Surveying the Sacred and Secular

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

What goes into good survey research?

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

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

Why does that matter?

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

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

What should we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12

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

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

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

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

“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

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

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

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

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

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

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

Religion Without Culture is No Religion at All

I’d like to start by thanking Jon Lanman for his insightful description of CREDs, CRUDs, and the larger issue of content and context biases as the foundations of religion. I want to focus my comments on this last part: the differing roles of content biases and context biases in explaining religion. The cognitive science of religion has spent much time and effort identifying different content biases that relate to religious belief, and has paid very little attention to the role of culture and cultural learning. The work that has been done by Lanman and others has shown that CREDs, and other context biases, play a fundamentally important role in understanding religions and religious belief (Lanman 2012), and I’d argue explain the bulk of what we generally think of when we think about religion.

One of the first things to recognize is that content and context biases play very different roles in the explanation of religious belief. I will leave aside minimally counterintuitive content (for all the reasons presented in Purzycki & Willard, 2015), and focus on theory of mind and agent based content (see Willard and Norenzayan, 2013). As Lanman mentioned, content biases constrain the type of supernatural concepts we are likely to create and explain why certain types of concepts are common in religions around the world. These biases explain things like why anthropomorphic gods are more compelling and more common than the idea of God as an abstract concept, but they have little to say about why we should believe in one person-like god over another. Context biases, on the other hand, explain all the parts of religion that we learn from other people. These are the cultural parts of religion. Context biases cause us to pay attention and learn from some people or groups over others, and therefore adopt the beliefs and practices of those people/groups over the beliefs and practices of others. Put simply, content biases can help explain why Zeus is very much like a person, but context biases are required to explain why people stopped believing in Zeus in favor of other Gods (Gervais & Henrich, 2010).

This problem of belief—known as the Zeus problem or the Mickey Mouse problem—is often talked about but rarely reflected on in any great depth. I see this problem as a much more fundamental one than just the problem of why people believe in one god over another. It is a problem of why people adopt complex religious beliefs and practices at all. The intuitive appeal of some types of content over others cannot explain why or how this content coalesces into religious traditions or why traditions that have persisted for centuries suddenly change or fade away.

I have shown before that individual differences in the susceptibility to these content biases do predict the likelihood that a person holds religious or other supernatural beliefs (Willard and Norenzayan, 2013). I would add that these findings should only apply in places where religion is optional. A person who is raised in a culture where religion is endorsed and practiced by most, or all, other people is unlikely to even consider the possibility of non-belief, regardless of their intuitions. The forces of conformity, prestige, and credibility will easily trump any lack of intuition. Even the most unintuitive of ideas can persist in a culture with some amount of learning (calculus is not going to disappear anytime soon).

On the other side, a person who is highly affected by these content biases but raised in a culture with no religious traditions is not going to spontaneously create Christianity and all its traditions (even Jesus needed help with this). At most, these content biases would create the sense that additional invisible minds exist in the world, and maybe, a desire to explain this feeling. Even in a culture in which some people are religious and some are not, strong intuitions are unlikely to lead people to religion without some input from culture, especially if there are other options.

In recent work, I have looked at exactly this. In a large study conducted in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, done in collaboration with Lubomir Cingl and Ara Norenzayan, I found that susceptibility to these content biases predicted far more of the individual variance in paranormal beliefs (21%) than in the belief in God (8%), and almost no variance in religious participation (3%). Exposure to religious CREDs showed the opposite effects. CREDs explain a substantial portion of the variance in religious participation (25%) and belief in God (15%), while explaining almost no variance in paranormal beliefs (2%). Content-based intuitions did lead people to believe, just not necessarily in religion. It was the CREDs that brought people to praise the lord (Willard, Cingl & Norenzayan, n.d.).

If content can explain the tendency to hold supernatural beliefs, but cultural learning is required to create religions, then we can make specific predictions about how these things should vary around the world. First, we should expect supernatural beliefs would persist in some proportion of the population even when religion declines. Second, cultures that have no religious beliefs should exist, but cultures devoid of all supernatural beliefs should not. I have two examples that demonstrate exactly these things. First, the high rate of supernatural belief among the religious ‘nones’, and the rise of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ suggest that many people who leave religion maintain some type of supernatural beliefs. In my own research I find that though only 18% of the 1000 people we sampled in the Czech Republic claim to be religious, 56% endorse the belief in some type of deity or spiritual power, and only 22% explicitly claim to believe in nothing at all.

