Changes at Secularism and Nonreligion

The journal that I co-edit – Secularism and Nonreligion – has recently had a change in editorial team, and we wanted to take this opportunity to tell you about it, and remind you about this excellent open access resource.

We are very pleased to welcome Dr Melanie Elyse Brewster to the editorial team, alongside current editors Chris Cotter (The Open University) and Isabella Kasselstrand (University of Aberdeen). Melanie is an associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University and a practicing psychologist. Her research focuses on stigma and marginalization and how these experiences may relate to mental health and well-being. Her book, Atheists in America (2014) was among the first texts to centre the narratives of demographically diverse nonbelievers in the United States. Melanie is replacing Jesse Smith, who is stepping down from editorial duties after nearly four years with the journal – thank you, Jesse, for everything that you have done during your tenure!

In 2021 we published ten new articles, and 2022 has begun with 2 new articles and several more in the pipeline:

  • Reuter, J.C. and Murray, C.I., 2022. Advancing the Study of Nonreligion through Feminist Methods. Secularism and Nonreligion, 11(1), p.1. DOI:
  • Urbanski, S., 2022. Is Secularism Too Western? Disputes Around Offending Pictures of Muhammad and the Virgin Mary. Secularism and Nonreligion, 11(1), p.2. DOI: 

With over ten years of publishing, this journal provides a touchstone for those interested in the broad field of secularism, non-religion, and related phenomena. We have been open access since our inception, and have a relatively swift turnaround time (peer-review dependent) and comparatively low article processing charges (which we frequently waive for those scholars without research funding). If you have a potential article in the making or would like to discuss a potential special issue, we would love to hear from you. And please do spread the word among colleagues and students that Secularism and Nonreligion is here, free to access, and welcoming new submissions.

With all good wishes for 2022

Melanie, Chris and Isabella 

Review of The Critical Study of Non-Religion

I’ve been very quiet here of late, because I have been insanely busy of late… but in a moment of vanity searching the other day, I was delighted to come across a very encouraging review of my book by Paul-François Tremlett of The Open University. I paste the final paragraph of the review below… for the full thing, you’ll need access to the journal Critical Research on Religion.

At the top of this review, I indicated that I would be writing to two questions: first, what is non-religion, and second, why does non-religion matter? Cotter’s careful analysis allows his reader to understand non-religion in terms of relational, situational, and performative acts which, because there are no standard texts, no enduring institutions and no stable populations associated with it, can be grasped in terms of discourse. At one level, then, both questions have been answered: we learn what non-religion is and that non-religion matters because the study of it tells us something interesting and important about the constitution of culture and society in the not so (these days!) United Kingdom. But I want to return to Bayart to pursue the postmodern or perhaps Deleuzian dimensions of non-religion—the fact that non-religion is not a thing or an object but a contingent relation that emerges through specific, situated acts and performances—and what this means for the way societies and religions are understood and studied. Postmodern methodologies such as deconstruction take the instability of structures and objects for their point of departure. Not just Bayart and Deleuze but new materialists such as Jane Bennett, Rosa Braidotti, and Bruno Latour as well as post-Marxists such as Donna Haraway and Ernesto Laclau take the incompleteness of the social as a point of departure, its tendency for transformation as a given. But this point of departure is arguably marginal to the “critical” tradition of Religious Studies with which Cotter identifies. So, why does this study of non-religion matter? Because it draws into view a range of wider questions about theory and method in Religious Studies which are only hinted at in Cotter’s otherwise excellent study.

Thanks so much to Paul for taking the time to engage so thoughtfully with the book. Which can, of course, be purchased here:

Upcoming Author-Meets-Critics on “The Critical Study of Non-Religion”

As we enjoy an unusual spell of glorious summer weather in Scotland, and as we settle into our new home in West Lothian (which explains the radio silence over the past few months), I am delighted to belatedly let you know of a special session taking place online next week at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network conference.

