Non-religion, the critical study of religion, sociology of religion, and more…

I recently had the pleasure of editing a review article for the journal Religion and Society: Advances in Research, on Abby Day’s Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. The article features commentary from Grace Davie, James A. Beckford, Saliha Chattoo, Mia Lövheim, Manuel A. Vásquez, and Abby Day herself, and begins with my editorial introduction, which focuses on the interactions between Abby’s work and research on ‘non-religion’, and critical research on ‘religion’ in general, as well as some reflections on the perceived divide between ‘sociology of religion’ and ‘religious studies’. The pre-copy-edited version of this introduction is pasted below. For the final version, and the full article, you’ll have to visit here (and possibly pay).


Editorial Introduction

I first had the pleasure of meeting the force of nature that is Abby Day back in 2010 at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s “Qualitative Methods Workshop” at the University of Cambridge (Cotter 2011). Back then I was working towards my Masters degree in Religious Studies and had little idea that in the coming years we would end up co-editing a book with Giselle Vincett (Day et al. 2013) or that I would find myself reviewing Believing in Belonging (see Cotter 2013) and collaborating on projects such as the one appearing in this journal. Given that the responses which follow this editorial—from Grace Davie, James A. Beckford, Saliha Chattoo, Mia Lövheim, Manuel A. Vásquez, and Abby Day herself—engage extensively and thought-provokingly with Abby’s work, I am going to restrict my comments to two brief points. First of all, the connections I can see between Believing in Belonging (Day 2011; paperback 2013) and the growing body of research into “non-religion”; and secondly, some reflections on the place of Abby’s work in the critical academic study of “religion” more broadly.

My own research has, in recent years, been heavily focused upon the problematic constructs of non-religion and secularity (cf. Quack 2014; Cotter 2015; Lee 2015) as limiting cases for their “semantically parasitic” (Fitzgerald 2007: 54) other, religion. Following Johannes Quack, I approach non-religion as “a descriptive term for a certain group of understudied phenomena and relationships and not as a term that seeks to draw clear boundaries between religion and nonreligion [sic]” (2014: 3). As such, I share many of the concerns addressed in Abby’s research—particularly concerning how, as Beckford puts it below, “census and survey questions about religion produce unreliable guides to belief and/or identities.” This point is exemplified best in the case of the “nones”—a residual category constructed by censuses and surveys which, once in place, has seen scholars, journalists, politicians and others rushing to “imbue this group with a material face, social interests and political persuasions, as if this group, always there but now with a name, is available for their commentary and speculation” (Ramey and Miller 2013).

Abby’s work with “census Christians” cuts to the core of this issue, examining individuals’ identity claims as precisely that—as “operational acts of identification”(Bayart 2005: 92)—and problematizing existing approaches to beliefs that privilege those commonly understood as being “religious.” Building upon Abby’s insight that “beliefs” are “performed through social actions of both belonging and excluding” (Day 2011: 194) my ongoing doctoral research takes a critical discursive approach to non-religion. With Steven Ramey, I argue that religion and, by extension, non-religion do “not have agency to teach or do anything” but are constructed by social actors who interpret situations “in ways that relate to their particular context and the range of interests that enliven that context” (2014: 109). Abby’s work contributes to a growing body of rigorous research into related categories (see for example Blankholm 2014; Lee 2015; Quack 2014; Quillen 2015), and serves as a useful and important manifesto for approaching those social actors who are positioned—by themselves or by others—as being other than religious.

As should be clear from the above, I position myself firmly within the critical strand of Religious Studies, and agree with my research supervisor that “there are no disinterested, external positions” (Knott 2005: 125) from which to examine religion. We do not occupy a neutral space but perpetuate and mold the “discipline of religion” (McCutcheon 2003); we are complicit in reifying this problematic social construct. From this perspective, surveys and questionnaires are no less problematic for the nuanced academic study of religion than are contemporary academic emphases on “lived religion,” i.e. on “religion as expressed and experienced in the lives of individuals” (McGuire 2008: 3). This relatively recent move away from the systematized theologies of male élites was certainly a welcome and necessary move for the field. All-too-often, however, such a focus merely privileges “lived religion” as somehow more authentic or more real than other aspects such as history, tradition, theology, and institution (see Cotter and Robertson 2016), and thus we return to the sui generis model so thoroughly critiqued by McCutcheon, Asad, Fitzgerald, and others.

