of non-religious discourse is on its own terms as the function and structure of a human social system. Scholars should study non-religion for the utility it brings in better understanding the human condition not because it is attached to religiosity in some way.

Certainly new research and scholarly enterprises have been spawned from other older research discourse. Why should non-religion be any different?  Rather than calling these systems non-religious as Lee suggests, consider a phrase such as the Latin ritus insula – insular, or insulate – where the definition reflects the individuality of people and value as well as the social system in which they participate. So instead of speaking of non-religious rituals we would call them ritus insula rituals, endowing the term with an alternative meaning. As the term is adopted and accepted, it begins to epitomize its own meaning in defining these social systems which are shifting away from religious meaning and connection. Dr. Lee and her colleagues should consider the theoretical and research methodological possibilities inherent in shifting the term away from religion.

A Moment of Reflexivity

As I write this response, I find myself in an inner struggle as a Social Scientist. In one sense Dr Lee’s podcast and my subsequent response beg a question of causation. For me the question has its origins in the psychological. Does atheism and/or agnosticism lead to secularization and by proxy non-religious systems of meaning? Or as a social movements continue to gain adherents, do we see a diffusion of new ideas. As is noted by scholars of innovation such as Everett Rogers (2003) there are early adopters who embrace new ideas early while there are others who are slowly drawn to the idea as popularity increases. According to Rogers – and Interestingly – a small segment of the population who are the first to adopt a new idea are called the innovators. This group typically makes up 2.5% of the population. This could map on to the ISSP data and the American Religious Identification Survey as noted earlier where there are now individuals who simply do not believe in God. This would also lead to the conclusion that European samples are much more along the Rogers continuum of diffusion. Rogers argues that as an idea is disseminated and saturated, it becomes a part of the overall culture. It can be part of cultural identity of a group. While Roger’s work was likely more concerned with products and services, such data coupled with Rogers theory would indicate that secularization is inevitable. As human society changes and more people identify with non-belief and Lee’s concept of non-religion, religious systems and beliefs as they are practiced today will cease to be. Therefore it can be assumed that such products of non-belief such as the social systems of non-religion will gain additional opportunities for observation and study. Therefore the difficultly in identifying populations and samples of non-religion may lessen over time.

This response has attempted to show the vast possibilities in collaboration, academic adaptation, and locution of non-religion as an academic study. Through the advent of globalization and with more complex social theories, new human systems of meaning are emerging within academic literature. The challenge that scholars such as Dr. Lee have is interpreting these elaborate and intricate social systems and their implications for humanity. Non-religion makes an excellent area of focus, as it appears to be an emerging phenomenon along with other research areas of atheism, secularization, and spirituality.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu.

References:

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C. & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: an empirical approach. (4th ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Kohls, N. & Walach H. (2006). Exceptional experiences and spiritual practice: a new measurement approach. Spirituality and Heath International.  7. 125–150.
  • Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Kosmin, B. A., & Keysar, A. (Eds.) (2007). Secularism and secularity: Contemporary international perspectives. Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.
  • Roozen, D. A. (1980). Church dropouts: changing patterns of disengagement and re-entry. Review of Religious Research, 21(4), 427-450.

Non-religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

By Katie Aston, Goldsmiths, University of London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanist spaces 

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

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

Conway Hall’s website states:

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

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

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

Landscapes – Historical, Spatial, Horizontal and Vertical

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

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

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

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

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

References:

 

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on ‘Religion’ and Mystification (4 June 2012).

In the interview regarding ‘religion, non-religion and mystification’ Timothy Fitzgerald is quite correct to chide many for failing to critically reflect on the terms they employ. Like all of the core concepts of the Social Sciences: culture, society, politics, ethnicity and ritual are concepts which have been handed down to us from the West and were greatly transformed in the modern era, though ideology is the only one to be specifically coined in this period. The fact that these concepts have a specific history should hardly surprise us, and they can still pick out underlying currents of human life if they are utilised with critical awareness.

Though etymology and discourse analysis are important parts of the toolkit of the Social Sciences, I find Fitzgerald’s assertion that the field’s primary task is to analyse the usage of words to be a troubling retreat from the analysis of what human beings actually do and think. A focus on words and their protean etymologies can be misleading and be detrimental to the study of the phenomena actually present in the context. Would we confine ‘culture’ only to those who possess the systematic category which emerged in the modern era? Would we do the same for ideology? Surely a person could still recognise that there are ingrained, meaningful differences in lifestyle and worldview among communities and that certain ideas may function to justify these, before a concept is constructed or adapted to analyse this.

