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.

“Outgrowing God” Commentary at the Religion Media Centre

My comments on Dawkins’ Outgrowing God have been published by the Religion Media Centre. Trimmed, edited and with added content from yesterday thanks to editorial help from Ruth Peacock at the Centre.

https://religionmediacentre.org.uk/news-comment/outgrowing-god/

There isn’t much that is substantively new here. In the first section, the reader is walked through a collection of points he has made over the years – most of us are atheists regarding most gods, we shouldn’t ascribe non-/religious identities to children, the God of the Old Testament is nasty, the New Testament notion of atonement is awful, we use criteria from outside the Bible to assess its moral worth, etc.

However, the central idea of the book – that it is directed towards children in order to break the transmission of religion – is an interesting one. Evidence shows time and again that family transmission is key to religion’s maintenance, with enormous importance lying in ‘credibility enhancing displays’ in the family home (judge me by what I do not by what I say).

Furthermore, for every 26 former Christians who move to the ‘no religion’ category in the UK, only one moves from ‘no religion’ to a Christian identification, demonstrating that once the link has been broken it is highly unlikely to be reformed, particularly in adulthood.

In this book, Dawkins not only targets religion in the early stages of the human life cycle, he also places it in a more infantile stage in his narrative of human evolutionary progress from superstition to science (a problematic narrative popularized in the Victorian era).

The model of religion that is constructed here is self-consciously Abrahamic (focusing on the concept of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and consists of a collection of propositional ‘truths’ that are supposed to be subscribed to by ‘proper’ adherents (despite demonstrable evidence that this rarely plays out on the ground).

But mostly religion is constructed as a failed science and engaged with in that manner. This reduces religion, once again, to truth claims, neglecting the many millions of ‘believers’ who quite happily maintain belief in both religion and science, and paying scant attention to the role of ritual, material culture, practice, meaning-making and so on.

Importantly, the text fails to interrogate other areas of human life where tradition might be appealed to, or where normative claims are made – such as politics, economics, the family, national identity or love – perpetuating the problematic notion that once certain ‘religious’ beliefs are cast aside, rationality will prevail.

Outgrowing God? A Brief Review

In many ways, for me – as a critical social scientist of ‘religion’, specializing in all things ‘non-religious’ – to comment on the quality of atheism displayed in Richard Dawkins’ latest book Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide would be inappropriate. No one would expect a scholar of religion to comment positively or negatively on the substantive content of texts associated with other religions. An element of neutrality would be expected. The same for the data that makes up much of my chosen area of study. However, I can offer a brief comment on what this new publication might signify in this particular historical moment. Also, given that Dawkins’ text engages in theorizing about religion in general, and purports to offer (social) scientific analysis of religion, he is very much stepping into my territory and can be engaged with as such.

As far as Dawkins’ oeuvre is concerned, there isn’t much that is substantively new here. In the first section, the reader is walked through a collection of points he has made over the years – most of us are atheists regarding most gods, we shouldn’t ascribe non-/religious identities to children, the God of the Old Testament is nasty, the New Testament notion of atonement is awful, we use criteria from outside the Bible to assess its moral worth, etc. The writing is somewhat more generous in spirit than in previous instantiations – perhaps because of the conceit that this is notionally written for a younger audience – and Dawkins is pleasingly measured in his appreciation of the value of myth, the beauty of various Biblical verses, and so on. Less generous, perhaps, is his model of Christianity as tritheism with Mary as a goddess, his construction of some so-called ‘official doctrine’ of Islam (if he could point me to this, I’d be really keen to consult it), and his continued battering of the notion that increasing science belief equates with decreasing god belief. The second section of the book turns, as one would expect, to evolutionary theory, making the broad points that design is improbable, a designer even more improbable, and that common sense oftentimes fails in the face of empirical research.

The content is unoriginal but presented in an interesting tone that is more likely to see it read to children rather than being picked up by wannabe atheists hiding the book under the covers from their theistic parents. The model of religion that is constructed here is self-consciously Abrahamic and propositional, and pays scant attention to the role of ritual, material culture, practice, meaning-making and so on. But mostly it is constructed as a failed science and engaged with in that manner. Thus, it is relatively easy for many to dismiss should they be so inclined. Importantly, the text fails to interrogate other areas of human life where tradition might be appealed to, or where normative claims are made – such as politics, economics, the family, national identity or love – perpetuating the problematic notion that once certain ‘religious’ beliefs are cast aside, rationality will prevail. It is interesting to see Dawkins continuing his blend of anti-religious critique and popularizing of evolutionary science in a new format, long after the heyday of the New Atheist movement. The text is unlikely to win many converts to this style of thinking, but as a text that packs a lot of popular science and pop biblical criticism into an easily digestible and entertaining format, it may act as an early foray into such matters for younger readers and/or parents who are seeking an eye-opening text for the next generation.