The second, far more compelling, example is the Hadza of Tanzania. The Hadza are one of the few hunter-gatherer societies still remaining on the planet, and they have no ritual practices or any formal belief system (Marlowe, 2010). What they do have is basic supernatural beliefs. Many Hadza believe that the sun is a god, and some believe that the moon is too, but these beliefs are not shared by everyone nor are they enforced. Though supernatural beliefs exist among the Hadza, they have never coalesced into something that we would identify as a religion. They have not lost their religious beliefs through increased existential security and modernization. Science has not given them an alternative to religion. They simply never created a religion in the first place.

None of this suggests that content biases are not important; they are extremely important, but they explain only a small piece of the larger puzzle that is religion. Content biases can explain why supernatural beliefs are everywhere, but when we talk about religions, we are often not talking about this. When we talk about religions, we are generally referring to the complex sets of beliefs and practices that extend far beyond these basic intuitions. Since we humans are a highly cultural species, we cannot help but pass our beliefs to others and build traditions around them. It is this process that drives the creation of religions. Content biases are more like a slow moving current than a rushing stream. They can push our boat in one specific direction, but only if no one is rowing in the boat in another direction. Rowing up stream may be more effortful than rowing down stream, but ultimately it is the rowing that will get us where we are going.


Gervais, W. M., & Henrich, J. (2010). The Zeus Problem: Why Representational Content Biases Cannot Explain Faith in Gods. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10, 383–389

Lanman, J. A. (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 49–65

Marlowe, F. (2010). The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania (Vol. 3). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Purzycki, B. G., & Willard, A. K. (2015). MCI theory: a critical discussion. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–42.

Willard, A. K., & Norenzayan, A. (2013). Cognitive biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in life’s purpose. Cognition, 129(2), 379–391.

Identity Crisis: the Nones and Habitual Christianity

This podcast coincides with Linda Woodhead’s recent Croall Lectures, aimed at interrogating the question: Is Britain still a Christian country? Drawing on her own qualitative research and recent surveys in the UK, and from the nearly 80 projects funded by the Religion and Society programme, Woodhead is extremely well placed to examine this broad, nicely impossible question. I decided in the end to do two things, first to give a summary of some of the key points and second, to stick with what I know of this topic – drawing on my own research with (secular) humanists, based in the UK.

There has been much debate generated about the Christian status in Britain, not least following the comments of David Cameron in 2014 – who stated that Britain was a Christian country. Cameron had made his comments in a letter published in the Church Times on 16th April 2014[1] and his target audience should be borne in mind. He wrote:

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives (Cameron, 2014).

Here (as elsewhere) Cameron emphasises that such a confidence in Christianity will help people get out there and do something. He also emphasises that: “Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none” (ibid.).

In this podcast, Linda Woodhead takes up this debate from a sociological perspective, drawing on her experience as the overseer of the AHRC/ESRC funded Religion and Society programme which commissioned 75 UK based research projects over a five year period (2007-2012). In response to the question ‘Is Britain a Christian country?’, Woodhead’s response is a qualified ‘yes’. This means, Britain is not Christian in every way; numbers of people attending Church are certainly falling as are the number of people who self-identify as Christian[2]. She also states that Britain will certainly not be Christian forever if current trends continue, and, further, argues that Britain is not straightforwardly secular and a rise in ‘nones’ (those ticking ‘no religion’ on the Census) does not equal a rise in atheist or new atheist discourse. Many people continue to believe in a God (although not necessarily the Trinity) or consider themselves ‘spiritual’. But, in sum she argues that: “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Secular Humanists

Over the last four years, I have been working on an ethnography of nonreligious[3] groups and individuals in the UK. I was resident archivist and volunteer for the Rationalist Association (publishers of the New Humanist magazine), and through these activities I was able to meet many, many nonreligious individuals. I also interviewed and observed humanist celebrants in action across the UK and met couple’s marrying in humanist ceremonies. Woodhead points out in this interview, the ‘nones’ (those who ticked no religion on the census) are a broad category, who do not easily conform to atheism per se nor should they be understood as self-identifying Christians.

