I recently had the pleasure of editing a review article for the journal Religion and Society: Advances in Research, on Abby Day’s Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. The article features commentary from Grace Davie, James A. Beckford, Saliha Chattoo, Mia Lövheim, Manuel A. Vásquez, and Abby Day herself, and begins with my editorial introduction, which focuses on the interactions between Abby’s work and research on ‘non-religion’, and critical research on ‘religion’ in general, as well as some reflections on the perceived divide between ‘sociology of religion’ and ‘religious studies’. The pre-copy-edited version of this introduction is pasted below. For the final version, and the full article, you’ll have to visit here (and possibly pay).
I first had the pleasure of meeting the force of nature that is Abby Day back in 2010 at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s “Qualitative Methods Workshop” at the University of Cambridge (Cotter 2011). Back then I was working towards my Masters degree in Religious Studies and had little idea that in the coming years we would end up co-editing a book with Giselle Vincett (Day et al. 2013) or that I would find myself reviewing Believing in Belonging (see Cotter 2013) and collaborating on projects such as the one appearing in this journal. Given that the responses which follow this editorial—from Grace Davie, James A. Beckford, Saliha Chattoo, Mia Lövheim, Manuel A. Vásquez, and Abby Day herself—engage extensively and thought-provokingly with Abby’s work, I am going to restrict my comments to two brief points. First of all, the connections I can see between Believing in Belonging (Day 2011; paperback 2013) and the growing body of research into “non-religion”; and secondly, some reflections on the place of Abby’s work in the critical academic study of “religion” more broadly.
My own research has, in recent years, been heavily focused upon the problematic constructs of non-religion and secularity (cf. Quack 2014; Cotter 2015; Lee 2015) as limiting cases for their “semantically parasitic” (Fitzgerald 2007: 54) other, religion. Following Johannes Quack, I approach non-religion as “a descriptive term for a certain group of understudied phenomena and relationships and not as a term that seeks to draw clear boundaries between religion and nonreligion [sic]” (2014: 3). As such, I share many of the concerns addressed in Abby’s research—particularly concerning how, as Beckford puts it below, “census and survey questions about religion produce unreliable guides to belief and/or identities.” This point is exemplified best in the case of the “nones”—a residual category constructed by censuses and surveys which, once in place, has seen scholars, journalists, politicians and others rushing to “imbue this group with a material face, social interests and political persuasions, as if this group, always there but now with a name, is available for their commentary and speculation” (Ramey and Miller 2013).
Abby’s work with “census Christians” cuts to the core of this issue, examining individuals’ identity claims as precisely that—as “operational acts of identification”(Bayart 2005: 92)—and problematizing existing approaches to beliefs that privilege those commonly understood as being “religious.” Building upon Abby’s insight that “beliefs” are “performed through social actions of both belonging and excluding” (Day 2011: 194) my ongoing doctoral research takes a critical discursive approach to non-religion. With Steven Ramey, I argue that religion and, by extension, non-religion do “not have agency to teach or do anything” but are constructed by social actors who interpret situations “in ways that relate to their particular context and the range of interests that enliven that context” (2014: 109). Abby’s work contributes to a growing body of rigorous research into related categories (see for example Blankholm 2014; Lee 2015; Quack 2014; Quillen 2015), and serves as a useful and important manifesto for approaching those social actors who are positioned—by themselves or by others—as being other than religious.
As should be clear from the above, I position myself firmly within the critical strand of Religious Studies, and agree with my research supervisor that “there are no disinterested, external positions” (Knott 2005: 125) from which to examine religion. We do not occupy a neutral space but perpetuate and mold the “discipline of religion” (McCutcheon 2003); we are complicit in reifying this problematic social construct. From this perspective, surveys and questionnaires are no less problematic for the nuanced academic study of religion than are contemporary academic emphases on “lived religion,” i.e. on “religion as expressed and experienced in the lives of individuals” (McGuire 2008: 3). This relatively recent move away from the systematized theologies of male élites was certainly a welcome and necessary move for the field. All-too-often, however, such a focus merely privileges “lived religion” as somehow more authentic or more real than other aspects such as history, tradition, theology, and institution (see Cotter and Robertson 2016), and thus we return to the sui generis model so thoroughly critiqued by McCutcheon, Asad, Fitzgerald, and others.
