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…
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).
Originally published as Cotter, Christopher R. 2018. “A History of the BASR: Some Preliminary Findings.” BASR Bulletin 132 (May): 12-16.
A History of the BASR: Some preliminary findings
Since May 2017 I’ve been conducting research to develop a pilot history of the BASR in the context of RS in the UK. This has involved a literature review of relevant publications, consulting the AGM minutes, Executive Committee minutes, correspondence, BASR and IAHR Bulletins held at the Bodleian in Oxford, and conducting seventeen oral history interviews. This preliminary report focuses on the institutional (rather than intellectual or social) history of the BASR. Work on the project continues, with plans for an internally facing publication, as well as a journal article or two.
As Sutcliffe has noted “the BASR is the sole autonomous professional academic association in the UK predicated upon the categories ‘religion’ and ‘religions’” (2004, xvii). Although founded in 1954, its history goes back further than that. Around the turn of the century there was some teaching of what might be described as ‘comparative religion’ at London, Oxford and Cambridge, and in 1904 we find the first chair of ‘comparative religion’ founded at Manchester with TW Rhys Davids (Gundry and Parrinder 1980). Internationally, although what we now know as the International Association for the History of Religions was not officially founded until a congress in Amsterdam 1950, its origins go back to six earlier European congresses from 1900, “of which the third was held in Oxford in 1908” (King 1994, 14).
So, our timeline begins with the official formation of the IASHR in 1950 (one wonders how much hand wringing could have been avoided if it was the H, rather than the S, which was quickly dropped in 1955!) The IASHR journal NVMEN was founded in 1953, and one year later a meeting occurred on 24 September at Exeter College, Oxford attended by “Dr Brandon, Miss Emmet, Mrs Ettlinger, Mr Gundry, Dr James, Mrs James, Mr Lewis, Dr Parrinder and Canon Ramsey”, with EO James being elected chairman, and
Mr (Canon) Gundry acting as secretary. The minutes read as follows:
The chairman outlined the history of the History of Religions Congresses and of the formation of the IASHR. He emphasised that it was important that a British section should exist, just as other national groups had been formed elsewhere. Attention was drawn to the new journal NVMEN, the first two numbers of which had already appeared, and to the Bibliography of the History of Religions scheduled to be published in 1954. Members were also urged to attend the History of Religions Congress to be held at Rome in April 1955. The secretary also read a list of members, and reported on the steps which had been taken to enrol scholars specially interested in this field.
Thus was born the British branch of the IASHR. Writing in 1975, Gundry tells us:
It may be of interest to members to know that before 1954 the late Professor E.0. James was invited by the IAHR itself to represent British scholars, but there was no official British branch. The late Professor R. Pettazzoni was very keen that there should be: Professor Bleeker felt so too. He discussed this with me early in 1954, and I went to see Professor Pettazzoni while I was in Rome in April of that year. Professor James was a scholar rather than an administrator! He asked me to take on the secretaryship of the incipient British section and get it into shape. (1975, 3)
The regular meetings became ensconced in Passfield Hall, London, and remained in London until 1977, moving to Oxford in 1978. Due to IAHR Congresses, smaller meetings were held in London in 1980, 1985, and 1990, and it wasn’t until 1992 that the current practice of moving around the UK began, with Winchester (1992), Newcastle (1993) and Bristol (1994). 2018 will mark the first ever BASR conference in Northern Ireland. Until the late 1980s these were single stream conferences or “meetings”, with initially only two papers being offered (increasing to three in 1974) to a relatively select group of (elderly, white) men.
Within one year the IASHR changed its name to the IAHR and the British group followed suit, becoming the British “Branch” or “Section” of the IAHR, or simply IAHR (Britain). For the next 15 years or so annual meetings for a couple of papers in London continued, with Andrew Walls telling me that many of the regular attendees at early meetings were based at universities in Africa and would meet in conjunction with the conference to strategize before heading off to their (post-)colonial posts. Membership increased steadily, from 22 in 1954, to 48 in 1958, 80 in 1968, and 100 in 1972.
EO James served as president/chair from the inception of the association and the 1971 AGM minutes note that “Prof James indicated his wish to retire owing to his age, but consented to accept re-election as President for the next year.” However, during the following year he tragically died in a car accident. At the 1972 AGM,
Dr Sharpe and Prof Lewis gave appreciations of the life and work of Prof SGF Brandon [another founding member] and Prof EO James whose deaths during the year had been great blows to the Association. (AGM minutes)
This double loss had two major impacts upon the association. First, Geoffrey Parrinder was elected to the role of President – vacating the role of Secretary, which was filled by Michael Pye, and kicking off a process of consideration about the democratic processes of the association. Secondly, the 1975 IAHR congress – to date still the only IAHR congress to take place in the UK since its inception – had been due to take place with Prof. Brandon in Manchester but in 1972 this shifted to Lancaster, with preliminary
arrangements to be made “by members of the Association from Lancaster: Professor Smart, Dr Sharpe, and Mr Pye.” Note the important international connections: Smart later moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara after establishing the first department of RS in the UK at Lancaster; Sharpe served as IAHR General Secretary before becoming the founding Professor of RS at the University of Sydney where he hosted another IAHR congress (1985); and Michael Pye became Professor of RS at Marburg University in 1982 and served the IAHR as General Secretary (1985–1995) and President (1995–2000).
Following a proposal at the 1972 September conference, Michael Pye instigated the first BASR Bulletin (initially four per year), and at the 1974 AGM, the subject of a constitution was raised by Prof HD Lewis, with the rejoinder that the association was “much more haphazard than other learned associations.” Although it was felt that affiliation to the IAHR meant that the association abided by the IAHR constitution, and that the cumulative minutes somewhat added up to that, Lewis and Sharpe were tasked to make an initial draft of constitution. At the 1975 IAHR congress, the AGM of the British Section formally adopted a constitution and became the BAHR.
In 1981, 1984 and 1987 we find various mentions and position papers – largely from Dr Karel Werner – about changing the name to the BASR (sometimes singular R, sometimes plural), and at a “Special General Meeting” on 4 February 1989 the name was changed, with unanimous approval, to what we know today. In 1990 the association became a charity, the annual lecture began, and with the annual lecture came the first notion of having a themed conference. Also, we have a very intriguing mention of “sherry” at lunchtime – perhaps something that future organizers might think about reintroducing?
In 1996, a few years after becoming a “mobile” conference, discussion began about the setting up of a website, and thus we start to see a BASR that more closely resembles what we have today, with a vibrant website and email list, the Bulletin moving online, the development of DISKUS (now JBASR), the sponsorship of the Religious Studies Project, and so on.
Membership, International Connections, and Area Studies
Now I wish to turn to three key points that have emerged from the project thus far. The first concerns the “rules” surrounding membership.
Many of the luminaries interviewed recall how the BASR used to resemble a kind of gentlemen’s club, with potential new members having to be proposed by existing members and so on. Looking at the minutes of AGMs throughout the years we see gradual changes in this area. In 1955, “It was resolved that, in future, applications for membership of the British Section should be approved by the Annual Meeting, and that candidates for membership should not attend until such approval had been given.” In 1974 the procedure was streamlined, whereby “new members should be sponsored by two existing members and approved by the President and Secretary.” By 1982, the “meeting also agreed that people with an interest in the academic study of religion may apply directly for membership,” and in 1990 – because now a charity – “the former method of approval of new membership could not be applied. The Association still had the right of excluding people from membership for good cause.” What these minutes don’t tell is the reason for the initial highly restricted nature of the membership rule in 1955.
Writing in 1980, Geoffrey Parrinder claims:
At Rome  a so-called witch, Gerald Gardner from the Isle of Man, had presented himself along with the British delegation to the IAHR, to the scorn of continental representatives. Although the BAHR, like Great Britain herself, had no written constitution at that time, it was agreed that members, and those invited to join in future, should hold university posts or be recognised as academic authorities. While this restriction may have kept numbers small, it was felt that it ensured the role of the BAHR in British universities and enabled it to co-operate with similar branches of the IAHR. (Gundry and Parrinder 1980, 9)
A second point concerns the BASR’s international connections. It’s already been mentioned that the BASR began as a “branch” of the IAHR, demonstrating that international connections have always been a part of what the association has done. However, the 1973 AGM minutes note that communications between national associations in Europe were considered inadequate, with four action points being
- To invite other associations to the conference;
- To add another paper to the BAHR conference to make it more appealing to travellers;
- To make a point of inviting Europeans from time to time to deliver a paper
- To invite Jacques Waardenburg of Utrecht for 1974.
Further, at the 1990 IAHR congress there was a “motion by the British Association requesting the Executive Committee to consider changing the name of the [IAHR] to the [IASR].” And the BASR was an important player in the setting up of the EASR. In 1995, a letter was sent to the BASR from Hans Kippenberg about a proposed EASR to which the BASR’s then secretary Terry Thomas appended the note “At last – I may yet live to see one of my hopes realised.” The BASR responded enthusiastically, and delegates attended an initial gathering in Hildesheim in 1998, with Peggy Morgan, Brian Bocking and others putting in significant work on the development of a draft constitution. Following an unfortunate situation where a splinter group attempted to form an alternative European Association, Kim Knott (then BASR President) wrote to Michael Pye (then IAHR President) stating that “BASR would like to propose that members of the EASR join members of BASR at their annual conference in 2001 to be held in Cambridge”, and thus the inaugural EASR conference took place.
Finally, on the topic of other subject associations, it is interesting to note that the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) was founded in 1975, and in 1976 their annual meeting took place in the same venue as the BAHR, immediately preceding it, indicating an encouraging level of early collaboration. Then in 1990, Kim Knott and Grace Davie began discussions about a joint conference, which took place in April 1992. Unfortunately, only 22 BASR members attended this conference, and BASR also held a one-day conference at usual BASR time. In the June 1992 Bulletin it was noted that “Some members had been surprised by the strong confessional nature of many of the papers presented” and that “Sociology of Religion members seemed to be more socialised into offering conference papers.” However, despite some perceived problems the experience was judged to have been worth attempting, but in future collaborations there should be “much closer liaison with the Sociology of Religion organizers and a more balanced range of papers presented.” In 1994, SOCREL wrote to propose a similar venture in April, and the BASR responded that they were keen, but that April wouldn’t work: such is the way of tradition. That such collaboration took place in the past – and that former BASR President Douglas Davies has also served as the SOCREL chair – should be encouraging for future collaborations, but the fact that it has not been more frequent is perhaps indicative of a less encouraging fracturing of the study of religions into narrower area studies.
In October/November 1976, Michael Pye (then BASR Secretary) wrote somewhat prophetically in Bulletin #17 concerning streams on African and Indian Religions which had been added to the BASR annual meeting, and on Dr Karel Werner’s involvement in setting up the (now) Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions:
In the meantime it is not surprising that special interest groups have formed within the overall field where insufficient activity was taking place hitherto. […] I feel that members ought to be grateful to Dr Werner for indirectly prodding the association into more sustained activity, and perhaps the coexistence this year of an Indian and an African section followed by more general papers is a workable pattern for future years. […] One thing which could be harmful, however, to our common if widely-ranging interests is the danger of institutional fragmentation. The BAHR is a relatively low-key organisation, and for many of us that is one of the nice things about it. At the same time, if it is to exist at all, its activities ought to offer a reasonable reflection of the interests of its members in the history of religions and related disciplines. […] Frankly speaking, it would seem to be to be undesirable to set up a permanent separate institution to cater for the study of Indian religions, and for the sake of the coherence of our discipline I hope that this will not happen. […] I hope therefore that this personal plea for the integration and coherence of our subject will be seen not as a rejection of other initiatives but as a welcome to share in a common endeavour. Not everybody is interested in organisations, and yet how things are organised can have a practical effect on the overall development of our subject, as can be seen from its chequered history in various countries. I believe this also to be important in an intellectual sense, for institutions tend to shape the understanding of subjects.
Prophetic words indeed, which emphasise not only the importance of academic institutions, but of the institutional history of said organisations.
There is so much more that I could mention, including: the repeated interventions of the BASR regarding the place of RS scholars on, and the broader composition of, RAE/REF panels; the closure and threat to departments; the setting up of RS at the Open University; government cuts to higher education; cuts in teacher training; and policing the boundary between theology and RS in a variety of spheres. However, I want to finish with a very brief comment on the BASR as a collegial network.
This consistent refrain throughout my oral history interviews was expressed succinctly by former President Peggy Morgan in 2004, where she writes:
I found as a young woman its senior scholars welcoming and affirming and that the atmosphere at meetings involved critique but not destructive confrontation or academic arrogance. This seems to have continued, with young scholars being funded and encouraged at BASR conferences… It has retained its atmosphere of a professional community of friendship when education has lost much of its warmth in these pressured and insecure times. (Morgan 2004, xv)
This welcoming, collegial atmosphere is something that seems to have remained consistent throughout the years, despite great changes in the higher education environment in the UK and in our area of study. Long may it continue in these still pressured and insecure times.
