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

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

Ideal Types

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

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

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

Semantic Anarchy 

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

Discursive Approaches

As I’ve previously argued, we can fruitfully 

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

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

References 

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

Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension

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

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

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


Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension

Podcast with Chris Silver (8 April 2019).

Interviewed by Kris Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

 

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

Chris Silver (CS): Thank you!

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

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

KB: That’s right!

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

KB: In the other chair! (Laughs).

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

KB: Fastest growing demographic.

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

KB: Themes of non-belief?

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

KB: (Laughs). That’s nice!

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

KB: (Laughs).

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

KB: Oh, right.

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

KB: Oh?

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

KB: Oh! (Laughs)

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

KB: Right. Active non-believers.

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

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

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

KB: Six types of atheists and non-belief?

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

KB: (Laughs).

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

KB: There you go. In that journal.

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

KB: A wider audience . . .

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

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

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

KB: Oh, that’s great!

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

KB: And that’s what it’s done.

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

KB: So you can project trends?

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

KB: Right

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

KB: Wonderful!

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

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

CS: I hope so.

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

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

KB: Oh, wow!

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

KB: Yes.

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

KB: Students.

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

KB: Mmm. A little suspect.

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

KB: From the norm.

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

KB: Interesting.

CS: This is my argument

KB: Within both groups?

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

KB: (Laughs).

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

KB: Right.

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

KB: Yeah. That’s fascinating!

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

KB: Right.

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

KB: Oh really? But it fits perfectly?

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

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

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

KB: Oh, right.

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

KB: Ah. Yes.

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

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

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

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

CS: Yes. So, we’ll see.

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

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

KB: (Laughs). No.

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

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

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

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

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

KB: Power to make change.

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

KB: Wow!

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

KB: It really resonated with them.

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

KB: Yes.

CS: Because, when you think . . .

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

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

KB: (Laughs).

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

KB: On every level.

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

KB: Right.

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

KB: Awesome

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

KB: Ah. Wow!

CS: Sorry I’ve just . . .

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

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

KB: There you go! (Laughs).

CS: Chris Cotter would be interesting.

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

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


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

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

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

The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, has a reputation of being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Although the visibility of religion is rising, being ‘not religious’ is still considered normative. Estonia is a context in which notions and debates on religion, atheism, and indifference are interrelated in complex ways with the history of Estonian nationalism, and two foreign religious-secular regimes: German Lutheran and Soviet Atheism. In this interview, Chris and Atko Remmel discuss why the Estonian context is – or should be – interesting to scholars of ‘religion’. What happened during the Soviet era? What about the academic study of religion in Estonia? How did the strong connection between Estonian national identity and ‘atheism’ develop? How does this play out in the contemporary context?

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, and concludes by looking ahead to the 2019 EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia.

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, waffles, canned sardines, and more.


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


The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Podcast with Atko Remmel (28 January 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Remmel_-_The_Study_of_Religion_and_National_Identity_in_Estonia_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): The Estonian case in the study of religion is something that we’ve not really talked about very much on the Religious Studies Project. But I am speaking to you right now from the EASR conference in Bern where I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it. I’ve heard some papers, and it was even mentioned quite a bit in one of the keynote lectures yesterday. And so I thought it would be fantastic to get Atko Remmel, who I’ve known for a number of years now, onto the RSP to talk about the Estonian context, the study of religion in Estonia and some of the complex intersections between religion, non-religion, nationalism in this context that’s sort of been dominated historically by two foreign religious secular regimes: the German Lutheran Church and Soviet atheism. So first of all, Atko Remmel, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Religious Studies Project.

Atko Remmel (AR): It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s an absolute pleasure. Just to say, Atko is senior researcher in Religious Studies and also a researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. And his work discusses religion, religious indifference, national identity and more, in Estonia, which is set as I’ve indicated, to be one of the most secularised countries in Europe. He has a number of publications in this broad area, including one called “Religion Interrupted: Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia“, which is in a book, in which I and a number of RSP friends have chapters, that’s called Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularisation and Non-religion, edited by Johannes Quack and Kora Schuh. And Atko is also the PI on one of the Understanding Unbelief projects, looking at Estonia. But we’ll not be talking too much about that just today. So, many of our Listeners out there may never have really thought much about the Estonian context at all. So, perhaps the way to start would be a broad introduction to Estonia, I guess, in relation to religion. A potted history! Away you go!

AR: Well, Estonia is a small country, by the Baltic Sea – one of the northern-most Baltic countries. And yes, it’s known for its very far-reaching secularisation.