In Vásquez’s contribution to this section, he highlights the important work that Believing in Belonging does in critiquing existing models of belief for ignoring issues of power, in demonstrating that belief is produced socially, and in locating belief in the activity of doing belief (if it is to have any meaningful sense at all). In this way, Day’s work facilitates a critical approach to that which is commonly understood as religious: it avoids unduly emphasizing both the individual and society, and simultaneously undercuts and challenges the constructed boundary between religion and non-religion by focusing on “alternative organizing principles independent of religious categories” (Quack 2012: 26). Although we could debate the extent to which “belief” is “independent of religious categories,” and although Day’s account arguably overemphasizes “relationships,” critical scholars have much to learn from her theoretically engaged ethnographic mutiny against established classificatory systems.
In lieu of a conclusion, and before I pass the baton to my esteemed colleagues, I wish to use my final paragraph to speak to a worrying divide that I perceive to be growing, at least in the UK, between Religious Studies (RS) and the Sociology of Religion (SOR). My evidence is little more than anecdotal, yet increasingly frequently I encounter colleagues who, while positioning themselves in one of these disciplines, dismiss the other as “too theological.” To translate these stances as I see them, some in RS have a tendency to dismiss SOR out of hand as being naïve in its reification of certain folk categories, its valorization of “society,” and its interest in large-scale surveys and social trends, whereas some in SOR castigate RS for being obsessed with category formation, and for being both uncritically wedded to phenomenological approaches and obstinately uninterested in “religion” in the “real world.” Although I would unhesitatingly admit that these criticisms ring true for much of what passes as RS and SOR in contemporary academia, it is my hope that my brief discussion above, and the extensive contributions below will demonstrate that each of these approaches has a great deal to offer. Working together is a much more effective route towards advancing critical thought, and increasing knowledge and understanding, and it is therefore with gratitude that I hand over to Grace, Jim, Saliha, Mia, Manuel, and Abby to demonstrate such productive collaboration in action.
Bayart, Jean-François. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53 (4): 775–90. doi:10.1111/jssr.12152.
Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Qualitative Methods Workshop.” NSRN Online. http://www.nsrn.net/events/events-reports. (Accessed 27 November 2015).
Cotter, Christopher R. 2013. “Review: Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World.” Fieldwork in Religion 8 (1): 116–17.
Cotter, Christopher R. 2015. “Without God yet Not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-Religion among Scottish University Students.” Pp. 171–94 in Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts, ed. Lori G. Beaman and Steven Tomlins. Dordrecht: Springer.
Cotter, Christopher R., and David G. Robertson, eds. 2016. After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. London: Routledge.
Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Day, Abby, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter, eds. 2013. Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.
Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Knott, Kim. 2005. The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London and Oakville, CT: Equinox.
Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Nonreligious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McCutcheon, Russell T. 2003. The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric. New York: Routledge.
McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Quack, Johannes. 2012. Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Quack, Johannes. 2014. “Outline of a Relational Approach to ‘Nonreligion.’” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26 (4-5): 439–69.
Quillen, Ethan Gjerset. 2015. “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism.” Science, Religion and Culture 2 (3): 25–25.
Ramey, Steven. 2014. “Textbooks, Assumptions, and Us: Commentary on Jimmy Emanuelsson’s ‘Islam and the Sui-Generis Discourse: Representations of Islam in Textbooks Used in Introductory Courses of Religious Studies in Sweden.’” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26 (1): 108–10. doi:10.1163/15700682-12341285.
Ramey, Steven, and Monica R. Miller. 2013. “Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty ‘Mathematics’ of the ’Nones.” The Huffington Post. November 7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-ramey/meaningless-surveys-the-f_b_4225306.html. (accessed 27 November 2015).
