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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Logics of Bricolage Reconsidered: A Cognitive Approach to Individuals and Their Constraints

An Important Intervention

Veronique Altglas is to be commended for her intervention into the contemporary academic discussions and (often uncritical) usage of the concept of bricolage. As she rightly suggests, the naïve view that the acts of cultural improvisation of a modern bricoleur are unconstrained and unlimited by anything beyond the free and willful activity of his or her own individual whims is long overdue for retirement. And, in the wake of her efforts, one certainly hopes that the analytic appeal to such a naïve sense of radical cognitive autonomy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

However, I must admit that I do wonder to what degree such an extreme view ever actually had a significant conceptual hold over sociological analysis in the first place. Throughout her interview, Altglas is very careful to emphasize that, of course, bricoleurs cannot be so extravagantly free in their acts of picking and mixing among cultural representations because, after all, not all cultural resources are available to them. This is both an important intervention and, simultaneously, a rather obvious and nearly tautological point: people cannot pick from, or mix with, resources that are not available to them. One wonders if there were ever actually any scholars who would have argued otherwise, or who have genuinely suggested that cultural context plays no role whatsoever in the syncretic activities of modern bricoleurs.

Even Thomas Luckmann, who Altglas uses as her go-to example of a sociologist who supposedly endorses this radically individualistic stance, doesn’t really express such an extreme view as the one that Altglas uses as her foil. She quotes Luckmann as having said that, in the case of contemporary bricoleurs, “anything goes,” and suggests this view as indicative of a position that holds the creative powers of the bricoleur to be “unlimited.” However, in the very sentence that Altglas is quoting, Luckmann, himself, characterizes his claim as little more than a suggestive “exaggeration” (Luckmann 1979, 136; cited in Altglas 2014, 2). In fact, what Luckmann had in mind here seems to be precisely the same point that Altglas herself eventually comes around to in the final portion of her RSP interview: When religious organizations begin to lose their hold as authoritative interpreters of available cultural representations, especially in a context of easy access to a large and highly diverse spectrum of informational resources, this can result in a situation, as Dr. Altglas seems to agree, in which, due to a context of “religious deregulation in modern societies,” as she puts it, “a dimension of choice and diversity” becomes a relevant factor in analyzing the types of constraints on, as well as, I would add, the types of empowerments toward, bricolage that are present in this kind of institutionally deregulated social environment

A Further Appeal to the Individual as a Relevant Level of Analysis

This response, then, is not so much a defense of the scholarly value of the concept of bricolage, as I am not particularly invested in its use. This is, however, a defense of the academic interest in the individual, which I take to be inclusive of the variety of ways that the activities of individuals are constrained, or not, in any given context. It is an insistence that all macro-scale social phenomena are composed of a large number of micro-scale processes among individual humans. To that degree, it is important to notice that while, indeed, all acts of bricolage are constrained, they are certainly not all equally constrained and, indeed, some contexts may encourage bricolage while others might act, relatively speaking, to diminish its occurrence. There are always, in any act of cultural improvisation, a unique array of factors which go into determining whether any particular representation will be chosen as the tool for a particular job at a particular time by a particular individual. However, Altglas’ analysis would seem to overemphasize the importance of external, social factors and, as a result, downplays other significant, internal, cognitive factors that are inevitably in play during any act of bricolage. Indeed, Dan Sperber has emphasized that,

“[t]hough which factors will contribute to the explanation of a particular strain of representations cannot be decided in advance, in every case, some of the factors to be considered will be psychological, and some will be environmental or ecological (taking the environment to begin at the individual organism’s nerve endings and to include, for each organism, all the organisms it interacts with)” (Sperber 1996, 84).

To the extent that it is, indeed, true that scholars have tended to ignore what Sperber calls the environmental or ecological factors that influence the reception, retention, and further conceptual utilization of available cultural representations, Altglas’ attempt to bring environmental factors, such as nationality or economic class, back into focus is an important correction to an analytic oversight. It is also important, however, to insist that she be careful not to pull too far in the other direction toward an equally lopsided type of analysis which leaves the mental or psychological factors largely unconsidered. Since, as Sperber notes, both will be present in every case, when a potential bricoleur encounters a cultural representation, both psychological and environmental factors need to be considered when analyzing constraints on, and empowerments toward, the utilization of that representation for an act of bricolage.

Potentially pertinent psychological factors include the ease with which a particular representation can be memorized, the existence of background knowledge in relationship to which the representation is relevant, and a motivation to communicate the content of the representation. Ecological factors, include the recurrence of situations in which the representation gives rise to, or contributes to, appropriate action, the availability of external memory stores (writing in particular), and the existence of institutions engaged in the transmission of the representation” (Sperber 1996, 84).

But, where does that leave us? To my reading, it leaves us with quite a wide spectrum of potential degrees of constraint on the abilities of individuals to pick and mix cultural representations. Are there some contexts in which such constraints are more oppressive toward innovation than others? Are there, on the contrary, some contexts in which interpretive freedom is relatively more unconstrained? Does the relevant question, then, become not simply ‘when is bricolage taking place’, but, rather, to what degree is the density and regularity of the practice of bricolage itself encouraged or constrained by different psycho-socio-cultural contexts?

Individualism and Organizations: On the Selection of Case Studies

I will look forward with anticipation toward the studies that Altglas has signaled that she is interested in pursuing in the future. I think that analyses of “bricolage in more conservative religious settings” or in “in messianic congregations” might provide important accounts of exactly to what degree institutional settings might constrain (or even empower) certain acts of bricolage. I would argue, however, that ultimately, as important as such studies will inevitably be, they cannot adequately address the question that Altglas most seems to want to address, which is the issue of religious individualism. I fear that in her eagerness to debunk Sheilaism, Altglas has failed to select representative case studies for her analysis. Given an attempt to investigate radical individualism, the choice to undertake that examination through the sociological analysis of religious organizations (Altglas’ study is based on fieldwork among Siddha Yoga and Sivananda Centers and the Kabbalah Center) that are rooted in particular cultural traditions would seem to obviate any serious chance at arriving at the desired conclusions. It is simply an analysis of the wrong data. In the introduction to her book, Altglas attempts to account for this oversight but, ultimately, her mea culpa does not overcome the problem.

“The readers might wonder why these case studies in particular have been selected. For a start, new religious movements (NRMs), as circumscribed groups with a specific teaching, represent good settings to the production and appropriation of religious resources. These processes in less ‘formative’ (Wood 2009) environments, such as those designated New Age, are more diffuse and therefore less easy to study” (Altglas 2014, 19).

In other words, the very populations that would be most appropriate to a study of religious individualism are here claimed to be too difficult to study, precisely because they are so individualistic and lack a central organizational hub from which to launch the study. Now, don’t get me wrong, as someone who spends his time studying these ‘non-formative’ communities of discourse, I am well aware that what she says is true. It can certainly be much more difficult to systematically study a decentralized milieu than to study a centrally-organized group with a more clearly delineated membership (though it certainly need not be inherently more difficult to do so—I’m quite sure that I’ve had more success with analyzing many of my decentered populations of interest than others have had getting access to, for instance, the inner realms of Scientology). For those of us who have spent quite a lot of time and effort investigating such ‘non-formative’ milieus, however, Altglas’ justification for her selection of case studies is not likely to be satisfying, when we note that the materials that we specialize in are shrugged off so effortlessly, as though that omission were, in the end, unlikely to actually inform the conclusions drawn from the study. In that sense, Altglas has provided us a particularly intriguing analysis of the of the constraints on activities of bricolage among members of the movements that she has studied, but, in order to corroborate her broader arguments against considerations of more radically individual combinatory practices, a study is still needed of the right kinds of case studies to address those issues, and that has not been accomplished here.

This discrepancy becomes clear in some of Altglas’ comments during the interview. For instance, she describes a potential bricoleur “doing a bit of yoga and then, perhaps, after two or three years, deciding that meditation is better.” This hardly sounds like the kind of highly individualized bricolage that we would be interested in so much as it appears to be an instance of serial participation in different activities. This seems miles apart from the types of improvisational cultural combinations that I would want to study in terms of bricolage or anything that might be considered a pronounced variety of individualism. If we really want to look at the types of bricolage that many of the scholars that Altglas critiques are actually interested in, we’d want to look at people creating websites which lay out their beliefs that link, for instance, Jesus’ last words on the cross, the Mayan calendar, Atlantis, Freemasonry, the electric telegraph, Vedic astrology, UFOs, the secret government, the Galactic Federation of Light, and the psychoactive properties of the pineal gland into some sort of ‘cohesive’ narrative that makes sense to them (at some point in time). There are millions of people like this out there in the world who don’t actively participate in centrally-organized religious communities, who don’t have a local group of peers to share metaphysical discourse with, and who develop their views primarily through reading books, participating in online forums, listening to music, watching YouTube, and the like. These individuals, too, are, of course, not unlimited in their improvisational capabilities. They also only have certain cultural resources available to them. They exist in a certain kind of society that instills certain kinds of values. Nonetheless, many of these individuals are significantly less constrained in their acts of bricolage than many others who explore religious themes only in the context of an established community or from within a particularly restrictive national setting (e.g. North Korea). Indeed, many of these individuals exist in social contexts that actually empower them to participate in copious acts of bricolage. The outlook of the Perennial Philosophy, in particular, which sees all religious traditions as equally fair game for religious inspiration as they are all taken as access points to a single, universal truth, dominates contemporary alternative spirituality, and, in many ways, actually demands those who adopt such a viewpoint to become rampant bricoleurs. While these modern bricoleurs still face very real and very important constraints, it is pertinent for scholars to take note of the ways in which their acts of bricolage are undertaken in a more highly individualized manner than is common in many more traditional, institutional religious settings. The question then should not be simply whether or not individuals are free or constrained in their combinatory endeavors, but rather how free or constrained they are in any given context and, thus, precisely how individualistic they are being. In the final analysis, all constraints are certainly not equal.

