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A Brief (Life) Update: Discourses on (Non-)Religion in Edinburgh’s Southside

I was recently asked to submit a short, interdisciplinary research brief for an event that I am attending on Urban Super-Diversity next month. In the interests of updating you all on what I am up to – particularly given that this blog has not been updated in a horrendously long time – I have posted this information below as an image. You can also download it as a PDF.

I hope to get back to blogging more regularly at some point in the future…

Taking a leaf out of my pal David’s blogging book, I guess I should update you all on what’s been happening.

Academically, among other things…

In my ‘real life’…

Ciao for now.

A-Cad Cotter

Scotland Census 2011 – 36.7% tick ‘no religion’

An initial breakdown of data from the 2011 census in Scotland is now available:

It shows, among other things, a decrease in numbers of  those selecting the ‘Church of Scotland’, ‘Other Christian’, and ‘Jewish’ categories. ‘Church of Scotland’, for example, is down 10% since 2001 to 32.4% of the population. All other categories show an increase. Most notable, perhaps, are the figures for those selecting ‘no religion’ –  up from 27.8% in 2001 to 36.7% (the current figure is around 25% for England and Wales).

Expect these figures to be discussed and debated ad nauseam in the coming weeks/months/years.

Thanks to Michael Rosie for the heads up! 

Secular Sectarians?: Atheism+ and the “Near Other”


“Someone who resembles us in so many ways and differs from us in but one characteristic threatens us much more than the totally other or alien.” – Rethinking Pluralism

The online atheist community is abuzz over a new sub-movement being pushed from some corners called Atheism+ Here is the genesis of the idea, its initial elaboration and it’s call to arms from the Blag Hag blog.  Jen McCreight, the author of Blag Hag, summed the new movement up succinctly as follows:

Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

In other words Atheism+  wants atheists go beyond mere unbelief to proactively engage a variety of ethical issues. Some commentators were quick to suggest that this sounded an awful lot like secular humanism

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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)’[1]. 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” [2]. 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” [3].

“Low religiosity” is, as Frank Pasquale states, a “relative measure based on self-reports”. “Its meaning shifts with the nature of the underlying sample” [4] 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.”[5] 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’ [6];
  • ‘In the absence of religion, people tend to believe anything rather than nothing…’[7].

[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)’[8], 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)[9]. In addition, 53.4 percent of British respondents to the European Values Survey question stated that they were ‘not a religious person’[10]. 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’[11]. This religion can be conceived in a number of ways[12]: 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[13].  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…[14]

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’[15]. It also omits individuals who may be reluctant to label themselves with a nonreligious term[16], or the truly indifferent who ‘find religion to be so irrelevant […that they are] not even conscious of […rejecting] it’[17]. 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… [18]

Many scholars ‘presume that [the term ‘religion’] points to pre-social and thus universal sentiments’[19]. 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’[20]. 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.[21]

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’[22]; any number of ‘ideas, symbols, feelings, practices and organisations’[23]; or some sort of transcendent ‘Focus’[24]. 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[25].

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’[26], 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.

[1] ‘Teaching Atheism and Nonreligion: Challenges and Opportunities’, Discourse 10, no. 2 (2011): 3.

[2] 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.

[3] in Frank L. Pasquale, ‘The Social Science of Secularity’, Free Inquiry 33, no. 2 (2012): 17–23.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] M. Percy, ‘Losing Our Space, Finding Our Place’, in Religion, Identity and Change, ed. S. Coleman and P. Collins (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 39.

[8] Phil Zuckerman, 2010. Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. New York: New York University Press, p. 96.

[9] 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.

[10] Weller, Paul. 2008. Religious Diversity in the UK: Contours and Issues. London: Continuum, p. 51

[11] Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2000a. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3.

[12] 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.

[13] Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363-368, p. 364

[14] 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.

[16] Bullivant 2008, 364

[17] Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan, p. 39.

[18] Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 46.

[19] 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.

[20] 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

[21] Geertz, Clifford. 1968. Religion as a Cultural System. In The Religious Situation, ed. Donald R. Cutler, 639-688. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 664.

[22] Cox, James L. 1996. Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion. 2nd ed. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications, p. 15.

[23] Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 2.

[24] Smart, Ninian. 1973. The Phenomenon of Religion. New York: Seabury, p. 57.

[25] Smart, Ninian. 1973. The Phenomenon of Religion. New York: Seabury, p. 68.

[26] Bainbridge, William Sims. 2005. “Atheism.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 1: 1-24, p.1.

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:

Non-Religiosity, Identity, and Ritual

EASR: Non-Religiosity, Identity, and Ritual.

A report, written by myself, Rebecca Aechtner and Johannes Quack.

Let me know what you think :)

Free to Download Articles on Secularism and Irreligion

Although I have not had a chance to read any yet, I have just downloaded ten articles from the ISSSC stream on Scribd. I don’t much like Scribd, and I cannot comment on the quality of the articles, but they are written by some excellent folk including Frank Pasquale, Barry Kosmin and Ryan Cragun, so if their usual standard is anything to go by I should have something interesting for you in a few weeks…


NSRN Launch New Website!

I have been working on this website for months now, and launch day has finally happened! It would be great if you could all take a look and let me know what you think :)

NSRN Launch New Website!.

Toward a Typology of Nonreligion (Parts 1 and 2)

I’ve decided to enter the world of YouTube. Not because I had any burning desire to do so, but because I had some material and thought it couldn’t hurt to share it. The following two videos are audio recordings with the accompanying PowerPoint presentation of a paper I presented at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ Annual Conference in Budapest on 19 September 2011. I’m not in the habit of recording my presentations, but as I am writing a conference report on our panel session for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, it made sense for me to record the full panel. Unfortunately I cannot share the full six-paper panel, or the ensuing discussion, as that would be a breach of privacy/copyright etc etc.

If you have 15 minutes… have a listen. Tell me what you think… and if you would like to read something more substantial, I can send through the full 25,000-word thesis. Feel free to cite this as you will – if you do can you use the following format:

Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students”, European Association for the Study of Religions Annual Conference, 19 September. Budapest. Available here: <URL>




The Clergy Project

The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold the supernatural beliefs of their religious traditions. The Clergy Project launched on March 21st, 2011.

Currently, the community’s nearly 100 members use it to network and discuss what it’s like being an unbelieving leader in a religious community. The Clergy Project’s goal is to support members as they move beyond faith. Members freely discuss issues related to their transition from believer to unbeliever including:

  • Wrestling with intellectual, ethical, philosophical and theological issues
  • Coping with cognitive dissonance
  • Addressing feelings of being stuck and fearing the future
  • Looking for new careers
  • Telling their families
  • Sharing useful resources
  • Living as a nonbeliever with religious spouses and family
  • Using humor to soften the pain
  • Finding a way out of the ministry
  • Adjusting to life after the ministry