Studying the Nonreligious, and the Marginalisation of the Nonreligious in the Academic Study of Religion
A few months ago, I started thinking about the relationship between ‘nonreligion’ and ‘inequality’ for a conference presentation I had to write, and a number of things came to mind. Of course there is the dominant popular and media discourse portraying secularist uproar over prayers at town council meetings, the teaching of Creationism in schools, or the visible battles which have been waged on buses, billboards and car bumpers in recent years. Stephen Bullivant rightly states that ‘…popular and media discourse surrounding atheism and unbelief tends to be overly simplistic and unhelpful, often focusing on the perceived ‘arrogance’ or ‘aggressiveness’ of unbelievers (depicted as a homogeneous group)’. However, it is to an inequality which is less visible to which I turn: I wish to quickly show that there is a historical inequality present in the academic study of religion, in terms of the marginalisation of the nonreligious as an appropriate subject ‘group’ for study… and then provide reasons for an academic study of ‘nonreligion’.
I should begin by emphasising that this is a steadily improving situation. I have presented papers in recent months at panel sessions at SOCREL, EASR and SSSR conferences [these are a big deal]where it was standing-room only. Two key research groups have been established in the past decade – the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, Massachusetts, and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN); these two groups also joined together to launch the journal Secularism and Nonreligon in August 2011; the recent edition of the Journal of Contemporary Religion focused entirely on the nonreligious; and the NSRN Bibliography (which I manage) contained [the last time I checked] over 480 scholarly books and articles on atheism, secularity, nonreligion and related topics (360 since 2005).
However, things have not always been so encouraging. Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee do an excellent job of tracing the history of research into the nonreligious in their recent Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union. There they trace a historical neglect of ‘nonreligion’ to the non-religiosity of many of the social sciences’ early pioneers who, in trying to understand why so many people could believe in something “so absurd”, “arguably failed to recognize that their own lack of belief might itself be amenable to similar research” . They also point to extensive interest in the anomaly of unbelief from Catholic social scientists throughout the 1950s and 1960s. From either camp, therefore, it is understandable that:
“Much of the early research that mentions the nonreligious has included nonreligious individuals as a comparison group, a statistical outlier, or an afterthought [or, indeed, as a problem to be dealt with]. Rarely has the aim of most existing research been to explore the lives, experiences, and characteristics of the nonreligious” .
“Low religiosity” is, as Frank Pasquale states, a “relative measure based on self-reports”. “Its meaning shifts with the nature of the underlying sample”  and the branding of those who are nonreligious as having “low religiosity” tells us little about what their nonreligiosity actually means to them. ‘As a result, terminology used to refer to the nonreligious in the social science of religion has often been ambiguous, imprecise, and even “biased and derogatory.” One does not have to look very far to find examples of such work – here are just a couple from my recent reading:
- ‘…religious behaviour is […] founded on the distinction of sacred and profane experience. The nonreligious person, conversely, is one for whom there is nothing sacred or holy’ ;
- ‘In the absence of religion, people tend to believe anything rather than nothing…’.
[A relevant footnote to this discussion would be, of course, the obvious point that the study of secularisation is not the study of the nonreligious…]
But why should scholars of religion be interested in the nonreligious anyway? I’ve come up with three reasons so far…
The Nonreligious Majority?
In his survey of the findings from recent surveys (2007), Phil Zuckerman found that ‘“nonbelievers in God” as a group actually come in fourth place (500-750 million) – after Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900 million)’, far outnumbering other groupings such as Jews and Mormons. If other smaller groups are deemed worthy of differentiated scholarly attention, then it is only appropriate that this same curiosity be extended to those who cannot be described, or do not self-describe, as ‘religious’.
Unlike the US where nonreligious individuals remain a very small (yet growing) population, it is increasingly being shown that being ‘nonreligious’ is a very significant minority position in the UK, if not an overall majority. Drawing on a variety of sources, Zuckerman gives estimates of between 10 and 44 percent of the UK population being ‘nonreligious’ (dependent upon how ‘nonreligious’ is defined). In addition, 53.4 percent of British respondents to the European Values Survey question stated that they were ‘not a religious person’. Whilst I would contend that the majority of these studies provide insufficient understandings of ‘nonreligiosity’ – due to narrow, one-dimensional quantitative measures – these observations demonstrate that a significant proportion of (particularly British – my context) people can potentially be classified as ‘nonreligious’, and are worthy of attention simply by virtue of their sheer number, if for no other reason.
