That Bunch of Atheists? A Short Introduction to the NSRN

lois-small1In our introductory post NSRN director and founder, Lois Lee, discusses the work of the NSRN, the vision behind the new NS blog, and recounts her experience of the common mis-conflation of nonreligion and secularity research with atheism and atheist advocacy.

A few months after I launched the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN), I introduced myself to a senior academic at a conference – let’s call him James: Professor James. ‘James,’ I said, ‘my name is Lois Lee. I’ve been in email contact a lot recently so I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce myself and say hello in person.’ ‘Ah,’ said James: ‘Are you the atheist Lois?’

Hmm… Well… For me, this is a difficult question to answer. For one, ‘atheist’ is not an accurate way to identify the organisation I was speaking on behalf of and to which James was referring. The NSRN references ‘nonreligion’ and ‘secularity’, but makes no mention of ‘atheism’. In reality, a lot of the work that NS researchers undertake relates and refers to atheism and/or atheist cultures. But, in developing the network, we were conscious that we were situating this broader project not alongside and in relation to research into theism so much as alongside and in relation to a broader programme of research associated with the term ‘religion’.

Setting up in 2008 – two years after the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion – we were aware of growing interest in atheism and had every confidence that work in this area would form a cornerstone of the NS research. But we were sensitive also to the possibility that atheism research might take over and we wanted to ensure that this new organisation was conceived of in such a way as to encourage, rather than foreclose, other possibilities.

There are, after all, myriad ways of being nonreligious and multiple forms of secularity. What is more, atheism is not always a significant component of either experience, if it is a component at all. In fact, why atheism has commandeered the limelight in some, especially northern Western, cultures is itself a fascinating – and empirical – question for researchers in this growing field. Few religious people primarily identify as ‘theist’: doing so is at once very general (transcending religious cultural traditions and identities, e.g. ‘Christian’ or ‘Methodist’) – and very specific, honing in on only one aspect of religious life (belief in God). There are several possible reasons why ‘atheism’ might have become, by comparison, such a dominant identifier of nonreligiosity: An extension of the Protestant-centric emphasis on belief over practice? An expression of Cartesian dualism, with its emphasis on the mind as distinct from, and more important than, the body? But NS researchers are interested in other things too. We are interested in the nonreligious traditions that are driven by a sense of distance or otherness not from theism but from religious rituals, symbolic representations and communities. We are interested in why and when people – theist, atheist or otherwise – identify themselves as ‘atheist’, ‘nonreligious’, ‘not religious’, ‘secular’ or ‘agnostic’. We are interested in how people engage with nonreligious communities like many contemporary Humanist organisations and atheist groups. And we are interested in very much more besides.

This is one reason for my disinclination for being described by Professor James as ‘atheist Lois’ rather than ‘NSRN Lois’. Another is that I, like many in this field, have become wary of people confusing my professional and personal interests and identity. Asking me if I was the ‘atheist Lois’ is like asking someone who researches, for example, the Conservative party, ‘Are you the Tory Lois?’ There are a couple of very different senses to this question, and researchers might not be comfortable with all of them.

I am not the only researcher of nonreligion, secularity or atheism to have experienced the assumption that one’s research topic reflects one’s personal position and maybe even demonstrates the particular passion and fervour with which that position is held. This has been a recurring issue in media work that the NSRN Directors and Editors have done for example – and we soon adapted to this by highlighting the array of personal religious, nonreligious and spiritual positions that the team includes, as a method of shifting attention to our key common interest: our shared research agenda.

Other assumptions follow on from the view that you, the researcher of nonreligion, are nonreligious, with people projecting their own views of nonreligion onto the research project. Professor James, for example, struggled to relate the ‘atheist Lois’ to the Lois who works with the Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism (SEN) journal. I’d more recently been in touch with Professor James about a potential collaboration with SEN, and said so. To paraphrase,

PJ: Are you the atheist Lois?

LL: Well, yes, but I was recently in touch with you about doing something with SEN?

PJ: Oh, sorry, you’re the SEN Lois; I thought you were the atheist Lois.

LL: Um, yes, no, well, yes: I am both. I am – at once – a representative of SEN and of the NSRN!

Being involved with the two seemed difficult to compute; perhaps James thought that a dogged atheist researcher, with an axe to grind and a crucifix to burn, would not also have a more rounded interest in community, ethnicity, cultural diversity, multiculturalism. Eventually, I was able to convince Professor James that this was feasible, that a social science of nonreligion, secularity and nonreligious atheism was just that: a social scientific endeavour.


The new blog, Nonreligion and Secularity, is established with the same objective in mind. With discussion of nonreligion, secularity, secularism and atheism central to public debate and online community groups, it is not hard to find commentary on these topics on the Internet. Nonreligion and Secularity provides something slightly different: a discussion space informed by the latest social scientific research. The About Us page provides an overview of the kinds of treatments that the blog will feature, but its overall goal is to support the wide-dissemination of social scientific approaches to nonreligion, secularity and nonreligious atheism. Our contributors will be able to contextualise the issue of the day with cutting-edge research and broader theory. They will be able to explore and open discussion around new ideas and new questions. Most importantly, and excitingly, the blog is designed to be accessible to academic and non-academic audiences alike, and to foster discussion between them.

These conversations are already happening, and the potential of nonreligion and secularity research is increasingly recognised (even Professor James is a convert). As well as other initiatives, the blog builds on other NSRN activity: the email lists shared by our 250+ members, incorporating academic and non-academic researchers and practitioners from around the world; the website, which has been through many incarnations and is now run by a team of nine editors; the resources the website provides, to active and would-be researchers and students in the field, and the opportunities it provides to disseminate work being produced by our members and in the field more generally;  the journal, and the book series in the pipeline; the academic conferences, study days, research training and public events. The NSRN was founded by a group of scholars who discovered that they were not, as they had imagined, alone. Emerging from conversation with fellow not-alone researcher Stephen Bullivant, I put out some feelers about setting up a network. Within weeks, I had been contacted not by one or two researchers but scores of researchers. The network and field have grown enormously since then. Having enough material, researchers and followers of this research to necessitate this blog is an exciting sign of how far the field has come.

Lois Lee is the founding director of the NSRN, editor of NSRN Online, and executive editor of Nonreligion and Secularity. She is a Research Associate in political science at University College London and has published widely on the social science of nonreligion, atheism and secularism. She is also features editor for the journal Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism and editor of Secularism and Nonreligion and recently co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Religion on ‘Non-religion and Secularity’. She is currently completing her first monograph, Nonreligion, Secularity and Society.


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1 Response to That Bunch of Atheists? A Short Introduction to the NSRN

  1. peterwebster says:

    Many thanks for this post, and the valuable point about the suppositions often made about the relationship between a scholar’s work and their personal religious (or non-religious) position. You may be interested in this review of an older book on Interpreting Christian History, and the author’s response to my review.

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