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Unbelief as a Nuanced Phenomenon: The Sociality of Nonreligion across Europe

Unbelief has often been defined as either ignorance or rejection of religious systems, but this week’s guests David Herbert and Josh Bullock see far more diversity in the ways one can be nonreligious. Sharing lessons from their project “Reaching for a new sense of connection? Towards a deeper understanding of the sociality of generation y non-believers in northern and Central Europe,” we hear about a more nuanced phenomenon of unbelief, where a diverse array of positions are constantly anchored, defined, and recreated in social settings. Collected from nationwide surveys, social media, and interview data, the project presents the tendencies of nonreligious young adults in the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Poland, and Romania.

One of the takeaways from this podcast is that unbelief has widespread national differences as reflected in analysis of social media, but regional similarities from historical contexts show the effects of wider geo-political alignments. For example, in the Netherlands, Norway, and Eastern Germany non-religious people are more likely to express no interest in religious matters, while in Poland and Romania people vocally expressed their unbelief in politicized ways. For more perspectives on Hebert and Bullock’s project, visit https://newsenseofconnection.blog/

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Unbelief as a Nuanced Phenomenon:

The Sociality of Nonreligion across Europe

 

Podcast with David Herbert and Josh Bullock (2 December 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/unbelief-as-a-nuanced-phenomena-the-sociality-of-nonreligion-across-europe/

 

Sidney Castillo (SC): Hello! I’m here now with Josh Bullock and David Herbert. We are at the EASR Conference 2019 in Tartu, Estonia, and we are happy to be gathered here. We are going to talk about understanding unbelief and the way that they are working on it: Reaching for a New Sense of Connection: the sociality of nonrelgion in Europe. Welcome to both of you, professors.

David Herbert (DH): Thank you.

SC: I think if you could introduce yourselves, it would be great for our Listeners.

Josh Bullock (JB): Sure. So I am doing a post-doctoral research on the Understanding Unbelief project at Kingston University. My background’s in the Sociology of Religion but primarily nonreligion – so if it could just be “Sociology of Nonreligion” that would be fine with me. And my PhD was on looking at the Sunday Assembly, the secular congregation.

DH: Hi, I’m David Herbert. I’m Professor of Sociology at Kingston University, London. And I work on religion, and now nonreligion. And also on migration and integration issues across Europe.

SC: Thank you, and welcome again to the Religious Studies Project. So let’s just dive right into the questions. And since you’re working on the Understanding Unbelief project I would like to ask, firstly, what makes unbelief an analytical category different from others such as nonreligion, horizontal transcendence, secular worldviews and so on?

DH: Yes, so the way the whole Understanding Unbelief project was set up, they gave us a lot of scope to define our own terms. So the term that we’ve used is nonreligion, because that’s kind-of easy to define – in terms of people who say they have “no religion” when you ask them. And what we found interesting, looking at the survey data, was that people who say they have no religion – when you ask “what most closely fits with your point of view?” when you give them a choice of “personal God”, “life force” or “spirit” – then many of them say, actually, life force or spirit rather than, “there is definitely no God”. So there’s kind-of an area of nonreligious which includes both people who believe in supernatural-type stuff and kind-of what we’d call “harder” atheists – so, a softer agnosticism and a harder atheism.

JB: I think that’s summed it up perfectly for my way of using nonrelgion rather than unbelief. Also, when we were trying to find participants for the study, I think nonreligion is more of a category that people are likely to relate to – at least, saying that they have no religion rather than defining themselves as being an “unbeliever” or having “unbelief”. So it was more of a relational category which people could . . . .

DH: We also found when we looked at our data that clearly many of the people who we interviewed who very definitely said that they had no religion, also said they had beliefs. So they believed in fate, luck, some of them even use horoscopes – even if a kind-of half-ironic way. So there was actually a lot of belief going on. So, again, we saw nonreligion as better. Because they’re not identifying with religion, whatever they mean by that, but they do have some beliefs.

SC: So that seems more nuanced than unbelief.

DH: Yes.

SC: Sure. Excellent. And the next question I think you place an emphasis on a particular age group. Why does the project focus on Generation Y or the Millennials? How does this group differentiate from other age groups?

JB: Yes. So we know that Generation Y – so those born between around the 1980s to late ’90s – they were around nineteen to thirty-seven, our participants were, when we interviewed them. And we know, based on ESS and EVS data, that they’re going to be much less religious than their parents’ generation and even more so than their grandparents’ generation. And this indicates for pretty much all of the countries, apart from Slovenia, across the European social studies data set.

DH: Yes, I think across twenty-six countries there’s like one where there are fewer nonreligious in that age group than in older age groups. But everywhere else it’s a growing phenomenon.

JB: So that was our primary reason – because we thought the pool would be bigger. And it also gives us some scope, then, for longitudinal studies: we can follow this generation as their beliefs perhaps change over time. And then also, part of our project was looking at the kind-of sense of connection they take and their sociality. So we were interested in the social media side of it, and how they connect with others – whether it be on forums or, yeah, social media, Twitter, Facebook.

DH: Yes. We thought, as the most intensive social media users, they would be a really good sample for getting a sense of what’s happening at the cutting edge of . . . because within nonreligion there are some kind-of older institutions, like the Humanist Society and so on, but not so much. And so we thought “Ok, so do people fulfil a need to sort-of get together in being nonreligious in whatever way?” And we thought, “OK, social media is a good way in. These are high users. We should find something.”

SC: So even though they don’t relate to religion in this way, they still want to gather and get together – find like-minded people?

JB: Well, that was the kind-of question we set out with at the beginning of the project. Because it was off the back of my research on the Sunday Assembly, which is where nonreligious people are gathering to try to find community and belonging in the UK, Netherlands and US. And we were wondering if other kinds of institutions or organisations were happening elsewhere in Europe, and in what contexts? And what did they look like? Because we didn’t expect to find the Sunday Assembly in places like Poland and Romania but we were interested in what kinds of other groups might exist.

DH: Yes. And particularly in the question of where religion is playing a more active – maybe intrusive – role in public life, if that produces a kind-of counter-reaction; a kind-of organisation against the encroachment of religion, by kind-of secular societies, but maybe by people organising in new ways.

JB: Yes. So like a “resistance identity” over just a “need for congregational belonging”.

SC: Yes excellent. Because indeed I can see that there can be a contrast between these countries where they have a more prominent religious life, like Romania which is highly Catholic and (another context) with all the religious denominations. And that’s actually the next question: in contextualising nonbelief you focus on countries with post-Soviet populations, such as Poland, Romania and regions of former East Germany. How are percentages of religion and belief shaped by these experiences, compared to experiences of Northern Europe?

DH: Yes. So we had fifty/fifty samples – sort-of fifty Western European and fifty Eastern European – and half each, three in each. And we wanted to see what the differences were. And also there were big differences between those countries in terms of the number of nonreligious. So in Romania it was very low, maybe around the kind-of five percent mark. Maybe a little bit more in Poland.

JB: Yes about six or seven percent in Poland.

DH: And larger, much larger in East Germany. So what difference does being in a minority make to whether people feel the need to get together? And also, how politicised religion is – what difference does that make? When it comes to the post-Communist situation, of course, religion was treated in somewhat different ways in Communist countries. There were always political restrictions on it as a kind-of alternative source of loyalty to the Communist state. And so we expected that there may be effects in terms of the legacy on that. Whether it’s in terms of, say, in Poland – where the Church was very strong, resisted Communism, strongly attached to national identity – but playing a different role maybe in Eastern Germany, where it was much less a kind-of force for national unity. So if religion has been a source of national identity, as it was in Poland for resistance to Communism, then maybe the people who were not religious . . . . And particularly if the communist regime . . . the Soviet Communist regime was associated with atheism, then there’s likely to be more negative views to being nonreligious and especially atheist. So if that affected how people then felt similarly, in Romania? But we expected less of that in the German context, because religion was less politicised. So, yeah. And we saw some kind-of legacies of that in terms of how people relate now. There was much more, for example, political organisation of nonreligion in Poland than we found in the other contexts.

SC: And even though a lot of the countries share a Soviet background, there is a big difference between each one of them?

JB: Hugely so, yes.

DH: Yes, they have very different histories. And also history has taken a different turn. So in Poland, for example – where religion has become a force for populism, and used by various groups in society and the law and justice and government to support various kinds of controversial policies – we found the nonreligious very active in terms of organising, for example, for women’s right to choose.

