Studying the Nonreligious, and the Marginalisation of the Nonreligious in the Academic Study of Religion
A few months ago, I started thinking about the relationship between ‘nonreligion’ and ‘inequality’ for a conference presentation I had to write, and a number of things came to mind. Of course there is the dominant popular and media discourse portraying secularist uproar over prayers at town council meetings, the teaching of Creationism in schools, or the visible battles which have been waged on buses, billboards and car bumpers in recent years. Stephen Bullivant rightly states that ‘…popular and media discourse surrounding atheism and unbelief tends to be overly simplistic and unhelpful, often focusing on the perceived ‘arrogance’ or ‘aggressiveness’ of unbelievers (depicted as a homogeneous group)’. However, it is to an inequality which is less visible to which I turn: I wish to quickly show that there is a historical inequality present in the academic study of religion, in terms of the marginalisation of the nonreligious as an appropriate subject ‘group’ for study… and then provide reasons for an academic study of ‘nonreligion’.
I should begin by emphasising that this is a steadily improving situation. I have presented papers in recent months at panel sessions at SOCREL, EASR and SSSR conferences [these are a big deal]where it was standing-room only. Two key research groups have been established in the past decade – the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, Massachusetts, and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN); these two groups also joined together to launch the journal Secularism and Nonreligon in August 2011; the recent edition of the Journal of Contemporary Religion focused entirely on the nonreligious; and the NSRN Bibliography (which I manage) contained [the last time I checked] over 480 scholarly books and articles on atheism, secularity, nonreligion and related topics (360 since 2005).
However, things have not always been so encouraging. Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee do an excellent job of tracing the history of research into the nonreligious in their recent Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union. There they trace a historical neglect of ‘nonreligion’ to the non-religiosity of many of the social sciences’ early pioneers who, in trying to understand why so many people could believe in something “so absurd”, “arguably failed to recognize that their own lack of belief might itself be amenable to similar research” . They also point to extensive interest in the anomaly of unbelief from Catholic social scientists throughout the 1950s and 1960s. From either camp, therefore, it is understandable that:
“Much of the early research that mentions the nonreligious has included nonreligious individuals as a comparison group, a statistical outlier, or an afterthought [or, indeed, as a problem to be dealt with]. Rarely has the aim of most existing research been to explore the lives, experiences, and characteristics of the nonreligious” .
“Low religiosity” is, as Frank Pasquale states, a “relative measure based on self-reports”. “Its meaning shifts with the nature of the underlying sample”  and the branding of those who are nonreligious as having “low religiosity” tells us little about what their nonreligiosity actually means to them. ‘As a result, terminology used to refer to the nonreligious in the social science of religion has often been ambiguous, imprecise, and even “biased and derogatory.” One does not have to look very far to find examples of such work – here are just a couple from my recent reading:
- ‘…religious behaviour is […] founded on the distinction of sacred and profane experience. The nonreligious person, conversely, is one for whom there is nothing sacred or holy’ ;
- ‘In the absence of religion, people tend to believe anything rather than nothing…’.
[A relevant footnote to this discussion would be, of course, the obvious point that the study of secularisation is not the study of the nonreligious…]
But why should scholars of religion be interested in the nonreligious anyway? I’ve come up with three reasons so far…
The Nonreligious Majority?
In his survey of the findings from recent surveys (2007), Phil Zuckerman found that ‘“nonbelievers in God” as a group actually come in fourth place (500-750 million) – after Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900 million)’, far outnumbering other groupings such as Jews and Mormons. If other smaller groups are deemed worthy of differentiated scholarly attention, then it is only appropriate that this same curiosity be extended to those who cannot be described, or do not self-describe, as ‘religious’.
