Archive | May 2012

Functionally Secular / Substantively Nonreligious: Scottish Students, their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular

The next batch of conferences are coming up… and I am finally attempting to really push the boat out with my material. I have just had the following abstract accepted for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network‘s Conference in London, 4-6 July 2012:

Functionally Secular / Substantively Nonreligious: Scottish Students, their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive, and superficially synonymous dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, sacred/secular, religion/nonreligion – yet each serves a distinct, contextually dependent purpose. In this presentation I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students, in combination with a discussion of these dichotomies, to problematise the complex relationship between nonreligion and the secular.

When asked about their beliefs and ‘religious’ identities, many of these students were substantively nonreligious (utilising Lois Lee’s understanding of nonreligion as defined primarily by the way it differs from religion). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in divers ways, dependent upon idiosyncratic interpretations of ‘religion’, and always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to five distinct-yet-overlapping nonreligious types. Individual narratives exemplify pragmatic negotiation of nonreligious identities, ‘fluctuation’ in nonreligious beliefs, and the rhetorical creation of religious ‘others’ against which substantive nonreligiosity was  constructed.

In terms of salience and practice, many of these students appeared functionally secular i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. However, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In many cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives.

This overview of the complex dynamics between these terms provides empirical clarification of the relationship between nonreligion and the secular, and demonstrates that nonreligion is a substantive phenomenon in its own right and, as such, an important component of secular society.

I have yet to (as promised) present a blogged version of my presentation on New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking (Lancaster University, 3 April 2012; University of Edinburgh, 25 April 2012). This WILL happen… in fact, I am in discussions with a colleague regarding developing this presentation as a book chapter… watch this space.

For now, here’s a picture of me just about to deliver that presentation:

Studying Cults

Although “cult” and “sect” are used as technical terms in religious studies, in their popular usage, “cult” tends to refer to a New Religious Movement [NRM] or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered reprehensible. Since such pejorative attitudes are generally considered inappropriate for the academic study of religion, scholars have tended to adopt the nomenclature of NRMs to refer to “a wide range of groups and movements of alternative spirituality, the emergence of which is generally associated with the aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture” (Arweck 2002:269). In this interview with me, Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker (LSE) takes us through the academic study of NRMs from the 1960s onwards, engaging with the particular challenges and successes which have been encountered by academics in the field, and reflecting on some of the more colourful aspects of this area of research.


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