Tag Archive | Education

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>




Teaching and Studying Religion

It seems to be that time of year when numerous ‘gig’s get confirmed. I’ll be doing this in December… enjoy!

Teaching and Studying Religion: Choices and Challenges

 BSA Meeting Room, Imperial Wharf, London, 15 December 2011, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

 Religion is not a neutral subject. As with other significant constituents of identity, such as sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or class, the subject of ‘religion’ as a topic for study is not straightforward. And yet, we study it, deconstruct it, analyse, and measure it, recognising as we do that definitions are bound to be contested, fluid, and sometimes slippery. What are the particular challenges and choices this presents in different disciplines, in different places and times? And what are the ethical, political and methodological implications of this?

To find out more about how participants from a variety of disciplines and contexts have engaged with the choices and challenges of teaching and studying religion, join us on December 15 at the BSA Meeting Room in London, for a BSA Socrel symposium, chaired by Abby Day (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent and Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex) and Anna Strhan (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent). We are grateful to the Higher Education Academy, for funding. It won’t be your usual ‘stand-and-deliver’ event. Our presenters are working hard to condense their work into short summaries that will be distributed to all participants in advance of the day via e-mail. All participants will be expected to read the summaries and come prepared for a full day of engaging in vibrant exchanges across disciplines, countries, methods and other conventional boundaries.

Total delegate numbers are restricted to 30. Registration for the symposium is now available on the BSA website at http://bsas.esithosting.co.uk/public/event/eventBooking.aspx?id=EVT10172

 Information on the venue location and transport links, is available here.

For any further information, please contact Abby Day (a.day@sussex.ac.uk) and Anna Strhan (as702@kent.ac.uk). The full programme for the day will be published on the BSA Socrel website: http://www.socrel.org.uk/

Keynote lecture by Adam Dinham, Director of Goldsmiths Faith and Civil Society Unit and Programme Director for the ‘Religious Literacy Leadership in Higher Education’ programme

Confirmed Speakers

Discussants: Paul-Francois Tremlett (Department of Religious Studies, Open University), Chris Cotter (Department of Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh) and Anna Strhan (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent)


  • Alison Scott-Baumann (Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, University of Lancaster), Sariya Contractor (Faculty of Education, Health, and Sciences, University of Derby), Women-led Curriculum Development for Modern British Islam
  • Saeed A. Khan (Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literature and Cultures, Wayne State University), Current Challenges Facing Instructors of Islamic Studies: a Minefield or Marketplace of Ideas?
  • Stephen E. Gregg (School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies, University of Wales, Trinity St David), Lynne Scholefield (School of Theology, Philosophy and History, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham), “But is it Hinduism?” Changing the Subject in Religious Studies
  • Saeko Yazaki (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge), Teaching Religion: Far From Spurious Objectivity and Unrestrained Subjectivity
  • Anna Van der Kerchove (Institut Européen en Sciences des Religions, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne), Teaching about religious issues in France: from University to classroom. Some remarks about curricula and their implementation in classrooms
  • Slawomir Sztajer (Department of the Study of Religion, Adam Mickiewicz University), Teaching Religion and Teaching about Religion in Today’s Poland
  • Christina Davis (Forum of Religious and Spiritual Education, King’s College London), Discriminating Tolerance and Religious Education: Dealing with incompatible truth-claims in the classroom
  • Janet Eccles and Rebecca Catto (Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, University of Lancaster), Pre-University Experiences of Lived Irreligion
  • Jeroen Bouterse (Institute for Philosophy, University of Leiden), Religion in the Scientific Revolution: Concepts and Theories in Historiography
  • Sahaya G. Selvam (Psychology of Religion, Heythrop College, University of London), Positive Psychology: a viable theoretical and methodological framework for the psychological study of religion?
  • Emma Bell and Scott Taylor (University of Exeter Business School), Spiritual Management Education: Tensions and Contradictions
  • Cosimo Zene (Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS), Studying and Teaching the Religion of the Subalterns: a Critical Gramscian Perspective

Two Excellent Resources

Just a quick post to alert you to two excellent resources I have discovered today.

One is the new documentary series from the BBC, entitled The Life of Muhammad. The first episode was just aired this week and it seems to balance informed but accessible scholarship with a respectful but not deferential tone. Thoroughly recommended to anyone who is interested… and indeed those who are not. I just wish everyone could see this sort of programme. Viewers in the UK can click the link and watch it on BBC iPlayer, where it is available until August 1 2011 (duration 60 mins).

