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

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:

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:—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:

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,


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…


A Plea and a Song…

From 16-20 January 2018, I am performing as Mark Cohen in the musical “RENT” in Edinburgh. Please consider coming along (and booking in advance). I’ve recorded a video in which I speak a little bit about my feelings on the show, and sing one of my numbers.  I’ve posted it below.


49181207_10102749786493231_5402398285124075520_nI can remember a decade or so ago, when a few of my friends and associates were involved in a production of RENT, I didn’t really ‘get it’. Now I do. The music is great, the characters are well-developed, and it is a true ensemble piece. It is based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” and speaks to so many themes that are of great importance to me, and should be to the world. It has been a real pleasure getting to know a largely new group of people and to now call them my friends. Please come along if you can, reward us for our hard work, experience this emotional roller-coaster, and support me in one of my biggest stage roles to-date. Thanks!


The Good, the Bad, and the Non-Religion

Another one of my videos, built off a couple of conference papers, in which I present and analyze the problematic rhetoric of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion in the academic study of ‘non-/religion’… and why this matters. I also couldn’t resist getting some Bad Religion in there…

The conference in October was ‘Research in Religion’ in Edinburgh, 20 October 2018,

The original conference in Bonn was “Hijacked! A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Religion” from 7-11 June 2017, 

The abstract from October reads as follows:

The Good, The Bad, and the Non-Religion: The Public Rhetoric of Good/Bad ‘Religion’ in Academic ‘Non-/Religious’ Studies

The first decades of the twenty-first century have seen a rise in what Aaron Hughes has dubbed the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’ in public discourse about religion, whereby ‘good religion’ which is ‘egalitarian, progressive, pluralistic, democratic, and so on’ is constructed as ‘the real or authentic version’ and set against its dichotomous opposite, ‘bad religion’ (2015, xiv–xv). This dubious rhetoric – particularly popularized in the political sphere by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – constructs ‘good religion’ as something that ‘conforms to, and does not challenge, liberal secular principles. Good religion stays out of “politics.” Bad religion takes a critical stand against liberal categories and is, therefore, fanatical.’ (Fitzgerald 2015, 206) Deciding what counts as ‘good’/bad’ (or ‘moderate’/’radical’) is a question of power and, in current UK discourse, involves a reification of tolerance as a ‘British value’ in official and media discourse (cf. UK Government’s Prevent strategy), a fantasized Islamic world of pure intolerance’ (Brown 2015, 161).

The same decades have seen a marked rise in the number of individuals choosing to not identify as religious across the globe, a related rise in academic studies of what it might mean to be other than religious, and a burgeoning body of substantive studies mapping and theorizing the beliefs, practices, identifications, values and social contexts of ‘non-religious’ populations. In this paper, I place this area of research into conversation with a body of work which critiques much of the academic study of ‘religion’ for perpetuating the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’, and I demonstrate that in many cases, the rhetoric is the same in studies of ‘non-religion’, despite the added ‘non-‘. Thus, the academic study of non-religion also ‘inadvertently maintains a host of Christian assumptions that reflect the all too Christian heritage of the term “religion”’ (Hughes 2015, 120).

The Critical Study of Nonreligion: An Invitation

I forgot to repost this here… please see this post from back in September for my manifesto for critical study of non-religion, which I am currently developing into a monograph.

NSRN Online

In this post, NSRN Co-Director Chris Cotter places contemporary non-religion studies into conversation with the critical study of religion, assessing two dominant approaches in the field before extolling the virtues of a discursive approach as one way in which rigorous empirical work can be conducted ostensibly under the religion/non-religion binary and contribute to the critical project.Cotter

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A Critical Religious Studies Approach to the Science-Religion ‘Debate’?

Over the summer, I was approached by Isaac Alderman of Sinai & Synapses and asked if I would participate in an interview on the interaction between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ from my perspective within critical Religious Studies, as co-founder of the Religious Studies Project, and from a UK perspective. Although I pointed out that this is not my area, I was happy to have the conversation and I am quite pleased with the results. The conversation flows through my impression of the UK context, to what I see as my approach to this ‘debate’, i.e. to view it as a social phenomenon, and to ask critical questions of context, power, definition, ideology, and so on…

You can have a watch of the video below or on the S&S website, where you can also read a full transcription. I hadn’t quite realised that there would be video recording as well as audio, so please excuse my attire, summer beard (blame the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), location, and inattention to the camera. Furthermore, as Yvonne Aburrow pointed out on Twitter, throughout this conversation I have a tendency to lazily conflate ‘religion’ with ‘Christianity’ in the main. This is an important point, as it demonstrates that being consistently ‘critical’ is not easy, and serves as a further example of the points I make in the interview about context. My discourse is often affected by the hegemonic norm of my context, despite best intentions. This is why scholarship is best as a collaborative enterprise. Enjoy!


The Meaning of Belief? A Critical Religious Studies take on yet another Atheist Manifesto

I was recently asked to review Tim Crane’s The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View… 

I wrote the review… but then thought, why not do a video review as well. Here it is, in all it’s glory. In short, as a contribution to the a-/theism debate this book is certainly much more generous in spirit than many others and might provide a constructive entry-point for those who are tired of the shouting match. This book will undoubtedly help those invested in this debate in ‘understanding the views of the other’ (193) – but it is, unsurprisingly, highly problematic from the perspective of the critical study of ‘religion’.



The discourses we live by…

A few months back, I wrote a post for Culture on the Edge, this time prompted by a Diet Coke advert. I’m not sure I got the title ‘right’ at the time, but the point of the post was to challenge notions of individual autonomy, free will and agency, and to point to the important function that certain discourses serve in helping us maintain a sense of self as we make our way in the world. Along the way, I discuss Mad Men, invoke Handel’s Messiah, and even get in a cheeky reference to Love Island…

Below you’ll find the first paragraph of the post, and if it stimulates your interest I hope you will read more.

I recently walked past a bus shelter displaying an advert for new flavours of Diet Coke — Feisty Cherry and Exotic Mango — bearing the exhortation “because you’re an early adopter.”

This tickled my inner Marxist.  Maybe I’ve been watching too much Mad Men of late, but I couldn’t help thinking what brilliant advertising this was. Setting aside the fact that Cherry Coke was introduced in 1985 – and what exactly it is that makes this variant “feisty” –  who cares what the product is? YOU should purchase it, because YOU are a trend-setter! YOUR patterns of consumption are so much more on point than others, who admire YOU so much they’ll want to emulate YOU. We, YOUR friends at Coca Cola, want YOU to be a key element in the dissemination of this product. Because YOU are special. Because YOU have a valuable ability to recognize what will be popular before it’s popular. Because YOU are an early adopter.

Read more…