Religion and (In)Equalities

I have just heard that my abstract has been accepted for the following conference:

Religion and (In)Equalities: Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) Annual Conference, University of Chester, UK, 28 – 30 March 2012

Plenary Speakers: Professor Tariq Modood (University of Bristol), Professor Elaine Graham (University of Chester), Professor Sean McCloud (University of North Carolina)

Also featuring:

  • A roundtable discussion with Professor Linda Woodhead and Dr Rebecca Catto (Lancaster University), and Professor Kim Knott (University of Leeds), Professor Gordon Lynch (University of Kent], Prof. Grace Davie [University of Exeter] and Dr Shuruq Naguib (Lancaster University) on the forthcoming volume Religion and Change in Modern Britain (Routledge)
  • Dr Karen Jochelson and Dr David Perfect (Equality and Human Rights Commission)

This interdisciplinary conference gathers academics and practitioners to discuss the complex ways religion interacts with systems of power and/or categories of difference that affect experiences of equality and/or inequality in individuals, groups and spaces. The intersections of gender, race and class are typically part of the mutually constitutive ‘matrix’ of social categories that contribute to identities and power relations, however religion is often overlooked. Such oversight can only result in limited analyses and leaves pathways to social inclusion and exclusion concealed. Through this conference we seek to bring together research that explores the ways religious beliefs, identities, practices, communities and institutions can contribute to both experiences of belonging and marginalization.

I shall apparently be presenting the following paper…

The Inherent Inequalities of the Religion-Nonreligion Dichotomy: A Narrative Approach to Individual (Non-)Religiosity

Scholars of religion tend to focus upon individuals and/or communities that are demonstrably religious. However, existing relevant scholarly literature on the non- or non-traditionally religious in contemporary society portrays a complex system of mutual experiences of marginalisation and boundary demarcation amongst both the religious and the nonreligious (cf. Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann 2006; Cotter 2011a; Amarasingam 2010). This paper builds upon these observations, utilising empirical narrative evidence from a yearlong MSc project (Cotter 2011b) amongst the student body of the University of Edinburgh, focussing on ‘nonreligious’ undergraduates – whether explicitly irreligious/undecided, those occupying the ‘fuzzy middle’ (Voas 2009), or those potentially termed ‘nominal’ believers (cf. Day 2009; Davie 1994).

 Firstly, I shall demonstrate that the academic study of religion institutionally marginalises the nonreligious – and unjustifiably so (cf. Fitzgerald 2000). Secondly, I shall show how an approach which allows individuals to present their (non)religious identity in their own terms presents a complex process of identity negotiation. Many students pragmatically ‘altered’ their (non)religious self-representations in a manner which suggested the maintenance of differentiated narratives in multiple internally demarcated habitūs, contained within an overarching narrative framework. Many of these fluctuations appear to be motivated by subjective experiences of belonging and marginalisation, and also testify to the limited usefulness and potentially inequality-creating effects of census-type survey methods (Day 2009; 2011). Finally, I propose that in every case the student’s personal (non)religious self-description was subordinated to other overarching ideals implicit throughout their narratives. When ‘religion’ is perceived to interact with these students’ narrative frameworks, it becomes the ‘other’ against which their personal perceptions of some disparate-yet-unified ‘nonreligious’ stance is defined. This suggests an alternative approach which takes individuals and groups on their own terms, and which avoids dichotomisation into majority/minority groups, whilst highlighting the important locations in which inequalities can emerge.


  •  Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2010. “To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 39 (4): 573-588.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011a. “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism.” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2 (1): 77-103.
  • ———. 2011b. Toward a Typology of “Nonreligion”: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, August.
  • Davie, Grace. 1994. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. “Believing in belonging: An ethnography of young people’s constructions of belief.” Culture and Religion 10 (3) (November): 263-278.
  • ———. 2011. Big week for census Christians. Dr Abby Day. March.
  • Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review 71 (2) (April): 211-234.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2000. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Voas, David. 2009. “The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe.” European Sociological Review 25 (2): 155-168.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

3 responses to “Religion and (In)Equalities”

  1. Richard Saville-Smith says :

    Hey Chris, Thats brilliant. Congratulations!

    ps I’ll never forget Grace Davies pointing out that ‘we’ had failed to predict the Iranian revolution, the Berlin wall and 9/11 yet failing to draw the conclusion that the social sciences have zero predictive capacity for specifics – still makes me laugh.

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