JB: Yes, supporting LGBTQ rights as well, and also other kind-of causes for equality – within Poland, at least.

DH: Yes. So a strong voice for a kind-of resisting religion coming into public space, and a strong voice for kind-of pro-choice options on a range of levels.

SC: Right. And how can you lift these national contexts, the age group, and also the intersectionality of, like, race, gender, class? Is there also any kind of correspondence for the same age group that share differences in some way?

DH: Yes. We had some racial and religious background diversity in our sample. And actually one of the areas where that aspect of diversity came out was we found that amongst people from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, in Western European contexts, that they were more inclined to express beliefs in the supernatural and have less reservations about doing so. So they’ll talk about, for example, “karma”, and “meaningful coincidences” in a way that was quite common in Eastern Europe, but much less so in Western Europe. So that was perhaps one source of diversity.

JB: Just following on from that. So we found these beliefs in about thirty-four percent of our participants. So just over a third. So I think it was twenty-three of them in total, and nine came out of Poland. Eight came out of Romania. The other six were from Western or Northern Europe. But their backgrounds were from Eastern Europe or Northern Africa. So really this was kind-of like an Eastern Europe phenomenon, having these karmic or cosmic beliefs.

DH: Beliefs in a range of kind-of meaningful connections and a sense that, as human beings, we’re somehow connected to the broader universe – that kind-of spiritual belief I guess you could call it. I think many of them would own that term. They saw that as being compatible with being nonreligious. It was something different from religion. But it was much more common in Eastern European and people of Eastern European heritage – as well as North African heritage, in one case.

SC: Also you are using this concept of yours of politicisation of religion. So how is this concept articulated in the data you’ve looked at so far?

DH: Yeah. So we were interested in investigating how the public role of religion makes a difference to how the nonreligious react. And religion is publicly prominent for different reasons in the different countries. So because of its politicisation in Poland, and in support of a kind-of folk nationalism and in relation to immigration issues, especially Muslim immigration, in Western Europe. So it’s a more controversial . . . . It’s controversial for different reasons.

SC: Right.

DH: And so, yeah, we wanted to look at the effects of that.

SC: Also I was wondering . . . I think you’ve given a very good macro overview. Because you devised your study on three levels: macro, meso and micro. What else have you identified on the micro level and the meso level?

JB: So, on the micro level I think one of our biggest findings is coming back to the diversity of the beliefs that the nonreligious hold. So this was coming back to these paranormal, supernatural, magical, superstitious beliefs. And despite them saying that they are nonreligious – in the sense that they don’t identify with an institutional religion – they still share a wide range of diverse beliefs and often these are paranormal, supernatural, magical beliefs. So that was on the micro level.

DH: Yes and those supernatural beliefs often seemed to serve to connect people to other people, whether it’s friends and family that they’re close to, or to give some sense of moral orientation in the universe. So quite a few of the stories, the meaningful coincidences were about being rewarded for some kind-of good behaviour. So, you do someone a good turn and then something good happens. So that almost sort-of golden rule projected onto the cosmos. And the kind-of sense that there’s some kind-of moral order. That was quite a strong theme that came through, as well as a connection to other people: a kind-of sense that there’s human significance . . . .

JB: Yeah. But often these beliefs were a kind-of source of tension during the interviews, or at least when we were reading back over them. So they would try to kind-of explain what had happened – these kind-of meaningful coincidences – in a scientific way, even thought there was no – at least to them – logical explanation for what had happened. So for things like . . . we had an example from a young Romanian woman who was living in London, who had lived within two hundred metres of the same person all her life – and ended up being best friends with this person – but had moved six times across different countries and still lived within two hundred metres of this person. They’d just kind-of followed the same route! So, for her, this was more than just a coincidence. And she . . . to quote her term, “It was meant to be.” So there’s kind-of this sense that there’s an “order of things”. But for others trying to explain these events, which seemingly are irrational – like books flying off shelves, or affinities with numbers, or knowing . . . or having a strange feeling when a family member is about to die – so trying to explain these rationally was often like a source of discomfort or tension. Maybe that was kind-of like an artefact of . . . because we were creating this tension by asking them to explain how they understand the event. It came out quite strongly, that sense of tension, when people were referring to superstitious beliefs that still affected them, but which at a rational level they challenge. So for example one guy talked about black cats and how he would avoid black cats. And he had a sense that it would give him bad luck even though he didn’t believe, rationally, that there was any kind-of causal process involved. And he actually said he found it really annoying. He said he found it really stressful, as well. Really annoying and really stressful. Because he didn’t believe it, but he would still actively avoid them.

SC: Right.

JB: I think his starting sentence was: “I’m not superstitious, but I don’t like black cats.” So there’s often contradictory statements which can co-exist, I guess, between the analytic and the intuitive, right?

DH: Yes. So we theorised that in terms of a distinction that’s made in the developmental psychology literature, between analytical modes of thinking – which develop from age kind-of four up to . . . well it keeps going through our lives I guess – and earlier intuitive beliefs, where agency – so, the ability to move and change things and to want things – is attributed to inanimate objects. And gradually, that kind-of moves out of daily use. But the theory is that we can code-switch between those two things. So that actually the intuitive stays alongside the analytic, and that maybe at moments of stress or something we don’t know how to deal with . . .

JB: It’s like we’re gaining control over the situation, isn’t it?

DH: It comes out to reinforce, like, a sense of control. So what we think may have been going on, and why people make . . . . Most of the people who reported the experiences didn’t feel a tension about it all the time. They just kind-of did it. But then, when we asked them to reflect on it, then they felt the tension. Some of them felt it in their daily life as well.

SC: I wanted to ask about, specifically . . . you mentioned that you have been studying self-reported individuals who they say that they are nonbelievers. But in which way did you carry out your interviews? I wondered if for some of them it was the first time that (they had been asked to consider these questions in a rational way). So, to build a growing narrative about their own non-belief. So did you have those cases where: “Oh. You didn’t ask me. I wasn’t warned about that.”?

DH: Yes, I mean, for lots of cases this was probably the first time they’d had to articulate their beliefs or put them onto paper, I guess. Some of them were part of discussions on social media and had relationships with the Rationalist Society. So they may have been used to thinking about those kind of things. But many of them, not. So I think we had a kind-of mixture in terms of how reflective they were. But because it was quite a wide-ranging interview, probably – well, hopefully – there was something new for everybody.

SC: Any concluding remarks you want to give about your results?

JB: I mean, just returning back to the micro, meso, macro: so if we go back to the medium level stuff, there are some examples which we found in Europe. For example, in Frankfurt in Germany they have a meet up group called Drinking and Socialising with Atheists. So you can go for a pint down the pub and talk existential questions, and big life politics, and religion. But it’s quite small. So we didn’t really come across very many meso groups. We have a medium-level group. But in terms of macro there were a few. So the Norwegian Humanists played quite a big role in providing ritual instruction for nonreligious.

DH: And that’s an unusual case, because it’s state-funded like the churches. So it has much more resources to draw on. So there’s a kind-of national structure with people working full-time for them. Whereas in other cases it’s kind-of self-start up networks, mostly. But we also found quite a lot of innovation in terms of practices. So, for example, the Polish, big, Atheist of the Year awards ceremony, goes with that.

JB: The KLF, the Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation – apologies for the pronunciation! Every year they hold like an annual march and they have atheist picnics throughout the summer. So there’s a kind-of sense of community and belonging building there – a bit similar to the Sunday Assembly. But primarily, it’s more to do with campaigning, as we mentioned earlier, for equal rights and women’s rights. But there’s some innovation there, in terms of atheist ceremonies to reward the biggest atheist of the year in terms of their contribution. Yeah.

DH: I guess our headline finding is that there is diversity: that the nonreligious category doesn’t mean that there aren’t some kind-of supernatural beliefs going on. Those might not be the most important things for those people but they definitely feature – at least for a sizeable minority. And also, I guess, that there did seem to be a kind-of an interaction with the broader society in terms of how active people are. So that where people are feeling that their nonreligious identity is under threat, then they kind-of get together to organise, particularly in the Polish case. Whereas, I guess, it’s more a sort-of looser network-type affiliation which you can see from looking at the social media data, quite a lot of them. Because most of our cohort, I guess, were bilingual – not maybe completely bilingual, but certainly use English as a functional language. And that’s pretty common amongst Millennials. And that enables them to follow people that they like in the UK or in other European countries, where there’s also English as a working language being used. So there’s a kind-of a nonreligious Eurosphere developing.