The compartmentalisation of categories is deeply problematic but because they only show their value when they work in tandem. Religions would not be especially interesting or valuable if ‘religious’ beliefs and practices did not affect politics and society, if they were purely individual or speculative. If it is easier for us to conceive of the workings of society as ‘politics’ influencing ‘religion’ and ‘religion’ influencing ‘politics’ then so be it.  I would not maintain however that a scholar is bound to use common terminology if they find them unhelpful but others may find them perfectly helpful. The concept of culture can cause problems if it creates the notion of a specific set, identifiable number of hermetically sealed ‘cultures’ or the notion that community must have a set number of traditions or folklore to be a viable community. Religions are hardly the only types of community which can be reified and essentialised, but to simply identify groups is not to reify them.

In attempting to set out my own approach I will draw on a theoretical model used by Fitzgerald in his 2000 book Ideology of Religious Studies, because I have found it useful for my own research. He argued that definitions and theories of ‘religion’ have a tendency to be either theological or vague. The two poles being theories which defined religion as some kind of universal essence, specific responses to ‘the Divine’ on the one hand and those which defined religion in a way that picks out nothing distinctive, identifying it with anything meaningful or important to human beings. To his credit however he did not leave it at that which would have served his purposes well enough, but admitted that there were many theories which lay somewhere in the middle. Religion could be defined clearly and scientifically and it is this course that I have sought to trace back to one of its key ancestors, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and his 1871 Primitive Culture.

Tylor defined religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’ rooted in the notion that human beings had a soul which gave them life and which could survive the death of the body. This was extended to include soul-like beings in the cosmos, either disembodied or embodied in natural phenomena (animism), personal beings in the cosmos which were causal agents with whom human beings needed to establish relationships. The notion of the soul, naturally enough gave rise to the idea of afterlives and spirit worlds.

Fitzgerald has rightly queried the often uncritical usage of the concepts like ‘god’ (or ‘spirit’), but comparison is based as much on difference as it is similarity. What is most amazing is simply the fact that these beings are postulated at all and throughout the world. This demands Social Scientific analysis. The term ‘supernatural’ has been quite understandably referred to as a ‘peek-a-boo’ term because it is a vague concept, which the vague concept of religion can hide behind; it is also a peek-a-boo concept because it appears to be very difficult to exorcise. Religion appears to be haunted by ‘the supernatural’ and even theories which attempt to define it in a different way are forced to address this. I would argue that it is time to acknowledge that this is the heartland of religion.

The concept of religion that we have is undeniably linked to the scientific worldview: but it could exist without it. Sharpe wrote that the first comparative religionist was the person to recognise that people in other places worshipped different gods. Comparison can be and routinely is, mounted from a non-scientific, faith based perspective, however even that would not quite be the same without the history of modern science. Certainly terms like the ‘supernatural’ can only emerge with the scientific view of nature. I do not believe that this is a problem; as Thomas Tweed has argued, it is impossible for the scholar to be truly un-situated, and we are attempting to pursue a Science of Religion after all. I am not certain that religious pluralism and secular government are as closely linked as Fitzgerald argues: the history of the Roman Empire, China, India or even the early secularising West would appear to be pluralist but not ‘secular’ in the modern sense. Even Medieval Catholicism spread its sacred canopy over much diversity and division.

Religion for me refers to the institutionalised belief in and practices based around ‘extra-natural’ phenomena or the ‘socialised supernatural’, however the phenomena is not necessarily considered to be ‘above’ nature. This includes gods, spirits, souls, other realms, afterlives and forces like the Dao or Karma. It is an etic perspective because for religious believers these are inherently part of the order of the cosmos, but they are additions to that shared core of human experience mediated through individual and cultural factors: the senses, the mind, culture etc. It is important to stress that human beings do inhabit largely the same cognitive universe and that is the (phenomenal) world of experience as opposed to the world as it really is which is unknowable (the noumenal), to borrow a distinction from Immanuel Kant. Religions for their believers provide the key to the complete picture, “the really real” as Clifford Geertz put it. Science also provides extensions to this shared core of human experience, including a variety of hidden phenomena like atoms and other dimensions but the difference is that these are revealed through the application of reason and empiricism, as opposed to tradition.