The Nonreligious Monolith
As Timothy Fitzgerald contends, the study of ‘religion’ has largely been built upon something which is seen as ‘distinctive and separate and requir[ing] special departments and methodologies for its study’. This religion can be conceived in a number of ways: simply and equivocally as ‘Christian’ religion; in a ‘normative’ fashion – where pervasive general understandings of ‘religion’ exclude ‘superstitious’ practices and ‘minority’, ‘high-demand’ or ‘exclusive’ groups from being considered ‘really’ religious; and the ‘secularist’conception which labels certain acts ‘religious’ and others ‘secular’, carving up the social order in a particular way. A common theme throughout these approaches is that they are designed to exclude ‘inappropriate’ areas of study. Consequently, as suggested above, the majority of studies designed to study religion are ‘often of little use for studying its lack’ or opposite. In addition, studies which do acknowledge the nonreligious tend to pay them little attention, or treat them as a monolithic minority religious position – religious ‘nones’– alongside other minority groups.
The phenomenon of nonreligion encapsulates a wide variety of positions. According to Frank Pasquale – writing, in this case, about the terms ‘atheism’ and ‘secularity’:
There are [also] other windows into this domain, each with a distinctive slant, such as irreligion, religious doubt, unbelief or nonbelief, freethought, agnosticism, (secular) humanism, rationalism, materialism, philosophical naturalism, and (religious) scepticism…
Even this comparatively comprehensive list of ‘windows’ omits the term ‘bright’, which was officially coined in 2003, and famously evangelised by Daniel Dennett (2003), to describe ‘a person with a naturalistic worldview, […] free of mystical and supernatural elements’. It also omits individuals who may be reluctant to label themselves with a nonreligious term, or the truly indifferent who ‘find religion to be so irrelevant […that they are] not even conscious of […rejecting] it’. The purpose of this enumeration was not to focus upon these different nonreligious types, but to demonstrate the unjustifiable tendency – where the nonreligious are even considered at all – to see the nonreligious as a unified monolith, whilst simultaneously opening up the ‘religious’ category to minute degrees of nuance.
The Study of Religion
Finally, I wish to make two key points which justify the study of nonreligion from the perspective of Religious Studies: using nonreligion to test the perceived universality of religion, and the foundation of the study of religion in the study of people.
Beginning once again with Timothy Fitzgerald, there is an unfortunate but prevalent tendency for
…many academics in history, anthropology, or religious studies [to] use […‘religion’] generically as though [it] is universal in time and place… 
Many scholars ‘presume that [the term ‘religion’] points to pre-social and thus universal sentiments’. Even within the cutting-edge cognitive science of religion, one of the most frequent and heated debates concerns whether human beings are innately religious. Whilst this universalising tendency receives some attention in scholarly works, objections to it are generally framed in terms of misrepresentation of the specificities of (mainly non-Western) religions, through the application of ‘modern Western concepts […or] borrowing a few concepts […] from other cultures’. What these critiques ignore, is the argument that whilst
It is probably true… that there is no human society which totally lacks cultural patterns that we can call religious […]. It is surely untrue that all men in all societies are, in any meaningful sense of the term, religious.
Secondly, flowing throughout the extensive scholarly disagreement on how to define religion is a common denominator that religion is a social phenomenon. This phenomenon can be traced to:a particular type of conversation; a distinctive part of human nature; something in which people place ‘unrestricted value’; any number of ‘ideas, symbols, feelings, practices and organisations’; or some sort of transcendent ‘Focus’. However, the unifying factor throughout these approaches is, quite simply, people – and this holds even for scholars who would make a transcendent, meta-empirical focus the key element. The demarcation of this ‘Focus’ as a central concern of religion makes no judgement on whether that presupposition is ‘true’ and, according to this method’s advocates, ‘it is necessary to describe [a particular people’s] interplay with the environment, and also with their ‘supernatural’ environment’ in order to adequately understand them.