SC: That’s very interesting. I think we are going to wrap it up now. Thank you, again, for being on the Religious Studies Project, and we hope to have you again.

JB: Thank you very much.

DH: Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

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Autism, Religion, and Imagination

Due to their atypical thinking styles, individuals on the autism spectrum represent a unique population of study in the cognitive and psychological sciences of religion. Because religious cognition stems from normal social-cognitive capacities, which are altered for individuals on the spectrum, researchers also expect variation in how they think about supernatural agents. In her interview with Thomas J. Coleman III for the Religious Studies Project, PhD student Ingela Visuri, from Sodertorn and Gavle Universities in Sweden, discusses the findings of her research with adolescents on the spectrum, which challenges and informs past theorization in the scientific study of religion and nonreligion.

 

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

Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Visuri_-_Autism,_Religion_and_Imagination_1.1

 

Thomas Coleman (TC): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Thomas Coleman and today I have the pleasure of speaking with a doctoral student at Södertörn and Gavle Universities, Miss Ingela Visuri, who is conducting some fascinating multi-method research, which I suspect is going to change the way Cognitive Science of Religion conceptualises the relationship between individuals on the autism spectrum and belief, or lack thereof, in supernatural agents. Ingela, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Ingela Visuri (IV): Thanks Tommy, I’m so happy to be here.

TC: Good. I was hoping you could start by telling us, briefly, about how your research began and then we will jump straight into some general questions, and end with a more detailed account of your current research.

IV: Right. So I was always very interested in empathy and role-taking while I was at university doing my basic courses. And after graduating I started working in schools, teaching religious education which is a non-confessional subject here in Sweden. And by coincidence I was recruited to this special educational department with pupils who are on the autism spectrum. And at that time it was just called Asperger’s syndrome, which is high functioning autism. And I had a pupil there at this department who was a member of a Pentecostal congregation. He used to ask me questions about glossolalia and he didn’t really understand why he didn’t speak in tongues. And also, he had had teachers who were religious and they had told him that God used to speak to them, and told him a lot of different things. So one day this pupil said, “You know, sometimes I think that God might be talking to everyone else but me.” And, for me, this was the moment when my research actually began. Because I immediately came to think of theories about how people use their empathy to communicate with invisible agents. And this was before I was acquainted with the Cognitive Science of Religion. But already in the fifties, in Social Psychology, there were such discussions which I knew about. So I decided first to write a Master’s thesis trying to explore how individuals who do have autism, but also have religion or spirituality in their lives, how does communication work for them with theses invisible agents? And this was how I slipped into the Cognitive field, discovering that there were a lot of interesting theories that could be useful.

TC: Very cool. So you have mentioned specifically the autism spectrum, or I think we’ll call it the autism spectrum continuum. What is that, for listeners? I wondered if you could give us a brief description.

IV: I would say that autism is a different type of cognition, and it’s really a collection of symptoms. So, for instance, there are difficulties in the intuitive understanding of social communication and there’s also unusual sensory processing in individuals with autism. Just to exemplify, people who don’t have autism are typically unaware of automatically responding to social cues that are really subtle, such as reading facial expressions, or interpreting the intonation when speaking to people, or drawing information from body language. But for autistic people this doesn’t happen intuitively or automatically. And I think it’s important to understand that people who are high functioning and autistic, they are able to compensate by using their intelligence and verbal ability. So they may learn how to do it, but it takes a lot of effort because these responses are not automated.

TC: So, just summarising here – if I understand correctly – that individuals on the spectrum aren’t lacking cognitions per se, but they go about thinking about the world – and particularly other people – in a little bit different way than we neuro-typicals might . . . your average person.

IV: Exactly. And I also think it’s important . . . in autism studies there’s an ongoing debate on the role of sensory perception (5:00). And I think this has been very much overlooked in the Cognitive Science of Religion when we’re discussing autism. And so, for instance, autistic people might be hypo- or hyper-sensitive to different social input and this differs a lot between people. And it also differs between senses; it can fluctuate. And there also seems to be difficulties in the synchronisation of multi-modal input. And I think this is also crucial when we’re trying to understand how autistic people experience the world.

TC: An example of multimodal input would be, like, listening to someone and watching them as they’re speaking as well. Just to give some examples.

IV: Exactly. So watching a movie, for instance, would be a multimodal experience, while reading a book is a unimodal experience.

TC: Now why have Cognitive Scientists of Religion been interested in individuals on the spectrum?

IV: Well, cognitive researchers who depart from what is called the “naturalness hypothesis of religion”, they have expected that social abilities such as mind reading or theory of mind – as it’s also called at times – that this is what underpins belief in superhuman agents. So to figure out what gods or ghosts or ancestors want, you need to sort-of think of their mind in a similar way as when you’re thinking about agency in any person, right? But with autism there’s a case of mind reading difficulties. And number of scholars had expected that autistic people may not be able to mentalise or believe in invisible agents. But for me it was a little bit different, because I had this teaching experience. And I couldn’t really see any difference in my different classrooms – because I was teaching autistic pupils certain days and non-autistic pupils on other days. And I couldn’t really see any difference between how many religious or spiritual pupils there would be in these groups, or how many were, you know, really disinterested or atheistically oriented. So what I did was, I decided to turn the question around. And I wanted to explore how individuals who do experience differences in social communication, why do they still engage in invisible relations? Right? Why do they keep on reading invisible minds if mind reading would be so difficult for them? Right?

TC: Right.

IV: So this was a starting point for the PhD thesis that I’m now working on.

TC: Fascinating. So you had some suspicions that, maybe, the current the state of the field in CSR, as it related to the autism spectrum, might be incomplete. And I was hoping, I guess, that we could get into how some of your research perhaps challenges and informs some of this past theory. And, I guess we’ll add, there hasn’t been much work done on individuals on the spectrum within the cognitive science of religion.

IV: Right. And the previous research has been quantitative, and hypotheses that people are testing on large groups. But I decided to design an explorative study using mixed methods. And I’m also aiming to work a bit like an anthropologist, because I think that all new fields of research – we need this phase before we move onto testing hypotheses, right? We need to explore the field. And what I’m doing, I’m using my participants as experts, because I’m not autistic, right? So I can never experience the world form an autistic perspective. So I need them to help me get insights into what’s happening. So, for instance, I let them prepare their own interviews. This is to minimise my own impact on the material. And also, when I’m formulating my own hypotheses I discuss – with both my participants and also other people that I know that are on the spectrum – if they think that this makes sense to them. Because if it doesn’t make sense to them, then it’s probably not right.

TC: Right

IV: And my finding so far is that, my participants in this study, they do really think of their preferred superhuman agents in relational terms. So there seems to be a lot of mind reading going on in thinking why these agents cause certain things to happen, or what these agents think of one’s behaviour, like (10:00): “Is this a good thing to do, or is it a bad thing to do?” And you would feel what God wants, for instance.

TC: So I was hoping you could also maybe discuss some of the narratives that some of your participants have shared with you, and how do they relate or contrast with the previous theory?

IV: Well, for instance, I have an example from my participant who calls himself John. And he calls himself a spiritual Christian. And when I asked him if there was a specific starting point for his current view of life he told me – this a quote from the interview: “I think it has developed because I . . . . It kind-of happened a couple of times, that if I did something that felt morally right or something, I felt like I got quite happy, and I got energised, and it kind-of felt like the world was more with me. It’s like something agreed with what I did and said, ‘That’s good,’ and gave me pat on the shoulder and kind-of: ‘You did something right.’ And that, I think, developed into me doing something according to God.” And I think this is also an interesting example, because it begins with an emotion, an experience, and that developed into what he perceives to be God.

TC: Fascinating. So how, then, does some of this research perhaps pose new questions for the field to follow up on, with more anthropological, ethnographic research as well as quantitative and perhaps experimental?

IV: Well, I think to begin with I would like to challenge this previous supposition that we need intuitive mentalising skills for interpreting superhuman agents. And I actually think that when autistic people get rid of bodies it helps mentalising. Because you have both the automated, quick responses and then you have the slower, more reflective responses. And despite lacking the intuitive responses they use their reflective mentalising skills to think of what these agents want. And it helps that they don’t have any facial expressions, they don’t have any body language, they don’t need to interpret any intonation. And there’s also an emotional coherence in invisible agents that you don’t get in ordinary people.

