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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

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

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

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

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

Specific Understanding Unbelief projects mentioned in the podcast include:

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

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

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when finding UNBELIEVABLE deals on academic texts, strawberry jam, vintage clothing, and more.

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

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field

Podcast with Lois Lee (26 February 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

 

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

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

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

LL: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

LL: Yes

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

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

CC: Yes.

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

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

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

CC: Hmm.

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

CC: Mmm.

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

CC: (Laughs) Why not?

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

CC: Exactly, and what new . . .

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

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

LL: (Laughs)

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

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

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

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

CC: Which is?

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

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

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

CC: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

LL: And you.

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

LL: (Laughs).

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

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Conference: SISR/ISSR: Religion, Cooperation, and Conflict in Diverse Societies

4–7 July 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: American Psychological Association

Special issue: American Atheism, Agnosticism, and Non-Religious Worldviews: Theoretical Models and Psychological Measurement

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Journal: Religion, State & Society

Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

Deadline: August 15, 2017

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Journal: Religions

Special issue: Religion and Genocide

Deadline: March 15, 2017

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Summer School: Prophétologies musulmanes: discours et représentations

June 29 – July 5, 2017

Aix en Provence, France

Deadline: January 4, 2017

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Symposium: 500 years: The Reformation and Its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: April 30, 2017

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Symposium: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Symposium: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: December 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Communicative Figurations

December 7–9, 2016

Universität Bremen, Germany

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SSNB Lecture Series: Evangelical and Tablighi Pioneers on Post-Atheist Frontiers

December 1, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Roundtable: Who cares about unbelief?

December 2, 2016, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

London, UK

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NSRN Annual Lecture: Is atheism a religion?

December 2, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Lecture Series: Jewish atheists in foxholes? Phenomenologies of violence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

December 7, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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Jobs and funding

Faculty Fellowships: Summer Institute for Israel Studies

Brandeis University, USA

Deadline: January 20, 2017

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Lecturer: Modern Jewish Studies

Pennsylvania State University, USA

Deadline: March 19, 2017

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Postdoctoral position: Religion and Its Publics

University of Virginia, USA

Deadline: December 15, 2016

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Permutations of Secularism

Joe Blankholm and Dusty Hoesly, we first focus on the origins of the term “secularism,” the proliferation of its meanings, and the uses to which it is put in Anglo-American contexts. Then we discuss the uses of the terms secularism and the secular today, particularly using a specific case study from Joe’s research on American nonbeliever organizations.

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

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

In Praise of Polyvocality

A few weeks back, I found myself engaged in a one-sided debate with a colleague/friend over the use of the term ‘non-religion.’ As it was at the end of a two-day conference, it was one of those casual conversations wherein certain sophisticated aspects of the preceding academic discourse spill over into the informality of a chat over drinks.

In other words: like many a conversation amongst academically-minded friends, the casual simplicity of our conversation was periodically peppered with intellectual debate.

This is partly why I refer here to our argument as being rather one-sided, though of course it would be both unfair and erroneous of me to remove myself entirely of any responsibility. After all, I am something of an antagonist [editor’s note: …to say the least]. Then again, I’m also the one telling the story here, so I can shape it any way I wish. Something to consider the next time you read an ethnography.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, our discussion felt ‘one-sided’ because it consisted mostly of my friend emphatically and excitedly arguing (perhaps with himself?) against what he perceived was my own emphatic and excited argument that the term ‘non-religion’ has been reified by those who use it for their own cynical gains. While I would, of course, agree that it has definitely become reified (what term hasn’t?), I could not help but think the argument he was putting forth was veering into a discussion beyond simple term usage. Which, in the end, is partly why I requested to offer this response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Johannes Quack.

The other reason for my request is that while I have, for the last five years, been a rather vocal advocate against the term ‘non-religion’ (for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly pertinent to this particular story), I have also, as I assured my friend, come to believe that the term, and its many cognates, shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. That is, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

Which, if we really think about it, is the essence of academic discourse.

This simple argument here will be the focus of this response, the thesis around which I will be using Quack’s approach to non-religion in an Indian context, to not only point out the benefits of differing theoretical and methodological views, but to also make the larger anthropological argument that this discourse about terminology provides a pragmatically curious solution.

I call this thesis: in praise of polyvocality.

At the recent XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions at the University of Erfurt, I had the esteemed pleasure of having Professor Johannes Quack moderate the panel on which I was presenting: “Current Perspectives on Atheism.” Beyond his intriguing, and rather groundbreaking, research on rationalism in India, Professor Quack is perhaps the ideal individual on which to support my thesis.