Unlike the US where nonreligious individuals remain a very small (yet growing) population, it is increasingly being shown that being ‘nonreligious’ is a very significant minority position in the UK, if not an overall majority. Drawing on a variety of sources, Zuckerman gives estimates of between 10 and 44 percent of the UK population being ‘nonreligious’ (dependent upon how ‘nonreligious’ is defined). In addition, 53.4 percent of British respondents to the European Values Survey question stated that they were ‘not a religious person’. Whilst I would contend that the majority of these studies provide insufficient understandings of ‘nonreligiosity’ – due to narrow, one-dimensional quantitative measures – these observations demonstrate that a significant proportion of (particularly British – my context) people can potentially be classified as ‘nonreligious’, and are worthy of attention simply by virtue of their sheer number, if for no other reason.
The Nonreligious Monolith
As Timothy Fitzgerald contends, the study of ‘religion’ has largely been built upon something which is seen as ‘distinctive and separate and requir[ing] special departments and methodologies for its study’. This religion can be conceived in a number of ways: simply and equivocally as ‘Christian’ religion; in a ‘normative’ fashion – where pervasive general understandings of ‘religion’ exclude ‘superstitious’ practices and ‘minority’, ‘high-demand’ or ‘exclusive’ groups from being considered ‘really’ religious; and the ‘secularist’conception which labels certain acts ‘religious’ and others ‘secular’, carving up the social order in a particular way. A common theme throughout these approaches is that they are designed to exclude ‘inappropriate’ areas of study. Consequently, as suggested above, the majority of studies designed to study religion are ‘often of little use for studying its lack’ or opposite. In addition, studies which do acknowledge the nonreligious tend to pay them little attention, or treat them as a monolithic minority religious position – religious ‘nones’– alongside other minority groups.
The phenomenon of nonreligion encapsulates a wide variety of positions. According to Frank Pasquale – writing, in this case, about the terms ‘atheism’ and ‘secularity’:
There are [also] other windows into this domain, each with a distinctive slant, such as irreligion, religious doubt, unbelief or nonbelief, freethought, agnosticism, (secular) humanism, rationalism, materialism, philosophical naturalism, and (religious) scepticism…
Even this comparatively comprehensive list of ‘windows’ omits the term ‘bright’, which was officially coined in 2003, and famously evangelised by Daniel Dennett (2003), to describe ‘a person with a naturalistic worldview, […] free of mystical and supernatural elements’. It also omits individuals who may be reluctant to label themselves with a nonreligious term, or the truly indifferent who ‘find religion to be so irrelevant […that they are] not even conscious of […rejecting] it’. The purpose of this enumeration was not to focus upon these different nonreligious types, but to demonstrate the unjustifiable tendency – where the nonreligious are even considered at all – to see the nonreligious as a unified monolith, whilst simultaneously opening up the ‘religious’ category to minute degrees of nuance.
The Study of Religion
Finally, I wish to make two key points which justify the study of nonreligion from the perspective of Religious Studies: using nonreligion to test the perceived universality of religion, and the foundation of the study of religion in the study of people.
Beginning once again with Timothy Fitzgerald, there is an unfortunate but prevalent tendency for
…many academics in history, anthropology, or religious studies [to] use […‘religion’] generically as though [it] is universal in time and place… 
Many scholars ‘presume that [the term ‘religion’] points to pre-social and thus universal sentiments’. Even within the cutting-edge cognitive science of religion, one of the most frequent and heated debates concerns whether human beings are innately religious. Whilst this universalising tendency receives some attention in scholarly works, objections to it are generally framed in terms of misrepresentation of the specificities of (mainly non-Western) religions, through the application of ‘modern Western concepts […or] borrowing a few concepts […] from other cultures’. What these critiques ignore, is the argument that whilst
It is probably true… that there is no human society which totally lacks cultural patterns that we can call religious […]. It is surely untrue that all men in all societies are, in any meaningful sense of the term, religious.