TC: How so?

IV: Well, people who are non-autistic, we are quite good at hiding our emotions.

TC: I have to disagree. No, just kidding. Of course, of course! (Laughs)

IV: (Laughs) If you spend time with autistic people you’ll notice that they are very straightforward and they tell you what’s going on. Which also gets them into trouble because we’re not expected to be that straightforward. We’re expected to be, you know, lying a little bit here and there. But these kind of lies in terms of body language are really confusing for autistic people. So if I’m really annoyed with you, for instance, I still want you to like me so I’m trying to hide that I’m annoyed and trying to behave . . .

TC: Is that what’s going on here? (Laughs) No, just kidding.

IV: No, Tommy! But for autistic people they able to feel what other people feel, but it’s difficult to understand what other people are thinking. So this discrepancy between emotional and cognitive input is really confusing. This is also something you get rid of in superhuman agents that are bodiless.

TC: So is it almost a limiting of distractions: that bodiless agents perhaps make it easier – I think you’re suggesting – to interact with?

IV: Exactly. I think. And I’m not suggesting that autistic people would be more or less religious. That’s not my point. But what my study shows is that people who have both autism and religion or spirituality in their lives, for them it seems to be easier to think of a mind when you don’t have any bodies. That messes up communication (15:00). And it’s pretty much the same if you’re communicating with a friend over the internet. It’s easier because you don’t have a body, right? And also, because you have a lot of time to think about what the other person means and you also have time to formulate a proper response. You don’t get that in real life interaction, because it’s quite fast and quick, because we’re expecting people to have these intuitive skills.

TC: And many people on the spectrum actually prefer kind-of remote or internet-type communication, is that correct?

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

IV: I guess precisely because it’s lacking in some of the more embodied features that we use, on an everyday basis, to understand other people.

IV: Exactly. And I was actually asking – this is an example of my anthropological method, if you would call it that – I was hanging out on a sofa one day in one of these schools – because I’ve been spending a lot time with my participants and other pupils in their schools – and I notice that autistic people generally, in Sweden, they’re really good at speaking English. And I asked a group of pupils, “How come the autistic people seem to be so much better at speaking English?” And one guy, he said that, “For us it’s so much easier to interact with people online, and therefore we become gamers. And gamers interact in English. And that’s why we become better.” Right?

TC: Now, how does this open up perhaps some new directions for researching religion and non-religion in neuro-typicals? Because, as I understand it, your work primarily concerns individuals on the spectrum but it also, of course, has implications for people who are not on the spectrum.

IV: Yes. So first, when it comes to mentalising, cognitive research on mentalising, I think it’s important to think of that as a complex construct. It’s like a toolbox with different instruments that we can use in different manners. So first we have this difference between fast and intuitive processes, that I’ve been talking a lot about, and the slow and reflective processing. And then there is also the difference between emotional and cognitive empathy. So we sort-of have to elaborate with all these different mentalising aspects.

TC: Could I ask for an example between cognitive and more emotional empathy for our listeners? How are the two different?

IV: Yes. The emotional empathy is feeling what other people are feeling. So, for instance, if someone is sad you would become affected by that sadness, right? But the cognitive empathy is more in the head, so to speak. So for instance, if you’re nodding you would know that someone is still listening to you or you know you just get these little cues. Or someone’s frowning, for instance, then you can interpret that this is an emotional response going on. But it’s more in the cognitive level.

TC: Alright. And so then, how does this distinction relate to individuals on the spectrum and off the spectrum and belief in supernatural agents?

IV: Well I think . . . and my point is that this is for both autistic and non-autistic individuals. I think that we need to acknowledge that people use reflected thinking a lot more than has been expected in the Cognitive Science of Religion. For instance, non-autistic people might have intuitions about supernatural agency, but if you’re living in Sweden, for instance, it’s not the norm to be religious. We have a rather secular norm, so that means that you might discard your intuitions and search for another explanation. But also, in autistic people, I don’t really see that it should affect them so much that these intuitive responses are not there. Because they use these slow processes instead.

TC: So they’re not lacking the intuiting, certainly, but perhaps they’re a little bit different. And therefore they rely more on reflective-type thinking. As I understand, you’ve also crept into some interesting avenues with your research having to do with fantasy. I think you touched on imagination earlier. I was wondering if you could further elucidate how those might play into religiosity or non-religiosity, for those individuals on the spectrum (20:00).

IV: Well something that surprised me in my results was the majority of my autistic participants turned out to be fantasy-prone. And some of these fantasy-prone people, they’re gamers and some of them love fantasy fiction. But what’s common for all of them is that they switch between different realities. So they have their empirical reality which is quite fragmented and difficult and exhausting. And then they create their own imaginary realities which they switch into. And I suspect this is a kind of coping mechanism. So they create – with the help of their imagination – really interesting worlds that they fill with characters that might be influenced from religion and spirituality, but also fantasy fiction and popular culture. It could even be artists, you know, pop stars for instance. And they have these worlds, and they interact with all these characters in a sense that reminds me a lot about how cognitive research describes interaction with superhuman agents.

TC: Really? Ok.

IV: So I think this is something that we need to look into. That if mentalising is used, and it’s a non-human agent, I think that’s equivalent to the study of gods and spirits and ancestors, which is more traditional. And I also think this is relevant for younger generations. This is something really interesting to look into.

TC: I know on the Religious Studies Project we usually pride ourselves in challenging traditional conceptualisations of the category of religion. And of course, supernatural agents as well. And what I’m hearing is that some of your work does just that, as well as, perhaps, the Cognitive Science of Religion in general. And I think we can certainly expect it to open up some exciting new avenues for religious agents as they are traditionally understood: perhaps, maybe, the magic of Harry Potter; or massive multi-player online gaming; and all these other types of fantastical imaginative agents that people seem to engage with on a daily basis, but perhaps don’t think of as religious or spiritual.

IV: I totally agree with you and, for instance, one of my participants who describes himself as a Christian, he also says that he’s totally into Harry Potter. And until he was 14 years old, he literally believed that there were unicorns. And now that he’s older he says that, “Well, I don’t believe in them in the ontological sense any more, but they’re still with me and I fantasise a lot about them. And when I’m fantasising it becomes real for me.” And I think this is also something that we risk missing out on, if we don’t do these explorative studies, if we just hold onto scales and questionnaires that have always been used. Because many of my participants might describe themselves . . . well, you know. It’s not that they believe in God and they don’t go to Church, but they still experience a lot of interesting things that they interpret: it’s spirits; or ghosts; or demons; or then you have these fictional characters, as well, that they interact with on a daily basis.

TC: And it seems like an even further challenge to the notion of belief: what it means to believe, or whether belief is important – as we often think it is – if there are all these various other imaginative fantasy religious agents that perhaps people wouldn’t say that they believe in per se, but interact with, engage with perhaps emotionally, in a number of manners. So it’s very interesting. So, just wrapping up here, I was hoping, if you felt we had left anything out of this podcast, or if you had any closing words, or some take-away points for the listeners: anything else you’d like to discuss with us today about your researching the field.

IV: I think I would like to return to your previous comment. I think that when we’re researching belief it’s very easy to end up in these ontological categories (25:00). It’s like a statement: is it true? Is it not? It’s like a number of things that you need to sort-of hold on to or reject. But this is not interesting for the people that I have interviewed. They start from their own experience. And I think the body’s important here: that you feel, you know, that you have a sensed presence of a ghost, for instance. And these sensed presences they turn into some kind of notion of what’s going on in invisible agency. But they don’t depart from, you know, thinking; “Is it true, or is it not, that there are ghosts?” Because it’s not interesting for them, because they experience them. So I think that experience is the really interesting analytical category that we could use a lot more in the Cognitive Science of Religions.

TC: Awesome. I think that’s a good note to end on. Ingela Visuri thank you very much for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project.

IV: Thanks Tommy.

TC: I want to remind our listeners, be sure to check out some of the previous podcasts that are closely related to today’s topics. I’ll include some links in the description, such as interviews with Dr Will Gervais, on God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind, and also with Dr Stuart Guthrie on Religion as Anthropomorphism. So thank you all for listening.

