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:


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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.

9 responses to “Functionally Secular / Substantively Nonreligious: Scottish Students, their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular”

  1. jonnyscaramanga says :

    “In many cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives.”

    This bit sounds especially interesting. Will you be doing a blogged version?

    • Chris says :

      Glad it sounds interesting! I will indeed endeavour to get a blogged version together… if not, I will more than likely record myself (audio) delivering the paper and put a youtube video together with the powerpoint slides…

  2. americansecularist says :

    I think this dichotomy is something I’d like to see more of in the US – it’s ok to have a murky sense of nostalgia and affection for your religion as it applies to your spiritual life, but disconnect from it in one’s fulfillment of civic duty in a democracy is critical. Look forward to seeing more of your ideas – do you plan to post a video of your presentation for your blog followers?

    • Chris says :

      Thanks for the enthusiastic comments – just out of curiosity, can I ask how you came across my blog? I’ll most likely have audio and powerpoint slides for you :)

      • americansecularist says :

        I just started a pro-secular site a few weeks ago, and was looking for others with a common interest to read and add to my blog roll – definitely enjoy reading your posts.

      • Chris says :

        Great stuff. I’m afraid I’m really busy just now with a lot of other projects so the blogging has taken a back seat for quite a while now. I’ll keep it going though… and look forward to taking a bit of time to read your posts :) Thanks!

      • jonnyscaramanga says :

        In case you were interested in my reply too, I have a number of categories I follow on WordPress… Faith schools, education, fundamentalism. You must have come up on one of those. I blog mainly about fundamentalist education in the UK, so your site seemed relevant.

      • Chris says :

        Oh definitely. I just inherited three new followers in a day which is most unusual :) I must check out your posts – is there much fundamentalist education in the UK?

      • jonnyscaramanga says :

        Sixty schools use Accelerated Christian Education, which is an incredibly fundamentalist Texan curriculum, and the main target of my concerns. On top of that, the Christian Schools Trust is a loose association of around 40 evangelical schools, not all of which are fundamentalist but which are certainly away from the faith school mainstream. There may well be other small fundamentalist schools not part of any association that are under the radar.

        So it’s not huge, but there are a few thousand children in Christian fundamentalist education in Britain.

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