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.
Those of you who know me well will know that this past few months have been particularly turbulent in terms of my personal life. Back in June, my world was turned upside down when my dear friend Will died tragically and unexpectedly. I had known Will from the start of high school, and since then we had both moved over from Northern Ireland to Edinburgh at the same time, where we maintained frequent contact for the next eight years. I was going through one of my suit pockets the other day and discovered the short tribute that I read at Will’s cremation, and thought that it was about time that I shared it with the world, in some sort of attempt at a memorial. No doubt, it will not compare with the lovely piece that is residing on his departmental website at the University of Edinburgh, written by his PhD supervisor. I don’t personally believe in life after death in any sort of spiritual or religious sense, but I believe that we all leave our mark on the world and in the memories and lives of those who knew and loved us. Will shall certainly never be forgotten.
In October, a group of Will’s friends did a 5km run in his memory, and raised over £2000 for PIPS (Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self Harm) Newry & Mourne, and I believe that my JustGiving page is still functional, should you want to donate anything.
What follows are the scans of my tribute, and some pictures of Will and his friends. This is not intended in any way to be self-indulgent… it just seemed in some way appropriate.
In response to my previous post on the mistreatment of Irish WW2 Veterans, my friend sent me through a link to the following article. Belfast has a 26 year-old mayor? Who knew…
Apologies for the Irish emphasis today… and for appearing to only be criticising nationalists/the Republic of Ireland. This is not my intention, it is just the material that has come my way today. I think it is disgusting that someone in public office can get away with this sort of behaviour. Were this anywhere else I would have expected some sort of disciplinary action… I would ESPECIALLY expect disciplinary action in Belfast of all places. When will people learn that there are more important things in life?
Sinn Fein Lord Mayor’s snub to Army cadet at awards ceremony (from the Belfast Telegraph)
By Lesley-Anne McKeown
Wednesday, 30 November 2011The Lord Mayor of Belfast is facing calls to resign after he failed to present a Duke of Edinburgh award certificate to an Army cadet force member.
Niall O Donnghaile (26) pulled out halfway through presenting awards at Belfast City Hall on Monday night to avoid interacting with the girl, believed to be aged just 15.
Ironically, the Sinn Fein first citizen was yesterday photographed at the launch of a new good relations plan for Belfast, just hours after he had caused the row.
UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt, who was at the ceremony, said questions were raised when the proceedings were delayed for 45 minutes.
He explained: “Then the five people listed as forming the platform party, including the Lord Mayor, were joined by a sixth. The programme of events listed item two as ‘Presentation of Certificates by the Lord Mayor’ but for some reason he stopped halfway through and the remainder of the certificates were presented by the sixth person, Gordon Topping of The Duke of Edinburgh Awards.
“The problem appeared to be down to the fact that one of the recipients was from the Army Cadet Force.”
Mr Nesbitt added: “Actions speak louder than words and thanks to the actions of the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, 150 award winners, plus friends and parents, were kept waiting. This is absolutely shameful. So much for Sinn Fein’s fine rhetoric about a shared future.”
Last night Mr O’Donnghaile denied he had shirked his civic responsibilities, claiming he had stepped aside because he did not want to compromise his republican principles.
“As Lord Mayor I was invited to attend The Duke of Edinburgh Awards in City Hall,” he said. “I agreed to present a number of the awards to the young people in recognition of their endeavours. As an Irish republican I did not shirk my responsibilities in this instance. At the last minute I was informed that one of the awards was to be presented to a representative of the Army Cadet Force.
“In order to avoid any unnecessary sensitivities to either party, it was arranged for the outgoing chairman of the organisation to present some of the certificates alongside me.
“Since becoming Mayor in late May I have attended over 620 engagements, many of them in working class unionist communities. I take my responsibilities as being a Mayor for all very seriously.”
This is not the first time the Sinn Fein man has courted controversy. In June he caused outrage among unionists after replacing Royal portraits in the parlour with a copy of the 1916 Irish Proclamation of Independence.
He also refused to attend an event at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday and declined to attend a homecoming parade for troops back from Afghanistan.
DUP councillor Gavin Robinson said: “Of course the irony is that he agreed to present the awards at all. The Duke of Edinburgh is Colonel-in-Chief of the cadet forces. The Lord Mayor needs to start upholding the value of his office and representing everyone within the city; either that, or he needs to step aside.