The conference, 16-18 June, is hosted by the University of Ottawa in partnership with the Nonreligion in a Complex Future project, and is taking place entirely online. The event is free of charge, and I would encourage anyone with an interest to register by 11 June and check it out:

On 17 June at 16.30 (UK time), I will have my first experience as an author meeting my critics. I am honoured that Andie Alexander (Emory University), Morteza Hashemi (University of Bristol/University of Edinburgh), Paul-Francois Tremlett (The Open University) and Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University) have taken the time to read my book – The Critical Study of Nonreligion – and will be offering their responses. I’ll be chairing the event, and will have the opportunity to respond to their points, and to audience questions. “Pleasantly intimidated” is probably the appropriate description of my feelings towards the event.

Please do sign up and support me, and also check out a fantastic array of other papers. I think that the session will be recorded for later viewing, though. I guess it’s finally time for me to sort out my Zoom background in the new house…

You and Me (But Mostly Me) – Video

I had the pleasure of suspending disbelief and playing a 19-year-old Mormon, alongside William John Bruce, as part of the Cosmos Theatre Company “Coming Home Again” Digital Concert a couple of weeks ago. Here’s the video 🙂

“You and Me (But Mostly Me)” from The Book of Mormon

Podcast on “After World Religions” etc, now available

Hi folks, a brief update.

My podcast from the OpenDiv conference, in which I discuss my general research trajectory, religious studies, the study of non-religion, the Religious Studies Project, and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network is available here on Anchor and Spotify. If you’d like to check out the other podcasts released during the event, they can be found here (on Anchor) or here (on Spotify).

Happy listening.

An Online Summit and a Concert

Hi folks. September to January was an incredibly busy time for me, and lots of the spinning plates started to wobble dangerously and/or break. But, everything has calmed down a little bit for me now as I continue lecturing at the University of Chester, tutoring at the University of Edinburgh, and working on my research fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. I have a few long overdue writing commitments to turn my attention to, and much overdue promotion to do for The Critical Study of Nonreligion.

However, I wanted to alert you to a couple of FREE upcoming events where you can hear me sing/speak.

The first is a 4-day “pod-conference” around spirituality, meaning, and connection in the secular world, running 25-28 February. I am one of the guest speakers, alongside many, many more worthy contributors, including my fellow RSP co-founder David Robertson. Registration is free, and many of the talks (mine included) are pre-recorded and available to listen to at your leisure. Do check it out.

The second is an online musical theatre concert – again, pre-recorded so you can watch and listen in your own time, without having to worry about any live-streaming issues. The programme is coming together nicely and, all being well, you should catch me singing a solo, a couple of duets, and in a couple of group numbers.

‘Coming Home Again’ Digital Concert premieres on 27 February and will be available until 3 March. Tickets are available here and are free of charge, or with an optional donation to Cosmos theatre company. 20% of anything raised from this project will be donated to Capital Theatres, Edinburgh and the remaining amount will go towards putting on a production later in the year.

May be a black-and-white image of 13 people and text

More from me sooner rather than later… I hope!

Developing a Critical Study of Non-Religion

Almost nine years after co-founding the Religious Studies Project podcast, I am in the hot seat today as the guest interviewee, speaking about the journey to my recently published book.

The podcast and transcription can be accessed here:

And, if you’re interested, the book, “The Critical Study of Non-Religion: Discourse, Identification and Locality” is out now with Bloomsbury, and also available through Bloomsbury Collections if your institution has access.

When I was asked to provide an image to accompany the podcast, my first thought was “ah, the illusive image of ‘non-religion'” – how exactly is one meant to capture something visually not being done? But then again, finding images of “religion” is just as problematic and ideologically loaded. But then I was reminded of the painting “Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858” by William Dyce.

This image is a good example of “religion” being notably absent, but also implicit in much of the imagery. The painting depicts, so the description goes, the retreat of “religion” and the rise of “science” at the site where Augustine reputedly landed in England, with a comet potentially harking back to the star of Bethlehem. Is this non-religion? Is this religion? Is it presenting a positive or nostalgic narrative of secularization? The interpretations abound.