These observations hopefully demonstrate that one of the central foci of Religious Studies is human beings – and this includes the nonreligious. Even if some sort of ‘supernatural’ element is prioritised, those who are classified as ‘nonreligious’ either engage with this through rejection, or through raising questions about its importance through their non-engagement. In either scenario they remain valid subjects for Religious Studies. Engaging with the nonreligious helps academics both to ‘understand better the role of faith in modern society’, and to appropriately engage with people, in groups or on their own, who consciously or unconsciously live without religion.
Now, I am not contending that every study needs to focus upon the nonreligious… or that the nonreligious need to be more than a footnote. However, they do need to be a footnote. If scholars wish to focus exclusively on religious groups, they need to justify why this is worthwhile. If they want to read in religiosity into everything – be this homo religiosus, invisible religion, implicit religion, everyday religion – then they need to provide robust reasons why, and explain what they are doing when they read religion into the lives of those among whom it is not visible on many or all standard measures.
 ‘Teaching Atheism and Nonreligion: Challenges and Opportunities’, Discourse 10, no. 2 (2011): 3.
 Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee, ‘Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27, no. 1 (2012): 20.
 in Frank L. Pasquale, ‘The Social Science of Secularity’, Free Inquiry 33, no. 2 (2012): 17–23.
 Frank L. Pasquale, ‘Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect Of’, in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Tom Flynn (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007), 764.
 R. Cragun and J.H. Hammer, ‘“One Person”s Apostate Is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us About Pro-religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion’, Humanity and Society 35 (2011): 159–175.
 William E. Paden, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 48–49; cited in Terence Thomas, ‘“The Sacred” as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions’, in Religion: Empirical Studies, ed. Steven J. Sutcliffe (Surrey: Ashgate, 2004), 51.
 M. Percy, ‘Losing Our Space, Finding Our Place’, in Religion, Identity and Change, ed. S. Coleman and P. Collins (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 39.
 Phil Zuckerman, 2010. Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. New York: New York University Press, p. 96.
 Zuckerman, Phil. 2007. Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns. In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, 47-65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 49.
 Weller, Paul. 2008. Religious Diversity in the UK: Contours and Issues. London: Continuum, p. 51
 Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2000a. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3.
 Sutcliffe, Steven. 2010. Paper: Religion – What Are We Talking About? (Launch of the Religion and Society – Edinburgh Network [RASEN]). In RASEN. University of Edinburgh, October 25.
 Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363-368, p. 364
 Pasquale, Frank L. 2010. A Portrait of Secular Group Affiliates. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 43-87. Santa Barbara: Praeger, p. 43.
 Bullivant 2008, 364
 Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan, p. 39.
 Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 46.
 McCutcheon, Russell T. 2007. “‘They Licked the Platter Clean’: On the Co-Dependency of the Religious and the Secular.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19: 173-199, p. 182.
 Platvoet, Jan G. 1999. To Define or Not to Define: The Problem of the Definition of Religion. In The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests, ed. Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk, 245-265. Leiden: Brill, 250-51
 Geertz, Clifford. 1968. Religion as a Cultural System. In The Religious Situation, ed. Donald R. Cutler, 639-688. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 664.
 Cox, James L. 1996. Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion. 2nd ed. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications, p. 15.
 Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 2.
 Smart, Ninian. 1973. The Phenomenon of Religion. New York: Seabury, p. 57.
 Smart, Ninian. 1973. The Phenomenon of Religion. New York: Seabury, p. 68.
 Bainbridge, William Sims. 2005. “Atheism.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 1: 1-24, p.1.
Although I have not had a chance to read any yet, I have just downloaded ten articles from the ISSSC stream on Scribd. I don’t much like Scribd, and I cannot comment on the quality of the articles, but they are written by some excellent folk including Frank Pasquale, Barry Kosmin and Ryan Cragun, so if their usual standard is anything to go by I should have something interesting for you in a few weeks…
As I have had a couple of abstracts accepted for conferences in the New Year, I thought I would share them with you so that you’d know what I’m up to. I am also currently working on editing an audio recording and powerpoint presentation together so that you can hear the presentation I delivered at the European Association for the Study of Religions in Budapest last September.