CC: Yes. So we’ll be talking a lot about that in a moment, but the study of religion in Estonia: is that something relatively new – like Religious Studies, at an academic institution?

AR: Well actually, no. But to answer this question we have to look back into history. So, during the Soviet Union the only possibility to study religion was within the framework of Scientific Atheism. And another possibility was Folkloristics, where folk beliefs were studied as a part of national heritage. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scientific Atheism of course faded away. And the Study of Religion was newly established under the label of Theology which, in Estonia, is an umbrella term for both Theology and the Study of Religion. And this, I would say, in the early days was more influenced by theological thinking. But in the last decade it has moved towards the Study of Religion. And the focus is on religious change, new religious movements, but mostly it’s still about Christian churches and their relationship to the state. And apart from that, religion is still studied under the discipline of Folkloristics, which in the Estonian context is another umbrella term that covers anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, but also folkloristics in its traditional sense. Since Estonia is in a bit better position than other Finno-Ugric nations that were incorporated into the Soviet Union, my colleagues have a keen interest towards their religious situation, language and so on.

CC: And of course, we’ll be hearing at the end of the interview, I hope, about a certain conference that’s going to be happening in Estonia, hosted by the Estonia Association. So it’s clearly been something that’s developing there. You mentioned the Soviet times there, and I suppose anything that we’re going to talk about in the rest of this interview will probably require a bit of historical contextualisation. So the stereotype we have is obviously (5:00) Soviets were not a massive fan of religion – suppression – end of Soviet time – maybe some sort of resurgence. But let’s . . . . Give me an actual picture.

AR: Well, it’s correct that the usual understanding of Soviet anti-religious policy is understood as something monolithic that was uniform from the start to the end. But actually, there were quite big changes in religious policy. And in some periods it was harsher, and other times less harsh. And after the Second World War, during Stalin‘s reign, the question of religion was sort-of secondary. But it changed radically under Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-religious campaign that lasted from 1958 until 1964. And in Estonia this policy had three main directions: the first one was so-called administration of the churches, which meant that different kind of legislative restrictions and direct control over the inner life of Churches; the second one was ethics propaganda for newspapers and lectures; and the third one was the development of Soviet secular rituals, to substitute religious rituals. And I would say that this administration and secular rituals were most effective. And as a result they manged to create an interruption in religious tradition, and to get rid of religion from public space. This, of course, didn’t mean that they managed to turn people into atheists. And, apart from the years of the Khrushchev anti-religious drive, atheist propaganda was actually not very visible. And atheism was one of so-called “red” subjects closely associated with the hated Soviet ideology. And also the level of atheist propaganda was quite low. And therefore it didn’t appeal to people. And so the result was widespread indifference both towards religion and atheism – like a sort of ideological vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of things when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And this actually explains why Estonians, while considering themselves not religious, have a plethora of different beliefs and practices and so on, which are usually – in student terms – alternative spiritualties.

CC: Excellent. Thanks for that. This might be putting you on the spot a little bit. But, just for those of our Listeners who aren’t familiar with the dates, could you maybe give us the key dates in the 20th century, in Estonian history?

AR: In Estonian history . . . . Well, Estonia was at first occupied by Soviet forces in 1940, then again in 1944, then Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev was pushed aside in 1964, and then finally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

CC: Fantastic. I just wanted to make sure that we got that in there. I guess if our Listeners have seen “The Death of Stalin” they might be familiar with Khrushchev.

AR: Yes.

CC: Excellent. So you’ve already alluded, there, to the suppression of religion and how this, maybe, largely succeeded in the public space. But a lot of your work, then, has been focussing upon contemporary surveys, and how effective this might have been on individual lives. So, let’s get specifically into your own research. You might just want to tell us a little bit about your research journey – the kind of questions that you’ve been asking – and then, what it can tell us about religious indifference, non-religion. And then we’ll get onto this national identity element, as well.

AR: Well . . . long story short. I started out as a historian and my PhD thesis was on the institutions that were involved in Soviet anti-religious policy. It was mainly archival work. And by the time it was finished, in 2011, then the research on non-religion was already booming. (10:00) And then I got interested in how this Soviet background influences contemporary Estonian society. And by that time Estonians had already discovered this forgotten link between atheism and Estonian national identity. So for the last 4-5 years I have tried to keep a track on what’s happening in Estonian society, in connection with religion and non-religiosity. And I’m currently involved in several projects that touch these subjects. And one of them is on the Relocation of the Sacred around the Baltic Sea, which is led by my good colleague from Sweden, David Thurfjell. And it deals with the relationship between secularisation and nature spirituality. Another approach, which you already mentioned, was this Understanding Unbelief. And, in addition, we are – together with colleagues from the Czech Republic – we are compiling an edited volume with a preliminary title: Atheism and Freethinking in Central and Eastern Europe, which focusses on the twentieth and twenty-first century. And it’s a combination of historical and sociological approaches. And, hopefully, will be the first comprehensive overview of the development of current states of secular developments in that region.

