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).
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.
Grace Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, particularly in the UK and Europe following her keynote address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee last October.
In this interview (with me… yes, you heard it, me), Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context. In an effort to combat the caricatures that typify media accounts of religion in the contemporary world, Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, in academia and in the public square, and considers the impact of the arrival of new cultures into Europe, whilst reflecting on secular reactions to these.
It seems to be that time of year when numerous ‘gig’s get confirmed. I’ll be doing this in December… enjoy!
Teaching and Studying Religion: Choices and Challenges
BSA Meeting Room, Imperial Wharf, London, 15 December 2011, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Religion is not a neutral subject. As with other significant constituents of identity, such as sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or class, the subject of ‘religion’ as a topic for study is not straightforward. And yet, we study it, deconstruct it, analyse, and measure it, recognising as we do that definitions are bound to be contested, fluid, and sometimes slippery. What are the particular challenges and choices this presents in different disciplines, in different places and times? And what are the ethical, political and methodological implications of this?
To find out more about how participants from a variety of disciplines and contexts have engaged with the choices and challenges of teaching and studying religion, join us on December 15 at the BSA Meeting Room in London, for a BSA Socrel symposium, chaired by Abby Day (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent and Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex) and Anna Strhan (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent). We are grateful to the Higher Education Academy, for funding. It won’t be your usual ‘stand-and-deliver’ event. Our presenters are working hard to condense their work into short summaries that will be distributed to all participants in advance of the day via e-mail. All participants will be expected to read the summaries and come prepared for a full day of engaging in vibrant exchanges across disciplines, countries, methods and other conventional boundaries.
Total delegate numbers are restricted to 30. Registration for the symposium is now available on the BSA website at http://bsas.esithosting.co.uk/public/event/eventBooking.aspx?id=EVT10172
Information on the venue location and transport links, is available here.
For any further information, please contact Abby Day (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Anna Strhan (email@example.com). The full programme for the day will be published on the BSA Socrel website: http://www.socrel.org.uk/
Keynote lecture by Adam Dinham, Director of Goldsmiths Faith and Civil Society Unit and Programme Director for the ‘Religious Literacy Leadership in Higher Education’ programme
Discussants: Paul-Francois Tremlett (Department of Religious Studies, Open University), Chris Cotter (Department of Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh) and Anna Strhan (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent)
- Alison Scott-Baumann (Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, University of Lancaster), Sariya Contractor (Faculty of Education, Health, and Sciences, University of Derby), Women-led Curriculum Development for Modern British Islam
- Saeed A. Khan (Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literature and Cultures, Wayne State University), Current Challenges Facing Instructors of Islamic Studies: a Minefield or Marketplace of Ideas?
- Stephen E. Gregg (School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies, University of Wales, Trinity St David), Lynne Scholefield (School of Theology, Philosophy and History, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham), “But is it Hinduism?” Changing the Subject in Religious Studies
- Saeko Yazaki (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge), Teaching Religion: Far From Spurious Objectivity and Unrestrained Subjectivity
- Anna Van der Kerchove (Institut Européen en Sciences des Religions, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne), Teaching about religious issues in France: from University to classroom. Some remarks about curricula and their implementation in classrooms
- Slawomir Sztajer (Department of the Study of Religion, Adam Mickiewicz University), Teaching Religion and Teaching about Religion in Today’s Poland
- Christina Davis (Forum of Religious and Spiritual Education, King’s College London), Discriminating Tolerance and Religious Education: Dealing with incompatible truth-claims in the classroom
- Janet Eccles and Rebecca Catto (Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, University of Lancaster), Pre-University Experiences of Lived Irreligion
- Jeroen Bouterse (Institute for Philosophy, University of Leiden), Religion in the Scientific Revolution: Concepts and Theories in Historiography
- Sahaya G. Selvam (Psychology of Religion, Heythrop College, University of London), Positive Psychology: a viable theoretical and methodological framework for the psychological study of religion?
- Emma Bell and Scott Taylor (University of Exeter Business School), Spiritual Management Education: Tensions and Contradictions
- Cosimo Zene (Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS), Studying and Teaching the Religion of the Subalterns: a Critical Gramscian Perspective
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.