My own research confirms, as Woodhead suggests, that the ‘none’ category is in no way monolithic nor should it be equated with ‘atheism’ per se. I rarely met people who wholeheartedly sympathised with new atheists or who were hardline secularists. In the course of my work it also become clear that many situate their nonreligious identity in relation to a Christian heritage, either as a result of personal experience or of education. This familiarity emerged in a number of ways. One such example is in regards to religious criticism; many of my participants felt that familiarity with Christianity permitted them to be critical in a way that they could not with other religious traditions. In an interview with Peter, a 28 year old writer and doctoral student, we came onto the topic of the Danish Cartoons in which he made the following comments:

‘[W]ell I think it was more, Christianity I [am] up for taking the piss out of, because I always take the perspective that, and I’ve heard comedians point this out, Stewart Lee and Dara Ó Briain, Christianity’s kind of ours to take the piss out of. I went to church, I got dragged to the Church of England every Sunday, so we get, so I could get into the right school, whereas I’ve always felt that something like Islam [for example] is tied into racial minorities [and is thus off limits].’ [London, April, 2013]

I was particularly interested in the explicit reference to the Church of England in relation to “other religions.” This certainly raises a number of questions for me. Does Cameron mean all denominations of Christianity? Or just Anglicanism? Moreover, what does it really mean to state that we are Christian anyhow? Woodhead illuminates some of these points more clearly – that it is in institutions and in a sense of ‘cultural Christianity’.

Certainly, by self-identifying with Christianity, Peter situates himself very clearly inside both nonreligious and Christian groups, at least nominally. Abby Day brings some qualitative description to the category of ‘Christianity’ in her research ‘Believing in Belonging’ (2006). The non-faithful are categorised by Day as ‘nominalist’; that is, ethnic, natal and aspirational. This group are: ‘not merely unchurched and neither are they indifferent to Christianity: it functions to reinforce familial, ethnic and social connections.’ (2006: 126). Day’s work is useful in demonstrating how despite being anti-religious or not-religious, Christianity can continue to provide a reference point. The choice to call oneself ‘Christian’ whilst not ‘practicing’ can be understood as ‘cultural’ Christianity (Demerath, 2000: 127) or a quasi-ethnic category (Voas and Bruce, 2004; Voas and Day, 2007: 3). Yet despite familiarity my own participants do not personally identify as Christian and, as Woodhead points out, there should be caution used in labelling anyone ‘Christian’ who does not do so for themselves. Thus, I am not suggesting that my participants are ‘nominally’ Christian, simply that their attitude to religions was inflected by their experiences of it.

What such examples demonstrate is a negotiation of this term ‘Christianity’. Whilst many of my participants were aware of their own ‘habitual Christianity’, they were also at pains to break the habit[4].

Concluding Thoughts

I would be very interested to hear of other research addressing these issues. My own research – as I state – was within smaller scale populations and other researchers will be able to illuminate these debates at the macro-level, more clearly than I can. What I will state in summary is that central to this question – ‘Is Britain is a Christian country?’ – is a tension between issues of privilege and privatisation. Moreover, the debate rests on that tricky dichotomy between religious institution (and power) and people’s personal religious experiences and identities. As Woodhead stated in her article ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ [in the UK]: ‘for a majority today, being religious is just a part of life and identity, not what defines them’ (2013). To say that Britain is a Christian country, as per Cameron’s speech, is therefore problematic not so much because the historical and (fragmented) contemporary trends it speaks to are contestable. It is problematic because it is totalising. Further, as Day points out, people who are otherwise ‘not religious’ state that they are Christian and give reasons of upbringing, culture or national identity. On a micro scale, this might resonate, and many, including my own nonreligious, secular participants may share this sense of ‘cultural Christianity’. However, despite any protestations from the PM, when a politician makes such a statement, there is a magnification of natal, national and cultural themes, and it is perhaps understandable that this creates anxieties about the political agenda implied by such bold statements – whether real or otherwise.


DAY, A. (2006). Believing in Belonging: a Case Study from Yorkshire. Unpublished PhD

Thesis, Lancaster University.