During the question-answer section of the panel, which also included a very interesting presentation by Ingela Visuri[1] on the correlation between autism and Atheism, there began an interesting diminutive debate between Johannes and I over our different term usages. Where this might have, as it has in the past, veered into a discussion between contesting advocates with no real solution provided in the end, it in fact proved extremely advantageous, and not just for the benefit of the audience. At one point, when asked if there was a strict difference between his use of non-religion and my use of the term Atheism, and in particular if the former was merely a more broad or essentialist version of the latter, Johannes kindly responded with a similar answer to the one he gives in his RSP interview about his use of the term rationalist: from a straightforward anthropological perspective, because the individuals being studied identify themselves using a particular term, it would be unfair to impose a different one on them other than the one they use. While this permission to allow one’s subjects to speak for themselves, of course, makes the discussion about term usage even more difficult (especially as subjects tend not to agree on terminology), it also offered a useful insight into the pragmatism of using such different terms, as well as an argument against assigning a general one under which they might be categorized.

This also returns my discussion to the issue of reification. Perhaps my greatest argument against ‘non-religion’ has been based on the notion that it stands as a relational umbrella: in the discourse on the academic study of religion, the study of the non-religious represents research being done not so much on the ‘opposite,’ but on the relational periphery. This is something that Chris and Johannes discuss toward the end of their interview. While this might prove useful in the sense that it places the discourse of the study of the non-religious within the larger context of the study of religion, I would argue it also, perhaps by accident, reifies the term in the same way that ‘religion’ has become an umbrella over which we categorize all aspects of being or acting religious. In the end, then, it adopts, from its relationship to ‘religion’, all the issues and ambiguous difficulties we’ve had with that term over the last century or so. This, to me, is less a solution to the problem, than a contribution to it. When we add this to the adolescent growing pains of the study of Atheism, ir-religion, un-belief, non-religion, etc., the result is a rather stunted upbringing. Though I digress.

So, then, to move, here, from the critical to the promotional, in Johannes’ answer, as well as via his discussion with Chris about the differences between group and individual identities at the end of their interview, I believe there is a solution to be found: I would argue that a remedy for term reification, be it Atheism, non-religion, religion, or anything relationally similar, and thus a remedy for the terminological issues we may face as researchers, is found within the straightforward anthropological approach which he advocated for in our panel, only turned around in a reflective manner. That is, where we seek out and promote the pragmatic objectivity in permitting each of our subjects to define themselves in their own terms, there is an equal pragmatism in introspectively allowing ourselves to do the same with our own language. While this approach might develop a rather vast terminological discourse, it also breeds a sense of diversity, which, through an anthropological lens, is more beneficial than it is detrimental to our conclusions.

In fact, when we take a further step back, and view the academic discourse itself as an anthropological subject, these terminological differences become their own types of individual identities. In this way, our debates over terminology become differing voices all contributing to a discourse that together comes to represent a cultural whole. Thus, our differences of opinion become less problematic, and more representative, a polyvocality that together create a group identity filled with different individual ones. Then, and just like we would with our subjects, viewing this discourse objectively fosters a much more nuanced insight into this culture than, say, an argument that one subject embodies his or her culture more than another.

In the end, then, I believe the polyvocality of our discourse is indeed a benefit, particularly because we aren’t all talking about the same thing. Our disagreements and debating and arguing over the proper term usage contributes more and more to the discourse upon which our identity, as an academic endeavor, is formed. Thus, while we might quarrel amongst each other over whether or not our terminology is correct, or whether it better represents our subjects, as subjects ourselves, these discussions are in their own way leading toward a process of identification, and thus a sense of academic congruity. From this third level, then, looking down at ourselves as we look down on our subjects, each layer embodying a unique cultural character, we can better make sense of what it is that we’re studying, as we study it. To do otherwise, to me, seems a bit too much like a one-sided debate.

Suggested Reading

Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Johannes Quack and Jacob Copeman, “’Godless People’ and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism,“ Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Iss. 2, 2015.

http://www.nonreligion.net/?page_id=35

http://nsrn.net

http://www.everythingisfiction.org/

Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Ethan G. Quillen, “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 3, 2015.

[1] https://hig-se.academia.edu/IngelaVisuri

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, magic wands, faux leather belts and more!

“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

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.

Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

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

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

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

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

Resisting Conformity at the Margins of Marginal Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Rollins, ‘My Confession’.

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

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

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

When Atheists Pray…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

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

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

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

1.     Watched people are nice people

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

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete

 

Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

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

 

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

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

 

Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

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

 

Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

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

 

Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

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

 

Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

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

 

Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

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

 

Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

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

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

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

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

Specific Understanding Unbelief projects mentioned in the podcast include:

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

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

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when finding UNBELIEVABLE deals on academic texts, strawberry jam, vintage clothing, and more.