References

Altglas, Veronique. 2014. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luckmann, Thomas. 1979. “The Structural Conditions of Religious Consciousness in Modern Societies.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6, pp. 121-137.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

Postsecular, like postmodern, is a title applied to phenomena in society that do not seem fit into an earlier paradigm and has thus been named post-something because it perhaps is not yet visible what comes next. It is an end of an era but also a shift towards another and has the academic world digging out all the blind spots of the earlier theories, suddenly noticing a variety of things that weren’t perceived before. The secularisation theories saw traditional institutionalised religion slowly disappearing: less people in churches, less belief in God and more non-Christians answering surveys. When the shift arrived this time, it was noted that religion is not disappearing. Secularisation was defined in less all-inclusive ways – or even as a minority phenomenon of the educated elite, as Peter Berger saw it (eg. Berger: 2002: p. 291–294.) – and new theories appeared. Only, now the question became ‘how is religion changing’ instead of ‘how is religion disappearing’.

Gray mentions 9/11 as an example of how religiosity has become very visible in the political sphere. Another, less grim, example is the various new religious movements that seek to establish a presence in politics through challenging the hegemony of traditional churches in a very peculiar way. I am referring especially to the Pastafarians in Europe and the US, the Kopimists in Sweden, and the Satanists in Oklahoma. These groups have very different religious views, but what they have in common is that they were born after the World Wars and have received some attention in the media due to their critique of the social definition of religion. I do not want to entirely omit all the pagan and other movements that have a similar agenda, but what I see as a connection between these three examples are their recent public campaigns seeking legitimation through invoking laws on religious equality.

Whether you are a Pastafarian demanding to wear a colander for your driver’s license or wearing it while taking your oath of office, a Kopimist seeking to register your religious community sacralizing file sharing on the Internet, or a Satanist wishing to publicly announce the love of Baphomet or to have your kids in school taught the Satanist way, the officials and courts of several countries have had to deal with your religious interpretations. Making claims for religious equality while maintaining close connections between the state and the Christian Churches has long been a point of cultural critique, especially in Europe (Eg. Martin: 2010). These movements, mentioned above, have put this message into action. For instance, Pastafarianism was born as a critique of the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Kansas. These movements have pretty much everything imaginable it takes to be a religion: holy books such as The Satanic Bible or the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; rituals and holy days such as the sharing of files for Kopimists, a Kopimist wedding, Satanic baptism, wedding and funeral, Pastafarian Talk Like a Pirate Day and Ramedan; and of course religious symbols.

BessieExt     220px-Kopimizm.svg

Spageti

 

Because religions are defined in books of law and scholars of religion have found many ways to classify religion (eg. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion) – none of which is explicit enough to include everything ‘commonly considered as religious’ and to exclude everything ‘not commonly considered as religious’ – these definitions can be used by the people to create their own sets of belief systems, to venerate their ideals, and to celebrate worldviews separate from the institutionalised churches that seem to have been the main focus of many theorists of religion. This focus on a specific type of religion was indeed one of the factors which gave rise to the secularisation theories.

Now, one may argue that some of the movements mentioned above have been created to celebrate secularisation and rationalisation of the world and merely to mock religiosity. However, it is not uncommon for such a ‘parody’ or critique to become more than just a joke. The Pastafarians in Poland and Finland have sought to be registered as a religious community. Both attempts, so far, having been declined. However, the Polish Pastafarians have had some more positive rulings from the Polish courts on the way, and both groups keep on fighting for recognition. The Kopimist community is registered as a religious community in Sweden, and the Satanists were organised as The Church of Satan already in the 1960’s. I believe the level of commitment has to be strong to some extent for a community to seek an official status as a religious community and to apply for bureaucratic legitimacy for their movement.

I am hesitant to use terms such as ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ in this context because of their vague connotations as definitive adjectives for religious practice. What is ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ religiosity? Is belonging without believing ‘meaningful’ and how does it differ from, for example, Pastafarian belonging? Is the Jewish holiday of Purim ‘serious’? Does the carnival atmosphere of it make Judaism less of a religion? I, myself, have been studying Discordianism, which is a very interesting example of how a group with critical or satirical origins can create profoundly life changing ideas, which could be viewed as religious or spiritual for even the creators of the movement (Mäkelä & Petsche: 2013).

No matter how we classify the movements stated above, their claims for religious rights within society (even a community of Finnish Discordians have their registration application on it’s way) show a certain meaning behind the rhetorics of religious equality. As Gray mentions in the podcast, postsecularism is in many ways about dealing with everyone: the religious, the atheists, the agnostics, and all the religious identities in between. It is not about trying to force religious speech into politics or trying to force it out of the public domain, like the secular discourse in many ways tried, it is about dealing with the fact that now we know religion is not disappearing.

References

Peter Berger: ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’ in Religions in the Modern World, ed. Linda Woodhead. 2002. Routledge, London.

Craig Martin: Masking Hegemony. 2010. Equinox, London.

Ninian Smart: The World’s Religions. 1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mäkelä & Petsche: ‘Serious Parody: Discordianism as Liquid Religion’ in Culture and Religion Journal Vol.14 Issue 4. 2013. Taylor & Francis Group.

The Interstices of Science and Religion

Science and religion are not ancient concepts. What we think of as inherently scientific today may have carried theological overtones in times past; what we conceive of as religious may have likewise found support in scientific circles. Both categories have emerged through complex and contradictory histories: not only have the ideas and practices associated with each shifted continually, but the very existence of the categories themselves is of relatively recent vintage.

In his interview with the RSP, Peter Harrison sketches out the basics of this historical argument. It’s an essential framework and one that Harrison has explained in far more detail elsewhere. And while we might hope for future elaboration in certain areas—perhaps a look at science as something constituted not only within “Europe” but on the borderlands and at points of encounter[1]—Harrison’s narrative offers a refreshing take on an issue too often staged as a tale of religious decline or scientific triumph.

Yet, though Harrison’s explanation of how science and religion emerged in the West as discrete categories is both rigorous and relevant—public conversation has yet to adopt a similar lens—I personally find the connections he begins to make at the end of the interview equally stimulating, if only perhaps because of their more speculative nature. Harrison takes on, among other things, the emphasis on big history in popular science and education. This is, for him, science attempting to fill the mythical and ethical gaps left after the decline of religion. Having exiled the supernatural, science finds itself left with the task of writing a modern genesis, or a liturgy for a secular age.

In the final installment of his 2010 Gifford Lectures, Harrison picks up on a similar theme. He wonders if science, having at last rid itself of its religious origins and influences, might need once again an infusion of spiritual energy. Without a continued interaction with religion, science lacks the motivating power to command much enthusiasm. Now, it’s easy to read this as a retelling of Einstein’s assertion that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” However, within the context of Harrison’s historical model—which rejects the type of essentializing statements that flaw Einstein’s commentary—the suggestion that science need turn to religion, however, reflects the sterility that comes from a hermetic discipline, one entirely closed off to the vital power of diverse conversations. In response to this, science, along with “big history,” works to author a new set of myths.

In that same lecture, Harrison talks about various members of the New Atheist movement. He reads several quotes: the language is technocratic, enthusiastic, and utopian. In a way, it blurs the lines between scientific and religious speech. Similar to the desire for new, logical creation myths, these visions of a future enriched by technological power seem almost eschatological. Yet while they do testify to a scientific turn to religious sources of ethical authority, they also, surprisingly, fit into what we might see as a tradition of scientific messianism and technological piety.

We might even understand this mingling of scientific and religious language as born at the start of the industrial age. Andrew Ure, a Scottish businessman and doctor, understood the place of Christianity and of the machine as extremely similar.[2] Religion and mechanization both shape the workers into a single force, a body undivided and unified. Here, however, we find not the unification of the mystical body of Christ, but rather the forging of a new entity imagined in both technical and theological registers.

More recent writers and artists have experienced the ambiguity between religious and scientific language in similar ways. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, for example, represents a document deeply imbued with themes at once theological and scientific. The protagonist, feverish, has multiple visions: the machine that powers the vast city becomes the demon Moloch, the agent of the oppressive state becomes a preacher, the statues that line the city’s cathedral become death. The automaton that wreaks havoc on the city is a prophet and a temptress; the safe haven of the rich is a technological Eden. This is in no way a simple theological critique of scientific production. It’s a window onto an anguished cosmology in which the bounds of science and religion are not fixed, and the anxieties of modern power continue to haunt and to frighten.[3]

A decade or so later, Simone Weil’s work pointed to a similar interaction. When she examines the factory, her language is predictably theological. But when she turns again to faith, she finds that the necessity of God is a “blind mechanism” and the indifference of the world is—metallic.[4] Not only does the power of scientific production take on a religious coloring; the experience of belief itself begins to change under the influence of mass production.