The first conference is the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference on ‘Religion and (In)Equalities’, University of Chester, UK, 28 – 30 March 2012.
Here I shall be presenting the following paper:
The Inherent Inequalities of the Religion-Nonreligion Dichotomy: A Narrative Approach to Individual (Non-)Religiosity
Scholars of religion tend to focus upon individuals and/or communities that are demonstrably religious. However, existing relevant scholarly literature on the non- or non-traditionally religious in contemporary society portrays a complex system of mutual experiences of marginalisation and boundary demarcation amongst both the religious and the nonreligious (cf. Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann 2006; Cotter 2011a; Amarasingam 2010). This paper builds upon these observations, utilising empirical narrative evidence from a yearlong MSc project (Cotter 2011b) amongst the student body of the University of Edinburgh, focussing on ‘nonreligious’ undergraduates – whether explicitly irreligious/undecided, those occupying the ‘fuzzy middle’ (Voas 2009), or those potentially termed ‘nominal’ believers (cf. Day 2009; Davie 1994).
Firstly, I shall demonstrate that the academic study of religion institutionally marginalises the nonreligious – and unjustifiably so (cf. Fitzgerald 2000). Secondly, I shall show how an approach which allows individuals to present their (non)religious identity in their own terms presents a complex process of identity negotiation. Many students pragmatically ‘altered’ their (non)religious self-representations in a manner which suggested the maintenance of differentiated narratives in multiple internally demarcated habitūs, contained within an overarching narrative framework. Many of these fluctuations appear to be motivated by subjective experiences of belonging and marginalisation, and also testify to the limited usefulness and potentially inequality-creating effects of census-type survey methods (Day 2009; 2011). Finally, I propose that in every case the student’s personal (non)religious self-description was subordinated to other overarching ideals implicit throughout their narratives. When ‘religion’ is perceived to interact with these students’ narrative frameworks, it becomes the ‘other’ against which their personal perceptions of some disparate-yet-unified ‘nonreligious’ stance is defined. This suggests an alternative approach which takes individuals and groups on their own terms, and which avoids dichotomisation into majority/minority groups, whilst highlighting the important locations in which inequalities can emerge.
The next conference is the main conference of the British Sociological Association, entitled ‘Sociology in an Age of Austerity‘, University of Leeds, UK, 11–13 April 2012.
Here I shall be presenting the following paper:
Relocating Religion: An Alternative Perspective based on the Narratives of ‘Nonreligious’ Students
This paper builds upon my yearlong project amongst the student body of the University of Edinburgh focusing on (broadly defined) ‘nonreligious’ undergraduates. Through questionnaires and in-depth interviews, I explored this neglected area, and demonstrated that the limited number of current typologies of nonreligion – based on internally and/or externally selected and defined nonreligious identity labels – tend to be inadequate and inaccurate. In this paper, I show that nonreligious students are highly aware of the subjectivity of their interpretations of key self-descriptors, and in many cases maintain multiple self-representations simultaneously, in a situational and pragmatic fashion. Using their narrative frameworks, I propose a more nuanced typology of nonreligion, which both cuts across and is independent of ‘religious’ categories, and is rooted in the specificities of what individuals considered as important and significant in their lives. I demonstrate that these particular young people are neither indifferent to religion, nor overtly religious or nonreligious: ‘religion’ was not invested with any significant ‘meaning‘ in-and-of itself. However, when it was perceived to interact with their narrative frameworks, it became the ‘other‘ against which their personal stance is defined. This raises the possibility of a new approach to ‘religion’ which aims to understand individuals according to the narrative frameworks by which they articulate what really matters. In this ‘Age of Austerity’, this shift in focus to the different ways in which individuals are (or aren’t) religious could have profound implications upon how we approach social interactions and ‘religious’ conflict in a religiously diverse United Kingdom.