Citation Info: Visuri, Ingela, and Thomas J. Coleman III. 2018. “Autism, Religion and Imagination”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 31 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/autism-religion-and-imagination/

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

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

Podcasts

Unbelief as a Nuanced Phenomenon: The Sociality of Nonreligion across Europe

Unbelief has often been defined as either ignorance or rejection of religious systems, but this week’s guests David Herbert and Josh Bullock see far more diversity in the ways one can be nonreligious. Sharing lessons from their project “Reaching for a new sense of connection? Towards a deeper understanding of the sociality of generation y non-believers in northern and Central Europe,” we hear about a more nuanced phenomenon of unbelief, where a diverse array of positions are constantly anchored, defined, and recreated in social settings. Collected from nationwide surveys, social media, and interview data, the project presents the tendencies of nonreligious young adults in the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Poland, and Romania.

One of the takeaways from this podcast is that unbelief has widespread national differences as reflected in analysis of social media, but regional similarities from historical contexts show the effects of wider geo-political alignments. For example, in the Netherlands, Norway, and Eastern Germany non-religious people are more likely to express no interest in religious matters, while in Poland and Romania people vocally expressed their unbelief in politicized ways. For more perspectives on Hebert and Bullock’s project, visit https://newsenseofconnection.blog/

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Unbelief as a Nuanced Phenomenon:

The Sociality of Nonreligion across Europe

 

Podcast with David Herbert and Josh Bullock (2 December 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/unbelief-as-a-nuanced-phenomena-the-sociality-of-nonreligion-across-europe/

 

Sidney Castillo (SC): Hello! I’m here now with Josh Bullock and David Herbert. We are at the EASR Conference 2019 in Tartu, Estonia, and we are happy to be gathered here. We are going to talk about understanding unbelief and the way that they are working on it: Reaching for a New Sense of Connection: the sociality of nonrelgion in Europe. Welcome to both of you, professors.

David Herbert (DH): Thank you.

SC: I think if you could introduce yourselves, it would be great for our Listeners.

Josh Bullock (JB): Sure. So I am doing a post-doctoral research on the Understanding Unbelief project at Kingston University. My background’s in the Sociology of Religion but primarily nonreligion – so if it could just be “Sociology of Nonreligion” that would be fine with me. And my PhD was on looking at the Sunday Assembly, the secular congregation.

DH: Hi, I’m David Herbert. I’m Professor of Sociology at Kingston University, London. And I work on religion, and now nonreligion. And also on migration and integration issues across Europe.

SC: Thank you, and welcome again to the Religious Studies Project. So let’s just dive right into the questions. And since you’re working on the Understanding Unbelief project I would like to ask, firstly, what makes unbelief an analytical category different from others such as nonreligion, horizontal transcendence, secular worldviews and so on?

DH: Yes, so the way the whole Understanding Unbelief project was set up, they gave us a lot of scope to define our own terms. So the term that we’ve used is nonreligion, because that’s kind-of easy to define – in terms of people who say they have “no religion” when you ask them. And what we found interesting, looking at the survey data, was that people who say they have no religion – when you ask “what most closely fits with your point of view?” when you give them a choice of “personal God”, “life force” or “spirit” – then many of them say, actually, life force or spirit rather than, “there is definitely no God”. So there’s kind-of an area of nonreligious which includes both people who believe in supernatural-type stuff and kind-of what we’d call “harder” atheists – so, a softer agnosticism and a harder atheism.

JB: I think that’s summed it up perfectly for my way of using nonrelgion rather than unbelief. Also, when we were trying to find participants for the study, I think nonreligion is more of a category that people are likely to relate to – at least, saying that they have no religion rather than defining themselves as being an “unbeliever” or having “unbelief”. So it was more of a relational category which people could . . . .

DH: We also found when we looked at our data that clearly many of the people who we interviewed who very definitely said that they had no religion, also said they had beliefs. So they believed in fate, luck, some of them even use horoscopes – even if a kind-of half-ironic way. So there was actually a lot of belief going on. So, again, we saw nonreligion as better. Because they’re not identifying with religion, whatever they mean by that, but they do have some beliefs.

SC: So that seems more nuanced than unbelief.

DH: Yes.

SC: Sure. Excellent. And the next question I think you place an emphasis on a particular age group. Why does the project focus on Generation Y or the Millennials? How does this group differentiate from other age groups?

JB: Yes. So we know that Generation Y – so those born between around the 1980s to late ’90s – they were around nineteen to thirty-seven, our participants were, when we interviewed them. And we know, based on ESS and EVS data, that they’re going to be much less religious than their parents’ generation and even more so than their grandparents’ generation. And this indicates for pretty much all of the countries, apart from Slovenia, across the European social studies data set.

DH: Yes, I think across twenty-six countries there’s like one where there are fewer nonreligious in that age group than in older age groups. But everywhere else it’s a growing phenomenon.

JB: So that was our primary reason – because we thought the pool would be bigger. And it also gives us some scope, then, for longitudinal studies: we can follow this generation as their beliefs perhaps change over time. And then also, part of our project was looking at the kind-of sense of connection they take and their sociality. So we were interested in the social media side of it, and how they connect with others – whether it be on forums or, yeah, social media, Twitter, Facebook.

DH: Yes. We thought, as the most intensive social media users, they would be a really good sample for getting a sense of what’s happening at the cutting edge of . . . because within nonreligion there are some kind-of older institutions, like the Humanist Society and so on, but not so much. And so we thought “Ok, so do people fulfil a need to sort-of get together in being nonreligious in whatever way?” And we thought, “OK, social media is a good way in. These are high users. We should find something.”

SC: So even though they don’t relate to religion in this way, they still want to gather and get together – find like-minded people?

JB: Well, that was the kind-of question we set out with at the beginning of the project. Because it was off the back of my research on the Sunday Assembly, which is where nonreligious people are gathering to try to find community and belonging in the UK, Netherlands and US. And we were wondering if other kinds of institutions or organisations were happening elsewhere in Europe, and in what contexts? And what did they look like? Because we didn’t expect to find the Sunday Assembly in places like Poland and Romania but we were interested in what kinds of other groups might exist.

DH: Yes. And particularly in the question of where religion is playing a more active – maybe intrusive – role in public life, if that produces a kind-of counter-reaction; a kind-of organisation against the encroachment of religion, by kind-of secular societies, but maybe by people organising in new ways.

JB: Yes. So like a “resistance identity” over just a “need for congregational belonging”.

SC: Yes excellent. Because indeed I can see that there can be a contrast between these countries where they have a more prominent religious life, like Romania which is highly Catholic and (another context) with all the religious denominations. And that’s actually the next question: in contextualising nonbelief you focus on countries with post-Soviet populations, such as Poland, Romania and regions of former East Germany. How are percentages of religion and belief shaped by these experiences, compared to experiences of Northern Europe?

DH: Yes. So we had fifty/fifty samples – sort-of fifty Western European and fifty Eastern European – and half each, three in each. And we wanted to see what the differences were. And also there were big differences between those countries in terms of the number of nonreligious. So in Romania it was very low, maybe around the kind-of five percent mark. Maybe a little bit more in Poland.

JB: Yes about six or seven percent in Poland.

DH: And larger, much larger in East Germany. So what difference does being in a minority make to whether people feel the need to get together? And also, how politicised religion is – what difference does that make? When it comes to the post-Communist situation, of course, religion was treated in somewhat different ways in Communist countries. There were always political restrictions on it as a kind-of alternative source of loyalty to the Communist state. And so we expected that there may be effects in terms of the legacy on that. Whether it’s in terms of, say, in Poland – where the Church was very strong, resisted Communism, strongly attached to national identity – but playing a different role maybe in Eastern Germany, where it was much less a kind-of force for national unity. So if religion has been a source of national identity, as it was in Poland for resistance to Communism, then maybe the people who were not religious . . . . And particularly if the communist regime . . . the Soviet Communist regime was associated with atheism, then there’s likely to be more negative views to being nonreligious and especially atheist. So if that affected how people then felt similarly, in Romania? But we expected less of that in the German context, because religion was less politicised. So, yeah. And we saw some kind-of legacies of that in terms of how people relate now. There was much more, for example, political organisation of nonreligion in Poland than we found in the other contexts.

SC: And even though a lot of the countries share a Soviet background, there is a big difference between each one of them?

JB: Hugely so, yes.

DH: Yes, they have very different histories. And also history has taken a different turn. So in Poland, for example – where religion has become a force for populism, and used by various groups in society and the law and justice and government to support various kinds of controversial policies – we found the nonreligious very active in terms of organising, for example, for women’s right to choose.