“It is a scandal that the Lord Mayor debased himself and his office by politicising the event.”
Bob Stoker, whose soldier son was injured while serving in Afghanistan, has also called for the Lord Mayor to step down.
“Previous Lord Mayors have had to engage with people from unsavoury backgrounds, such as people who were in prison or who were members of the IRA, but they did so because it was their civic duty. I think he needs to consider his position.”
Maire Hendron, who chairs the good relations working group at Belfast City Hall, said she was “appalled” by what happened.
I don’t tend to emphasise the fact that I’m Northern Irish. I’m getting better at it… but perhaps the constant returns to utter stupidity are something to do with it. I came across this plea in a friend’s Facebook notes… and whilst I wince slightly at the hyperbolism and flowery prose (something of which I am all too frequently guilty) I thought it was most definitely worth sharing. Thanks AF.
A plea to Northern Ireland in light of the Ronan Kerr car-bomb.
The fight is not ours.
It is a historical fight derived from the cunning and deliberate divide and conquer policies of an imperial power.
The localised violence that continues to haunt parts of Northern Ireland allows the success to be theirs as we play the game set for us. We have been divided and we have been conquered and while the blame lies with our own people, the truly guilty party was an empire that is now long defunct.
Yet, despite this inalienable truth, we still fight. We still suffer car bombs, we still suffer shootings, we still suffer the threat of terror. Northern Ireland, I implore you, look at the history, take a non-compartmentalised glance and understand our past. If we continue to fight and bicker, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Ulster will once again descend into flames. We are seen as a disgrace in modern Europe, an embarrassing backwater of tribalism, violence and depravity. But we are also seen as a vibrant, progressive and creative society that offers the world an unlimited amount of good.
Look at us, look at them, look at the past, you decide.
It is time to move on, this is not our fight.
Thank you and to Northern Ireland: be proud.
I imagine this plea could be applied to many other conflict zones around the world…
Comments and thoughts appreciated.
Yesterday, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Tory Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, warned that anti-Muslim prejudice is becoming normal in the UK. According to a BBC report on a speech she was to deliver later that day, the baroness warned “against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremist” saying that “such labels fuel misunderstanding”.
Baroness Warsi will say anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial, and she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”. In extracts of the speech, published in the Daily Telegraph, the peer blames “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. […]
[…] Baroness Warsi is to say publicly what many Muslims privately complain about – that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.
[… In the past, Baroness Warsi] told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain’s last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn’t really matter.”
In her speech, she is expected to say the description of Muslims as either moderate or extremist encourages false assumptions.
“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’,” she will say.
“In the school, the kids say: ‘The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.
“And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”
Baroness Warsi will say terror offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. But she will also urge Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent acts.
“Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say.
“They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.””
It’s bizarre to find myself saying this (in that Baroness Warsi is a Conservative), but I totally agree with her on this. I certainly find myself having conversations with I would say the vast majority of my friends, about Muslims, which we would never dream of having about other faith groups. I was talking to friends at the weekend, and I started to digress on my own personal thoughts about when this started to happen. When I did so, the traditional beacon of 9/11 appeared to be the turning point. However, for me at least, this was not a moment where conversations on Islam started to take an overall negative turn, but it was the first time that I can remember EVER having conversations about Islam at all.
Now there are perhaps two keys reasons for this: firstly, I went to school in Northern Ireland, where until recently, ‘Religious Education’, even up to GCSE Level, consisted of studying Christianity. You didn’t have to agree with it (although I do remember a certain lad getting into heated arguments with teachers about whether God existed or not, etc), but the subject matter was simply Christianity, in a few of its locally-represented forms; secondly, again, this was Northern Ireland… which a decade ago was certainly not the most ethnically diverse country on the planet. I remember there was a black kid in one of the years above me… and one of my best friends had an an Arabic-sounding surname, but that was about it as far as diversity went. Even when I was a committed Christian, I don’t think I ever really stopped to consider what ‘other’ people believed… just that they didn’t ‘believe in God’. It seems that my trips to Egypt and Tunisia, and pop-cultural references (such as the many “By Allah’s” in Aladdin) just went completely over my head. And it wasn’t just Islam… I can remember the topic of another good friend’s father’s religious beliefs coming up in conversation at one point, and the response came ‘He’s a Buddhist… they don’t believe in God’, and I never thought about it any further.