These three—a businessman, a director, and a writer—of course represent highly disparate and perhaps isolated figures. Moreover they each speak in conversation with a specific historical moment. Yet they also point to something deeper: a persistent collapsing of theological and mechanical language, an inability to adhere to these separate spheres. When Harrison notes the tendency of “big history” to resemble myth, when the New Atheists talk of the coming millennium, perhaps they reflect not only the ethical problem of secularized science, but also a tradition of writing and speaking that has continually stumbled as the modern categories of science and religion have hardened. Harrison’s narrative elegantly explains much of the contemporary “conflict” between science and religion. But it also points us towards new histories of the spaces in between these two reifications. It encourages us to look to how these categories were experienced, how they overlapped, and how they collapsed in moments of turmoil and danger. It gives us the foundation to explore not only the processes through which modern categories have come to be, but also to appreciate the figures who confound such processes and instead struggle to interpret the world through lenses at once intensely scientific and deeply theological.

[1] I’m thinking of, for example, the critique David Scott lays out in his comments on the study of Hegel and history. See David Scott, “Antinomies of Slavery, Enlightenment, and Universal History,” Small Axe 33.13.3 (November 2010): 152-162.

[2] See Andrew Ure, Philosophy of Manufactures (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969); EP Thompson, “The Transforming Power of the Cross,” in The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966).

[3] For more on the various anxieties expressed in Metropolis, see Andreas Huyssen, “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” New German Critique 24/25 (Autum 1981 – Winter 1982): 221-237.

[4] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Perennial, 1951), 73.

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.

Beyond Maps: Eoin O’Mahony’s Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

Eoin O’Mahony’s work reflects a growing and consolidating movement in the Geography discipline over the last 15 years, which after a history of stops and starts, has made significant progress in attempting to understand spatiality of religion. This movement has moved away from ontological assumptions of sacred and profane space (Eliade, 1957) and the privileging of the institutional manifestations of religion over informal and often non-representational forms of spirituality (summarised in Park, 1994): Geographies that privileged institutional, regional and national structures of religion at the expense of the local and personal scales. In an assessment of the field, Kong (2001) observed the movement towards understanding the construction and consumption of sacred space (for example Chidester and Linenthal, 1995) and called for a shift in focus to the informal and unofficial geographies of religion, challenging the narratives of global secularisation. This call paralleled a shift in focus within more sociologically orientated studies in religion towards ‘the spiritual revolution’ (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005) and an observed disconnect between forms of institutional belonging and popular beliefs (see Davie, 1994). In the wake of this work, Knott (2005) developed a spatial methodology for the investigation of religion, locating and defining the boundaries between religious and secular discourses within everyday life, practice and representation. Her methodology, drawing on Henri Lefebvre, reveals the religious within secular space through investigating how a space is promoted to users, how it is used by these people and how this space holds together both of these abstract and practical images. And this is where we find O’Mahony’s work.

In the interview, O’Mahony examines how contestation between the religious and the secular in Ireland unfolds ‘in particular places in particular ways’, with this tension manifesting in three case studies: (1) A series of Marion statues dispersed around Dublin; (2) the (annual) pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Country Mayo; (3) and the contestation between State and Church for the provision of primary school education in Ireland. Throughout these sites, religious and secular discourses make claims upon the space yet neither can fully establish themselves over the other. The Marion statues of Dublin are neither owned by the Church nor by local authorities yet they exhibit a concrete presence, informally and unofficially recognised in the landscape design of the parks they often inhabit as well as being reflected in the behaviour of those who used the park. Croagh Patrick is framed as a pilgrimage site to believers and promoted as a site for health, fitness and outdoor recreation to non-religious visitors. Finally, the case of primary schools in Ireland thrusts the issue of contestation between a secularising State power and that of the Church in the public arena with the recent political concern ‘to take religion out of schools’. Throughout these case studies, religious and secular discourses are found to compete, contest and co-habit with each other, providing distinct channels for the making of place through investing meaning and significance into a space.

A main theme underlying O’Mahony’s case studies in this interview is an exploration of the secular project to modify, regulate and moderate locality, including its religious ties, in order to decontextualise and universalise. He astutely criticises a discourse in which a linear progression assumes religious places are those spaces that have not yet been secularised; that secular ideas contest, replace and subordinate the religious within space without resistance. As he argues, religious places are not waiting to be secularised but exist inside and outside of public, secular space. Moreover, the local and contingent daily practices and behaviours of people produce meaning that is integral to the making of place for these inhabitants. As with other confrontations between the local and the global, we should be aware of the delocalising effect of attempts to remove religion from public spaces and the consequences this process has for those who dwell and invest meaning within these spaces.

In addition to this focus on the making of place through daily and recurrent religious practices, I would be keen to see further work on the multi-directional projection of this travel to include the channels in which this secular discourse are also resisted, partially resisted and appropriated by the actors present within a place. Linda Woodhead’s (2012) call for an awareness of both strategic and tactical scales of religion in everyday life, recognising the increasing influence of Michel de Certeau in the study of Religion and Geography is useful here. Everyday tactical practices are those, often unrepresented or non-representable, that enable the actor to manipulate the strategic practices of dominant hegemonies and discourse. The entangled nature of religion and the secular in public space is well illustrated in O’Mahony’s interview and it would be interesting in future research to hear more of the individual voices within these case studies as well as the competing public discourses and claims for these spaces.

With these case studies O’Mahony has neatly illustrated the potential of the geographic approach in drawing out the contestations, tensions and synergies of competing religious and secular voices in public and private spaces. His interview has provided an insight into the complex, multiple layers of space within which religion and the secular co-habit and interact in an Irish context, proving a value to the geographic approach beyond mapping material distributions of religious phenomena.

References:

Chidester, D. and Linenthal, E.T., eds. (1995) American Sacred Space. Bloomington: Indian University Press.

Davie, G. (1994) Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eliade, M. (1957) The Sacred and the Profane. New York; London: Harcourt Books.

Heelas, P. and Woodhead, L. (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Knott, K. (2005) The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London; Oakville: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Kong, L. (2001) Mapping ‘new’ geographies of religion: politics and poetics in modernity Progress in Human Geography. 25 pp.211-233.

Park, C.C. (1994) Sacred Worlds: An Introduction to Geography and Religion. London: Routledge.

Woodhead, L., ed. (2012) Strategic and Tactical Religion. University of Edinburgh, 10th May 2012. Religion and Society: Sacred Practices of Everyday Life Conference.

Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

The island of Ireland has, over the past weeks and months, become the site for a number of Religious Studies Project events, from our recent podcasts on Religion and Memory and The Emerging Church, to Chris’s recent gig representing the RSP at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference. And there is plenty more to come in the coming weeks as well. But what about the island itself?

Statue of the Virgin Mary in Dublin City. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Statue of the Virgin Mary in Dublin City. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

Many of us might have some notion of what ‘religion’ might mean in Ireland, but as Chris quickly discovered when speaking with Eoin O’Mahony for this week’s interview, these notions are far from the full picture. In this broad-ranging interview, O’Mahony eruditely demonstrates what geography can bring to the academic study of ‘religion’ and presents Ireland as a fascinating context within which to examine processes of boundary-making between the contested constructs of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’. After taking listeners through a sweeping history of ‘religion’ in Ireland, O’Mahony then discusses the contextual politics of studying ‘religion’ in Ireland before exploring three different contestations over ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ place-making in Ireland.

Bubble-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Bubble-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

The first of these case studies concerns the maintenance practices at statues of the Virgin Mary sited on public land in Dublin city. Second, discussion turns to place-making relations at sites of pilgrimage performance. And finally, Eoin focuses upon Catholic primary schools as political sites where children are ‘made’ both as ‘Catholics’ and as ‘citizens’. Through this detailed substantive and theoretical discussion, O’Mahony presents the local and particular as a challenge to dominant  and simplistic sociological narratives of ‘secularization’, problematizes simplistic divides between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, and contributes to a ‘decolonization’ of the ‘secular’ – and the study of ‘religion’ more broadly. We even manage to include a discussion of Father Ted.

Eoin maintains a blog concerning his ongoing academic journey entitled “53 degrees“, and has recently published an article entitled The Problem with Drawing Lines – Theo-geographies of the Catholic Parish in Ireland in the Journal of the Irish Association for the Academic Study of Religions. He is hoping to single-handedly break the hegemony of precarious academic labour by tweeting at @ownohmanny.

If you found this podcast interesting, you might also be interested in our previous interviews with Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality, Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism, and Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment. 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, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

Pilgrimage in Ireland. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Pilgrimage in Ireland. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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.

 

Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door. Though I had just moved to Germany and just begun to study German, I knew what they were saying. “Bible” is the same in German and English and I knew the word for the verb, “to read.” Also they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t there to borrow sugar. I understood. But I lied.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I only speak English.” It was a great excuse.

A week later, two more Witnesses came to my door. “You want to read the Bible?” they said. “You want to know God’s plan for human happiness?”