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

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field

Podcast with Lois Lee (26 February 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

 

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

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

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

LL: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

LL: Yes

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

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

CC: Yes.

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

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

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

CC: Hmm.

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

CC: Mmm.

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

CC: (Laughs) Why not?

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

CC: Exactly, and what new . . .

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

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

LL: (Laughs)

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

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

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

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

CC: Which is?

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

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

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

CC: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

LL: And you.

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

LL: (Laughs).

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

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

Deadline: January 1, 2017

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Conference: Old Norse Myth and Völkisch Ideology

September 6–8, 2017

Basel, Switzerland

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Conference: Apocalypse and Authenticity

July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

Deadline: December 1, 2016

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Conference: SocRel: On the Edge? Centres and Margins in the Sociology of Religion

July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: December 9, 2016

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Conference: British Association for Islamic Studies

April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: November 30, 2016

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Conference: SISR/ISSR: Religion, Cooperation, and Conflict in Diverse Societies

4–7 July 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: American Psychological Association

Special issue: American Atheism, Agnosticism, and Non-Religious Worldviews: Theoretical Models and Psychological Measurement

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Journal: Religion, State & Society

Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

Deadline: August 15, 2017

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Journal: Religions

Special issue: Religion and Genocide

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Summer School: Prophétologies musulmanes: discours et représentations

June 29 – July 5, 2017

Aix en Provence, France

Deadline: January 4, 2017

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Symposium: 500 years: The Reformation and Its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

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Symposium: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

Bedford, UK

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Symposium: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: December 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Communicative Figurations

December 7–9, 2016

Universität Bremen, Germany

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SSNB Lecture Series: Evangelical and Tablighi Pioneers on Post-Atheist Frontiers

December 1, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Roundtable: Who cares about unbelief?

December 2, 2016, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

London, UK

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NSRN Annual Lecture: Is atheism a religion?

December 2, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Lecture Series: Jewish atheists in foxholes? Phenomenologies of violence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

December 7, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

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Permutations of Secularism

Joe Blankholm and Dusty Hoesly, we first focus on the origins of the term “secularism,” the proliferation of its meanings, and the uses to which it is put in Anglo-American contexts. Then we discuss the uses of the terms secularism and the secular today, particularly using a specific case study from Joe’s research on American nonbeliever organizations.

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

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

In Praise of Polyvocality

A few weeks back, I found myself engaged in a one-sided debate with a colleague/friend over the use of the term ‘non-religion.’ As it was at the end of a two-day conference, it was one of those casual conversations wherein certain sophisticated aspects of the preceding academic discourse spill over into the informality of a chat over drinks.

In other words: like many a conversation amongst academically-minded friends, the casual simplicity of our conversation was periodically peppered with intellectual debate.

This is partly why I refer here to our argument as being rather one-sided, though of course it would be both unfair and erroneous of me to remove myself entirely of any responsibility. After all, I am something of an antagonist [editor’s note: …to say the least]. Then again, I’m also the one telling the story here, so I can shape it any way I wish. Something to consider the next time you read an ethnography.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, our discussion felt ‘one-sided’ because it consisted mostly of my friend emphatically and excitedly arguing (perhaps with himself?) against what he perceived was my own emphatic and excited argument that the term ‘non-religion’ has been reified by those who use it for their own cynical gains. While I would, of course, agree that it has definitely become reified (what term hasn’t?), I could not help but think the argument he was putting forth was veering into a discussion beyond simple term usage. Which, in the end, is partly why I requested to offer this response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Johannes Quack.

The other reason for my request is that while I have, for the last five years, been a rather vocal advocate against the term ‘non-religion’ (for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly pertinent to this particular story), I have also, as I assured my friend, come to believe that the term, and its many cognates, shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. That is, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

Which, if we really think about it, is the essence of academic discourse.

This simple argument here will be the focus of this response, the thesis around which I will be using Quack’s approach to non-religion in an Indian context, to not only point out the benefits of differing theoretical and methodological views, but to also make the larger anthropological argument that this discourse about terminology provides a pragmatically curious solution.

I call this thesis: in praise of polyvocality.

At the recent XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions at the University of Erfurt, I had the esteemed pleasure of having Professor Johannes Quack moderate the panel on which I was presenting: “Current Perspectives on Atheism.” Beyond his intriguing, and rather groundbreaking, research on rationalism in India, Professor Quack is perhaps the ideal individual on which to support my thesis.