CC: Fantastic. So how about we dive right into it, then? One of my favourite anecdotes from your presentation yesterday – and this might serve as a useful starter – was when the survey question, “Should the churches modernise?” was being asked. And people who were religious, people who were non-religious were maybe ticking agree, slightly agree, don’t have any opinion, vastly disagree. All over the place. And when you actually got to your qualitative work, the story was, “Should the churches modernise? Should they have electricity? Should they have Wi-Fi?” So, even the vocabulary of the questions were sort-of indicating what you might describe as secularisation of language.

AR: Yes.

CC: So, maybe that’s a way into the conversation?

AR: Yes, well. This religious gap, or this era of indifference, it’s really interesting how it has influenced society. And one of my research interests is the language my informants use, and I have identified some really interesting features. And one of them is that words or terms, religious terms, they have very negative connotations. One of the most loaded words is probably, “believer”. That has an association with mental abnormality or ignorance. And this is of course one of the successes of atheist propaganda. And I also have heard from my Russian colleagues, when they interview people and ask, “Are you a believer?” The response was “No, I’m normal.”

CC: (Laughs).

AR: And another thing – that you mentioned – is religious illiteracy. And also this secularisation of language. So this religious illiteracy: since religion in Estonian Society has had really low visibility, people sort-of don’t recognise the appearances of it. And they also are unable to express their thoughts about religion because of the lack of knowledge. And there is a really interesting story. In Turto there is a Marian Church that was turned into a gym during the Soviet era. And the bell tower was demolished and so on. But it still had the very specific features of a sacral building, like large arched windows and so on. I heard from my informants that when they were children, during the Soviet period, that when this building was finally given back to the congregation and turned into a sacral building again, they were really surprised when they learned that it was actually a church building! So we can call it a “religious blindness”, or something like that. And secularisation of language is the third interesting feature which I have found. It’s actually not so much secularisation. (15:00) It’s more like de-Christianisation: when religious terms have run dry of their Christian context. This example of church is sort of a text-book example. Where church is understood only as a building, not an organisation, or a group of people. So it can create a lot of confusion. So, yes. And then I got interested in that, because I had a hunch that non-religious people might not understand the questions in the surveys in the way they were meant to. And to some extent it seems to be true. And also it seems to be true that many questions asked in the surveys just prompt the answers, and have no relevance to people before and after that. So I’m a bit hesitant how meaningful this collected data is. And, of course, it’s always a problem but it can have much more serious results in a context where religious illiteracy is more widespread.

CC: Absolutely. It might help if we get some percentages here. I know that you had them in your presentation. You mightn’t have them to hand. But in certain surveys it’s quite an extraordinarily high number of, we might say, atheists – you might say non-identifiers, depending what the survey is. But then, on this national identity front, I notice that there was a large population of Russian Orthodox in Estonia. And so, maybe you could comment on the sort of connection between – I don’t know – Estonia, and atheism, and Russian Orthodoxy as it plays out?