I wonder how similar this is to the experiences of other 20-somethings in the UK? Probably not… given that most other parts of the UK probably had ‘actual’ Religious Education… and because most places aren’t quite as boringly homogeneous as Northern Ireland was at the end of the 90s (although, in the Northern Irish case, maybe a little less ‘religious diversity’ might have been a good thing? In fact, with the influx of immigration from various parts of the EU and further afield, we have actually seen some groups of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ putting aside their differences to do physical harm to these new arrivals… ‘delightful’, isn’t it?). However, I have no doubt that had I not decided to embark upon Religious Studies at University, purely out of curiosity, I would be buying into the contemporary pervasive attitudes towards Islam even more than I already (hopefully unconsciously) do.
This pervasive attitude has emerged in the wake of 9/11, other terror attacks, and other sensationalised statements and actions of small minorities. The only ‘Islam’ which the vast majority of the British population are presented with, and indeed the only Islam that they are remotely interested in, is a media-distorted version propagated by a small minority of extremists/fundamentalists. In a way, this pervasive Islamaphobia is exactly what the perpetrators of various terror attacks, and the preachers of extreme interpretations of Islam would have wished to create. How could things have turned out better for them? The ‘common man’ in the ‘West’ didn’t have any major attitudes towards Islam before terrorist atrocities, combined with biased and un-educated, deadline-driven media coverage (a charge from which the BBC is not exempt), and instant internet-based publicity platforms for extremists on all sides, started to form this negative opinion.
I am not going to start talking about religious toleration… or pluralism… or where we draw the line between ‘dinner-table’ conversations and ‘bigotry’. Firstly, this is because I have almost completed another post about everyone’s favourite pastor -Mr Terry Jones – but I left my laptop at home with the document on it… boo! And secondly, because I have a very inherently negative attitude towards most forms of inter-faith dialogue etc, where the ‘religious’ are seen as having something which the ‘nonreligious’ don’t… and therefore they should all band together and try to protect this very important thing which ‘unites’ them… when really the whole idea of a religious faith essentially precludes this unity. But… before I get drawn into this.. I will echo the sentiments I stated in my very first blog post, 18 months ago, that EDUCATION about religion is ‘absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.’
On this note, I am becoming more and more swayed by the idea that certain outspoken atheists are doing a pretty good job in educating the wider public about ‘religion’ in general. Obviously, they have their own agenda which may or may not be helpful, but the simple fact is that many, many ‘religious’ people know very little about the specific tenets and narratives of the ‘faith’ that they claim to belong to, and the information provided by atheistic texts etc (if accurate, which isn’t always the case) might at least spur them to read more widely into their faith, and the faith of others. It’s one way of getting people ‘interested’ in religion again, I guess.
But, back to Baroness Warsi. Dichotomising tendencies are an inherent human problem… we all do it, and we always will. But even if people are not educated in the idiosyncrasies of individual religions, political views etc we can try and espouse an ethos where we repeatedly and continuously question the reason why we hold the opinions that we do. Religion is not a monolith. Neither is Islam. Neither is Islam a dichotomy between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. If you ever hear someone trying to apply ‘common sense’ dichotomies like ‘black and white’ or ‘male and female’ to complex, human situations, you need to be suspicious. People are not either ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’… they are not either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’… they are not either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’… the list goes on and on. Each person is an individual… whilst they may choose in certain circumstances to identify with certain groups or ideals, and whilst ‘we’ may categorise them , on occasion, dependent upon contextual variables, we tend to be much more ‘fuzzy’ than these rigid, contextualised categories allow.
Does anyone else remember Tufty the squirrel? I definitely have one of these badges kicking about in my parents’ house somewhere. Tufty advised on road safety… and his motto was, of course – “Stop! Look! and Listen!” Maybe we need to instigate a similar motto for people to use in situations where people with verbal diarrhea come out with dichotomising statements? Perhaps Baroness Warsi would like to design the mascot for this campaign?
Feel free to send in suggestions :P