(Non)Religion and (In)Equalities in an Age of Austerity

As I have had a couple of abstracts accepted for conferences in the New Year, I thought I would share them with you so that you’d know what I’m up to. I am also currently working on editing an audio recording and powerpoint presentation together so that you can hear the presentation I delivered at the European Association for the Study of Religions in Budapest last September.

The first conference is the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference on ‘Religion and (In)Equalities’, University of Chester, UK, 28 – 30 March 2012.

Here I shall 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.

The next conference is the main conference of the British Sociological Association, entitled ‘Sociology in an Age of Austerity‘, University of Leeds, UK, 11–13 April 2012.

Here I shall be presenting the following paper:

Relocating Religion: An Alternative Perspective based on the Narratives of ‘Nonreligious’ Students

This paper builds upon my yearlong project amongst the student body of the University of Edinburgh focusing on (broadly defined) ‘nonreligious’ undergraduates. Through questionnaires and in-depth interviews, I explored this neglected area, and demonstrated that the limited number of current typologies of nonreligion – based on internally and/or externally selected and defined nonreligious identity labels – tend to be inadequate and inaccurate. In this paper, I show that nonreligious students are highly aware of the subjectivity of their interpretations of key self-descriptors, and in many cases maintain multiple self-representations simultaneously, in a situational and pragmatic fashion. Using their narrative frameworks, I propose a more nuanced typology of nonreligion, which both cuts across and is independent of ‘religious’ categories, and is rooted in the specificities of what individuals considered as important and significant in their lives. I demonstrate that these particular young people are neither indifferent to religion, nor overtly religious or nonreligious: ‘religion’ was not invested with any significant ‘meaning‘ in-and-of itself. However, when it was perceived to interact with their narrative frameworks, it became the ‘other‘ against which their personal stance is defined. This raises the possibility of a new approach to ‘religion’ which aims to understand individuals according to the narrative frameworks by which they articulate what really matters. In this ‘Age of Austerity’, this shift in focus to the different ways in which individuals are (or aren’t) religious could have profound implications upon how we approach social interactions and ‘religious’ conflict in a religiously diverse United Kingdom.


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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.

2 responses to “(Non)Religion and (In)Equalities in an Age of Austerity”

  1. Recovering Agnostic says :

    I like this a lot. Anecdotally, on a similar theme, I know a number of people who would always call themselves Christians if asked directly in a survey setting, but in a group of likeminded people would openly admit the huge number of holes in their belief. Believing in God “every other day” is one common theme, crossing their fingers during the creed is another. In both cases, I suspect the question is processed as asking which group they feel like they belong to. (I assume your research is a little more thorough than my wild, unevidenced hunch, and I’ll be interested to see what you have to say.)

    I identify as agnostic because, if I’m honest, I don’t feel all that comfortable about being associated with either believers or atheists, and it allows me the freedom to believe, reject or remain undecided on any issue without people telling me what I have to think on the back of a label. I don’t think it’s very useful in defining my beliefs, because “agnostic” is a very broad term, and I have various opinions which I tack onto it according to mood. I think “ignostic” might be a better description, but it’s not really a term in widespread use, and I don’t want to have to explain all the time.

  2. Chris says :

    I’m glad you like it. Thing is, your anecdotal evidence is pretty spot on, yet there has not yet been a systematic large-scale study to demonstrate that these folk exist and are at least a significant minority. Hopefully I and others can help change that :)

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