AR: Yes. The point seems to be that orthodoxy is much stickier than Lutheranism. And the story with Estonians is that one of the things is the Estonian national narrative, which is a construct from 19th century, and tells a story about the Estonians’ everlasting fight for freedom. And there are two types of national narratives. One is the Golden past, another is the Promised Land. And Estonian one is the Golden Past type. But, usually, this Golden Past refers to the time where the country was very powerful, great kings and so on. But in the Estonian case this Golden Past is located into pre-Christian times. And Christianity is sort-of seen as responsible for its demise. And another thing is this connection between Estonian nationality and atheism. And it’s a really interesting story. But it has actually very little to do with believing or not believing in the existence of God, and rather it started out as an ethnic conflict. So the background is that Estonians were Christianised in the 13th century, during the Northern Crusades. And after that they were ruled by different other nations, until the 20th century. And this 19th century Romanticism resulted in the rise of Estonian national consciousness. And by that time, Estonia was incorporated to the Russian Empire, but Estonians were ruled by a Baltic German upper class. So most of the clergy was also German. So the Church was not perceived as Estonian, but more like German. Now, in 1905 there was a revolution in Russian Empire, and in Estonia as well. But in Estonia it took a sort-of nationalist form, so it was a fight for national autonomy. And the revolution was soon crushed and punitive squads started to do their work. And many people were executed. And then many Estonians accused German pastors that they didn’t protect their parish members, and rather collaborated with the troops. And, as a result, many Estonians didn’t go to Church any more. And, in return, Baltic Germans accused Estonians of atheism. And during the Soviet era, atheist propaganda, of course, made good use of both motives. (20:00) And then it created a new story of Estonians as historically being very sceptical towards religion, or being a religiously lukewarm nation. So in 2005 the Eurobarometer survey was published, and that revealed that only 16% of Estonians believe in a personal God. And all this information was happily put together. And Estonians started to understand themselves as the least religious – or most atheistic – country in the world, despite the fact that the survey covered only Europe!

CC: (Laughs).

AR: However, Estonians are actually not the only ones with this claim, and similar motives are present also in the Czech Republic, in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the Netherlands. So I question which country will be the least religious or most atheistic. It’s probably going to be a new Olympic Games discipline or something like that!

CC: Yes! And I wonder what the prize will be?

AR: (Laughs). God!

CC: You also had a leaflet in your presentation that said, “If you are an Estonian. . .” and listed a few things. It said ,“you do not believe in God . . . unless it’s Eurovision!” (Laughs).

AR: Right!

CC: Now I’ve only really got one more question before we talk about that important conference. But presumably, this isn’t getting the whole picture. You were showing a lot of nuance yesterday, and a lot of the beliefs and practices that these so-called non-believers, non-identifiers subscribe to. So maybe you could add a bit more nuance to this contemporary situation?

AR: Well, I will say that when we are talking about non- believers or atheists, then it basically boils down . . . that means that we are taking their identity as primary indicator, when we are talking in this way. Then, of course, the meaning of atheism in the Estonian case is sort-of different than in the Western context. It doesn’t mean the explicit denial of God, or something like that. Rather it refers to just not being Christian. And since atheism is the only known secular tradition in the Estonian context it has a very, very wide meaning.

CC: Excellent. So we are at about 25 minutes, which is a perfect time for me to just say that obviously we’re recording at the EASR in Bern, in Switzerland. But the 2019 EASR is in Tartu in Estonia. So perhaps you could maybe sell the conference a little bit? Just in terms of why might people want to come? But also, you could give us a hint of the intellectual thrust of the conference.

AR: The topic of the conference is “Religion: Continuations and Disruptions”. And, you know, conferences are very much like birthday parties. When you like the people, then you go! And at the same time they are like sort of style parties. And the topic gives the debates this general direction. So this topic was, of course, inspired by Eastern European recent history – which is actually a continuation of different disruptions. And this notion applies to religion as well. And religion and the understanding of religion is constantly changing. So we thought that it would give a good direction for our style party, to become fruitful basis for discussing whatever changes occur in regard to religion. But other than that, Tartu is just a very lovely town. And by the way, our restaurant street is just 50 metres from the conference venue! And for the conference party we have a place called Gunpowder Cellar, which is really an old gunpowder cellar that is turned into a restaurant and claims to be a pub with the highest ceiling in the world. Which is around 11 metres.

CC: So, the highest ceiling in the world and the lowest religiosity in the world!

AR: (Laughs). Exactly! They go together, hand-in-hand!

CC: Fantastic! One final question. (25:00) This conference that we’re at right now, the theme is “Multiple Religious Identities.” So, maybe, just a final thought from you on how the Estonian context and that conference theme of multiple religious identities maybe speak to each other? Or not?

AR: Of course they speak to each other: they are both religion-related. But, of course, there are continuations of religious identities, and all this overlapping and constant changing. So I would say this: our conference in Tartu will be a mental continuation of this topic here.

CC: Excellent! Well, Listeners, if you want to continue with a mental continuation, in about a year’s time we should have a number of podcasts from Tartu for you! But, for now, thanks for that really expansive, but also quite specific, teaser for the situation in Estonia and for your own research. So do check out Atko’s profile. And thank you very much!

AR: Thank you!


Citation Info: Remmel, Atko and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-study-of-religion-and-national-identity-in-estonia/

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

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

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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September 6–8, 2017

Basel, Switzerland

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July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

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4–7 July 2017

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Journal: American Psychological Association

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

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June 29 – July 5, 2017

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Bedford, UK

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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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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.