The other resource is a website that I have stumbled across and will have to check out in much greater detail over the coming weeks. It is patheos.com, which describes itself as:

the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs. Patheos is the website of choice for the millions of people looking for credible and balanced information or resources about religion. Patheos brings together the public, academia, and the faith leaders in a single environment, and is the place where people turn on a regular basis for insight into questions, issues, and discussions. Patheos is unlike any other online religious and spiritual site and is designed to serve as a resource for those looking to learn more about different belief systems, as well as participate in productive, moderated discussions on some of today’s most talked about and debated topics.

Whilst I haven’t had much of a chance to look around it, and whilst always being slightly irked at seeing religion being treated as distinct entities and institutions to which a specified number of adherents belong etc (the good old ‘world religions’ paradigm raises its head once more), there seem to be a huge number of resources here, with vast amounts information on certainly all the major religions in the world… and resources for teachers, students, academics, religious leaders, interested laypeople and more…

I hope both of these ‘tips’ prove useful :)

A Niblett of Knowledge Of or About Religion

No amount of knowledge about beauty will add up to the knowledge of beauty given by a single experience of a mountain landscape or a Mozart sonata. No amount of knowledge about religion or religions, primitive or Christian is any substitute for knowledge of religion – i.e. religious experience.’ From W. R. Niblett; Education and the Modern Mind, Faber, 1954, p. 44.

I read this and found myself immediately agreeing. And then the questions came flooding in. The first, and main, one being – for what?

I am very grateful for my own personal ‘religious biography’ – having implicit religion, ‘finding God’/being ‘saved’, and ultimately abandoning ‘the Faith’ on realising that had I been born somewhere else, or to different parents, I would have believed something else. I feel that this biography helps me understand and relate to religious people much more than those who have never known what it ‘feels’ like.

But at the same time, I also know that I can never have access to the understanding of religion that someone who has never ‘experienced’ religion can have. In fact, my judgement of ‘truth’ could be fundamentally clouded by my past, preconceptions etc.

Perhaps Professor Niblett (great name btw) simply thought that a bit of religion was good for the ‘youth’… morality and all that… <chortle>

But, on a personal level, I think it would be amazing if there was some way that we could artificially simulate a ‘religious experience’ for kids in school… not so that they would convert, but that they could ‘understand’ those who are religious a bit better… There must be some drug we could prescibe? :)

Islam at the Dinner Table: Baroness Warsi, Religious Illiteracy, Dichotomies and Road Safety

Baroness Warsi

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”.

The report continued:

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

Humanities & Social Sciences Need Your Help

(If you don’t want to read my un-nuanced rant, please skip straight to the one from the Campaign for the Humanities and Social Sciences and consider signing their petition. I would much rather action was taken on this issue, than people spent time dealing with my ramblings).

The Humanities and Social Sciences are under threat at UK Universities. FACT.

Is this something we should care about? Especially in these ‘troubled times’ when budgets need to be cut? Damn right it is!

Yes I have a vested interest in my own specific subject area of Religious Studies, and I could go on for days about  how I think that it is the most important subject that anyone could study etc etc. But that is not the point. The point is that the UK Government has openly adopted a policy which seeks to protect the ‘worthwhile’ STEM subjects, whilst dramatically cutting funding from the Humanities and Social Sciences, which don’t appear to have immediate financial value to the economy.

Whilst I don’t have time to collect the links now, I can tell you that this tactic will end up costing the UK economy billions, and result in an intellectual and cultural drain on the country which may be irrevocable.  As far as my own subject area of Religious Studies goes, I recently attended a conference for aspiring academics, where the atmosphere was one of incredible doom and gloom. We were basically told 1) if you want to be an academic… don’t… there’s just no point in the UK any more 2) the Arts and Humanities Research Council may not even exist in the next couple of years, which will have dramatic effects on future research in a wide variety of fields 3) A large proportion of the UK’s small number of Religious Studies departments could end up having to close in the near future, as projected student losses of approximately 80 students per department start to take effect, as a result of the funding cuts.

I’m going to stop ranting now, because it is not my opinion that matters – it is yours. And to that end,  if you care at all about the future of Humanities and Social Sciences in UK Universities I urge you to read this (http://humanitiesmatter.wordpress.com/), and sign the petition. If you don’t, I urge you to read this and seriously consider your position.