Please see below for details of a CfP for the book I hope to edit with Abby Day as part of the AHRC/ ESRC Religion and Society Ashgate Book series. Please circulate as you see fit :)
Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular
Edited by Abby Day and Christopher R. Cotter
Call for Papers
Many people may not identify strongly or consistently as religious, yet religion still matters for them at certain times and in certain contexts. Rather than dismiss those self-identifications as meaningless, incoherent or insignificant, we may find through in-depth research that they are meaningful, coherent and differently significant (Day 2011).
What is sometimes construed as empty space is filled with something – but what? One typology advanced by Day (2006; 2009; 2011) suggested Christian ‘nominalism’ is an important way to mark social identities she described as Christian ethnic nominalism; natal nominalism and aspirational nominalism. While her theory about Christian ethnic nominalism has been analysed cross-culturally and operationalized (see, for example, Storm 2009; Voas 2009) it is still limited by its Christian scope. Are there Muslim or Buddhist ‘nominalists’, for example? How can we best describe and understand such people who are neither, or are, perhaps, more fluidly, religious or secular? (Woodhead 2012)
Such explorations require innovative methods that do not force religious answers with religious questions and suggest new interpretations of what it may mean to be ‘non-religious’ (Cotter 2011). This under-explored domain between the secular and the sacred is a contested space that requires further investigation through innovative methods and fresh analytical thinking.
We are therefore delighted that we have been encouraged by the editors and publisher of the new Ashgate AHRC/ESRC Religion & Society series, edited by Prof. Linda Woodhead and Dr Rebecca Catto, to submit a full proposal for an edited collection: Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular.
Our first priority has been to confirm the participation of key Religion & Society programme scholars. We are now extending our Call to the wider academic community. Publication dates will be negotiated but we will aim for chapter submission date by April 2012, assuming 12-14 chapters of 5,000 words each.
Below you will find a summary of the publication. If you would like to contribute, please let us know as soon as possible and provide a title and 100-word abstract by October 31 2011.
This collection of interdisciplinary chapters will present current empirical scholarship from local, national and international contexts. Work will negotiate and advance knowledge and understanding of the important conceptual and lived spaces between the contested poles of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’.
Researchers finding themselves in this space often did not expect to be here. Many may have intended to study ‘traditionally’ religious or non-religious individuals, communities, and institutions, but found something else, something that was neither religious nor secular. It is that important work we aim to capture.
The collection will be divided into three sections. We are summarising these below with questions intended to stimulate rather than prescribe.
1. The methodological space:
What issues were encountered and innovations made when researching these contested spaces? How are scholars to conceptualise these spaces? What do they do to existing concepts of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular? How can existing methodological approaches be adapted to studying these spaces? Do these spaces open up and demand new approaches? New vocabulary? How have those challenges been met?
2. The public space:
An exploration of these spaces can include, but are not limited to, the spatial, such as the university campus, the community centre, schools, prisons, urban streets, festivals, hospitals, or the football pitch. We are also concerned with the political space, dealing with issues such as legal definitions of what ‘counts’ as a religion, or foreign policy decisions and anti-terror laws. How is the in-between secular/sacred space described, mediated and discursively in media-related spaces? What are the ‘effects’ of our modern, globalised age upon the space between sacred and secular? What institutional manifestations of this in-between space defy easy emic or etic categorisation? How do people use different spaces in different contexts, perhaps even vicariously? (Davie 2007)
3. The social, identity-dominated space
How do individuals negotiate their identity when it falls into this in-between space? What are their personal pragmatic strategies? How is this space felt, embodied, sensed, articulated? What do terms and ideas like religious/secular belief, practice, or attitudes mean to people? What is the sacred/secular space that arises through inter-subjective and inter-corporeal real lives?
Dr Abby Day is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent and a Principal Investigator at the University of Sussex. Her qualitative longitudinal research has expanded conventional views of belief and belonging through empirical research based initially in the UK and extended through cross-cultural comparisons. Her latest book, Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World (Oxford University Press) is published in October 2011 by Oxford University press. She also edited the Ashgate collection, Religion and the Individual, 2008.