JB: Yes, supporting LGBTQ rights as well, and also other kind-of causes for equality – within Poland, at least.

DH: Yes. So a strong voice for a kind-of resisting religion coming into public space, and a strong voice for kind-of pro-choice options on a range of levels.

SC: Right. And how can you lift these national contexts, the age group, and also the intersectionality of, like, race, gender, class? Is there also any kind of correspondence for the same age group that share differences in some way?

DH: Yes. We had some racial and religious background diversity in our sample. And actually one of the areas where that aspect of diversity came out was we found that amongst people from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, in Western European contexts, that they were more inclined to express beliefs in the supernatural and have less reservations about doing so. So they’ll talk about, for example, “karma”, and “meaningful coincidences” in a way that was quite common in Eastern Europe, but much less so in Western Europe. So that was perhaps one source of diversity.

JB: Just following on from that. So we found these beliefs in about thirty-four percent of our participants. So just over a third. So I think it was twenty-three of them in total, and nine came out of Poland. Eight came out of Romania. The other six were from Western or Northern Europe. But their backgrounds were from Eastern Europe or Northern Africa. So really this was kind-of like an Eastern Europe phenomenon, having these karmic or cosmic beliefs.

DH: Beliefs in a range of kind-of meaningful connections and a sense that, as human beings, we’re somehow connected to the broader universe – that kind-of spiritual belief I guess you could call it. I think many of them would own that term. They saw that as being compatible with being nonreligious. It was something different from religion. But it was much more common in Eastern European and people of Eastern European heritage – as well as North African heritage, in one case.

SC: Also you are using this concept of yours of politicisation of religion. So how is this concept articulated in the data you’ve looked at so far?

DH: Yeah. So we were interested in investigating how the public role of religion makes a difference to how the nonreligious react. And religion is publicly prominent for different reasons in the different countries. So because of its politicisation in Poland, and in support of a kind-of folk nationalism and in relation to immigration issues, especially Muslim immigration, in Western Europe. So it’s a more controversial . . . . It’s controversial for different reasons.

SC: Right.

DH: And so, yeah, we wanted to look at the effects of that.

SC: Also I was wondering . . . I think you’ve given a very good macro overview. Because you devised your study on three levels: macro, meso and micro. What else have you identified on the micro level and the meso level?

JB: So, on the micro level I think one of our biggest findings is coming back to the diversity of the beliefs that the nonreligious hold. So this was coming back to these paranormal, supernatural, magical, superstitious beliefs. And despite them saying that they are nonreligious – in the sense that they don’t identify with an institutional religion – they still share a wide range of diverse beliefs and often these are paranormal, supernatural, magical beliefs. So that was on the micro level.

DH: Yes and those supernatural beliefs often seemed to serve to connect people to other people, whether it’s friends and family that they’re close to, or to give some sense of moral orientation in the universe. So quite a few of the stories, the meaningful coincidences were about being rewarded for some kind-of good behaviour. So, you do someone a good turn and then something good happens. So that almost sort-of golden rule projected onto the cosmos. And the kind-of sense that there’s some kind-of moral order. That was quite a strong theme that came through, as well as a connection to other people: a kind-of sense that there’s human significance . . . .

JB: Yeah. But often these beliefs were a kind-of source of tension during the interviews, or at least when we were reading back over them. So they would try to kind-of explain what had happened – these kind-of meaningful coincidences – in a scientific way, even thought there was no – at least to them – logical explanation for what had happened. So for things like . . . we had an example from a young Romanian woman who was living in London, who had lived within two hundred metres of the same person all her life – and ended up being best friends with this person – but had moved six times across different countries and still lived within two hundred metres of this person. They’d just kind-of followed the same route! So, for her, this was more than just a coincidence. And she . . . to quote her term, “It was meant to be.” So there’s kind-of this sense that there’s an “order of things”. But for others trying to explain these events, which seemingly are irrational – like books flying off shelves, or affinities with numbers, or knowing . . . or having a strange feeling when a family member is about to die – so trying to explain these rationally was often like a source of discomfort or tension. Maybe that was kind-of like an artefact of . . . because we were creating this tension by asking them to explain how they understand the event. It came out quite strongly, that sense of tension, when people were referring to superstitious beliefs that still affected them, but which at a rational level they challenge. So for example one guy talked about black cats and how he would avoid black cats. And he had a sense that it would give him bad luck even though he didn’t believe, rationally, that there was any kind-of causal process involved. And he actually said he found it really annoying. He said he found it really stressful, as well. Really annoying and really stressful. Because he didn’t believe it, but he would still actively avoid them.

SC: Right.

JB: I think his starting sentence was: “I’m not superstitious, but I don’t like black cats.” So there’s often contradictory statements which can co-exist, I guess, between the analytic and the intuitive, right?

DH: Yes. So we theorised that in terms of a distinction that’s made in the developmental psychology literature, between analytical modes of thinking – which develop from age kind-of four up to . . . well it keeps going through our lives I guess – and earlier intuitive beliefs, where agency – so, the ability to move and change things and to want things – is attributed to inanimate objects. And gradually, that kind-of moves out of daily use. But the theory is that we can code-switch between those two things. So that actually the intuitive stays alongside the analytic, and that maybe at moments of stress or something we don’t know how to deal with . . .

JB: It’s like we’re gaining control over the situation, isn’t it?

DH: It comes out to reinforce, like, a sense of control. So what we think may have been going on, and why people make . . . . Most of the people who reported the experiences didn’t feel a tension about it all the time. They just kind-of did it. But then, when we asked them to reflect on it, then they felt the tension. Some of them felt it in their daily life as well.

SC: I wanted to ask about, specifically . . . you mentioned that you have been studying self-reported individuals who they say that they are nonbelievers. But in which way did you carry out your interviews? I wondered if for some of them it was the first time that (they had been asked to consider these questions in a rational way). So, to build a growing narrative about their own non-belief. So did you have those cases where: “Oh. You didn’t ask me. I wasn’t warned about that.”?

DH: Yes, I mean, for lots of cases this was probably the first time they’d had to articulate their beliefs or put them onto paper, I guess. Some of them were part of discussions on social media and had relationships with the Rationalist Society. So they may have been used to thinking about those kind of things. But many of them, not. So I think we had a kind-of mixture in terms of how reflective they were. But because it was quite a wide-ranging interview, probably – well, hopefully – there was something new for everybody.

SC: Any concluding remarks you want to give about your results?

JB: I mean, just returning back to the micro, meso, macro: so if we go back to the medium level stuff, there are some examples which we found in Europe. For example, in Frankfurt in Germany they have a meet up group called Drinking and Socialising with Atheists. So you can go for a pint down the pub and talk existential questions, and big life politics, and religion. But it’s quite small. So we didn’t really come across very many meso groups. We have a medium-level group. But in terms of macro there were a few. So the Norwegian Humanists played quite a big role in providing ritual instruction for nonreligious.

DH: And that’s an unusual case, because it’s state-funded like the churches. So it has much more resources to draw on. So there’s a kind-of national structure with people working full-time for them. Whereas in other cases it’s kind-of self-start up networks, mostly. But we also found quite a lot of innovation in terms of practices. So, for example, the Polish, big, Atheist of the Year awards ceremony, goes with that.

JB: The KLF, the Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation – apologies for the pronunciation! Every year they hold like an annual march and they have atheist picnics throughout the summer. So there’s a kind-of sense of community and belonging building there – a bit similar to the Sunday Assembly. But primarily, it’s more to do with campaigning, as we mentioned earlier, for equal rights and women’s rights. But there’s some innovation there, in terms of atheist ceremonies to reward the biggest atheist of the year in terms of their contribution. Yeah.

DH: I guess our headline finding is that there is diversity: that the nonreligious category doesn’t mean that there aren’t some kind-of supernatural beliefs going on. Those might not be the most important things for those people but they definitely feature – at least for a sizeable minority. And also, I guess, that there did seem to be a kind-of an interaction with the broader society in terms of how active people are. So that where people are feeling that their nonreligious identity is under threat, then they kind-of get together to organise, particularly in the Polish case. Whereas, I guess, it’s more a sort-of looser network-type affiliation which you can see from looking at the social media data, quite a lot of them. Because most of our cohort, I guess, were bilingual – not maybe completely bilingual, but certainly use English as a functional language. And that’s pretty common amongst Millennials. And that enables them to follow people that they like in the UK or in other European countries, where there’s also English as a working language being used. So there’s a kind-of a nonreligious Eurosphere developing.

