On 4th September 2014 Lorna Mumford was part of the ‘Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of Atheism and Non-religion’ panel at the British Association for the Study of Religions’ annual conference hosted by The Open University in Milton Keynes. Here she reflects on the presentations and key themes that emerged.
The aim of the ‘Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of Atheism and Non-religion’ panel was to move away from focusing on purely propositional understandings of atheism and nonreligion, toward exploring the manifestations of nonreligion through material objects and within discursive contexts. Continue reading
Elliot Hanowski draws on the history of Canadian unbelief to argue that ideological labels should not overshadow the pragmatic way unbelievers of all stripes actually behaved when dealing with the broader society.
Ideas never stay pure and unadulterated when they spread through human societies. Likewise, ideological labels rarely reflect the pragmatic ways human beings appropriate, revise, and apply those ideologies based on the needs of the moment. Historians of nonreligion, who often trace the social history of ideas, need to be keenly aware of this fact. For example, the twentieth century saw a wide variety of labels applied to unbelievers: from rationalists, humanists and freethinkers, to secular socialists, anarchists and communists. Their diversity has been one reason that a unified social history of unbelief has been slow to develop. A broader approach is possible, but it will require historians to look at unbelievers not just as repositories of a particular intellectual formulation, but as people who took practical steps to navigate and contest a culture that was hostile to their views. Continue reading
Jason Ānanda Josephson discusses evidence from Japan regarding the complexity of employing Euro-American understanding of concepts such as religion, nonreligion and secularism in other cultural contexts.
Probably the most surprising Japanese bestseller of 1996 was a short monograph written in a largely accessible style by Ama Toshimaro, a professor of International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University, titled Why Are the Japanese Non-Religious? (Nihonjin wa naze mushūkyō nanoka). This monograph had a widespread appeal in Japan partially because it touched on a seeming paradox: that many Japanese who claim to be ‘without religion’ (mushūkyō, 無宗教) actually engage in activities–Buddhist funerals, Christian weddings, Shinto festivals, prayer ceremonies at Shinto shrines–that seem to Ama and other observers to be profoundly religious (Ama, 1996: 8-10). This work presented a seeming contradiction between self-identified secularity and popular religious activity. Moreover, as European scholars were quick to note, the very Japanese citizens who claimed to lack religion attended multiple religious institutions without seeming to experience any incongruity. Restated, Japan seems to be a repository of paradoxical diversity in which each given ‘areligious’ citizen practices a plurality of religions.
Jolyon Agar discusses the moral framework presented in ‘The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism’ by A.C. Grayling (2013).
A.C. Grayling’s recent contribution to the burgeoning literature on so-called ‘New Atheism’ is, on first appearance at least, a more promising affair than that offered by (among others) Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Unlike these other writers, Grayling is able to critique the philosophical foundations of religious belief as a professional philosopher. Much more intriguing was Grayling’s implicit promise to desist from unrelenting criticism of religion and instead provide details of what the alternative world guided by New Atheist principles might look like: how a moral framework shaped by atheistic humanism might tackle hugely divisive social issues such as assisted suicide, recreational drug use, divorce and sexual morality. Continue reading
Amanda Schutz sat in on a session covering issues of nonreligion at the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting, which took place in San Francisco, California, 13th-15th of August. Here, she shares her interpretations of these presentations and her thoughts on how they represent a step in the right direction for this growing field.
The Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting demonstrated that the subfield is slowly acknowledging the significance of nonreligion and recognizing where the gaps in our current understanding lay. While discussions of secularism and secularization littered the sessions, only one was dedicated to issues of nonreligion. Although the session title was changed from ‘Religious Nones’ to ‘Religious Identities, Narratives, and Strategies’, three of the four presentations still dealt with topics related to nonreligion, with all three tackling questions that have remained unexplored. Continue reading
Charles Devellennes sets out his ideas for developing a dialectic theory of atheology, as an alternative to attempting to unify different forms of atheism.
Is there a continuity between various strands of atheism, despite all of their differences? This important question – for atheists and those who study atheism – is difficult to answer because it is not easy to see what the bluntness of the new atheists has in common with the subtlety of other philosophers of nonreligion, such as Richard Rorty or William Connolly. Instead of attempting to find a unifying theory of atheism, I have proposed, in a recent article published in Telos, that we need a dialectic theory of atheology. Continue reading
Eric Chalfant reviews Blackford and Schüklenk’s 50 Voices of Disbelief (2009), and notes that, although intended for a lay audience, the plurality of personal narratives and experiences recounted by contributors to the book serves as a reminder to academic researchers that atheists constitute a varied demographic with ‘complicated stories and multifaceted self-understandings’.
The cover of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists depicts a candle that has just been blown out, the smoke wafting from a dead wick. At first glance, this might seem to reflect a certain kind of negativity prevalent in treatments of deconversion, the transition from religion to atheism. We frequently hear terms like ‘loss of faith’ used to imply that the movement away from religion is one of subtraction – the peeling away of religious affiliation to something more fundamental, neutral, and untouched by processes of acculturation. This understanding of deconversion tends to lose sight of the active and creative processes involved in identity-formation. Atheism, contrary to the claims of many religionists and atheists alike, is not a purely natural state given prior to the contamination of religious ideology; it is a subject position achieved in lived experience and discourse – it is actively constructed, formed, and negotiated.
Christopher Craig Brittain discusses how the work of artist Koki Tanaka (produced in response to the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011) demonstrates ways individuals respond and adapt to situations of adversity by creating new discourses of meaning and strategies for coping, which could be described as a ‘secular theodicy’.
Human responses to disasters bring to light issues that debates over the nature of ‘nonreligion’ often do not address. There is a long tradition among nonreligious writers to assume that natural disasters undermine and refute religious belief. Voltaire’s famous poem following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is perhaps the paradigmatic expression of this tradition, while the reaction of the Guardian’s Martin Kettle to the Asian Pacific Tsunami of 2005 serves as a more recent example. What many authors observe, however, is that the impact of a disaster on nonreligious individuals and cultures can also result in the opposite response – leading them to re-examine religious traditions or questions that had previously held little interest. Continue reading
Katherine Sissons discusses what the data visualisation tool, DataShine, can tell us about the distribution of religion and nonreligion in England and Wales.
Data from the 2011 Census has been available to the public since late 2012, but internet users can now visualise the geographical distribution of these data across England and Wales, thanks to DataShine, a data visualisation tool developed by Oliver O’Brien at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. This tool can be used to see how ethnicity, age, levels of education, deprivation, self-rated health and many more variables are distributed across England and Wales. However, writing for The Guardian, Nick Mead drew attention to DataShine under the headline ‘Where do all the atheists live?’ claiming that the tool shows the ‘godless cities’ of England and Wales.
The schedule for the upcoming Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) is a testament the ongoing interest in research related to secularism, nonreligion and atheism. Thomas J. Coleman presents an insight into what we can look forward to from the panel sponsored by the journal Secularism and Nonreligion. The Meeting will be held in Indianapolis at the end of October and you can register here.
The 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) Annual Meeting has never seen a year like this before. There was a record number of high quality individual paper submissions accepted (over 430) and organized sessions (over 70). This includes over 35 papers focusing on secularism, nonreligion, nonbelief, and atheism from scholars as far away as Australia, Germany, and Turkey. To give some perspective, last year’s SSSR conference in Boston only had a single session dedicated to nonreligion—situated during the last time-slot of the last day (still had a packed room!). This year, conference attendees will likely find one or more sessions each day focusing on atheism and secularism. Continue reading