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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.

Podcasts

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

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

Ideal Types

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

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

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

Semantic Anarchy 

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

Discursive Approaches

As I’ve previously argued, we can fruitfully 

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

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

References 

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

Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension

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

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

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


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


Atheism, New Religious Movements and Cultural Tension

Podcast with Chris Silver (8 April 2019).

Interviewed by Kris Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

 

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

Chris Silver (CS): Thank you!

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

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

KB: That’s right!

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

KB: In the other chair! (Laughs).

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

KB: Fastest growing demographic.

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

KB: Themes of non-belief?

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

KB: (Laughs). That’s nice!

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

KB: (Laughs).

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

KB: Oh, right.

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

KB: Oh?

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

KB: Oh! (Laughs)

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

KB: Right. Active non-believers.

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

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

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

KB: Six types of atheists and non-belief?

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

KB: (Laughs).

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

KB: There you go. In that journal.

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

KB: A wider audience . . .

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

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

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

KB: Oh, that’s great!

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

KB: And that’s what it’s done.

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

KB: So you can project trends?

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

KB: Right

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

KB: Wonderful!

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

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

CS: I hope so.

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

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

KB: Oh, wow!

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

KB: Yes.

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

KB: Students.

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

KB: Mmm. A little suspect.

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

KB: From the norm.

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

KB: Interesting.

CS: This is my argument

KB: Within both groups?

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

KB: (Laughs).

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

KB: Right.

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

KB: Yeah. That’s fascinating!

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

KB: Right.

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

KB: Oh really? But it fits perfectly?

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

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

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

KB: Oh, right.

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

KB: Ah. Yes.

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

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

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

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

CS: Yes. So, we’ll see.

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

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

KB: (Laughs). No.

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

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

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

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

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

KB: Power to make change.

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

KB: Wow!

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

KB: It really resonated with them.

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

KB: Yes.

CS: Because, when you think . . .

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

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

KB: (Laughs).

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

KB: On every level.

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

KB: Right.

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

KB: Awesome

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

KB: Ah. Wow!

CS: Sorry I’ve just . . .

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

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

KB: There you go! (Laughs).

CS: Chris Cotter would be interesting.

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

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


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

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

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The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, has a reputation of being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Although the visibility of religion is rising, being ‘not religious’ is still considered normative. Estonia is a context in which notions and debates on religion, atheism, and indifference are interrelated in complex ways with the history of Estonian nationalism, and two foreign religious-secular regimes: German Lutheran and Soviet Atheism. In this interview, Chris and Atko Remmel discuss why the Estonian context is – or should be – interesting to scholars of ‘religion’. What happened during the Soviet era? What about the academic study of religion in Estonia? How did the strong connection between Estonian national identity and ‘atheism’ develop? How does this play out in the contemporary context?

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, and concludes by looking ahead to the 2019 EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia.

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


The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Podcast with Atko Remmel (28 January 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Remmel_-_The_Study_of_Religion_and_National_Identity_in_Estonia_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): The Estonian case in the study of religion is something that we’ve not really talked about very much on the Religious Studies Project. But I am speaking to you right now from the EASR conference in Bern where I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it. I’ve heard some papers, and it was even mentioned quite a bit in one of the keynote lectures yesterday. And so I thought it would be fantastic to get Atko Remmel, who I’ve known for a number of years now, onto the RSP to talk about the Estonian context, the study of religion in Estonia and some of the complex intersections between religion, non-religion, nationalism in this context that’s sort of been dominated historically by two foreign religious secular regimes: the German Lutheran Church and Soviet atheism. So first of all, Atko Remmel, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Religious Studies Project.

Atko Remmel (AR): It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s an absolute pleasure. Just to say, Atko is senior researcher in Religious Studies and also a researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. And his work discusses religion, religious indifference, national identity and more, in Estonia, which is set as I’ve indicated, to be one of the most secularised countries in Europe. He has a number of publications in this broad area, including one called “Religion Interrupted: Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia“, which is in a book, in which I and a number of RSP friends have chapters, that’s called Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularisation and Non-religion, edited by Johannes Quack and Kora Schuh. And Atko is also the PI on one of the Understanding Unbelief projects, looking at Estonia. But we’ll not be talking too much about that just today. So, many of our Listeners out there may never have really thought much about the Estonian context at all. So, perhaps the way to start would be a broad introduction to Estonia, I guess, in relation to religion. A potted history! Away you go!

