Meaning and Purpose in Non-Religious Societies

In this blog post, Gleb Tsipursky asks questions about ‘meaning’ and purpose in the lives of the nonreligious. Often religion is associated with ‘big questions’. However, his research with nonreligious and secular populations suggests these questions are more than simply religious ones. 


Why should we as scholars of secularism and nonreligion care about meaning and purpose? After all, meaning and purpose fall squarely within the realm of the kind of big life questions that are traditionally addressed by religion. Yet there has been much new research, in fields as diverse as psychology and history, which has addressed meaning and purpose in nonreligious and secular contexts. Continue reading

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It’s not all about Islam: misreading secular politics in the Middle East

In this post Stacey Gutkowski discuss western secular politic habitus and it’s affect when intervening in, and understanding, recent uprisings in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic State. This post was originally published on Open Democracy 25 April 2015.

Much western, particularly French, media coverage of the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher supermarket in Paris fell prey to an old orientalist trope of the ‘War on Terror’: that Western secular culture is innately peaceful, rational and tolerant, while Islam is distinctly ambiguous on these matters. Continue reading

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Time to name a movement?

Cragun_RIn this post, Ryan Cragun asks if it is time to give nonreligious movements a name. If so, what might this name be? And how, as an academic, can he avoid the pitfalls of labeling a group from the outside – rather than from within.

In the last five years or so, scholars have begun to think about informal and organized atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist, nonreligious, and freethought activity as a social movement (Cimino and Smith 2007, 2011; LeDrew 2013; McAnulla 2012; Smith 2013). All the relevant indicators seem to suggest that this is a social movement and I think there is a need for more research in this area to better understand it as a movement.

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“Non-event” report: Why the Sunday Assembly event did not launch in Japan

In this post, Yutaka Osakabe and Isaac Gagné explore what we can learn from the absence of the Sunday Assembly [SA] in Japan, despite some interest in setting it up. What can a lack of interest in a Japanese SA tell us about the SA framework and/or the Japanese relationship to organised religion? 

Sunday Assembly

God-less congregations, also known as members of the Sunday Assembly (SA), have been a recurring topic on this blog. Discussions around the SA have raised a number of meaningful questions over any strict distinction between religion and non-religion. This post, however, takes a slightly different approach, by exploring what difficulties the SA might face when they attempt to expand their movement outside the post-Christendom west. How do the SA attempt to address any challenges they face during expansion and indeed if they are interested in overcoming such difficulties? These questions follow an attempt to participate in a launch event for SA in Japan. As it turned out, the launch was a ‘non-event’. In the face of the usual positive, success story of the SA this ‘non-event’ seemed to offer the possibility of reflection on failure, and some raised new questions about the SA.

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‘She has forgotten her sex’: On the history of women and non-religion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASuvi Karila discusses the historical roots of the problematic intersection of womanhood and non-religion in the context of the 19th century United States. Karila suggests that the actual experiences of unbeliever women not only in the present, but also in the past, are important to explore to address the issue of how non-religion has been and still is a very much gendered phenomenon.

Time and again studies suggest the same: women are more religious than men (see e.g. Trzebiatowska & Bruce 2012). Men tend to be the public faces of religious communities, but women participate more actively in religious activities, they pray more, and overall, religion plays a larger role in their lives. In addition, women rarely identify as atheists (Mahlamäki 2012: 60-61). Recently, this was seen in a study published by the UCL Institute of Education. The study showed that whereas 54% of British men born in 1970 identify as atheists, the figure among women is only 34% (Voas 2015). For a historian of non-religion, these results sound anything but new. The difference in religiosity between the genders had already been acknowledged by both the religious majority and the non-believers themselves 200 years ago. Here I reflect on the theme of gender and irreligiosity in the context of the 19th century United States, which is also the focus of my on-going PhD dissertation. Continue reading

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The Blind Spot in the Study of Religion

view3Religion’s Impact on the Nonbelievers

In this post [i],  Petra Klug, discusses what questions may be raised regarding the definition of religion, in light of a recent focus on, and understandings of, nonreligious and irreligious populations.