Their English was great.

Of course it was. As a religion that prioritizes proselytization, Witnesses put tremendous effort into reaching people who are different than themselves. They translate their message linguistically and culturally. They don’t expect to be accommodated in conversation; they accommodate.

There has been much theorizing under the heading of “post-secular” about the problem of religious participation in public discourse. For the religious to speak to those who do not share their ontological presuppositions, it is said, in public discussions in pluralistic, democratic societies, it must be necessary for there to be a reformulation of religious arguments into publicly accessible, this-world terms. This is a very literal case of that problem. Yet it illustrates, if nothing else, that there might be a problem with framing the matter of religious people dialoguing with those who do not share their religion as a “problem.”

As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains the problem, religious language can be allowed into the public sphere, but only on certain conditions: “The truth contents of religious contributions can enter into the institutionalized practice of deliberation and decision-making only when the necessary translation already occurs in the pre-parliamentarian domain, i.e. in the political public sphere itself … citizens of faith may make public contributions in their own religious language only subject to the translation proviso” (Between Naturalism and Religion 131-32). They cannot, that is, just appeal to divine authority when they come to your door or come to the public square. They cannot just invoke revelation. What is sacred to them must be re-conceived in reasoned discourse as secular. This burden of “translation” has been central to talk of the post-secular, and also to Habermas’ noted post-secular turn.

However, because this theoretical conceptualization frames translation as a problem, it misses how, in common practice, religious people do speak.

Sociologist Michelle Dillon makes a similar (but not identical) critique of Habermas and the post-secular in her interview with the Religious Studies Project. She notes that in his earlier work on communicative action, Habermas didn’t speak of religious participation in public discourse, implicitly excluding it. In his more recent work, with his turn to the post-secular, Habermas corrects this. He acknowledges that religious reasoning does have a place in pluralist democracies, and yet that toleration still has limits. “Habermas was saying, let’s reassess how we have often marginalized religion,” Dillon says. “But on further reading of Habermas . . . while he’s bringing religion back in, into the public sphere, he’s doing so very much in a Habermasian way.”

According to Dillon, one problem with Habermasian toleration of religion is that it only allows for a very narrow definition of religion. Religion is only acceptable, publicly, when it exhibits a “high rationality.” In this way, he is still excluding a lot of religious reasoning and barring many religious people from public discourse. If someone’s religion is emotional, or traditional, or grounded in personal experience, it is disallowed. Though he sounds like he’s pushing for an act of inclusion — against, for example, “the blinkered enlightenment which is unenlightened about itself and which denies religion any rational content” (An Awareness of What is Missing 18) — it is also an act of exclusion.

This critique can usefully be pushed further.

It seems right that, as Dillon says, the burden of translation is exclusionary. More than that, though, the translation proviso makes exclusion the default. Religious citizens are kept out of the public discourse, unless and until they can prove their reasoning is sufficiently translated. The onus is on them. The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith.

But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem?

Dillon, in her work, has looked at Catholic bishop’s arguments against legalizing divorce in Ireland. She found that the bishops made sociological claims about the effects of divorce on women, children, and society. They did not just invoke their own authority, nor rely on Catholic moral teaching. Even though most Irish were Catholics, the arguments made by the bishops on this matter were public, secular arguments, entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” (539-593).

Similarly, in the United States, many religious citizens have organized to oppose same-sex marriage. Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups have stated that they want to “defend traditional marriage,” and that their religious beliefs commit them to that position. However, when one looks at the legal briefs filed by religious groups in the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, for example, one doesn’t find mainly religious arguments. One finds religious groups making sociological arguments about the importance of traditional marriage and the probable consequences of changing that. The debate is about what the contested law would and wouldn’t do. Whether or not one agrees, all the purportedly religious arguments are quite intelligible from a non-religious perspective.

It’s not even clear that it would be right to speak of these religious forays into public discourse as involving “translation.” The idea that divorce in Ireland or same-sex marriage in the United States will hurt families is not the secular equivalent of a religious idea. The sense, rather, is that religious teachings are relevant to human flourishing. To the extent that the wider public shares those conceptions of human flourishing, the arguments are intelligible.

This too can be pushed further: Even when religious people do explicitly invoke an authority that is not generally accepted, that doesn’t, in practice, mean that those arguments cannot be understood. Dillon has found that pro-change Catholics use theological arguments to claim their legitimate social identity. “The Catholics I had studied,” she says, “were clearly grounding their emancipatory claims for greater equality within religious reasoning. And it was the sort of reasoning that would appeal or could persuade people who were Catholic or not Catholic.” The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ more controversial practice of rejecting blood transfusion. While the argument is religious — blood is connected to the soul— it is not unintelligible to those who don’t share the presuppositions of Witnesses. To the general public, these claims seem wrong, but not radically indecipherable.

Habermas, even after his new openness to the religious, holds that religious reasoning is entirely different from and incomprehensible to non-religious reasoning. He writes that “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged” (An Awareness of What is Missing: 17). This is empirically wrong. Perhaps Habermas hasn’t seen such bridges, but they are quite common.

Religious people regularly enter into conversations with those from other religions as well as those with no religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door speaking English are good examples. They wanted to talk about God’s plan for a happy life. Their speech was, to use a Habermasian word, verständigungsorientiert. That is to say, it was oriented toward understanding (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 1).

The Witness’ speech, in fact, was a communicative action. It did all of the things that Habermas’ earlier work explains that communicative action is supposed to do. It was based on the four pragmatic presuppositions necessary to communication, “the shared presupposition of a world of independently existing objects, the reciprocal presupposition of rationality or ‘accountability,’ the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims such as truth and moral rightness, and the demanding presuppositions of argumentation” (Between Naturalism and Religion: 28). It was, as argumentation, also grounded in the presuppositions of Habermasian rational discourse: publicity and inclusivity, equality, truthfulness, and the absence of coercion (Ibid: 50, 82). Though he might not have recognized it, the Witnesses are a good example of what Habermas has described as the embodiment of reason in everyday communicative practice (Ibid: 25).

Habermas’ ideas about the communicative action, then, usefully counter the so-called translation “problem” of the post-secular public sphere. These religious arguments are part of the normal spectrum of speech, and thus participate in the same normative conditions. To quote Habermas, “one can say that the general and unavoidable—in this sense transcendental—conditions of possible understanding have a normative content when one has in mind not only the binding character of norms of action or even the binding character of rules in general, but the validity basis of speech across its entire spectrum” (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 2).

To assume that translation will be a significant problem is to assume that religious people’s religious communication is not fundamentally verständigungsorientiert, not oriented toward understanding. But of course it is. For, as one can learn from Habermas, that orientation is internal to the structure of communication.

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dillon suggests that Habermas is a great and underused resource. Thinking about religious people in dialogue with those who don’t share their beliefs is an example of how this is true. For those in religious studies, the problems and the potential of Habermas’ thought can serve as a starting place to ask about the kinds of arguments religious people are using in public reasoning and what frameworks they are using to legitimate their views.

Thinking with and against Habermas in this way can also, if nothing else, serve to correct the mistaken assumptions one makes when coming up with excuses not to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

 Bibliography

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

——. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen, et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard, 2007.

An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

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

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

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

1.     Watched people are nice people

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

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete

 

Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

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

 

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

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

 

Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

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

 

Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

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

 

Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

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

 

Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

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

 

Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

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

 

Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

“First came the temple, then the city” –Klaus Schmidt

The above quotation from archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (Norenzayan, 2013) provides a succinct way of phrasing a provocative thesis that has been proposed in the sciences. That is to say, and from this point of view, that religion was not merely a result of the transformation from a hunter-gather lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural, domicile based life – it was the very catalyst. Or, as Norenzayan puts it, “religion transformed cooperation and conflict”.

hunter-gatherers

Hunter-gatherers

Archaeological sites such as Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, tell scientists a lot about the priorities of humans with the retreat of the last Ice Age – the Gods demanded worship. This claim, which puts ‘religion’ first in the development of ‘society’, is the result of interpretations of data such as Gobekli Tepe that suggest that Homo sapiens were interested in building places of worship before they were interested in building permanent homes and domesticating livestock (see Schmidt, 2000).

Scottish Philosopher David Hume espoused a view that situated religion not in the realm of the supernatural, but in the natural, arising from the inclinations and dispositions of the human mind. Sociologist Emile Durkheim conceptualized religion’s primary function as a social glue that binds individuals together through the establishment of do’s and don’t’s which acted as credible and authoritative sources which enabled the flourishing and maintenance of society. In his book Big Gods, Norenzayan combines both of these prior views with evidential support from various scientific disciplines.

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Ara Norenzayan begins by posing an interesting question. How do we explain the transition from small, tight-knit communities (the norm from a historical perspective) to the large-scale societies we know today? In answering this question Norenzayan puts the idea of Big Gods front and center, Big Gods being those that are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and act as moralizing agents. Norenzayan then covers what he labels as “The Eight Principles of Big Gods” (Norenzayan, 2013), and closes by presenting an interesting analogy, placing many of the modern secular institutions we have today (e.g. police departments and governments) in the role previously occupied solely by religion.

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References:

  • Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.