These phenomena may not be conceived as non-corporeal, even spiritual let alone metaphysical, as Stewart Guthrie is keen to argue, but they are ‘hidden’, so that those not inculcated with belief in them may seriously doubt their existence. One process that Tylor claimed to uncover that I think has enough grain of truth to repeat, is that these phenomena tend to become more mysterious and further removed as scientific knowledge expands. Tylor argued that the spirits were initially conceived as ethereal yet material beings, the gods were located in a physical Heaven above the firmament or on a mountaintop, the sun really was driven across the sky and the land of the dead was found in the West, on a mysterious island or a gloomy cavern. Increasing knowledge drove these phenomena into another realm and drove the spirits out of matter. This meant that such phenomena became more and more based around faith but also simply cannot be truly falsified empirically because their properties are outside of empirical analysis.

Despite this, religious people really do have experiences attributed to such phenomena and in many cases do attempt to instigate this in some way. Felicitas Goodman argued that religion was based around belief in an ‘alternate reality’ which was unique to each culture and was experienced through ritual and trance states provoking altered states of consciousness. These experiences provide all the ‘proof’ many religious people need and is possibly the reason that Ninian Smart put so much stock in ‘the experiential dimension’.

As Fitzgerald asks in the interview, what becomes of the phenomena defined as non-religious? This is a deeply pertinent question and it should give scholars serious pause for reflection because our role is neither to denigrate nor promote religions, including over non-religion. Religion could potentially have different positions in relation to wider society and the state; it is part of its utility as an analytical category that we can make such distinctions. Religion is often claimed to be ‘bound up with’ or ‘inseparable’ from life but in what ways? In Medieval Christianity or classical Islam all aspects of life were considered to be subservient to religion and could never be outside its purview. Indigenous Religions are often claimed to be subservient to the needs of everyday life, personal and social welfare or certain systems of values. Fitzgerald himself has argued convincingly that relationships with the Kami in Shinto are governed by and subservient to the same system of values which govern relationships with human beings. Even the beings or forces postulated by believers are not necessarily conceived of as much higher either in power or virtue than human beings, they are not necessarily the Summum Bonum, the highest good or value.

The exact border between religion and non-religion is difficult to pinpoint, as with the border between other key concepts, however as long as a conceptual heartland and borderland are acknowledged I believe it can still be of use. Nonetheless I will attempt to chart as much of these marches as I can. I would probably consider belief in cryptids such as the Loch Ness monster to be just shy of the dividing line, partially because they are purported to be biological but far more importantly that other than perhaps a hesitation to swim in the waters or a propensity to drag expensive scanning equipment across them, belief does not affect behaviour and is not especially institutionalised among even a loose community. Maintaining a distinction may appear to be pointless but it allows us to understand the processes by which such phenomena could transform into a religion and can allow us to recognise new religions when they emerge.

Religion would become an impossibly wide concept if it included all beliefs or convictions held without empirical evidence. I would adapt the philosophical maxim that we must separate ‘is’ systems, accounts of reality from ‘ought’ systems of how they should be, at least ideal-typically. I can also appreciate Fitzgerald’s reasons for equating belief in God with belief in self-regulating markets which certainly does appear to be nothing short of a modern myth. However the primary difference is the fact that such a belief is dependent on the (much softer than it will frequently admit) science of economics based on analysis of the production and exchange of resources and on mathematics and to an extent is subject to it: what authority it has is dependent upon it and can simply be described as bad economics.

What is the difference between belief in an abstract notion like a Nation or Democracy and a religious belief? Well there certainly is an underlying similarity, they are not physical but do have great social power. These ideas can be classed as ‘Durkheimian gods’ in that they have a hold over a group of people, affect the way they act and relate to one another and are greater than the sum of their parts, acting within and without the individual and can never truly be false in this sense. However I feel I can say as a ‘believer’ or ‘adherent’ of a Nation myself that, for example, the Scottish Nation is still conceived to be nothing more than a body of people, their institutions, traditions, sense of collective self and history. Belief in an actual divine being fits all of these criteria and can be described perfectly as a ‘Durkheimian god’ but is also additionally a ‘Tylorian god’, which is really conceived to exist ontologically, to act as a causal agent which can play an explanatory role. No honest engagement with these beliefs as found among human communities can truly deny this.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Liam Sutherland is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree in 2009. His dissertation was subsequently published in Literature & Aesthetics (2011), entitled “The Survival of Indigenous Australian Spirituality in Contemporary Australia”. Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project. Recently, Liam has failed to defy RS stereotypes and ended up working part time for a Church.

Bibliography:

Berger, P. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1990) Anchor

Cox, J.L. From Primitive to Indigenous in the Academic Study of Religion (2007) Ashgate

Durkheim, É. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (2001) OUP

Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) OUP

Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books

Goodman, F. Ecstasy, Ritual and the Alternate Reality (1988) Indiana University Press

Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) OUP

Kant, I. “Critique of Practical Reason” in (1888) K. Abbot (ed.) Kant’s Theory of Ethics 4th edition Longmans Green & co.