DAY, A. (2011). Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford University Press.

ENGELKE, M. (2012) ‘In Spite of Christianity: humanism and its others in contemporary Britain’ Talk given at the NSRN annual conference.

ENGELKE, M. (2014), ‘Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular HumanismCurrent Anthropology, Vol. 55, No. S10, pp. S292-S301

LEE, L. (2011). From ‘Neutrality’ to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other In British Non-religious Discourses In Modernities Revisited, Behrensen, M., Lee, L., & Tekelioglu., A. S. Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011Available at [accessed 21 August 2012]

LEE, L. (2012). Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1): 129-139.

OFFICE OF NATIONAL STATISTICS (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011. 12 December. [accessed 2 December 2014]

VOAS, D. & BRUCE, S (2004) ‘Research note: The 2001 census and Christian identification in Britain’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19:1, 23-28

VOAS, D & DAY, A (2007). Secularity in Great Britain. In Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CA: ISSSC: 95-110.

WOODHEAD, L. (2012) ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ published on Pandemonium.



[1] This follows remarks from other conservative MPs, including Baroness Warsi, who argued in 2011 that Britain should become more Christian.

[2] The results of the 2001 Census suggest 15.5 per cent of the population (8.6 million people) considered themselves to have no religion. Whilst 77.2 per cent of the population considered themselves to have some religious belief, with the majority identifying as Christian at 71.8 per cent (41million people). Results of the more recent 2011 Census demonstrate a marked shift in numbers. The number of people now reporting as Christian decreased to 59.3 per cent and there was an increase in those reporting no religion to 25.1 per cent of the population (ONS, 2012)

[3] Non religion is understood as different to the ‘secular’ and defined as defined as: ‘any position, perspective or practice which is primarily defined by, or in relation to, religion, but which is nevertheless considered to be other than religious (Lee, 2011).

[4] In my forthcoming thesis, I discuss the great length humanists and other nonreligious people went to, negotiating the boundaries between what is ‘culturally’ Christian and what was not (see also Engelke, 2014); the equation of moral values and Christianity was a particular sticking point. More space would also have allowed me to comment on the British Humanist Association’s Census campaign and letter to the Prime Minister, both relevant to this topic.

Religious Authority in a Post-Religious Society

The question of charismatic and spiritual authority has become ever more relevant in present day Japan, which is an exceedingly “non-religious but spiritual” nation. In her interview, Dr. Erica Baffelli introduces us to a wide variety of perspectives on creating, distributing, maintaining and defending religious authority that can be found within Japanese new religious movements (NRMs). Japanese religious leaders operate in a complex social landscape in which they must constantly maneuver between tradition and modernity, specificity and universalism, nation and world, in their quest for legitimacy. The variety of approaches that can be found among NRMs, and the persistence of non-Western views of history and ritual that call the applicability of the category “religion” into question, make the country’s religious landscape difficult to characterize, but Dr. Baffelli does an admirable job of summarizing some major avenues of study into Japanese religious authority.

As Dr. Baffelli and her interviewer describe, religious authority in Japan can be analyzed through categories such as space, body, text, politics, media, and technology. The differences between Japanese and Western formations of these subjects, as well as the diversity within Japan, can help shed light on the assumptions we make about how authority is acquired and asserted. For example, Western understandings of religious text are closely linked to the concept of a “scripture,” a divinely inspired, normative document. But Japan has traditionally had many different kinds of religious text, which are not necessarily considered inspired or treated as normative. Japanese NRMs offer us many different ways to derive authority from a text.

Dr. Baffelli points to a recent article by Clark Chilson, “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership”, which is an excellent study of the Sōka Gakkai leader’s use of text, primarily the roman à clef epic Human Revolution, to distribute authority to his readers. As Chilson describes it, Ikeda’s readers are apprentices as he once was. They have been initiated into his path to the Truth and are now striving to mature their own capacities for leadership. Ikeda’s text describes how his authority was not granted to him exclusively, but was acquired through experience and can be passed on to any Gakkai member. Ikeda is thus preparing the Gakkai to manage institutional authority and power long after he himself is gone.