Religious Studies after ‘After World Religions’ (DVRW Keynote video)

On 5 September 2019, along with my friend and colleague David Robertson, I delivered the opening lecture at the XXXIII Jahrestagung der Deutschen Vereinigung für Religionswissenschaft (DVRW 2019) in Hannover. Or, rather, we were stuck between flights in Amsterdam, and so recorded the lecture in advance. Here it is. Thanks to the organizers for inviting us, and allowing us to share.

Conference website: https://www.dvrw2019.uni-hannover.de/

Abstract: What happens to the study of religion when the comparative categories upon which it is founded fall away? Can we reconceptualize the field? Should we? ‘After World Religions’ (2016) attempted to show some ways in which we might address this in our teaching practise, but it also showed how hegemonic categories like “world religions” continue to be in public discourse and in the institutional logic of the modern Religious Studies department. The growth of studies into the non-religious and embodied vernacular practices may suggest the broader relevance of our approach(es), but also represent a defence of categories like “religion” against these criticisms. This input paper will discuss and critically assess some possible ways forward for Religious Studies after World Religions.

I’m standing for Nomination for Holyrood 2021

So, I am putting myself forward for internal selection for the Scottish Green Party for Holyrood 2021…

I joined the Scottish Greens the day after the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, having never been a member of a political party. The party’s values of social, economic, and environmental justice are at the core of my political ideals as a pro-European, pro-Independence socialist, feminist environmentalist. Since joining, I have assisted in every election and referendum campaign, served as Campaign Support Officer for the Edinburgh Greens’ successful 2017 City Council campaign, and reprised this role as a volunteer for Lorna Slater’s hard-fought 2019 Leith Walk by-election campaign.

I am putting myself forward for selection for Lothian because I want to put my passion and experience to work for the people of this region. As an academic specializing in the social-scientific study of religion, I have spent the past decade studying issues of power, politics, identity, privilege, and more, and am particularly attentive to the plight of marginalized groups in our nation and globally. As a stage performer, writer and lecturer, I am confident in using my voice in various contexts to spread Green messaging. And as a human being, I believe that a collectivist attitude to our shared environment (broadly conceived) is essential for a just and sustainable planetary future.

I’ll post more material here as and when it appears. Wish me luck!

Freedom at dawn

My father – Rev. Dr Dr Cotter – penned these words on the arrival of Saoirse last month. It felt appropriate to share with the world…


 

On the birth of granddaughter Saoirse Patricia to Lindsey and Chris, 16 July
2019.

Freedom at dawn

The melody now gains a much-expected modulation,
A new key is sounded, embellishing ostinato figures.
Such urgent calls from tiniest lungs’ unique fortissimo.
The crows pause in sunrise cacophony,
Attentive to the bright unheard cadenza.
Long months of waiting, anxious anticipation
Of a little, little life, now needing nurture.
The fragile centre of all hope, all love,
Saoirse makes her bid for freedom –
Free to develop as her gifts unfold,
Free to be the vital focus of all joy,
Free to be herself amid the teeming universe,
And on its vast, and fathomless expanse
To stamp her little self, to leave a lasting imprint,
Touching the many lives, now intertwined with hers.
Strengthening their zest, relishing the bonds
That place them close to this their animating,
Exhilarating catalyst – elemental force,
Gently forging yet richer compounds,
Distilling, oxygenating our choicest isotopes,
Superseding all our binary paradigms
Through this new world, this perfect paradise of potential


Thanks, Dad. Beautiful.

Interview on Sputnik News

Yesterday, I was interviewed by Sputnik News on the recent British Social Attitudes survey results.

Here’s the story that triggered it: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/11/uk-secularism-on-rise-as-more-than-half-say-they-have-no-religion

Here’s how they sold the interview:

According to new research published as part of the British Social Attitudes Survey, only 1% of people in the UK aged 18-24 and only one in three people over the age of 75 identify themselves as religious.

Dr Christopher Cotter from the University of Edinburgh is not entirely convinced that Britain is no longer a Christian country and wonders how Christian Britain was in the first place.