Here’s what my colleague and RSP-friend Ethan Quillen wrote about it:

“Renowned for its association with the genre of ‘Atheist Aesthetics,’ “Pegwell Bay” depicts a discursive shift, a narrative ‘sea change’ wherein the once predominate use of ‘religious’ imagery has been replaced with that of science. Here, families gather shells and fossils on the low-tide shore as Donati’s Comet soars overhead. A site frequented by novice and professional fossil hunters, as well as notable theorists like Darwin, Dyce’s use of Pegwell Bay as a setting allows the image to speak on his behalf, revealing a discursive commentary about the ebbing tide of religious belief and the reality of a more science-minded perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

In his Faith and Its Critics, David Fergusson contends that this painting depicts a type of ‘wistful’ and ‘nostalgic’ Atheism, a longing for days gone by, which matches in tone the basis of certain theoretical definitions of Atheism by scholars such as Hyman and Buckley: ‘Modern Atheism’ (that which arose out of and within the Enlightenment) appears as a ‘re-emergence’ of the classical ‘rational-naturalism’ that defines our notion of ‘Ancient Atheism.’”

I just thought these thoughts were worth sharing as an addendum to the podcast. Please do have a listen/read and let me know what you think!

The book is finally here! The Critical Study of Non-Religion, out next week

monographI’m delighted to announce that my first sole-authored book, The Critical Study of Non-Religionis being published in hardback on 6 August! This book represents the culmination of over a decade of empirical study of people and groups who might be considered ‘non-religious’, and acts as a bridge between critical academic study of religion and more substantive ‘lived’ approaches. You can already purchase the book on Kindle (and even get a free preview of the introduction) and it should be coming out in paperback in a year or so (if that £76.50 price tag puts you off). I’ll try and write a few more posts in the coming weeks, but in the meantime please seek it out if you have the means, and let your institutional libraries know if you’d like it to make an appearance on the shelves. For now, here are some of the wonderfully supportive reviews:

Christopher R. Cotter’s interview subjects make it plain that identifying as religious, and, as he importantly argues, nonreligious or even indifferent to it all—is an act of identification taking place in a hectic social world. Cotter invites us to hear all of these claims as tactics by which social actors position themselves in relation to others, making The Critical Study of Non-Religion a coming-of-age moment for one of the discipline’s newest subfields. – Russell T. McCutcheon, University Research Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies, University of Alabama, USA

An exceptional combination of textbook and original empirical study outlines the field of non-religion and shows the situational and contextual nature of our religion-related categories. It argues convincingly that non-religion studies would benefit from moving towards a critical discursive approach that does not reify non-religion as anything substantial. – Teemu Taira, Senior Lecturer, Study of Religion, University of Helsinki, Finland

Christopher Cotter’s The Critical Study of Non-Religion is an intelligent and innovative study of the porous boundaries between religion and non-religion, which charts a path through the complex interrelations of family, community and individual identity and how these interact with ideological blocs in society, such as nationalism, politics and religion. Cotter insightfully deconstructs monolithic notions of non-religion and demonstrates the overlaps and grey areas that exist between certain religious people and certain non-religious people, in the areas of assumptions, beliefs and praxis. – Carole M. Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies, The University of Sydney, Australia

Review: (Un)Believing in Modern Society

This is the submitted version of my review of (Un)Believing in Modern Societyaccepted for publication in Modern Believing 61:1. 

Image result for unbelieving in modern society(Un)Believing in Modern Society: Religion, Spirituality, and Religious-Secular Competition

By Jörg Stolz, Judith Könemann, Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, Thomas Englberger, Michael Krüggeler

(Un)Believing in Modern Society is an ambitious book, rooted firmly in the Swiss context, and making make use of numerous large-scale social surveys and over seventy qualitative interviews to add nuance to and challenge secularization, individualization and market theories of religion. The authors provide a typology, a theory and a thesis to identify types of people in society, what their common beliefs, values, practices etc are, their relationships to various religious suppliers, and to map and explain how these types have changed in the past few decades.