In Vásquez’s contribution to this section, he highlights the important work that Believing in Belonging does in critiquing existing models of belief for ignoring issues of power, in demonstrating that belief is produced socially, and in locating belief in the activity of doing belief (if it is to have any meaningful sense at all). In this way, Day’s work facilitates a critical approach to that which is commonly understood as religious: it avoids unduly emphasizing both the individual and society, and simultaneously undercuts and challenges the constructed boundary between religion and non-religion by focusing on “alternative organizing principles independent of religious categories” (Quack 2012: 26). Although we could debate the extent to which “belief” is “independent of religious categories,” and although Day’s account arguably overemphasizes “relationships,” critical scholars have much to learn from her theoretically engaged ethnographic mutiny against established classificatory systems.

In lieu of a conclusion, and before I pass the baton to my esteemed colleagues, I wish to use my final paragraph to speak to a worrying divide that I perceive to be growing, at least in the UK, between Religious Studies (RS) and the Sociology of Religion (SOR). My evidence is little more than anecdotal, yet increasingly frequently I encounter colleagues who, while positioning themselves in one of these disciplines, dismiss the other as “too theological.” To translate these stances as I see them, some in RS have a tendency to dismiss SOR out of hand as being naïve in its reification of certain folk categories, its valorization of “society,” and its interest in large-scale surveys and social trends, whereas some in SOR castigate RS for being obsessed with category formation, and for being both uncritically wedded to phenomenological approaches and obstinately uninterested in “religion” in the “real world.” Although I would unhesitatingly admit that these criticisms ring true for much of what passes as RS and SOR in contemporary academia, it is my hope that my brief discussion above, and the extensive contributions below will demonstrate that each of these approaches has a great deal to offer. Working together is a much more effective route towards advancing critical thought, and increasing knowledge and understanding, and it is therefore with gratitude that I hand over to Grace, Jim, Saliha, Mia, Manuel, and Abby to demonstrate such productive collaboration in action.


Bayart, Jean-François. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53 (4): 775–90. doi:10.1111/jssr.12152.

Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Qualitative Methods Workshop.” NSRN Online. (Accessed 27 November 2015).

Cotter, Christopher R. 2013. “Review: Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World.” Fieldwork in Religion 8 (1): 116–17.

Cotter, Christopher R. 2015. “Without God yet Not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-Religion among Scottish University Students.” Pp. 171–94 in Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts, ed. Lori G. Beaman and Steven Tomlins. Dordrecht: Springer.

Cotter, Christopher R., and David G. Robertson, eds. 2016. After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. London: Routledge.

Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Day, Abby, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter, eds. 2013. Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knott, Kim. 2005. The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London and Oakville, CT: Equinox.

Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Nonreligious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCutcheon, Russell T. 2003. The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric. New York: Routledge.

McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Quack, Johannes. 2012. Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Quack, Johannes. 2014. “Outline of a Relational Approach to ‘Nonreligion.’” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26 (4-5): 439–69.

Quillen, Ethan Gjerset. 2015. “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism.” Science, Religion and Culture 2 (3): 25–25.

Ramey, Steven. 2014. “Textbooks, Assumptions, and Us: Commentary on Jimmy Emanuelsson’s ‘Islam and the Sui-Generis Discourse: Representations of Islam in Textbooks Used in Introductory Courses of Religious Studies in Sweden.’” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26 (1): 108–10. doi:10.1163/15700682-12341285.

Ramey, Steven, and Monica R. Miller. 2013. “Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty ‘Mathematics’ of the ’Nones.” The Huffington Post. November 7. (accessed 27 November 2015).


Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: