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.
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:
I’m also not complaining about the promotion…
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, https://researchinreligion2018.wordpress.com/
The original conference in Bonn was “Hijacked! A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Religion” from 7-11 June 2017, https://www.fiw.uni-bonn.de/religionsforschung/forschungsprojekte/konferenz-hijacked
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).
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!
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’.
This blog has been going for eight years. But I haven’t written much of late. I have recently read through every single post here, and in the majority of cases I found myself thinking “who is this guy?” It is amazing to see how one changes over time. I guess blogs are somewhat equivalent to the diary of old? Needless to say, I removed a few posts.
In any case, after attending a few events recently involving my wonderful friend, mentor and colleague James Eglinton, I decided that it was high time I audited my online presence and made a concerted effort to re-establish myself online. So, here is a fresh attempt… a new name for an old blog, an eventual collation of “everything” I am doing… and a renewed clarity in my output: academic, theatre, and politics.
With that in mind, here are my latest updates in each of these areas:
- I recently interviewed Professor Agustin Fuentes of the University of Notre Dame on the topic “Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche.” It was an honour to speak with Agustin, and the podcast – which was on the topic of his high-profile “Gifford Lectures” – has received a lot of attention, including an excellent critical response from Tenzan Eaghll. L’esprit de l’escalier, eh?
- We have just begun rehearsals for Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Patience” in which I have been cast as Reginald Bunthorne… one of the poets who is vying for the love of the village milk-maid, Patience. It is just so delicious and wonderful that my wife, Lindsey, has been cast as Patience, and my best pal, Geoff – who was also our “best man” – has been cast as Grosvenor, my rival This is going to be such a fun summer!
- Finally, without any commentary, my recent Tweet on the “Windrush generation” saga sums up where I am just now…
I have only heard the clips on the radio, but it seems to me that @theresa_may‘s apology for causing anxiety to “Windrush generation” isn’t really much of an apology… it’s effectively saying “I’m sorry our actions made you feel bad, but I’m not sorry for the actions”
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) April 17, 2018
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).
I was recently asked to submit a short, interdisciplinary research brief for an event that I am attending on Urban Super-Diversity next month. In the interests of updating you all on what I am up to – particularly given that this blog has not been updated in a horrendously long time – I have posted this information below as an image. You can also download it as a PDF.
I hope to get back to blogging more regularly at some point in the future…
Taking a leaf out of my pal David’s blogging book, I guess I should update you all on what’s been happening.
Academically, among other things…
- I’ve recently had a book chapter published, in Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts
- I’ve recently been appointed a director at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.
- The Religious Studies Project continues to go from strength to strength. Now into our fourth year, I’ve been doing a bit more interviewing recently, including interviews on Bricolage, the Post-Secular, African Christianity in the West, The Emerging Church, Religion and Memory, and Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland.
In my ‘real life’…
- The wonderful Lindsey and I got married in November!! Here are some photos…
- I continue to sing regularly in Edinburgh with the St Andrew Camerata, who are going from strength-to-strength lately. Check here for details of our next concert (21 March). And please follow us on Twitter!
- And probably much more…
Ciao for now.
While preparing a paper for a conference next month, I have been revisiting one of my supervisor’s books. Within, I found I had highlighted a great articulation of the problem I feel with some scholars who seem to advocate throwing away the term “religion” due to its ideological baggage, whilst wishing to retain other concepts and remaining seemingly blind to their ideological baggage. I have pasted below… but haven’t included the various footnotes…
“Whilst I appreciate Fitzgerald’s analysis, I draw the same conclusion as Carrette who concludes that ‘the idea of religion needs to be challenged… but it does not necessarily have to be eradicated’. Its eradication from the disciplinary agenda might very well mask ideological forces – liberal theological – of the kind that Fitzgerald is keen to identify, as well as those inherent within the secularist discourse of cultural studies. It would certainly remove a powerful – if contested – conceptual tool from the scholarly workshop. The proposed construct ‘culture’ is itself ideological charged and presents us with no less difficulty than ‘religion’ for an examination of Western spaces. Carrette calls for the strategic operation of ‘religion’ rather than its dissolution, on the grounds that the Western conception of religion provides ‘a location for understanding a regime of knowledge-power’. This brings me directly to my preferred perspective, one that elects to focus explicitly on the tension between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’, a major ‘binary constitutive of modernity’.”
Knott, Kim. The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London and Oakville CT: Equinox, 2005. p. 83.