AR: Well, Estonia is a small country, by the Baltic Sea – one of the northern-most Baltic countries. And yes, it’s known for its very far-reaching secularisation.

CC: Yes. So we’ll be talking a lot about that in a moment, but the study of religion in Estonia: is that something relatively new – like Religious Studies, at an academic institution?

AR: Well actually, no. But to answer this question we have to look back into history. So, during the Soviet Union the only possibility to study religion was within the framework of Scientific Atheism. And another possibility was Folkloristics, where folk beliefs were studied as a part of national heritage. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scientific Atheism of course faded away. And the Study of Religion was newly established under the label of Theology which, in Estonia, is an umbrella term for both Theology and the Study of Religion. And this, I would say, in the early days was more influenced by theological thinking. But in the last decade it has moved towards the Study of Religion. And the focus is on religious change, new religious movements, but mostly it’s still about Christian churches and their relationship to the state. And apart from that, religion is still studied under the discipline of Folkloristics, which in the Estonian context is another umbrella term that covers anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, but also folkloristics in its traditional sense. Since Estonia is in a bit better position than other Finno-Ugric nations that were incorporated into the Soviet Union, my colleagues have a keen interest towards their religious situation, language and so on.

CC: And of course, we’ll be hearing at the end of the interview, I hope, about a certain conference that’s going to be happening in Estonia, hosted by the Estonia Association. So it’s clearly been something that’s developing there. You mentioned the Soviet times there, and I suppose anything that we’re going to talk about in the rest of this interview will probably require a bit of historical contextualisation. So the stereotype we have is obviously (5:00) Soviets were not a massive fan of religion – suppression – end of Soviet time – maybe some sort of resurgence. But let’s . . . . Give me an actual picture.

AR: Well, it’s correct that the usual understanding of Soviet anti-religious policy is understood as something monolithic that was uniform from the start to the end. But actually, there were quite big changes in religious policy. And in some periods it was harsher, and other times less harsh. And after the Second World War, during Stalin‘s reign, the question of religion was sort-of secondary. But it changed radically under Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-religious campaign that lasted from 1958 until 1964. And in Estonia this policy had three main directions: the first one was so-called administration of the churches, which meant that different kind of legislative restrictions and direct control over the inner life of Churches; the second one was ethics propaganda for newspapers and lectures; and the third one was the development of Soviet secular rituals, to substitute religious rituals. And I would say that this administration and secular rituals were most effective. And as a result they manged to create an interruption in religious tradition, and to get rid of religion from public space. This, of course, didn’t mean that they managed to turn people into atheists. And, apart from the years of the Khrushchev anti-religious drive, atheist propaganda was actually not very visible. And atheism was one of so-called “red” subjects closely associated with the hated Soviet ideology. And also the level of atheist propaganda was quite low. And therefore it didn’t appeal to people. And so the result was widespread indifference both towards religion and atheism – like a sort of ideological vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of things when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And this actually explains why Estonians, while considering themselves not religious, have a plethora of different beliefs and practices and so on, which are usually – in student terms – alternative spiritualties.

CC: Excellent. Thanks for that. This might be putting you on the spot a little bit. But, just for those of our Listeners who aren’t familiar with the dates, could you maybe give us the key dates in the 20th century, in Estonian history?

AR: In Estonian history . . . . Well, Estonia was at first occupied by Soviet forces in 1940, then again in 1944, then Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev was pushed aside in 1964, and then finally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

CC: Fantastic. I just wanted to make sure that we got that in there. I guess if our Listeners have seen “The Death of Stalin” they might be familiar with Khrushchev.

AR: Yes.

CC: Excellent. So you’ve already alluded, there, to the suppression of religion and how this, maybe, largely succeeded in the public space. But a lot of your work, then, has been focussing upon contemporary surveys, and how effective this might have been on individual lives. So, let’s get specifically into your own research. You might just want to tell us a little bit about your research journey – the kind of questions that you’ve been asking – and then, what it can tell us about religious indifference, non-religion. And then we’ll get onto this national identity element, as well.

