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:
- Does ‘unbelief’ look and function in the same way for people from Catholic, Protestant and other religious backgrounds?
- Does ‘unbelief’ differ between rural areas and metropolitan centres?
- Do societies characterized by long traditions of Christianity and politicized religious identifications produce particular practices and processes of ‘unbelief’?
- 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.
What he said…
In this post Ethan Quillen explores a discursive approach to atheism (and nonreligion) following the theoretical work of von Stuckrad (2003). Quillen suggests that researchers in this area move away from definitions and wrangling over the the meaning of words, and concentrate instead on the way in which these words are used; how these words are made meaningful and allowing research participants to ‘speak for themselves’. Here, Quillen proposes that this discursive approach has methodological implications for research in this field.
While admittedly my initial intentions for this post were a bit more malicious—repeating my old standard of arguing against the use of ‘nonreligion’  —I soon felt that to be a bit tedious and wasteful. That is, where in the past I have spent a good amount of time offering a critical perspective on the use of the term, such as was the content of my presentation at the NSRN conference in 2012, for this post…
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Some of you might remember a previous post on this blog from an anonymous atheist Freemason about what it is like to be just those to things.
Readers might also be interested in a couple of blogs which have emerged over the past couple of months from a UK Freemason (PM & PZ) who has become, paradoxically, an atheist, humanist, and feminist. Sceptical discussions from inside the craft, “aimed at anyone who values reason above dogma” can be found at Sceptic Freemason with more general intellectual discussion at Bad Freemasonry.
Apparently, you can also Ask them (almost) anything. Happy learning, people.
I quite enjoyed this post… very important points:
When I first heard that a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, WI a few weeks ago, I froze. My stomach lurched and my thoughts turned to the friends I’d made in the Sikh community through my work as an atheist and interfaith activist.
In the wake of the horror I reached out to friends directly and logged on to Twitter to express my shock, outrage, disgust and sadness—as a Millennial, I suppose you could say this is one way I engage in the collective processing of such traumas. Within minutes of my first tweet, I began to get responses from other atheists saying that interfaith work is bad, that I should be more concerned about atheists than Sikhs, and that “religion poisons everything.” The next day, I was called “a traitor” when I tweeted about efforts to raise funds to rebuild a mosque in Joplin, MO that was burned to the ground. When I tweeted about reaching out to the Sikh community and expressing solidarity, I was accused of trying to make atheism a religion.
I won’t have time to read this for a while… but I needed to get my hands on it for a chapter I am putting together on atheist reactions to the New Atheists. I also needed to read it because I have been criticising it from a distance without having actually taken the time to read it. I know it will annoy me – why do we need secular temples? They’re called museums, libraries, universities, sports stadiums etc… but perhaps it won’t annoy me. Either way, it is always good to go into these things with an open mind… so I’ll try :)
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.
Pretty much my thoughts exactly…
Alain de Botton wants to build an “atheist temple” in London. This has a connection with some of the issues I dealt with recently around whether you could have ritual without religion, and whether similar or even identical forms and structures could be used without the religious element. I think it’s possible and reasonable, but despite that, and although I have a lot of sympathy with his preference for a positive, uplifting message, I can’t see any sense in de Botton’s proposal.
I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the building would be – de Botton explicitly calls it an atheist temple, and wants to show the positive side of atheism, but all the detail of the plans – the specifically designed height, the fossils, the human genome sequence – makes it sound more like a freeform science museum, containing nothing, as far as I can see, that…
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Gary Gutting profiles the emerging brand of atheism espoused by Columbia University professor Philip Kitcher, in the New York Times:
Led by the biologist Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion,” atheism has taken on a new life in popular religious debate. Dawkins’s brand of atheism is scientific in that it views the “God hypothesis” as obviously inadequate to the known facts. In particular, he employs the facts of evolution to challenge the need to postulate God as the designer of the universe. For atheists like Dawkins, belief in God is an intellectual mistake, and honest thinkers need simply to recognize this and move on from the silliness and abuses associated with religion.
Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments. Rather, their belief arises from their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center.
In the last few years there has emerged another style of atheism that takes such experiences seriously. One of its best exponents is Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia. (For a good introduction to his views, see Kitcher’s essay in “The Joy of Secularism,” perceptively discussed last month by James Wood in The New Yorker.)
Instead of focusing on the scientific inadequacy of theistic arguments, Kitcher critically examines the spiritual experiences underlying religious belief, particularly noting that they depend on specific and contingent social and cultural conditions. Your religious beliefs typically depend on the community in which you were raised or live. The spiritual experiences of people in ancient Greece, medieval Japan or 21st-century Saudi Arabia do not lead to belief in Christianity. It seems, therefore, that religious belief very likely tracks not truth but social conditioning. This “cultural relativism” argument is an old one, but Kitcher shows that it is still a serious challenge. (He is also refreshingly aware that he needs to show why a similar argument does not apply to his own position, since atheistic beliefs are themselves often a result of the community in which one lives.)…
[continues in the New York Times]
The diary for 2012 is sure filling up! I’ll be presenting the following paper at Lancaster University as part of the (New) Atheism, Scientism and Open-Mindedness Conference, 2-3 April 2012.
New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking
Based upon prevalent emic and etic presentations of “New Atheism” in the media and online, it is unlikely that one would feel inclined to describe the dominant discourse as ‘open-minded’. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the situation is much more nuanced than such a superficial overview would suggest. One of the key criticisms levelled at “religion” by four illustrative exemplars of “New Atheism” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens – is that it stands in the way of knowledge and progress, and fosters a “totalitarian” atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority. This portrayal of closed-minded “religion” is contrasted with one of the key aspects of the worldview they promote, where fully naturalistic and rational education is presented as essential for the good of humanity, allowing individuals – according to Dennett – “to make their own informed choices”.
Drawing upon William Hare’s extensive writings on the subject of “open-mindedness” and Harvey Siegel’s subsequent clarification of the relationship between “open-mindedness” and “critical thinking”, this paper shall consider the following three interrelated areas of “New Atheist” discourse: a) their critique of religion, b) the worldview they promote, and c) the framework within which these occur. I shall demonstrate that “critical thinking” – described by Siegel as a “sufficient (but not necessary) condition of open-mindedness” – is a key epistemic virtue extolled throughout the “New Atheist” texts. This contrasts markedly with the “religion” portrayed in their critique. I conclude, with reference to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “paradigms” (adapted by Wayne Riggs), that the “New Atheist” position cannot be understood as “open-minded” (and neither, following Siegel, as involving “critical thinking”) through their apparent failure to engage with “religion” on its own terms, and the tendency towards propaganda and rhetoric inherent in their texts.