Sharpe, E.J Comparative Religion: A History (1986) Duckworth

Smart, N. The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989) CUP

Tweed, T. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2008) Harvard University Press 

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom (1871) Volumes 1 & 2: John Murray

Insider and Outsider: An Anthropological Perspective

 

If an anthropologist holds the same religious beliefs as ‘the natives’ – or even, some might say, any at all – the implicit concern of the discipline is that he or she might be surrendering too much anthropological authority. But as Ewing argues, belief remains an ’embarrassing possibility’ that stems from ‘a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist’ (1994:571; see also Harding 1987). The problem of belief, then, is the problem of remaining at the proper remove from ‘natives’ inner lives’ (Geertz 1976:236). (Engelke, 2002: 3)

 

Map of Relations between Fields of Knowledge, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 931

At the heart of ethnographers’ method of participant observation, is the paradox of being at once participant and observer; attempting to be both objective and subjective. I want in this short report to flag up some issues of interest and some texts from anthropology which speak both to the insider/outsider problem and to the broader methodological issue in anthropology of subjective and objective data collection. My response to this interview is informed by my own fieldwork with a non-religious organised group and the epistemological issues raised in the process.

This paper is intended to be broad-based; to be read beside, not against the interview. I want to think about the methodological issues which it brought to mind and suggest that – at least within anthropology – being either or both insider and outsider is an inevitable part of the fieldwork setup. The methodological issues raised relate to the balance of access to tacit knowledge vs. the ability to remain objective in the ultimate analysis which seems to present in the insider/outsider problem. It is possible to suggest that while gaining greater access as an insider you forfeit your ability for objective empirical observance.

Acceptance and Accessibility

Two issues which particularly emerge from Chryssides’ interview are those of acceptance and accessibility – and the ability to understand the subject which derives from this. Access, for example, may come more freely if you are not “other” or if you even hold a religious faith yourself, but this is more complicated. To talk only of religion as an isolated phenomena that we can be inside and outside of suggests that we are all doing (or in the case of the atheist ‘not doing’) religion all the time and may even fail to recognise the multiple identities we hold.  Gender or class, for example, may intersect or even interfere with other aspects of insider/outsider status. Being the correct gender may play a more important role in access than religious persuasion in the case of research within a gender segregated religious institution. In attending to the issue of the outsider and insider in the more broadly ethnographic sense, we may gain a reflexive position, attending to our whole positionality, not only that of our religious (or non-religious) position to another.

The problem can also be addressed in terms of a broader epistemological question of how we can know and, especially, how we can attend to the knowledge of another. I would suggest that looking at this broader set of questions may go some way to addressing the issue of the insider and outsider. Chryssides indeed does discuss this in an early and interesting point relating to truth claims: that the key question is not whether people have access to, and practice the truth, but to demonstrate what people understand to be true and how this manifests. .

There are a number of important anthropological works on the possibilities of knowledge and the limits of accessing tacit knowledge; a favourite of mine is Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think. There are a significant number of studies of religions, religion-like and supernatural phenomena (notably almost all from the “outsider” perspective). Yet, a survey essay by Dr Matthew Engelke on the problem of belief in anthropological fieldwork, suggests that prominent anthropologists Victor Turner and Edward Evans-Pritchard ultimately argued that they were not total outsiders, but maintained the ability to access participants due to their own Catholic beliefs. In this work, Engelke addresses Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande, in which Evans-Pritchard treats beliefs analytically as social facts: ‘beliefs are for [the social anthropologist] sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965:1). So we return to Chryssides’ point above, regarding the nature of the “truth” you seek to find. Evans-Pritchard also speaks to assumptions regarding the internal or external nature of religious phenomena.

Both Engelke and Evans-Pritchard argue that fieldwork is essential. The method allows for access to practice and “this is how anthropologists can best understand religion as a social fact”. But what is also demonstrated by Engelke, is Evans-Pritchard’s belief that it is better to have some form of religion or religious “inner life” in order to access or understand the inner lives of “others” regardless of the context of that religious “inner life”, than to be an atheist. The argument is that the scientific study is the relation of religious practice to the social world and these are better understood if the relations are shared (even partially) between participants. Engelke then turns to the work of Victor Turner, whose view is perhaps more fatalistic: the study of religion is doomed to fail since ‘religion is not determined by anything other than itself’ (Turner in Engleke, 2002: 8). Regardless of the position of the researcher, is it simply the case that religion cannot be researched at all? In summary of this work, Engelke draws on an important critique that can be drawn more broadly across the insider/outsider issue – that of ‘belief.’ If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.