SC: That’s very interesting. I think we are going to wrap it up now. Thank you, again, for being on the Religious Studies Project, and we hope to have you again.

JB: Thank you very much.

DH: Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

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Autism, Religion, and Imagination

Due to their atypical thinking styles, individuals on the autism spectrum represent a unique population of study in the cognitive and psychological sciences of religion. Because religious cognition stems from normal social-cognitive capacities, which are altered for individuals on the spectrum, researchers also expect variation in how they think about supernatural agents. In her interview with Thomas J. Coleman III for the Religious Studies Project, PhD student Ingela Visuri, from Sodertorn and Gavle Universities in Sweden, discusses the findings of her research with adolescents on the spectrum, which challenges and informs past theorization in the scientific study of religion and nonreligion.

 

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

Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Visuri_-_Autism,_Religion_and_Imagination_1.1

 

Thomas Coleman (TC): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Thomas Coleman and today I have the pleasure of speaking with a doctoral student at Södertörn and Gavle Universities, Miss Ingela Visuri, who is conducting some fascinating multi-method research, which I suspect is going to change the way Cognitive Science of Religion conceptualises the relationship between individuals on the autism spectrum and belief, or lack thereof, in supernatural agents. Ingela, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Ingela Visuri (IV): Thanks Tommy, I’m so happy to be here.

TC: Good. I was hoping you could start by telling us, briefly, about how your research began and then we will jump straight into some general questions, and end with a more detailed account of your current research.

IV: Right. So I was always very interested in empathy and role-taking while I was at university doing my basic courses. And after graduating I started working in schools, teaching religious education which is a non-confessional subject here in Sweden. And by coincidence I was recruited to this special educational department with pupils who are on the autism spectrum. And at that time it was just called Asperger’s syndrome, which is high functioning autism. And I had a pupil there at this department who was a member of a Pentecostal congregation. He used to ask me questions about glossolalia and he didn’t really understand why he didn’t speak in tongues. And also, he had had teachers who were religious and they had told him that God used to speak to them, and told him a lot of different things. So one day this pupil said, “You know, sometimes I think that God might be talking to everyone else but me.” And, for me, this was the moment when my research actually began. Because I immediately came to think of theories about how people use their empathy to communicate with invisible agents. And this was before I was acquainted with the Cognitive Science of Religion. But already in the fifties, in Social Psychology, there were such discussions which I knew about. So I decided first to write a Master’s thesis trying to explore how individuals who do have autism, but also have religion or spirituality in their lives, how does communication work for them with theses invisible agents? And this was how I slipped into the Cognitive field, discovering that there were a lot of interesting theories that could be useful.

TC: Very cool. So you have mentioned specifically the autism spectrum, or I think we’ll call it the autism spectrum continuum. What is that, for listeners? I wondered if you could give us a brief description.

IV: I would say that autism is a different type of cognition, and it’s really a collection of symptoms. So, for instance, there are difficulties in the intuitive understanding of social communication and there’s also unusual sensory processing in individuals with autism. Just to exemplify, people who don’t have autism are typically unaware of automatically responding to social cues that are really subtle, such as reading facial expressions, or interpreting the intonation when speaking to people, or drawing information from body language. But for autistic people this doesn’t happen intuitively or automatically. And I think it’s important to understand that people who are high functioning and autistic, they are able to compensate by using their intelligence and verbal ability. So they may learn how to do it, but it takes a lot of effort because these responses are not automated.

TC: So, just summarising here – if I understand correctly – that individuals on the spectrum aren’t lacking cognitions per se, but they go about thinking about the world – and particularly other people – in a little bit different way than we neuro-typicals might . . . your average person.

IV: Exactly. And I also think it’s important . . . in autism studies there’s an ongoing debate on the role of sensory perception (5:00). And I think this has been very much overlooked in the Cognitive Science of Religion when we’re discussing autism. And so, for instance, autistic people might be hypo- or hyper-sensitive to different social input and this differs a lot between people. And it also differs between senses; it can fluctuate. And there also seems to be difficulties in the synchronisation of multi-modal input. And I think this is also crucial when we’re trying to understand how autistic people experience the world.

TC: An example of multimodal input would be, like, listening to someone and watching them as they’re speaking as well. Just to give some examples.

IV: Exactly. So watching a movie, for instance, would be a multimodal experience, while reading a book is a unimodal experience.

TC: Now why have Cognitive Scientists of Religion been interested in individuals on the spectrum?

IV: Well, cognitive researchers who depart from what is called the “naturalness hypothesis of religion”, they have expected that social abilities such as mind reading or theory of mind – as it’s also called at times – that this is what underpins belief in superhuman agents. So to figure out what gods or ghosts or ancestors want, you need to sort-of think of their mind in a similar way as when you’re thinking about agency in any person, right? But with autism there’s a case of mind reading difficulties. And number of scholars had expected that autistic people may not be able to mentalise or believe in invisible agents. But for me it was a little bit different, because I had this teaching experience. And I couldn’t really see any difference in my different classrooms – because I was teaching autistic pupils certain days and non-autistic pupils on other days. And I couldn’t really see any difference between how many religious or spiritual pupils there would be in these groups, or how many were, you know, really disinterested or atheistically oriented. So what I did was, I decided to turn the question around. And I wanted to explore how individuals who do experience differences in social communication, why do they still engage in invisible relations? Right? Why do they keep on reading invisible minds if mind reading would be so difficult for them? Right?

TC: Right.

IV: So this was a starting point for the PhD thesis that I’m now working on.

TC: Fascinating. So you had some suspicions that, maybe, the current the state of the field in CSR, as it related to the autism spectrum, might be incomplete. And I was hoping, I guess, that we could get into how some of your research perhaps challenges and informs some of this past theory. And, I guess we’ll add, there hasn’t been much work done on individuals on the spectrum within the cognitive science of religion.

IV: Right. And the previous research has been quantitative, and hypotheses that people are testing on large groups. But I decided to design an explorative study using mixed methods. And I’m also aiming to work a bit like an anthropologist, because I think that all new fields of research – we need this phase before we move onto testing hypotheses, right? We need to explore the field. And what I’m doing, I’m using my participants as experts, because I’m not autistic, right? So I can never experience the world form an autistic perspective. So I need them to help me get insights into what’s happening. So, for instance, I let them prepare their own interviews. This is to minimise my own impact on the material. And also, when I’m formulating my own hypotheses I discuss – with both my participants and also other people that I know that are on the spectrum – if they think that this makes sense to them. Because if it doesn’t make sense to them, then it’s probably not right.

TC: Right

IV: And my finding so far is that, my participants in this study, they do really think of their preferred superhuman agents in relational terms. So there seems to be a lot of mind reading going on in thinking why these agents cause certain things to happen, or what these agents think of one’s behaviour, like (10:00): “Is this a good thing to do, or is it a bad thing to do?” And you would feel what God wants, for instance.

TC: So I was hoping you could also maybe discuss some of the narratives that some of your participants have shared with you, and how do they relate or contrast with the previous theory?

IV: Well, for instance, I have an example from my participant who calls himself John. And he calls himself a spiritual Christian. And when I asked him if there was a specific starting point for his current view of life he told me – this a quote from the interview: “I think it has developed because I . . . . It kind-of happened a couple of times, that if I did something that felt morally right or something, I felt like I got quite happy, and I got energised, and it kind-of felt like the world was more with me. It’s like something agreed with what I did and said, ‘That’s good,’ and gave me pat on the shoulder and kind-of: ‘You did something right.’ And that, I think, developed into me doing something according to God.” And I think this is also an interesting example, because it begins with an emotion, an experience, and that developed into what he perceives to be God.

TC: Fascinating. So how, then, does some of this research perhaps pose new questions for the field to follow up on, with more anthropological, ethnographic research as well as quantitative and perhaps experimental?

IV: Well, I think to begin with I would like to challenge this previous supposition that we need intuitive mentalising skills for interpreting superhuman agents. And I actually think that when autistic people get rid of bodies it helps mentalising. Because you have both the automated, quick responses and then you have the slower, more reflective responses. And despite lacking the intuitive responses they use their reflective mentalising skills to think of what these agents want. And it helps that they don’t have any facial expressions, they don’t have any body language, they don’t need to interpret any intonation. And there’s also an emotional coherence in invisible agents that you don’t get in ordinary people.

