Next Steps: A Comparative Study of Unbelief in Northern Ireland and Scotland

It’s been a long time since I last posted on this blog. This seems to be a typical refrain in my last few posts. But I am delighted to break my radio silence to announce that I shall be joining the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh in September 2017 as Leverhulme Trust Early Career Research Fellow. For the next three years, I will be working on a project entitled A Comparative Study of Unbelief in Northern Ireland and Scotland. This project builds upon my previous research, much of which was carried out within the School of Divinity, and through which I have assembled a portfolio of methodological and theoretical tools suited to the critical academic study of ‘religion’ and its ‘others’—atheism, non-religion, secularism, religious indifference—which each contribute to the more general concept of ‘unbelief’ underpinning this project.

My undergraduate dissertation (at Edinburgh) consisted of a content analysis on the major publications of several well-known ‘New Atheists’. This initial interest was developed further in my MSc by Research (again, at Edinburgh; supervised by Dr Steven Sutcliffe) which produced an analytic typology of the narratives of ostensibly ‘non-religious’ students at the University of Edinburgh. My doctoral thesis (at Lancaster University; supervised by Professor Kim Knott) then placed the burgeoning body of contemporary research on ‘non-religion’ into conversation with the critical academic study of ‘religion’. Through an analysis religion-related discourses in Edinburgh’s Southside (historical and contemporary), I concluded that ‘non-religion’ is a contextual phenomenon, entangled with a variety of pervasive discourses that are inflected by local and national particularity. Furthermore, I argued that the performance of ‘religious indifference’ can be a tactic for coping with social difference. In addition, I have co-edited three books which expand upon these themes—Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (2013), After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies (2016), and New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates (2017).

My current project continues this research trajectory, by focusing upon two constituent parts of the UK that are closely linked by centuries of migration across the North Channel; by problematic entanglements between various forms of Christianity and the state; and by their peripheral position in relation to the locus of UK power. Among my key questions are:

  1. Does ‘unbelief’ look and function in the same way for people from Catholic, Protestant and other religious backgrounds?
  2. Does ‘unbelief’ differ between rural areas and metropolitan centres?
  3. Do societies characterized by long traditions of Christianity and politicized religious identifications produce particular practices and processes of ‘unbelief’?
  4. Where and how do these relate to other social practices and processes of individuals, groups and communities in these two contexts?

My hope is that the project will enrich understandings of ‘unbelief’ and entangled concepts in two under-researched contexts, and contribute to broader scholarly debates surrounding the articulation and construction of ‘religion’ and ‘unbelief’.

In 2017/18 I shall be teaching on Studying Religions (Level 8) and Theory and Method in the Study of Religion (Level 11) and working to develop an honours course on ‘atheism’, ‘non-religion’ and related topics. I shall also continue in my capacities as co-editor-in-chief of the international podcast and academic hub, The Religious Studies Project, co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and treasurer of the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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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.

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