Is it better to be religious or have no religion at all – the case of non-religion

At the end of this interview, Christopher Cotter asks: instead of considering which religion makes you an insider and outsider (as implied throughout the interview, in which Chryssides frequently refers to his Christian background), what of those researchers who have no religion at all? Chryssides does not seem to follow the logic within this question and in many ways this may be an answer in itself: it perhaps demonstrates an assumption that having a religion would be a necessity. But what of the atheist researcher, in the religious or the non-religious setting?

I would suggest that people wanting to learn more about the position of the non-believer in the religious setting (in this case Pentecostal) look to the work of Ruy Llera Blanes.  In a short discussion of his method, entitled “The Atheist Anthropologist”, Blanes explores his reticence to hide his atheism and the rhetorical shifting which evolved between himself and participants in order to find mutual respect and fend off questions of the possibility of his own conversion. When speaking to one participant outside a church, all seems to go well until the question of his own faith, or lack thereof, arises: he is literally shunned by the participant who turns his back. Following this, Blanes approaches the leader of the church who is more able to accept the outsider to the church. We have here two members of a church, with different statuses and perhaps levels of interest in this research, which is another important point to consider and indeed one made by Chryssides. But Blane’s work also speaks to the multiple intersections discussed above, regarding the general issue of being insider and outsider in the research setting. He is aware of the position of his participants as part of the Gypsy community and the different levels of access and sensitivity that this brings with it, demonstrating that a range of considerations may influence the involvement of a researcher.

My own experience in the field – inside an organisation which describes itself as non-religious – provides different, sometimes contradictory answers to this question. I am myself non-religious, but with a religious family, my Father being a Vicar. This is common knowledge among my research participants, and people’s attitudes towards this fact have ranged from active interest to indifference and even to expressions of pity and mock sympathy. The point here is that the division of insider/outsider is often not particularly clear cut and is certainly not fixed amongst individuals within one group or setting. People in the given group may share, for the convenience of research sampling, one aspect of interest to that researcher, but their biographical and temperamental differences make acceptance a complex issue. In my own research setting, I represent the piggy in the middle, bridging the religious and nonreligious worlds, as I have intimately experienced both in my own life. I have been asked by my own research participants, with genuine interest and sometimes bafflement, about the role of the vicar and how it must be to be part of a religious family, especially when I don’t believe, the usual question being “how do your parents feel about you doing this research?”.

What my own position may speak to is the categorisation of “religion”; when talked of in isolation, “religion” remains something fixed and visible. But in fact it intersects heavily across cultural domains, and having been in this ‘piggy in the middle’ situation, it is interesting to note the Christian heritage which is shared both by my family, myself and my non-religious participants: we are all insiders to a point.   So when we discuss this issue, I would think it important to address what we feel inside or outside of; is this cultural or religious division? Or is it one relating to our world view, morals and values?

By way of a summary, or to tack on some further thoughts for consideration – I should stress on the part of the insider/outsider issue in the anthropological project – the final transformation of data. As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique. We need then to then assess a third and final role, as the outsider, the anthropology academic, who has almost always written in the secular, empirical tradition.  We also need to pay further attention to the strong critiques of the religious and non-religious categories (McCutcheon, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Masuzawa, 2005), on the basis of their historical construction.  At present I am working within a climate-change in anthropology, which is attempting to critique and address its own historical relationship to the secularisation thesis put forward by the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences: Weber, Marx and Durkheim. I am excited and interested to see what unfolds and where this reflexivity takes us in regard to the consideration of religions and the general issue of access to ‘inner life’. As we consider the possibilities offered by these works and their continued critique, will it be possible to draw such a simple line implied by the notion of insider and outsider?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

Blanes, Ruy Llera (2006), “The Atheist Anthropologist. Believers and Non-Believers in Anthropological Fieldwork”, Social Anthropology 14 (2), pp. 223-234.

Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy Westview Press

Engelke, Matthew (2002) “The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life.”. Anthropology today, 18 (6). pp. 3-8. I

Geertz, Clifford (1976). ‘From  the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological  Understanding.  In K.H.  Basso & H.A. Selby (eds)  Meaning  in anthropology,  pp.231-237. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico  Press

Masazawa, Tomoko (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism University of Chicago Press

McCutcheon , Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford University Press