 References:

Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

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.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Logics of Bricolage Reconsidered: A Cognitive Approach to Individuals and Their Constraints

An Important Intervention

Veronique Altglas is to be commended for her intervention into the contemporary academic discussions and (often uncritical) usage of the concept of bricolage. As she rightly suggests, the naïve view that the acts of cultural improvisation of a modern bricoleur are unconstrained and unlimited by anything beyond the free and willful activity of his or her own individual whims is long overdue for retirement. And, in the wake of her efforts, one certainly hopes that the analytic appeal to such a naïve sense of radical cognitive autonomy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

However, I must admit that I do wonder to what degree such an extreme view ever actually had a significant conceptual hold over sociological analysis in the first place. Throughout her interview, Altglas is very careful to emphasize that, of course, bricoleurs cannot be so extravagantly free in their acts of picking and mixing among cultural representations because, after all, not all cultural resources are available to them. This is both an important intervention and, simultaneously, a rather obvious and nearly tautological point: people cannot pick from, or mix with, resources that are not available to them. One wonders if there were ever actually any scholars who would have argued otherwise, or who have genuinely suggested that cultural context plays no role whatsoever in the syncretic activities of modern bricoleurs.

Even Thomas Luckmann, who Altglas uses as her go-to example of a sociologist who supposedly endorses this radically individualistic stance, doesn’t really express such an extreme view as the one that Altglas uses as her foil. She quotes Luckmann as having said that, in the case of contemporary bricoleurs, “anything goes,” and suggests this view as indicative of a position that holds the creative powers of the bricoleur to be “unlimited.” However, in the very sentence that Altglas is quoting, Luckmann, himself, characterizes his claim as little more than a suggestive “exaggeration” (Luckmann 1979, 136; cited in Altglas 2014, 2). In fact, what Luckmann had in mind here seems to be precisely the same point that Altglas herself eventually comes around to in the final portion of her RSP interview: When religious organizations begin to lose their hold as authoritative interpreters of available cultural representations, especially in a context of easy access to a large and highly diverse spectrum of informational resources, this can result in a situation, as Dr. Altglas seems to agree, in which, due to a context of “religious deregulation in modern societies,” as she puts it, “a dimension of choice and diversity” becomes a relevant factor in analyzing the types of constraints on, as well as, I would add, the types of empowerments toward, bricolage that are present in this kind of institutionally deregulated social environment

A Further Appeal to the Individual as a Relevant Level of Analysis

This response, then, is not so much a defense of the scholarly value of the concept of bricolage, as I am not particularly invested in its use. This is, however, a defense of the academic interest in the individual, which I take to be inclusive of the variety of ways that the activities of individuals are constrained, or not, in any given context. It is an insistence that all macro-scale social phenomena are composed of a large number of micro-scale processes among individual humans. To that degree, it is important to notice that while, indeed, all acts of bricolage are constrained, they are certainly not all equally constrained and, indeed, some contexts may encourage bricolage while others might act, relatively speaking, to diminish its occurrence. There are always, in any act of cultural improvisation, a unique array of factors which go into determining whether any particular representation will be chosen as the tool for a particular job at a particular time by a particular individual. However, Altglas’ analysis would seem to overemphasize the importance of external, social factors and, as a result, downplays other significant, internal, cognitive factors that are inevitably in play during any act of bricolage. Indeed, Dan Sperber has emphasized that,

“[t]hough which factors will contribute to the explanation of a particular strain of representations cannot be decided in advance, in every case, some of the factors to be considered will be psychological, and some will be environmental or ecological (taking the environment to begin at the individual organism’s nerve endings and to include, for each organism, all the organisms it interacts with)” (Sperber 1996, 84).

To the extent that it is, indeed, true that scholars have tended to ignore what Sperber calls the environmental or ecological factors that influence the reception, retention, and further conceptual utilization of available cultural representations, Altglas’ attempt to bring environmental factors, such as nationality or economic class, back into focus is an important correction to an analytic oversight. It is also important, however, to insist that she be careful not to pull too far in the other direction toward an equally lopsided type of analysis which leaves the mental or psychological factors largely unconsidered. Since, as Sperber notes, both will be present in every case, when a potential bricoleur encounters a cultural representation, both psychological and environmental factors need to be considered when analyzing constraints on, and empowerments toward, the utilization of that representation for an act of bricolage.

Potentially pertinent psychological factors include the ease with which a particular representation can be memorized, the existence of background knowledge in relationship to which the representation is relevant, and a motivation to communicate the content of the representation. Ecological factors, include the recurrence of situations in which the representation gives rise to, or contributes to, appropriate action, the availability of external memory stores (writing in particular), and the existence of institutions engaged in the transmission of the representation” (Sperber 1996, 84).

But, where does that leave us? To my reading, it leaves us with quite a wide spectrum of potential degrees of constraint on the abilities of individuals to pick and mix cultural representations. Are there some contexts in which such constraints are more oppressive toward innovation than others? Are there, on the contrary, some contexts in which interpretive freedom is relatively more unconstrained? Does the relevant question, then, become not simply ‘when is bricolage taking place’, but, rather, to what degree is the density and regularity of the practice of bricolage itself encouraged or constrained by different psycho-socio-cultural contexts?

Individualism and Organizations: On the Selection of Case Studies

I will look forward with anticipation toward the studies that Altglas has signaled that she is interested in pursuing in the future. I think that analyses of “bricolage in more conservative religious settings” or in “in messianic congregations” might provide important accounts of exactly to what degree institutional settings might constrain (or even empower) certain acts of bricolage. I would argue, however, that ultimately, as important as such studies will inevitably be, they cannot adequately address the question that Altglas most seems to want to address, which is the issue of religious individualism. I fear that in her eagerness to debunk Sheilaism, Altglas has failed to select representative case studies for her analysis. Given an attempt to investigate radical individualism, the choice to undertake that examination through the sociological analysis of religious organizations (Altglas’ study is based on fieldwork among Siddha Yoga and Sivananda Centers and the Kabbalah Center) that are rooted in particular cultural traditions would seem to obviate any serious chance at arriving at the desired conclusions. It is simply an analysis of the wrong data. In the introduction to her book, Altglas attempts to account for this oversight but, ultimately, her mea culpa does not overcome the problem.

“The readers might wonder why these case studies in particular have been selected. For a start, new religious movements (NRMs), as circumscribed groups with a specific teaching, represent good settings to the production and appropriation of religious resources. These processes in less ‘formative’ (Wood 2009) environments, such as those designated New Age, are more diffuse and therefore less easy to study” (Altglas 2014, 19).

In other words, the very populations that would be most appropriate to a study of religious individualism are here claimed to be too difficult to study, precisely because they are so individualistic and lack a central organizational hub from which to launch the study. Now, don’t get me wrong, as someone who spends his time studying these ‘non-formative’ communities of discourse, I am well aware that what she says is true. It can certainly be much more difficult to systematically study a decentralized milieu than to study a centrally-organized group with a more clearly delineated membership (though it certainly need not be inherently more difficult to do so—I’m quite sure that I’ve had more success with analyzing many of my decentered populations of interest than others have had getting access to, for instance, the inner realms of Scientology). For those of us who have spent quite a lot of time and effort investigating such ‘non-formative’ milieus, however, Altglas’ justification for her selection of case studies is not likely to be satisfying, when we note that the materials that we specialize in are shrugged off so effortlessly, as though that omission were, in the end, unlikely to actually inform the conclusions drawn from the study. In that sense, Altglas has provided us a particularly intriguing analysis of the of the constraints on activities of bricolage among members of the movements that she has studied, but, in order to corroborate her broader arguments against considerations of more radically individual combinatory practices, a study is still needed of the right kinds of case studies to address those issues, and that has not been accomplished here.

This discrepancy becomes clear in some of Altglas’ comments during the interview. For instance, she describes a potential bricoleur “doing a bit of yoga and then, perhaps, after two or three years, deciding that meditation is better.” This hardly sounds like the kind of highly individualized bricolage that we would be interested in so much as it appears to be an instance of serial participation in different activities. This seems miles apart from the types of improvisational cultural combinations that I would want to study in terms of bricolage or anything that might be considered a pronounced variety of individualism. If we really want to look at the types of bricolage that many of the scholars that Altglas critiques are actually interested in, we’d want to look at people creating websites which lay out their beliefs that link, for instance, Jesus’ last words on the cross, the Mayan calendar, Atlantis, Freemasonry, the electric telegraph, Vedic astrology, UFOs, the secret government, the Galactic Federation of Light, and the psychoactive properties of the pineal gland into some sort of ‘cohesive’ narrative that makes sense to them (at some point in time). There are millions of people like this out there in the world who don’t actively participate in centrally-organized religious communities, who don’t have a local group of peers to share metaphysical discourse with, and who develop their views primarily through reading books, participating in online forums, listening to music, watching YouTube, and the like. These individuals, too, are, of course, not unlimited in their improvisational capabilities. They also only have certain cultural resources available to them. They exist in a certain kind of society that instills certain kinds of values. Nonetheless, many of these individuals are significantly less constrained in their acts of bricolage than many others who explore religious themes only in the context of an established community or from within a particularly restrictive national setting (e.g. North Korea). Indeed, many of these individuals exist in social contexts that actually empower them to participate in copious acts of bricolage. The outlook of the Perennial Philosophy, in particular, which sees all religious traditions as equally fair game for religious inspiration as they are all taken as access points to a single, universal truth, dominates contemporary alternative spirituality, and, in many ways, actually demands those who adopt such a viewpoint to become rampant bricoleurs. While these modern bricoleurs still face very real and very important constraints, it is pertinent for scholars to take note of the ways in which their acts of bricolage are undertaken in a more highly individualized manner than is common in many more traditional, institutional religious settings. The question then should not be simply whether or not individuals are free or constrained in their combinatory endeavors, but rather how free or constrained they are in any given context and, thus, precisely how individualistic they are being. In the final analysis, all constraints are certainly not equal.

References

Altglas, Veronique. 2014. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luckmann, Thomas. 1979. “The Structural Conditions of Religious Consciousness in Modern Societies.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6, pp. 121-137.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

Postsecular, like postmodern, is a title applied to phenomena in society that do not seem fit into an earlier paradigm and has thus been named post-something because it perhaps is not yet visible what comes next. It is an end of an era but also a shift towards another and has the academic world digging out all the blind spots of the earlier theories, suddenly noticing a variety of things that weren’t perceived before. The secularisation theories saw traditional institutionalised religion slowly disappearing: less people in churches, less belief in God and more non-Christians answering surveys. When the shift arrived this time, it was noted that religion is not disappearing. Secularisation was defined in less all-inclusive ways – or even as a minority phenomenon of the educated elite, as Peter Berger saw it (eg. Berger: 2002: p. 291–294.) – and new theories appeared. Only, now the question became ‘how is religion changing’ instead of ‘how is religion disappearing’.

Gray mentions 9/11 as an example of how religiosity has become very visible in the political sphere. Another, less grim, example is the various new religious movements that seek to establish a presence in politics through challenging the hegemony of traditional churches in a very peculiar way. I am referring especially to the Pastafarians in Europe and the US, the Kopimists in Sweden, and the Satanists in Oklahoma. These groups have very different religious views, but what they have in common is that they were born after the World Wars and have received some attention in the media due to their critique of the social definition of religion. I do not want to entirely omit all the pagan and other movements that have a similar agenda, but what I see as a connection between these three examples are their recent public campaigns seeking legitimation through invoking laws on religious equality.

Whether you are a Pastafarian demanding to wear a colander for your driver’s license or wearing it while taking your oath of office, a Kopimist seeking to register your religious community sacralizing file sharing on the Internet, or a Satanist wishing to publicly announce the love of Baphomet or to have your kids in school taught the Satanist way, the officials and courts of several countries have had to deal with your religious interpretations. Making claims for religious equality while maintaining close connections between the state and the Christian Churches has long been a point of cultural critique, especially in Europe (Eg. Martin: 2010). These movements, mentioned above, have put this message into action. For instance, Pastafarianism was born as a critique of the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Kansas. These movements have pretty much everything imaginable it takes to be a religion: holy books such as The Satanic Bible or the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; rituals and holy days such as the sharing of files for Kopimists, a Kopimist wedding, Satanic baptism, wedding and funeral, Pastafarian Talk Like a Pirate Day and Ramedan; and of course religious symbols.

BessieExt     220px-Kopimizm.svg

Spageti

 

Because religions are defined in books of law and scholars of religion have found many ways to classify religion (eg. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion) – none of which is explicit enough to include everything ‘commonly considered as religious’ and to exclude everything ‘not commonly considered as religious’ – these definitions can be used by the people to create their own sets of belief systems, to venerate their ideals, and to celebrate worldviews separate from the institutionalised churches that seem to have been the main focus of many theorists of religion. This focus on a specific type of religion was indeed one of the factors which gave rise to the secularisation theories.

Now, one may argue that some of the movements mentioned above have been created to celebrate secularisation and rationalisation of the world and merely to mock religiosity. However, it is not uncommon for such a ‘parody’ or critique to become more than just a joke. The Pastafarians in Poland and Finland have sought to be registered as a religious community. Both attempts, so far, having been declined. However, the Polish Pastafarians have had some more positive rulings from the Polish courts on the way, and both groups keep on fighting for recognition. The Kopimist community is registered as a religious community in Sweden, and the Satanists were organised as The Church of Satan already in the 1960’s. I believe the level of commitment has to be strong to some extent for a community to seek an official status as a religious community and to apply for bureaucratic legitimacy for their movement.

I am hesitant to use terms such as ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ in this context because of their vague connotations as definitive adjectives for religious practice. What is ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ religiosity? Is belonging without believing ‘meaningful’ and how does it differ from, for example, Pastafarian belonging? Is the Jewish holiday of Purim ‘serious’? Does the carnival atmosphere of it make Judaism less of a religion? I, myself, have been studying Discordianism, which is a very interesting example of how a group with critical or satirical origins can create profoundly life changing ideas, which could be viewed as religious or spiritual for even the creators of the movement (Mäkelä & Petsche: 2013).

No matter how we classify the movements stated above, their claims for religious rights within society (even a community of Finnish Discordians have their registration application on it’s way) show a certain meaning behind the rhetorics of religious equality. As Gray mentions in the podcast, postsecularism is in many ways about dealing with everyone: the religious, the atheists, the agnostics, and all the religious identities in between. It is not about trying to force religious speech into politics or trying to force it out of the public domain, like the secular discourse in many ways tried, it is about dealing with the fact that now we know religion is not disappearing.

References

Peter Berger: ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’ in Religions in the Modern World, ed. Linda Woodhead. 2002. Routledge, London.

Craig Martin: Masking Hegemony. 2010. Equinox, London.

Ninian Smart: The World’s Religions. 1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mäkelä & Petsche: ‘Serious Parody: Discordianism as Liquid Religion’ in Culture and Religion Journal Vol.14 Issue 4. 2013. Taylor & Francis Group.

The Interstices of Science and Religion

Science and religion are not ancient concepts. What we think of as inherently scientific today may have carried theological overtones in times past; what we conceive of as religious may have likewise found support in scientific circles. Both categories have emerged through complex and contradictory histories: not only have the ideas and practices associated with each shifted continually, but the very existence of the categories themselves is of relatively recent vintage.

In his interview with the RSP, Peter Harrison sketches out the basics of this historical argument. It’s an essential framework and one that Harrison has explained in far more detail elsewhere. And while we might hope for future elaboration in certain areas—perhaps a look at science as something constituted not only within “Europe” but on the borderlands and at points of encounter[1]—Harrison’s narrative offers a refreshing take on an issue too often staged as a tale of religious decline or scientific triumph.

Yet, though Harrison’s explanation of how science and religion emerged in the West as discrete categories is both rigorous and relevant—public conversation has yet to adopt a similar lens—I personally find the connections he begins to make at the end of the interview equally stimulating, if only perhaps because of their more speculative nature. Harrison takes on, among other things, the emphasis on big history in popular science and education. This is, for him, science attempting to fill the mythical and ethical gaps left after the decline of religion. Having exiled the supernatural, science finds itself left with the task of writing a modern genesis, or a liturgy for a secular age.

In the final installment of his 2010 Gifford Lectures, Harrison picks up on a similar theme. He wonders if science, having at last rid itself of its religious origins and influences, might need once again an infusion of spiritual energy. Without a continued interaction with religion, science lacks the motivating power to command much enthusiasm. Now, it’s easy to read this as a retelling of Einstein’s assertion that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” However, within the context of Harrison’s historical model—which rejects the type of essentializing statements that flaw Einstein’s commentary—the suggestion that science need turn to religion, however, reflects the sterility that comes from a hermetic discipline, one entirely closed off to the vital power of diverse conversations. In response to this, science, along with “big history,” works to author a new set of myths.

In that same lecture, Harrison talks about various members of the New Atheist movement. He reads several quotes: the language is technocratic, enthusiastic, and utopian. In a way, it blurs the lines between scientific and religious speech. Similar to the desire for new, logical creation myths, these visions of a future enriched by technological power seem almost eschatological. Yet while they do testify to a scientific turn to religious sources of ethical authority, they also, surprisingly, fit into what we might see as a tradition of scientific messianism and technological piety.

We might even understand this mingling of scientific and religious language as born at the start of the industrial age. Andrew Ure, a Scottish businessman and doctor, understood the place of Christianity and of the machine as extremely similar.[2] Religion and mechanization both shape the workers into a single force, a body undivided and unified. Here, however, we find not the unification of the mystical body of Christ, but rather the forging of a new entity imagined in both technical and theological registers.

More recent writers and artists have experienced the ambiguity between religious and scientific language in similar ways. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, for example, represents a document deeply imbued with themes at once theological and scientific. The protagonist, feverish, has multiple visions: the machine that powers the vast city becomes the demon Moloch, the agent of the oppressive state becomes a preacher, the statues that line the city’s cathedral become death. The automaton that wreaks havoc on the city is a prophet and a temptress; the safe haven of the rich is a technological Eden. This is in no way a simple theological critique of scientific production. It’s a window onto an anguished cosmology in which the bounds of science and religion are not fixed, and the anxieties of modern power continue to haunt and to frighten.[3]

A decade or so later, Simone Weil’s work pointed to a similar interaction. When she examines the factory, her language is predictably theological. But when she turns again to faith, she finds that the necessity of God is a “blind mechanism” and the indifference of the world is—metallic.[4] Not only does the power of scientific production take on a religious coloring; the experience of belief itself begins to change under the influence of mass production.