 In recent years, we’ve gained a great deal of new information about non- or irreligion. But I wish to argue in this article that through the study of the nonreligious and their relationship towards religion, we can also gain a new understanding of religion itself. If we look at common definitions of religion, they typically frame our understanding of religion through its meaning for the religious alone. What religion might mean for the nonreligious – or for the “rest” of society – is not included, and remains a blind spot in the understanding of religion.

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Event Report: The American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting 2014

In this post  Dusty Hoesly outlines papers presented at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, 2014. The focus is on the growing awareness of the study of the secular, religious dusty.hoeslyand nonreligion, in particular the shifting boundaries between these categories. 

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting—held November 22-25, 2014, in San Diego, California—marked the second year of the Secularism and Secularity Discussion Group, which represents a growing awareness of the importance of studying the secular alongside the religious and the continuing proliferation of scholarly work analyzing non-religion and secularism. The program unit featured panels on the shifting boundaries of the secular, spiritual, and religious; yoga’s religious or secular identities; secular religiosity; and European formations of the secular. This event report covers the two panels I was able to attend: shifting boundaries and secular religiosity. Continue reading

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Event Report: The Third Annual International Conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network: Explaining Nonreligion and Secularity in the U.S. and Beyond

Joseph Blankholm participated in the annual conference of the NSRN, held at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, on November 19th and 20th, 2014. In the following, he summarizes some of the findings that scholars presented and takes stock of the international and interdisciplinary research emerging in the study of nonreligion and secularity.Blankholm Head_ Shot_ cropped

Hosted at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s third annual conference was its first in the United States. Two panel sessions ran simultaneously over the course of two days, producing more interesting conversations than any one participant could join. Though scholars from around the world presented on a range of national contexts—including Australia, Egypt, Sweden, and Turkey—the conference was especially strong in highlighting social scientific work focused on North America and the groups that nonbelievers join. If this conference, its organizers (Phil Zuckerman, Christel Manning, and Ryan Cragun), and NSRN’s directors are an indication, sociologists appear to be driving the research agenda in the growing field we might call ‘Secular Studies’. Overall, the conference was deeply interdisciplinary and placed social scientists, historians, and philosophers in conversation with one another. Continue reading

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Reflections from the Field: Deconversion, Irreligion and Practical Nonreligion The Case of Leaving Ultra Orthodox Judaism

In this post, Louis Frankenthaler draws on his research with Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities to explore narratives of leaving religion, which he describes as rich in moral and social dilemmas. He also discusses the extent to which deconversion may be understood as an expression of ‘irreligion’.Louis_NSRN


This blog post is a reflection of part of my ongoing research on deconversion, or the loss of faith (Barbour 1994), in the Ultra Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish community. I point to parallels between examples of deconversion explored in my work and Colin Campbell’s (1971/2013) concept of ‘irreligion’. That is to say, Haredi deconversion is an expression of irreligion, the active rejection of an available religion or ‘beliefs and actions which are expressive of attitudes of hostility or indifference toward the prevailing religion, together with… the rejection of its demands’ (Campbell 2013/1971). Furthermore, religious rejection is an element of the deconversion typology which certainly reflects the way people position themselves in opposition (or difference) to their abandoned religion:

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Discourse Analysis and the Study of Atheism: Definitions, Discourse, and Ethnographic Criticism

In this post Ethan Quillen explores a discursive approach to atheism (and nonreligion) following the theoretical work of von Stuckrad (2003). Quillen suggests that researchers in this area move away from definitions and wrangling over the the meaning of words, and concentrate instead on the way in which these words are used; how these words are made meaningful and allowing research participants to ‘speak for themselves’. Here, Quillen proposes that this discursive approach has methodological implications for research in this field. 



While admittedly my initial intentions for this post were a bit more malicious—repeating my old standard of arguing against the use of ‘nonreligion’ [1] —I soon felt that to be a bit tedious and wasteful. That is, where in the past I have spent a good amount of time offering a critical perspective on the use of the term, such as was the content of my presentation at the NSRN conference in 2012, for this post I have chosen instead to focus on my own experiences in trying to make sense of the ambiguity, equivocality, and general polyvocal definitions, stipulations, conceptions, and re-conceptions of the term ‘Atheism.’ In this way, I hope to move my usual argument away from that sort of benign criticism—‘I just don’t like it’—toward a more empathetic, yet perhaps still critical, discussion about how I have tried to resolve this issue within the wider context of the study of Atheism and nonreligion.

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