The book begins with three chapters outlining the parameters of the ‘me-society’ – namely the freedom and obligation of individuals to choose and take responsibility in all areas of their lives – a theory of religious-secular competition, and an overview of four broad types of (un)belief. Chapters 4–9 then present a closer look at the utility of these types in relation to ‘Identity and Social Structure’, ‘Belief, Knowledge, Experience and Action’, ‘Values and Change of Values’, Religious and Spiritual Suppliers, ‘The Perception and Evaluation of Religion(s)’ and ‘Changes in Religiosity, Spirituality and Secularity’. A concluding chapter reflects on the ‘so what?’, before offering some predictions for the future.

The typology consists of ‘institutional’, ‘distanced’, ‘alternative’ and ‘secular’ types, which are further subdivided into: ‘evangelicals’ and ‘established’; ‘distanced institutional’, ‘distanced alternative’ and ‘distanced secular’; ‘esotericists’ and ‘Sheilaists and alternative customers’; and ‘indifferent’ and ‘opponents of religion’ (52). Provided one accepts the premises of the model the diagrams with axes of low to high ‘alternative spirituality’ and low to high ‘institutional religiosity’ are remarkably easy to follow and, combined with in-depth discussion and empirical examples, help the authors succeed in their goal of nuancing and advancing existing sociological theory.

A key message is that the different types use terms differently, think and act differently, and would require different stimuli to move between types. Dialogue between types will thus often result in talking past each other. Concepts of God are different. Understandings of practice differ, as does the salience of particular identifications. Crucially, understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ are wildly different between types, and problems occur when it is assumed that the same things are being done or said. Furthermore, each type is imbued with the characteristics of the ‘me-society’, yet to quite different effect in each case.

Other key findings include a nuancing of the notion of vicarious religion, a critique of market theory, and some clarity on the perception of non-Christian religions in Switzerland. On vicarious religion, the authors note that most of the population recognize churches and religion as potential sources of relief, but not for themselves. Churches are a public good that is not needed by the individual but might be needed at some future hypothetical point (128-9). On market theory, it is argued that existing approaches only consider intra-religious competition but neglect secular options. Given that ‘Most members of society… belong to the distanced type [57.4%, they…] do not see why they should switch suppliers if they are in any case only members in a very weak way’ (128). And on non-Christian religions, ‘the perception of non-Christian religions is strongly linked to issues related to foreigners, asylum seekers and Swiss identity.’ Yet also it is clear that ‘a critical attitude towards foreigners and Muslims [is] ‘socially undesirable’’ (148). Buddhism and the Reformed Church tend to come off best because they are not perceived to challenge the established order and freedom of the individual. Roman Catholicism and Islam are seen as impinging too heavily upon society and individual freedoms. Each of these findings is not new per se but are given more explanatory weight and nuance through the authors’ typology and model of religious-secular competition. The authors conclude with an important and well-evidenced prediction: ‘established’ religion – in Switzerland at least – will shrink (die off), ‘alternative’ will hold its own (but remain relatively small in number), ‘distanced’ will shrink and the ‘secular’ will become largest group.

Naturally, there are plenty of criticisms that can be levelled at the broad theorizing this book presents. The data on alternative spirituality is somewhat limited, the text builds from the perspective of individuals, neglects non-Christian religions, and is restricted to the Swiss context (194). Furthermore, the authors’ definition of religion (23) is quite ‘traditional’ and implies that individuals cannot be religious without relation to a specific, established tradition – defensible, perhaps, but contestable. However, the sheer volume of data, the generosity of spirit, and the nuancing of existing sociological theories make this a must read for anyone with an interest in the current state of religion in Europe – and explanations for why this is the case.

Chris Cotter for Scottish Greens Lothian List – Holyrood 2021

Here is my first video pitching my candidacy for Holyrood 2021. If you are a Scottish Green Party member with a vote in the Lothian internal selection, please consider placing me high in your preferences. Thank you.

You can read my candidate statement here.