These three—a businessman, a director, and a writer—of course represent highly disparate and perhaps isolated figures. Moreover they each speak in conversation with a specific historical moment. Yet they also point to something deeper: a persistent collapsing of theological and mechanical language, an inability to adhere to these separate spheres. When Harrison notes the tendency of “big history” to resemble myth, when the New Atheists talk of the coming millennium, perhaps they reflect not only the ethical problem of secularized science, but also a tradition of writing and speaking that has continually stumbled as the modern categories of science and religion have hardened. Harrison’s narrative elegantly explains much of the contemporary “conflict” between science and religion. But it also points us towards new histories of the spaces in between these two reifications. It encourages us to look to how these categories were experienced, how they overlapped, and how they collapsed in moments of turmoil and danger. It gives us the foundation to explore not only the processes through which modern categories have come to be, but also to appreciate the figures who confound such processes and instead struggle to interpret the world through lenses at once intensely scientific and deeply theological.

[1] I’m thinking of, for example, the critique David Scott lays out in his comments on the study of Hegel and history. See David Scott, “Antinomies of Slavery, Enlightenment, and Universal History,” Small Axe 33.13.3 (November 2010): 152-162.

[2] See Andrew Ure, Philosophy of Manufactures (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969); EP Thompson, “The Transforming Power of the Cross,” in The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966).

[3] For more on the various anxieties expressed in Metropolis, see Andreas Huyssen, “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” New German Critique 24/25 (Autum 1981 – Winter 1982): 221-237.

[4] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Perennial, 1951), 73.

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.

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Beyond Maps: Eoin O’Mahony’s Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

Eoin O’Mahony’s work reflects a growing and consolidating movement in the Geography discipline over the last 15 years, which after a history of stops and starts, has made significant progress in attempting to understand spatiality of religion. This movement has moved away from ontological assumptions of sacred and profane space (Eliade, 1957) and the privileging of the institutional manifestations of religion over informal and often non-representational forms of spirituality (summarised in Park, 1994): Geographies that privileged institutional, regional and national structures of religion at the expense of the local and personal scales. In an assessment of the field, Kong (2001) observed the movement towards understanding the construction and consumption of sacred space (for example Chidester and Linenthal, 1995) and called for a shift in focus to the informal and unofficial geographies of religion, challenging the narratives of global secularisation. This call paralleled a shift in focus within more sociologically orientated studies in religion towards ‘the spiritual revolution’ (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005) and an observed disconnect between forms of institutional belonging and popular beliefs (see Davie, 1994). In the wake of this work, Knott (2005) developed a spatial methodology for the investigation of religion, locating and defining the boundaries between religious and secular discourses within everyday life, practice and representation. Her methodology, drawing on Henri Lefebvre, reveals the religious within secular space through investigating how a space is promoted to users, how it is used by these people and how this space holds together both of these abstract and practical images. And this is where we find O’Mahony’s work.

In the interview, O’Mahony examines how contestation between the religious and the secular in Ireland unfolds ‘in particular places in particular ways’, with this tension manifesting in three case studies: (1) A series of Marion statues dispersed around Dublin; (2) the (annual) pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Country Mayo; (3) and the contestation between State and Church for the provision of primary school education in Ireland. Throughout these sites, religious and secular discourses make claims upon the space yet neither can fully establish themselves over the other. The Marion statues of Dublin are neither owned by the Church nor by local authorities yet they exhibit a concrete presence, informally and unofficially recognised in the landscape design of the parks they often inhabit as well as being reflected in the behaviour of those who used the park. Croagh Patrick is framed as a pilgrimage site to believers and promoted as a site for health, fitness and outdoor recreation to non-religious visitors. Finally, the case of primary schools in Ireland thrusts the issue of contestation between a secularising State power and that of the Church in the public arena with the recent political concern ‘to take religion out of schools’. Throughout these case studies, religious and secular discourses are found to compete, contest and co-habit with each other, providing distinct channels for the making of place through investing meaning and significance into a space.

A main theme underlying O’Mahony’s case studies in this interview is an exploration of the secular project to modify, regulate and moderate locality, including its religious ties, in order to decontextualise and universalise. He astutely criticises a discourse in which a linear progression assumes religious places are those spaces that have not yet been secularised; that secular ideas contest, replace and subordinate the religious within space without resistance. As he argues, religious places are not waiting to be secularised but exist inside and outside of public, secular space. Moreover, the local and contingent daily practices and behaviours of people produce meaning that is integral to the making of place for these inhabitants. As with other confrontations between the local and the global, we should be aware of the delocalising effect of attempts to remove religion from public spaces and the consequences this process has for those who dwell and invest meaning within these spaces.

In addition to this focus on the making of place through daily and recurrent religious practices, I would be keen to see further work on the multi-directional projection of this travel to include the channels in which this secular discourse are also resisted, partially resisted and appropriated by the actors present within a place. Linda Woodhead’s (2012) call for an awareness of both strategic and tactical scales of religion in everyday life, recognising the increasing influence of Michel de Certeau in the study of Religion and Geography is useful here. Everyday tactical practices are those, often unrepresented or non-representable, that enable the actor to manipulate the strategic practices of dominant hegemonies and discourse. The entangled nature of religion and the secular in public space is well illustrated in O’Mahony’s interview and it would be interesting in future research to hear more of the individual voices within these case studies as well as the competing public discourses and claims for these spaces.

With these case studies O’Mahony has neatly illustrated the potential of the geographic approach in drawing out the contestations, tensions and synergies of competing religious and secular voices in public and private spaces. His interview has provided an insight into the complex, multiple layers of space within which religion and the secular co-habit and interact in an Irish context, proving a value to the geographic approach beyond mapping material distributions of religious phenomena.

References:

Chidester, D. and Linenthal, E.T., eds. (1995) American Sacred Space. Bloomington: Indian University Press.

Davie, G. (1994) Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eliade, M. (1957) The Sacred and the Profane. New York; London: Harcourt Books.

Heelas, P. and Woodhead, L. (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Knott, K. (2005) The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London; Oakville: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Kong, L. (2001) Mapping ‘new’ geographies of religion: politics and poetics in modernity Progress in Human Geography. 25 pp.211-233.

Park, C.C. (1994) Sacred Worlds: An Introduction to Geography and Religion. London: Routledge.

Woodhead, L., ed. (2012) Strategic and Tactical Religion. University of Edinburgh, 10th May 2012. Religion and Society: Sacred Practices of Everyday Life Conference.

Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

The island of Ireland has, over the past weeks and months, become the site for a number of Religious Studies Project events, from our recent podcasts on Religion and Memory and The Emerging Church, to Chris’s recent gig representing the RSP at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference. And there is plenty more to come in the coming weeks as well. But what about the island itself?

Statue of the Virgin Mary in Dublin City. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Statue of the Virgin Mary in Dublin City. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

Many of us might have some notion of what ‘religion’ might mean in Ireland, but as Chris quickly discovered when speaking with Eoin O’Mahony for this week’s interview, these notions are far from the full picture. In this broad-ranging interview, O’Mahony eruditely demonstrates what geography can bring to the academic study of ‘religion’ and presents Ireland as a fascinating context within which to examine processes of boundary-making between the contested constructs of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’. After taking listeners through a sweeping history of ‘religion’ in Ireland, O’Mahony then discusses the contextual politics of studying ‘religion’ in Ireland before exploring three different contestations over ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ place-making in Ireland.

Bubble-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Bubble-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

The first of these case studies concerns the maintenance practices at statues of the Virgin Mary sited on public land in Dublin city. Second, discussion turns to place-making relations at sites of pilgrimage performance. And finally, Eoin focuses upon Catholic primary schools as political sites where children are ‘made’ both as ‘Catholics’ and as ‘citizens’. Through this detailed substantive and theoretical discussion, O’Mahony presents the local and particular as a challenge to dominant  and simplistic sociological narratives of ‘secularization’, problematizes simplistic divides between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, and contributes to a ‘decolonization’ of the ‘secular’ – and the study of ‘religion’ more broadly. We even manage to include a discussion of Father Ted.

Eoin maintains a blog concerning his ongoing academic journey entitled “53 degrees“, and has recently published an article entitled The Problem with Drawing Lines – Theo-geographies of the Catholic Parish in Ireland in the Journal of the Irish Association for the Academic Study of Religions. He is hoping to single-handedly break the hegemony of precarious academic labour by tweeting at @ownohmanny.

If you found this podcast interesting, you might also be interested in our previous interviews with Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality, Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism, and Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment. 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, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

Pilgrimage in Ireland. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Pilgrimage in Ireland. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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.

 

Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door. Though I had just moved to Germany and just begun to study German, I knew what they were saying. “Bible” is the same in German and English and I knew the word for the verb, “to read.” Also they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t there to borrow sugar. I understood. But I lied.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I only speak English.” It was a great excuse.

A week later, two more Witnesses came to my door. “You want to read the Bible?” they said. “You want to know God’s plan for human happiness?”