TC: How so?

IV: Well, people who are non-autistic, we are quite good at hiding our emotions.

TC: I have to disagree. No, just kidding. Of course, of course! (Laughs)

IV: (Laughs) If you spend time with autistic people you’ll notice that they are very straightforward and they tell you what’s going on. Which also gets them into trouble because we’re not expected to be that straightforward. We’re expected to be, you know, lying a little bit here and there. But these kind of lies in terms of body language are really confusing for autistic people. So if I’m really annoyed with you, for instance, I still want you to like me so I’m trying to hide that I’m annoyed and trying to behave . . .

TC: Is that what’s going on here? (Laughs) No, just kidding.

IV: No, Tommy! But for autistic people they able to feel what other people feel, but it’s difficult to understand what other people are thinking. So this discrepancy between emotional and cognitive input is really confusing. This is also something you get rid of in superhuman agents that are bodiless.

TC: So is it almost a limiting of distractions: that bodiless agents perhaps make it easier – I think you’re suggesting – to interact with?

IV: Exactly. I think. And I’m not suggesting that autistic people would be more or less religious. That’s not my point. But what my study shows is that people who have both autism and religion or spirituality in their lives, for them it seems to be easier to think of a mind when you don’t have any bodies. That messes up communication (15:00). And it’s pretty much the same if you’re communicating with a friend over the internet. It’s easier because you don’t have a body, right? And also, because you have a lot of time to think about what the other person means and you also have time to formulate a proper response. You don’t get that in real life interaction, because it’s quite fast and quick, because we’re expecting people to have these intuitive skills.

TC: And many people on the spectrum actually prefer kind-of remote or internet-type communication, is that correct?

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

IV: I guess precisely because it’s lacking in some of the more embodied features that we use, on an everyday basis, to understand other people.

IV: Exactly. And I was actually asking – this is an example of my anthropological method, if you would call it that – I was hanging out on a sofa one day in one of these schools – because I’ve been spending a lot time with my participants and other pupils in their schools – and I notice that autistic people generally, in Sweden, they’re really good at speaking English. And I asked a group of pupils, “How come the autistic people seem to be so much better at speaking English?” And one guy, he said that, “For us it’s so much easier to interact with people online, and therefore we become gamers. And gamers interact in English. And that’s why we become better.” Right?

TC: Now, how does this open up perhaps some new directions for researching religion and non-religion in neuro-typicals? Because, as I understand it, your work primarily concerns individuals on the spectrum but it also, of course, has implications for people who are not on the spectrum.

IV: Yes. So first, when it comes to mentalising, cognitive research on mentalising, I think it’s important to think of that as a complex construct. It’s like a toolbox with different instruments that we can use in different manners. So first we have this difference between fast and intuitive processes, that I’ve been talking a lot about, and the slow and reflective processing. And then there is also the difference between emotional and cognitive empathy. So we sort-of have to elaborate with all these different mentalising aspects.

TC: Could I ask for an example between cognitive and more emotional empathy for our listeners? How are the two different?

IV: Yes. The emotional empathy is feeling what other people are feeling. So, for instance, if someone is sad you would become affected by that sadness, right? But the cognitive empathy is more in the head, so to speak. So for instance, if you’re nodding you would know that someone is still listening to you or you know you just get these little cues. Or someone’s frowning, for instance, then you can interpret that this is an emotional response going on. But it’s more in the cognitive level.

TC: Alright. And so then, how does this distinction relate to individuals on the spectrum and off the spectrum and belief in supernatural agents?

IV: Well I think . . . and my point is that this is for both autistic and non-autistic individuals. I think that we need to acknowledge that people use reflected thinking a lot more than has been expected in the Cognitive Science of Religion. For instance, non-autistic people might have intuitions about supernatural agency, but if you’re living in Sweden, for instance, it’s not the norm to be religious. We have a rather secular norm, so that means that you might discard your intuitions and search for another explanation. But also, in autistic people, I don’t really see that it should affect them so much that these intuitive responses are not there. Because they use these slow processes instead.

TC: So they’re not lacking the intuiting, certainly, but perhaps they’re a little bit different. And therefore they rely more on reflective-type thinking. As I understand, you’ve also crept into some interesting avenues with your research having to do with fantasy. I think you touched on imagination earlier. I was wondering if you could further elucidate how those might play into religiosity or non-religiosity, for those individuals on the spectrum (20:00).

IV: Well something that surprised me in my results was the majority of my autistic participants turned out to be fantasy-prone. And some of these fantasy-prone people, they’re gamers and some of them love fantasy fiction. But what’s common for all of them is that they switch between different realities. So they have their empirical reality which is quite fragmented and difficult and exhausting. And then they create their own imaginary realities which they switch into. And I suspect this is a kind of coping mechanism. So they create – with the help of their imagination – really interesting worlds that they fill with characters that might be influenced from religion and spirituality, but also fantasy fiction and popular culture. It could even be artists, you know, pop stars for instance. And they have these worlds, and they interact with all these characters in a sense that reminds me a lot about how cognitive research describes interaction with superhuman agents.

TC: Really? Ok.

IV: So I think this is something that we need to look into. That if mentalising is used, and it’s a non-human agent, I think that’s equivalent to the study of gods and spirits and ancestors, which is more traditional. And I also think this is relevant for younger generations. This is something really interesting to look into.

TC: I know on the Religious Studies Project we usually pride ourselves in challenging traditional conceptualisations of the category of religion. And of course, supernatural agents as well. And what I’m hearing is that some of your work does just that, as well as, perhaps, the Cognitive Science of Religion in general. And I think we can certainly expect it to open up some exciting new avenues for religious agents as they are traditionally understood: perhaps, maybe, the magic of Harry Potter; or massive multi-player online gaming; and all these other types of fantastical imaginative agents that people seem to engage with on a daily basis, but perhaps don’t think of as religious or spiritual.

IV: I totally agree with you and, for instance, one of my participants who describes himself as a Christian, he also says that he’s totally into Harry Potter. And until he was 14 years old, he literally believed that there were unicorns. And now that he’s older he says that, “Well, I don’t believe in them in the ontological sense any more, but they’re still with me and I fantasise a lot about them. And when I’m fantasising it becomes real for me.” And I think this is also something that we risk missing out on, if we don’t do these explorative studies, if we just hold onto scales and questionnaires that have always been used. Because many of my participants might describe themselves . . . well, you know. It’s not that they believe in God and they don’t go to Church, but they still experience a lot of interesting things that they interpret: it’s spirits; or ghosts; or demons; or then you have these fictional characters, as well, that they interact with on a daily basis.

TC: And it seems like an even further challenge to the notion of belief: what it means to believe, or whether belief is important – as we often think it is – if there are all these various other imaginative fantasy religious agents that perhaps people wouldn’t say that they believe in per se, but interact with, engage with perhaps emotionally, in a number of manners. So it’s very interesting. So, just wrapping up here, I was hoping, if you felt we had left anything out of this podcast, or if you had any closing words, or some take-away points for the listeners: anything else you’d like to discuss with us today about your researching the field.

IV: I think I would like to return to your previous comment. I think that when we’re researching belief it’s very easy to end up in these ontological categories (25:00). It’s like a statement: is it true? Is it not? It’s like a number of things that you need to sort-of hold on to or reject. But this is not interesting for the people that I have interviewed. They start from their own experience. And I think the body’s important here: that you feel, you know, that you have a sensed presence of a ghost, for instance. And these sensed presences they turn into some kind of notion of what’s going on in invisible agency. But they don’t depart from, you know, thinking; “Is it true, or is it not, that there are ghosts?” Because it’s not interesting for them, because they experience them. So I think that experience is the really interesting analytical category that we could use a lot more in the Cognitive Science of Religions.

TC: Awesome. I think that’s a good note to end on. Ingela Visuri thank you very much for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project.

IV: Thanks Tommy.

TC: I want to remind our listeners, be sure to check out some of the previous podcasts that are closely related to today’s topics. I’ll include some links in the description, such as interviews with Dr Will Gervais, on God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind, and also with Dr Stuart Guthrie on Religion as Anthropomorphism. So thank you all for listening.

Citation Info: Visuri, Ingela, and Thomas J. Coleman III. 2018. “Autism, Religion and Imagination”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 31 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/autism-religion-and-imagination/

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