- Gundry, D.W. 1975. “Reminiscence.” BASR Bulletin 13 (October), 3–4.
- Gundry, D.W. and E.G. Parrinder. 1980. “The Beginnings of the British Association for the History of Religions.” BASR Bulletin 31 (June/July), 7–9.
- King, U. 1994. “Celebrating Forty Years of the BASR.” BASR Bulletin 73 (November), 13–16.
- Morgan P. 2004. “Foreword” in S. Sutcliffe, ed. Religion: Empirical Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, xiii–xvi.
- Sutcliffe, S. 2004. “Introduction – Qualitative Empirical Methodologies: An Inductive Argument” in S. Sutcliffe, ed. Religion: Empirical Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, xvii–xliii.
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.
Thomas, Terence. 2004. ‘“The Sacred” as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions’. In Religion: Empirical Studies, ed. Steven J. Sutcliffe, 47–66. Surrey: Ashgate.
The academic study of religions should
be conducted under the aegis of a descriptive, non-normative, non-evaluative agenda. This is the kind of academic study of religions that should be conducted in institutions claiming to be objective and non-evaluative in their aims and in receipt of public funds gathered in a secular state which, though maintaining a religious establishment of sorts in the UK, in most other ways has abjured the religious dimension in the pursuit of public life, and where the practice of religion, of various choices, is a voluntary form of behaviour. (59)
The objective, scientific, academic study of religions and of aspects of religions, unless it specifically refers to traditions and events and contexts in which the sacred is an ineradicable factor, calls for the use of ‘the sacred’ only in appropriate contexts and the abandonment of its use as a generic term, both in order to avoid regression to theology, out of which our discipline is held to have emerged and from which it is held to have achieved its independence, and to advance progression to a system based on academic integrity, academic rigour and academic independence. (65-66)
Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? In this interview, Jay Demerath tells me why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.
Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.
For the past few months I have been alluding to a secretive project that I have been working on… now it is finally here, and I could use all the support I can get in terms of spreading the word, facebook liking etc etc.
Every Monday, we’ll be putting out a new podcast featuring an interview with a leading international scholar, presenting a key idea in the contemporary socio-scientific study of religion in a concise and accessible way. Our first podcast features Professor Emeritus James Cox (University of Edinburgh) speaking to David about the phenomenology of religion. You can find the podcast and accompanying notes here, or alternatively subscribe on iTunes.
Every Wednesday, we’ll feature a resource to help postgraduate students and aspiring academics. And every Friday, we’ll be publishing a response to the podcast, reflecting on, expanding upon or disagreeing with the Monday podcast. Plus conference reports, opinion, publishing opportunities, book reviews and more when we have them.
Many, many thanks!
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.
Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students
It is six weeks until submit my 25,000 word MSc by Research thesis. Thank goodness I now have a title and an abstract…
Here it is, for your enjoyment:
Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students
This thesis details the outcomes of a small-scale research project into a relatively new and under-researched field. The aim was qualitatively to map out the different types of nonreligiosity articulated by some nonreligious students at the University of Edinburgh. Beginning by demarcating the concept of ‘nonreligion’ around which the study revolves, the author outlines: first, why such a study is necessary and worthwhile; second, the specific theoretical questions to which the study is directed; and third, the specific relevance of studying nonreligion within Religious Studies. In approaching the subject in this way, this study calls into question the reified dichotomy between religion and nonreligion, expands what the author calls the ‘nonreligious monolith’ and questions ideas of religious universality. The specifics of this study are detailed at length. Particular focus is given to the suitability of a Scottish university student population as a subject-group, and to the methodology employed, which uses electronic questionnaires and in-depth interviews to elicit unscripted narratives from selected participants. The author demonstrates that current typologies based on internally and/or externally selected and defined nonreligious identity labels, tend to be inadequate and inaccurate. Nonreligious students are shown to be highly aware of the subjectivity of their interpretations of key identity terms, and in many cases they maintain multiple identities simultaneously, in a situational and pragmatic fashion. These identities also vary in terms of concreteness and salience, and are informed by a wide variety of relationship- and education-based subjective experiences. A more nuanced approach is then proposed, based on the questionnaire and interview evidence, categorising individuals according to the overarching narrative through which they claim to interact with (non)religion. The thesis concludes by returning to the initial motivating questions – particularly concerning the reified status given to (non)religion in traditional representations – and calling for future research investment in order to continue fleshing-out the nonreligious field, and for a continued movement away from attempts to explain nonreligion from a perspective of normative religiosity.