Their English was great.

Of course it was. As a religion that prioritizes proselytization, Witnesses put tremendous effort into reaching people who are different than themselves. They translate their message linguistically and culturally. They don’t expect to be accommodated in conversation; they accommodate.

There has been much theorizing under the heading of “post-secular” about the problem of religious participation in public discourse. For the religious to speak to those who do not share their ontological presuppositions, it is said, in public discussions in pluralistic, democratic societies, it must be necessary for there to be a reformulation of religious arguments into publicly accessible, this-world terms. This is a very literal case of that problem. Yet it illustrates, if nothing else, that there might be a problem with framing the matter of religious people dialoguing with those who do not share their religion as a “problem.”

As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains the problem, religious language can be allowed into the public sphere, but only on certain conditions: “The truth contents of religious contributions can enter into the institutionalized practice of deliberation and decision-making only when the necessary translation already occurs in the pre-parliamentarian domain, i.e. in the political public sphere itself … citizens of faith may make public contributions in their own religious language only subject to the translation proviso” (Between Naturalism and Religion 131-32). They cannot, that is, just appeal to divine authority when they come to your door or come to the public square. They cannot just invoke revelation. What is sacred to them must be re-conceived in reasoned discourse as secular. This burden of “translation” has been central to talk of the post-secular, and also to Habermas’ noted post-secular turn.

However, because this theoretical conceptualization frames translation as a problem, it misses how, in common practice, religious people do speak.

Sociologist Michelle Dillon makes a similar (but not identical) critique of Habermas and the post-secular in her interview with the Religious Studies Project. She notes that in his earlier work on communicative action, Habermas didn’t speak of religious participation in public discourse, implicitly excluding it. In his more recent work, with his turn to the post-secular, Habermas corrects this. He acknowledges that religious reasoning does have a place in pluralist democracies, and yet that toleration still has limits. “Habermas was saying, let’s reassess how we have often marginalized religion,” Dillon says. “But on further reading of Habermas . . . while he’s bringing religion back in, into the public sphere, he’s doing so very much in a Habermasian way.”

According to Dillon, one problem with Habermasian toleration of religion is that it only allows for a very narrow definition of religion. Religion is only acceptable, publicly, when it exhibits a “high rationality.” In this way, he is still excluding a lot of religious reasoning and barring many religious people from public discourse. If someone’s religion is emotional, or traditional, or grounded in personal experience, it is disallowed. Though he sounds like he’s pushing for an act of inclusion — against, for example, “the blinkered enlightenment which is unenlightened about itself and which denies religion any rational content” (An Awareness of What is Missing 18) — it is also an act of exclusion.

This critique can usefully be pushed further.

It seems right that, as Dillon says, the burden of translation is exclusionary. More than that, though, the translation proviso makes exclusion the default. Religious citizens are kept out of the public discourse, unless and until they can prove their reasoning is sufficiently translated. The onus is on them. The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith.

But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem?

Dillon, in her work, has looked at Catholic bishop’s arguments against legalizing divorce in Ireland. She found that the bishops made sociological claims about the effects of divorce on women, children, and society. They did not just invoke their own authority, nor rely on Catholic moral teaching. Even though most Irish were Catholics, the arguments made by the bishops on this matter were public, secular arguments, entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” (539-593).

Similarly, in the United States, many religious citizens have organized to oppose same-sex marriage. Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups have stated that they want to “defend traditional marriage,” and that their religious beliefs commit them to that position. However, when one looks at the legal briefs filed by religious groups in the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, for example, one doesn’t find mainly religious arguments. One finds religious groups making sociological arguments about the importance of traditional marriage and the probable consequences of changing that. The debate is about what the contested law would and wouldn’t do. Whether or not one agrees, all the purportedly religious arguments are quite intelligible from a non-religious perspective.

It’s not even clear that it would be right to speak of these religious forays into public discourse as involving “translation.” The idea that divorce in Ireland or same-sex marriage in the United States will hurt families is not the secular equivalent of a religious idea. The sense, rather, is that religious teachings are relevant to human flourishing. To the extent that the wider public shares those conceptions of human flourishing, the arguments are intelligible.

This too can be pushed further: Even when religious people do explicitly invoke an authority that is not generally accepted, that doesn’t, in practice, mean that those arguments cannot be understood. Dillon has found that pro-change Catholics use theological arguments to claim their legitimate social identity. “The Catholics I had studied,” she says, “were clearly grounding their emancipatory claims for greater equality within religious reasoning. And it was the sort of reasoning that would appeal or could persuade people who were Catholic or not Catholic.” The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ more controversial practice of rejecting blood transfusion. While the argument is religious — blood is connected to the soul— it is not unintelligible to those who don’t share the presuppositions of Witnesses. To the general public, these claims seem wrong, but not radically indecipherable.

Habermas, even after his new openness to the religious, holds that religious reasoning is entirely different from and incomprehensible to non-religious reasoning. He writes that “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged” (An Awareness of What is Missing: 17). This is empirically wrong. Perhaps Habermas hasn’t seen such bridges, but they are quite common.

Religious people regularly enter into conversations with those from other religions as well as those with no religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door speaking English are good examples. They wanted to talk about God’s plan for a happy life. Their speech was, to use a Habermasian word, verständigungsorientiert. That is to say, it was oriented toward understanding (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 1).

The Witness’ speech, in fact, was a communicative action. It did all of the things that Habermas’ earlier work explains that communicative action is supposed to do. It was based on the four pragmatic presuppositions necessary to communication, “the shared presupposition of a world of independently existing objects, the reciprocal presupposition of rationality or ‘accountability,’ the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims such as truth and moral rightness, and the demanding presuppositions of argumentation” (Between Naturalism and Religion: 28). It was, as argumentation, also grounded in the presuppositions of Habermasian rational discourse: publicity and inclusivity, equality, truthfulness, and the absence of coercion (Ibid: 50, 82). Though he might not have recognized it, the Witnesses are a good example of what Habermas has described as the embodiment of reason in everyday communicative practice (Ibid: 25).

Habermas’ ideas about the communicative action, then, usefully counter the so-called translation “problem” of the post-secular public sphere. These religious arguments are part of the normal spectrum of speech, and thus participate in the same normative conditions. To quote Habermas, “one can say that the general and unavoidable—in this sense transcendental—conditions of possible understanding have a normative content when one has in mind not only the binding character of norms of action or even the binding character of rules in general, but the validity basis of speech across its entire spectrum” (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 2).

To assume that translation will be a significant problem is to assume that religious people’s religious communication is not fundamentally verständigungsorientiert, not oriented toward understanding. But of course it is. For, as one can learn from Habermas, that orientation is internal to the structure of communication.

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dillon suggests that Habermas is a great and underused resource. Thinking about religious people in dialogue with those who don’t share their beliefs is an example of how this is true. For those in religious studies, the problems and the potential of Habermas’ thought can serve as a starting place to ask about the kinds of arguments religious people are using in public reasoning and what frameworks they are using to legitimate their views.

Thinking with and against Habermas in this way can also, if nothing else, serve to correct the mistaken assumptions one makes when coming up with excuses not to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

 Bibliography

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

——. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen, et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard, 2007.

An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

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

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

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

1.     Watched people are nice people

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

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete

 

Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

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

 

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

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

 

Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

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

 

Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

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

 

Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

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

 

Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

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

 

Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

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

 

Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

“First came the temple, then the city” –Klaus Schmidt

The above quotation from archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (Norenzayan, 2013) provides a succinct way of phrasing a provocative thesis that has been proposed in the sciences. That is to say, and from this point of view, that religion was not merely a result of the transformation from a hunter-gather lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural, domicile based life – it was the very catalyst. Or, as Norenzayan puts it, “religion transformed cooperation and conflict”.

hunter-gatherers

Hunter-gatherers

Archaeological sites such as Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, tell scientists a lot about the priorities of humans with the retreat of the last Ice Age – the Gods demanded worship. This claim, which puts ‘religion’ first in the development of ‘society’, is the result of interpretations of data such as Gobekli Tepe that suggest that Homo sapiens were interested in building places of worship before they were interested in building permanent homes and domesticating livestock (see Schmidt, 2000).

Scottish Philosopher David Hume espoused a view that situated religion not in the realm of the supernatural, but in the natural, arising from the inclinations and dispositions of the human mind. Sociologist Emile Durkheim conceptualized religion’s primary function as a social glue that binds individuals together through the establishment of do’s and don’t’s which acted as credible and authoritative sources which enabled the flourishing and maintenance of society. In his book Big Gods, Norenzayan combines both of these prior views with evidential support from various scientific disciplines.

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Ara Norenzayan begins by posing an interesting question. How do we explain the transition from small, tight-knit communities (the norm from a historical perspective) to the large-scale societies we know today? In answering this question Norenzayan puts the idea of Big Gods front and center, Big Gods being those that are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and act as moralizing agents. Norenzayan then covers what he labels as “The Eight Principles of Big Gods” (Norenzayan, 2013), and closes by presenting an interesting analogy, placing many of the modern secular institutions we have today (e.g. police departments and governments) in the role previously occupied solely by religion.

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.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.

 References:

Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

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References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.