AR: Well . . . long story short. I started out as a historian and my PhD thesis was on the institutions that were involved in Soviet anti-religious policy. It was mainly archival work. And by the time it was finished, in 2011, then the research on non-religion was already booming. (10:00) And then I got interested in how this Soviet background influences contemporary Estonian society. And by that time Estonians had already discovered this forgotten link between atheism and Estonian national identity. So for the last 4-5 years I have tried to keep a track on what’s happening in Estonian society, in connection with religion and non-religiosity. And I’m currently involved in several projects that touch these subjects. And one of them is on the Relocation of the Sacred around the Baltic Sea, which is led by my good colleague from Sweden, David Thurfjell. And it deals with the relationship between secularisation and nature spirituality. Another approach, which you already mentioned, was this Understanding Unbelief. And, in addition, we are – together with colleagues from the Czech Republic – we are compiling an edited volume with a preliminary title: Atheism and Freethinking in Central and Eastern Europe, which focusses on the twentieth and twenty-first century. And it’s a combination of historical and sociological approaches. And, hopefully, will be the first comprehensive overview of the development of current states of secular developments in that region.

CC: Fantastic. So how about we dive right into it, then? One of my favourite anecdotes from your presentation yesterday – and this might serve as a useful starter – was when the survey question, “Should the churches modernise?” was being asked. And people who were religious, people who were non-religious were maybe ticking agree, slightly agree, don’t have any opinion, vastly disagree. All over the place. And when you actually got to your qualitative work, the story was, “Should the churches modernise? Should they have electricity? Should they have Wi-Fi?” So, even the vocabulary of the questions were sort-of indicating what you might describe as secularisation of language.

AR: Yes.

CC: So, maybe that’s a way into the conversation?

AR: Yes, well. This religious gap, or this era of indifference, it’s really interesting how it has influenced society. And one of my research interests is the language my informants use, and I have identified some really interesting features. And one of them is that words or terms, religious terms, they have very negative connotations. One of the most loaded words is probably, “believer”. That has an association with mental abnormality or ignorance. And this is of course one of the successes of atheist propaganda. And I also have heard from my Russian colleagues, when they interview people and ask, “Are you a believer?” The response was “No, I’m normal.”

CC: (Laughs).

AR: And another thing – that you mentioned – is religious illiteracy. And also this secularisation of language. So this religious illiteracy: since religion in Estonian Society has had really low visibility, people sort-of don’t recognise the appearances of it. And they also are unable to express their thoughts about religion because of the lack of knowledge. And there is a really interesting story. In Turto there is a Marian Church that was turned into a gym during the Soviet era. And the bell tower was demolished and so on. But it still had the very specific features of a sacral building, like large arched windows and so on. I heard from my informants that when they were children, during the Soviet period, that when this building was finally given back to the congregation and turned into a sacral building again, they were really surprised when they learned that it was actually a church building! So we can call it a “religious blindness”, or something like that. And secularisation of language is the third interesting feature which I have found. It’s actually not so much secularisation. (15:00) It’s more like de-Christianisation: when religious terms have run dry of their Christian context. This example of church is sort of a text-book example. Where church is understood only as a building, not an organisation, or a group of people. So it can create a lot of confusion. So, yes. And then I got interested in that, because I had a hunch that non-religious people might not understand the questions in the surveys in the way they were meant to. And to some extent it seems to be true. And also it seems to be true that many questions asked in the surveys just prompt the answers, and have no relevance to people before and after that. So I’m a bit hesitant how meaningful this collected data is. And, of course, it’s always a problem but it can have much more serious results in a context where religious illiteracy is more widespread.

CC: Absolutely. It might help if we get some percentages here. I know that you had them in your presentation. You mightn’t have them to hand. But in certain surveys it’s quite an extraordinarily high number of, we might say, atheists – you might say non-identifiers, depending what the survey is. But then, on this national identity front, I notice that there was a large population of Russian Orthodox in Estonia. And so, maybe you could comment on the sort of connection between – I don’t know – Estonia, and atheism, and Russian Orthodoxy as it plays out?