Ikeda’s magnum opus makes for a sharp contrast with the texts of Ōkawa Ryūhō, founder of the NRM called, in English, Happy Science. Ōkawa’s many speeches and books make it evident that his authority belongs to him alone, through his hidden identity as God the Father, and cannot be acquired by anyone else. Ōkawa’s ability to expound on the past and future of humanity, and to channel the higher spirit of any human or extraterrestrial being, living or dead, makes reading his books a lesson in simple “awareness” of his omniscience, not an instruction manual for those who would want to maintain his sect in future generations.

The bumpy transition from charismatic to institutional authority has been a key turning point in many Japanese NRMs. Dr. Baffelli states that many groups find comfortable rule by a group of experienced members to be preferable to a continuation of unruly charismatic leadership. But the sudden loss of a charismatic leader just as frequently causes an NRM to lose its direction and unity. In a 2007 article, “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media,” Christal Whelan described how an NRM called God Light Association underwent radical changes and splits following the loss of its leader, Takahashi Shinji. Members in Osaka continued to revere Takahashi by watching videos of his glossolalic interpretations, while members in Tokyo reorganized around his daughter Keiko , who rebuilt the group into a completely different therapeutic program. Still other members joined Ōkawa Ryūhō at Happy Science, or another NRM known as Pana Wave Laboratory.

A notable point made at the end of this interview deserves the attention of scholars of religion. Since the 1980s, the innumerable thousands of organized Japanese NRMs, called shinshūkyō in Japanese, have been losing members. The 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyō, an esoteric NRM which had attracted the support of several Japanese religious scholars, certainly hastened criticism of NRMs in public discourse, but the trend away from NRMs did not begin with Aum. Since the 1980s, social and economic pressures to stay within mainstream society have become more prominent, and spiritually minded individuals more often seek more limited, loosely bonded participation in New Age-style modes of thought, dubbed “new spirituality movements” by Shimazono Susumu (c.f. Shimazono 2004).

But questions of charismatic, spiritual, and institutional authority remain with us. The scholarly work on NRMs is by no means outdated, but, in fact, is increasing in relevance as we try to make sense of Shimazono’s NSMs. From crystal healing and Reiki, to millenarian “ascension,” to attendance at shrines, to therapeutic forms of mass communication, NSMs are everywhere in 21st century Japan, and with them come new questions about how spiritual institutions can aid the bricoleurs who wander their way, and what sort of authority is possible in such loosely connected interactions.

In his book, “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka, journalist Isomura Kentarō offers the counterintuitive but revealing example of an e-mail list and blog run by former video game designer Itoi Shigesato, which offers self-help advice and pick-me ups to roughly a hundred thousand subscribers every day. Readers are devoted to the heartwarming writings of Itoi, who is affectionately dubbed “Darling,” but when they bring up his blog posts in everyday life, they frequently get the impression of being perceived as adherents of a religious cult. Having discovered his charismatic authority, Itoi now has the full-time job of delicately managing a small media empire while avoiding the stain of religiousness. He aims to produce messages and physical products (most notably, a fancy notebook called the Hobonichi Planner) that readers will enjoy, but not to draw them in as closely as an NRM leader would have done.

A similar phenomenon is happening even in overtly spiritual movements. I will soon begin a study of a loose network of readers of the channeled text Hitsuki Shinji. After being the focus of two NRMs in the postwar years, the lengthy text was virtually abandoned until the 1990s, when the writer Nakaya Shin’ichi began publishing dozens of books offering a spiritually minded exegesis. But until this year, Nakaya’s interactions with his readers have been limited to a monthly magazine and public talks. Similar to Itoi’s mailing list, the text has been offered as a direct reading experience unmediated by any organization, and its implementation has been essentially left to the individual. But starting this spring, Nakaya intends to take the risk of forming a more tight-knit group and asserting authority as the text’s chief interpreter. Can an NSM be transformed into an NRM? The answer to this will be found in the complex social landscape of modern religious authority.


Chilson, Clark. 2014. “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership” Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 15, pp. 65-78

Isomura Kentarō. 2010. “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka. PHP Kenkyūjo.

Whelan, Christal. 2007. “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media: Redefining a New Religion as ‘Rational’ in Contemporary Society.” Nova Religio, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 54-72

Shimazono Susumu. 2004. From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.