Secondly, flowing throughout the extensive scholarly disagreement on how to define religion is a common denominator that religion is a social phenomenon. This phenomenon can be traced to:a particular type of conversation; a distinctive part of human nature; something in which people place ‘unrestricted value’; any number of ‘ideas, symbols, feelings, practices and organisations’; or some sort of transcendent ‘Focus’. However, the unifying factor throughout these approaches is, quite simply, people – and this holds even for scholars who would make a transcendent, meta-empirical focus the key element. The demarcation of this ‘Focus’ as a central concern of religion makes no judgement on whether that presupposition is ‘true’ and, according to this method’s advocates, ‘it is necessary to describe [a particular people’s] interplay with the environment, and also with their ‘supernatural’ environment’ in order to adequately understand them.
These observations hopefully demonstrate that one of the central foci of Religious Studies is human beings – and this includes the nonreligious. Even if some sort of ‘supernatural’ element is prioritised, those who are classified as ‘nonreligious’ either engage with this through rejection, or through raising questions about its importance through their non-engagement. In either scenario they remain valid subjects for Religious Studies. Engaging with the nonreligious helps academics both to ‘understand better the role of faith in modern society’, and to appropriately engage with people, in groups or on their own, who consciously or unconsciously live without religion.
Now, I am not contending that every study needs to focus upon the nonreligious… or that the nonreligious need to be more than a footnote. However, they do need to be a footnote. If scholars wish to focus exclusively on religious groups, they need to justify why this is worthwhile. If they want to read in religiosity into everything – be this homo religiosus, invisible religion, implicit religion, everyday religion – then they need to provide robust reasons why, and explain what they are doing when they read religion into the lives of those among whom it is not visible on many or all standard measures.
 ‘Teaching Atheism and Nonreligion: Challenges and Opportunities’, Discourse 10, no. 2 (2011): 3.
 Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee, ‘Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27, no. 1 (2012): 20.
 in Frank L. Pasquale, ‘The Social Science of Secularity’, Free Inquiry 33, no. 2 (2012): 17–23.
 Frank L. Pasquale, ‘Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect Of’, in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Tom Flynn (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007), 764.
 R. Cragun and J.H. Hammer, ‘“One Person”s Apostate Is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us About Pro-religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion’, Humanity and Society 35 (2011): 159–175.
 William E. Paden, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 48–49; cited in Terence Thomas, ‘“The Sacred” as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions’, in Religion: Empirical Studies, ed. Steven J. Sutcliffe (Surrey: Ashgate, 2004), 51.
 M. Percy, ‘Losing Our Space, Finding Our Place’, in Religion, Identity and Change, ed. S. Coleman and P. Collins (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 39.
 Phil Zuckerman, 2010. Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. New York: New York University Press, p. 96.
 Zuckerman, Phil. 2007. Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns. In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, 47-65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 49.
 Weller, Paul. 2008. Religious Diversity in the UK: Contours and Issues. London: Continuum, p. 51
 Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2000a. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3.
 Sutcliffe, Steven. 2010. Paper: Religion – What Are We Talking About? (Launch of the Religion and Society – Edinburgh Network [RASEN]). In RASEN. University of Edinburgh, October 25.
 Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363-368, p. 364
 Pasquale, Frank L. 2010. A Portrait of Secular Group Affiliates. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 43-87. Santa Barbara: Praeger, p. 43.
 Bullivant 2008, 364
 Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan, p. 39.
 Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 46.
 McCutcheon, Russell T. 2007. “‘They Licked the Platter Clean’: On the Co-Dependency of the Religious and the Secular.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19: 173-199, p. 182.
 Platvoet, Jan G. 1999. To Define or Not to Define: The Problem of the Definition of Religion. In The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests, ed. Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk, 245-265. Leiden: Brill, 250-51
 Geertz, Clifford. 1968. Religion as a Cultural System. In The Religious Situation, ed. Donald R. Cutler, 639-688. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 664.
 Cox, James L. 1996. Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion. 2nd ed. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications, p. 15.
 Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 2.
 Smart, Ninian. 1973. The Phenomenon of Religion. New York: Seabury, p. 57.
 Smart, Ninian. 1973. The Phenomenon of Religion. New York: Seabury, p. 68.
 Bainbridge, William Sims. 2005. “Atheism.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 1: 1-24, p.1.