During the question-answer section of the panel, which also included a very interesting presentation by Ingela Visuri[1] on the correlation between autism and Atheism, there began an interesting diminutive debate between Johannes and I over our different term usages. Where this might have, as it has in the past, veered into a discussion between contesting advocates with no real solution provided in the end, it in fact proved extremely advantageous, and not just for the benefit of the audience. At one point, when asked if there was a strict difference between his use of non-religion and my use of the term Atheism, and in particular if the former was merely a more broad or essentialist version of the latter, Johannes kindly responded with a similar answer to the one he gives in his RSP interview about his use of the term rationalist: from a straightforward anthropological perspective, because the individuals being studied identify themselves using a particular term, it would be unfair to impose a different one on them other than the one they use. While this permission to allow one’s subjects to speak for themselves, of course, makes the discussion about term usage even more difficult (especially as subjects tend not to agree on terminology), it also offered a useful insight into the pragmatism of using such different terms, as well as an argument against assigning a general one under which they might be categorized.

This also returns my discussion to the issue of reification. Perhaps my greatest argument against ‘non-religion’ has been based on the notion that it stands as a relational umbrella: in the discourse on the academic study of religion, the study of the non-religious represents research being done not so much on the ‘opposite,’ but on the relational periphery. This is something that Chris and Johannes discuss toward the end of their interview. While this might prove useful in the sense that it places the discourse of the study of the non-religious within the larger context of the study of religion, I would argue it also, perhaps by accident, reifies the term in the same way that ‘religion’ has become an umbrella over which we categorize all aspects of being or acting religious. In the end, then, it adopts, from its relationship to ‘religion’, all the issues and ambiguous difficulties we’ve had with that term over the last century or so. This, to me, is less a solution to the problem, than a contribution to it. When we add this to the adolescent growing pains of the study of Atheism, ir-religion, un-belief, non-religion, etc., the result is a rather stunted upbringing. Though I digress.

So, then, to move, here, from the critical to the promotional, in Johannes’ answer, as well as via his discussion with Chris about the differences between group and individual identities at the end of their interview, I believe there is a solution to be found: I would argue that a remedy for term reification, be it Atheism, non-religion, religion, or anything relationally similar, and thus a remedy for the terminological issues we may face as researchers, is found within the straightforward anthropological approach which he advocated for in our panel, only turned around in a reflective manner. That is, where we seek out and promote the pragmatic objectivity in permitting each of our subjects to define themselves in their own terms, there is an equal pragmatism in introspectively allowing ourselves to do the same with our own language. While this approach might develop a rather vast terminological discourse, it also breeds a sense of diversity, which, through an anthropological lens, is more beneficial than it is detrimental to our conclusions.

In fact, when we take a further step back, and view the academic discourse itself as an anthropological subject, these terminological differences become their own types of individual identities. In this way, our debates over terminology become differing voices all contributing to a discourse that together comes to represent a cultural whole. Thus, our differences of opinion become less problematic, and more representative, a polyvocality that together create a group identity filled with different individual ones. Then, and just like we would with our subjects, viewing this discourse objectively fosters a much more nuanced insight into this culture than, say, an argument that one subject embodies his or her culture more than another.

In the end, then, I believe the polyvocality of our discourse is indeed a benefit, particularly because we aren’t all talking about the same thing. Our disagreements and debating and arguing over the proper term usage contributes more and more to the discourse upon which our identity, as an academic endeavor, is formed. Thus, while we might quarrel amongst each other over whether or not our terminology is correct, or whether it better represents our subjects, as subjects ourselves, these discussions are in their own way leading toward a process of identification, and thus a sense of academic congruity. From this third level, then, looking down at ourselves as we look down on our subjects, each layer embodying a unique cultural character, we can better make sense of what it is that we’re studying, as we study it. To do otherwise, to me, seems a bit too much like a one-sided debate.

Suggested Reading

Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Johannes Quack and Jacob Copeman, “’Godless People’ and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism,“ Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Iss. 2, 2015.

http://www.nonreligion.net/?page_id=35

http://nsrn.net

http://www.everythingisfiction.org/

Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Ethan G. Quillen, “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 3, 2015.

[1] https://hig-se.academia.edu/IngelaVisuri

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

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“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

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.

Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

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

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

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

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

Resisting Conformity at the Margins of Marginal Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Rollins, ‘My Confession’.

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

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

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

When Atheists Pray…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

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

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

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

1.     Watched people are nice people

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

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete

 

Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

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

 

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

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

 

Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

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

 

Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

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

 

Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

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

 

Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

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

 

Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

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

 

Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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