Christopher R. Cotter is a post-graduate student at the University of Edinburgh. His publications and research have centred on contemporary atheism and his recent MSc project concerned university students whose personal (non)religiosity challenged the reification of the religion-secular distinction. His future research work will continue the theme of ‘non-religion’. He is co-founder and podcast co-host at The Religious Studies Project, and a web editor at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.
- Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. Toward a Typology of “Nonreligion”: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, August.
- Davie, Grace, 2007. “Vicarious religion: A methodological challenge”. In Nancy T. Ammerman, Ed. Everyday religion: observing modern religious lives. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press: 21-36.
- Day, Abby, 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
- – 2009. Researching belief without asking religious questions. Fieldwork in Religion, 4, no. 1: 89–106.
- – 2006. Believing in belonging: a case study from Yorkshire. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK.
- Storm, I. 2009. “Halfway to heaven: Four types of fuzzy fidelity in Europe.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48: 702–718.
- Voas, D. 2009. “The rise and fall of fuzzy fidelity in Europe”. European Sociological Review 25, no. 2: 155–68.
- Woodhead, Linda 2012. “Introduction” In Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto, Eds, Religion and change in modern Britain. London: Routledge: 1-33.
Nonreligion Panel at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ Conference, Budapest, 19 September
After a successful (I hope) first presentation at the British Association for the Study of Religions’ Conference in Durham this week, this is where I am off to next week:
New Movements in Religion, 10th EASR Conference, 18-22. September 2011. Budapest, Hungary
Location: Hungarian Culture Foundation, Budapest, Szentháromság tér 6.
See www. easr10.eu for more info.
Monday, 19. September 09.00 – 11.00 (Room: “Lecture I”)
Non-Religiosity, Identity and Ritual Chair: Kovács, Ábrahám
- Cotter, Christopher R.,: “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students”
- Mastiaux, Björn: “Non-Religious Identity and Attitudes toward Ritual of Members of Atheist / Secularist Organizations in Germany and the United States”
- Catto, Rebecca and Eccles, Janet: “Investigating Young People in Britain’s Active Non-Religious Identities”
- McKearney, Patrick: “What are you laughing at?” The Role of Ridicule in Non-religious Identity Formation”
- Quack, Johannes: “From Antyesti to Organ Transplantation: The Secularisation of Death in India (in Comparison to Developments in Europe)”
- Aechtner, Rebecca and Wesser, Grit: “Jugendweihe: A Non-religious Coming-of-age Ritual in Eastern Germany”
With four days to go until thesis submission, I just thought I’d let you know that I have finally had my journal article published! If you’d like any more information, please just get in touch. Here are the details:
Full citation: Cotter, Christopher R., 2011. “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism.” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2 (1): 77-103.
From the editors preface:
The fourth article, Christopher R. Cotter’s “Consciousness Raising: The
Critique, Agenda, and Inherent Precariousness of Contemporary Anglophone
Atheism,” deals with a completely different area, contemporary atheism
(sometimes called the “new atheism”). The author discusses what agenda
is promoted in opposition to the criticized “religion.” Not only religion, but
also atheism, is changing over time and in specific contexts, and thus different
kinds of agendas are pursued. The author pinpoints certain characteristics
of contemporary atheism, bearing interesting resemblances to the New Age
And the abstract:
Atheism, as a subject in its own right, has received comparatively little scholarly attention in the past. This study begins by unpacking the term ‘atheism’, specifying an appropriate timescale and limiting the scope of the investigation to the work of four key authors. Their critiques of religion are considered and common themes under the appellation ‘dangerous religion’ are discerned. The author then pursues a closer reading of the texts, discerning what agenda is promoted in opposition to the heavily criticised ‘religion’, and discussing contemporary atheism in relation to Enlightenment values. Finally, the author examines why contemporary atheism fails to state its agenda more explicitly. The main players are shown to be individuals, with different foci that cannot be encapsulated by labels such as ‘Enlightenment’. Indications emerge of a ‘consciousness raising’ agenda, resulting from various factors that make contemporary unbelief a particularly organisationally ‘precarious’ phenomenon – a precariousness enhanced by an implicit ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, and a correlation with Enlightenment, Romantic and New Age concerns.