AR: Yes. The point seems to be that orthodoxy is much stickier than Lutheranism. And the story with Estonians is that one of the things is the Estonian national narrative, which is a construct from 19th century, and tells a story about the Estonians’ everlasting fight for freedom. And there are two types of national narratives. One is the Golden past, another is the Promised Land. And Estonian one is the Golden Past type. But, usually, this Golden Past refers to the time where the country was very powerful, great kings and so on. But in the Estonian case this Golden Past is located into pre-Christian times. And Christianity is sort-of seen as responsible for its demise. And another thing is this connection between Estonian nationality and atheism. And it’s a really interesting story. But it has actually very little to do with believing or not believing in the existence of God, and rather it started out as an ethnic conflict. So the background is that Estonians were Christianised in the 13th century, during the Northern Crusades. And after that they were ruled by different other nations, until the 20th century. And this 19th century Romanticism resulted in the rise of Estonian national consciousness. And by that time, Estonia was incorporated to the Russian Empire, but Estonians were ruled by a Baltic German upper class. So most of the clergy was also German. So the Church was not perceived as Estonian, but more like German. Now, in 1905 there was a revolution in Russian Empire, and in Estonia as well. But in Estonia it took a sort-of nationalist form, so it was a fight for national autonomy. And the revolution was soon crushed and punitive squads started to do their work. And many people were executed. And then many Estonians accused German pastors that they didn’t protect their parish members, and rather collaborated with the troops. And, as a result, many Estonians didn’t go to Church any more. And, in return, Baltic Germans accused Estonians of atheism. And during the Soviet era, atheist propaganda, of course, made good use of both motives. (20:00) And then it created a new story of Estonians as historically being very sceptical towards religion, or being a religiously lukewarm nation. So in 2005 the Eurobarometer survey was published, and that revealed that only 16% of Estonians believe in a personal God. And all this information was happily put together. And Estonians started to understand themselves as the least religious – or most atheistic – country in the world, despite the fact that the survey covered only Europe!

CC: (Laughs).

AR: However, Estonians are actually not the only ones with this claim, and similar motives are present also in the Czech Republic, in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the Netherlands. So I question which country will be the least religious or most atheistic. It’s probably going to be a new Olympic Games discipline or something like that!

CC: Yes! And I wonder what the prize will be?

AR: (Laughs). God!

CC: You also had a leaflet in your presentation that said, “If you are an Estonian. . .” and listed a few things. It said ,“you do not believe in God . . . unless it’s Eurovision!” (Laughs).

AR: Right!

CC: Now I’ve only really got one more question before we talk about that important conference. But presumably, this isn’t getting the whole picture. You were showing a lot of nuance yesterday, and a lot of the beliefs and practices that these so-called non-believers, non-identifiers subscribe to. So maybe you could add a bit more nuance to this contemporary situation?

AR: Well, I will say that when we are talking about non- believers or atheists, then it basically boils down . . . that means that we are taking their identity as primary indicator, when we are talking in this way. Then, of course, the meaning of atheism in the Estonian case is sort-of different than in the Western context. It doesn’t mean the explicit denial of God, or something like that. Rather it refers to just not being Christian. And since atheism is the only known secular tradition in the Estonian context it has a very, very wide meaning.

CC: Excellent. So we are at about 25 minutes, which is a perfect time for me to just say that obviously we’re recording at the EASR in Bern, in Switzerland. But the 2019 EASR is in Tartu in Estonia. So perhaps you could maybe sell the conference a little bit? Just in terms of why might people want to come? But also, you could give us a hint of the intellectual thrust of the conference.

AR: The topic of the conference is “Religion: Continuations and Disruptions”. And, you know, conferences are very much like birthday parties. When you like the people, then you go! And at the same time they are like sort of style parties. And the topic gives the debates this general direction. So this topic was, of course, inspired by Eastern European recent history – which is actually a continuation of different disruptions. And this notion applies to religion as well. And religion and the understanding of religion is constantly changing. So we thought that it would give a good direction for our style party, to become fruitful basis for discussing whatever changes occur in regard to religion. But other than that, Tartu is just a very lovely town. And by the way, our restaurant street is just 50 metres from the conference venue! And for the conference party we have a place called Gunpowder Cellar, which is really an old gunpowder cellar that is turned into a restaurant and claims to be a pub with the highest ceiling in the world. Which is around 11 metres.

CC: So, the highest ceiling in the world and the lowest religiosity in the world!

AR: (Laughs). Exactly! They go together, hand-in-hand!

CC: Fantastic! One final question. (25:00) This conference that we’re at right now, the theme is “Multiple Religious Identities.” So, maybe, just a final thought from you on how the Estonian context and that conference theme of multiple religious identities maybe speak to each other? Or not?

AR: Of course they speak to each other: they are both religion-related. But, of course, there are continuations of religious identities, and all this overlapping and constant changing. So I would say this: our conference in Tartu will be a mental continuation of this topic here.

CC: Excellent! Well, Listeners, if you want to continue with a mental continuation, in about a year’s time we should have a number of podcasts from Tartu for you! But, for now, thanks for that really expansive, but also quite specific, teaser for the situation in Estonia and for your own research. So do check out Atko’s profile. And thank you very much!

AR: Thank you!


Citation Info: Remmel, Atko and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-study-of-religion-and-national-identity-in-estonia/

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

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.