And full audio and text is available here:

https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201907111076217511-britons-rejecting-religion-part-of-general-distancing-from-institutions—professor/

I’m also not complaining about the promotion…

Critical Comment on “Findings from Understanding Unbelief Across Disciples, Across Cultures”

Following my attendance and presentation at the excellent Cultures of Unbelief conference in Rome last week (28-30 May 2019), I was asked for a comment by the Religion Media Centre on the report that was launched there, presenting interim findings from 2019 research in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The report contains some excellent and up-to-date data which problematizes the notion that those who do not ‘have’ religion (through identification, belief, practice or other measures) are a homogeneous and ’empty’ category. The report can be accessed in its entirety here, and comes with many helpful (and some not so helpful) visualizations: https://research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/reports/

However, my comment is somewhat critical and picks up on a couple of points that are already being widely disseminated (and to my mind, misinterpreted) in the media.

Here are just some of the headlines that I’ve spotted over the past few days:

Whilst not completely incorrect, and whilst coming in the most part from a ‘good place’, these headlines are problematic. Here was my initial response:

These interim findings provide rich data emphasizing the sheer variety of identities, values and beliefs of ‘atheists’ and ‘agnostics’ but must be treated with caution. Headlines emphasizing the number of atheists that believe in the ‘supernatural’ mistakenly presume that this is contradictory (it isn’t), and are most significantly evidenced by prevalent tropes which dubiously warrant the label ‘supernatural’ –  that significant events are ‘meant to be’ and that ‘there are underlying forces of good and evil in this world’. Furthermore, celebrating the significant emphasis on ‘family’ and ‘freedom’ by ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ obscures the fact that these are slippery symbols which gather together hosts of incompatible beliefs – for example, freedom for religion and freedom from religion.

The staff at the RMC were very helpful, and pushed me on a couple of the points I made, and we worked together to produce the following text, published on their website (along with comments from Lois Lee, Julian Baggini and Andrew Copson):

These interim findings provide rich data emphasising the sheer variety of identities, values and beliefs of ‘atheists’ and ‘agnostics’, but must be interpreted well.  One reading of the data is that it generally shows that atheists and agnostics are not all that different from the broader population. Another is that atheists and agnostics are very similar to ‘religious believers’. If this is taken to mean that they are ‘not really’ atheists or agnostics, this would be a gross oversimplification. Headlines emphasizing that atheists believe in the ‘supernatural’, mistakenly presume that this is contradictory.  But we know from existing research that while atheists don’t believe in some sort of theistic God, their position doesn’t say anything about fate, or ghosts, or karma etc. Responses such as significant events are ‘meant to be’ and that ‘there are underlying forces of good and evil in this world’, need not refer to the supernatural. They could be used to explain rational causation of events or societal forces.  The report’s findings of shared values such as ‘family’ and ‘freedom’, shows that these are powerful symbols, but they are very broad categories which can mask very real differences.

An excellent experience all round,

UU

An Academic Week in Helsinki, thanks to the EU

Last night, I touched down in Helsinki where I shall be spending a week on an Erasmus+ teaching exchange between the Study of Religions department at the University of Helsinki, and the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, facilitated by my friend and colleague Teemu Taira.

The work plan is as follows:

  • Monday: Deliver a presentation on the Religious Studies Project (RSP) to students taking ‘Contemporary Conversations in the Study of Religions’. Then provide a practical working example of recording a podcast, incorporating student input, to produce a roundtable episode discussing recent news stories of relevance to the critical academic study of religion.
  • Tuesday: Present a working paper to the PhD research seminar on the empirical study of ‘non-religion’ in Edinburgh.
  • Wednesday: Visit MA seminar to discuss why, where and if society needs the academic study of religion. Record to podcasts for the RSP – on a) mindfulness, and b) early Islamic social formations.
  • Friday: Deliver a presentation on the public rhetoric of good/bad non-/religion, with a focus on media, to students taking ‘Religion in Public Life’. Supervision meetings with PhD students. Participate in group discussion on building an academic career.

All of that, plus some proof-reading assistance, departmental meetings, and knowledge exchange relating to my current projects and projects in the departments. And definitely checking out a few Finnish saunas!

I’ll try and post a report once things are done. And I will try and keep Twitter posted on my activities – so do feel free to follow.

Thanks to Teemu, both departments, and – most importantly – the European Union, for making this happen. Such collaboration would not be possible without the financial support from the Erasmus initiative, and I do hope that scholars based in the UK (and those institutions that they visit) continue to benefit from such opportunities after the farce that is Brexit. It is, perhaps, significant that I traveled here on my newly claimed Irish passport. But that’s another story for another time…