Oh, the Irony!?: Studying Atheism in Religious Studies

Steven Tomlins discusses common misconceptions he has encountered as a researcher of atheism within a religious studies department, and highlights some of the potential benefits of studying nonreligion from a religious studies perspective.rsz_steve_pic

Stranger:  “…and what about you; what do you do?”

Me:  “I’m doing my PhD.”

Stranger:  “In what?”

Me:  “Religious Studies.”

Stranger:  “Oh.  [short pause].  Are you going to be a priest or a minister?”

Me:  “Neither; I study religion from more of a sociological perspective.”

Potential Acquaintance:  “Oh.  .  So what is your thesis on?”

Me:  “Atheism.  Basically atheism in Canada; I’m looking at why people join atheist groups and how the groups might differ from, say, atheist groups in the US or Europe.”

Acquaintance:  “Oh.  [long pause].  I’m spiritual but not religious.”

Me:  “Yeah, I hear that a lot.  I’m still waiting to hear someone say they are religious but not spiritual.”

The above is a prose-poetry composite of how the majority of my conversations go when the topic of my area of study first comes up.  I study atheism in the Religious Studies department of the University of Ottawa.  This may seem ironic, or even a contradiction, but since atheism often lends itself to debate about religious issues and/or influences, it fits quite snugly under the Religious Studies blanket.  In fact, most of the books about atheism, or by atheist authors about religion, can be found in the religion section of your local bookstore. The contribution of the study of atheism to Religious Studies, however, is not always so clear.  In this blog, I will unpack some of the notions that derive from my prose-poetry preface, and in doing so argue that research in this area is a logical fit with Religious Studies.

The first part of my preface deals with a rather common misconception that Religious Studies is analogous to Theology.  This is simply not the case; while both deal with religious matters, Theology and Religious Studies are different disciplines with different histories, objectives, boundaries, theories, and methodologies.  Although they may report on it, it is not the Religious Studies scholars’ role to contribute directly to Theology.  In fact, this would be antagonistic to the whole purpose of the discipline, which is to secularly and scientifically provide insight into how religion is understood (culturally and categorically), practiced, and used by Homo Sapiens at any given time, not to speculate on the truth or falsehood of a specific supernatural claim.

Although Religious Studies is a secular discipline, it does have its fair share of religious adherents, just as it has its fair share of nonreligious scholars.  For individuals in the field who have religious beliefs, it is often the case that those beliefs do not come to the forefront of their work.  For example, a colleague of mine is Buddhist, but he does not argue the correct path to enlightenment in his work, but instead treats his subject academically and looks at it from a secular, sociological perspective. Likewise, another colleague from my undergraduate program has become an Anglican minister.  When we were in class together I could not tell from her work on analysing the wisdom sections of the Bible as literature that she also believes them to be inspired by God; such a pronouncement would have seemed quite out of place.

As for the study of atheism specifically, it fits well into Religious Studies because atheists are often engaged with discourse on or about religion; atheism, at the very least, is a reaction to, or negation of, theism.  In the last few years, likely attributable to media and public interest in so-called New Atheism (and, arguably, a New Atheist backlash), atheism has increasingly been studied in Religious Studies.  While undergoing my Master’s degree I was not aware of any other students specifically studying atheism in the field, and the first student that I became aware of mentioned having had to defend the appropriateness of studying atheism in Religious Studies to his department.  I have never had that problem, and now that I’m aware of an increasing body of scholars studying atheism I presume that appropriateness is less commonly a question but is increasingly a given.  Likewise for conferences; organizers on one of the first conferences I attended placed my paper, on the topic of how the New Atheists understand morality, on a panel entitled ‘Evil Incarnate’, and placed it in the programme directly after a fellow presenting on Satanism.  Since then, however, I usually get placed on panels with either a secularization theme or an outright emphasis on atheism itself. 

The study of atheism seems to have become normalized within Religious Studies, but that does not mean studying atheism in Religious Studies is not without its concerns.  Care must be given, for example, not to conflate contemporary organized atheism with being a new or pseudo-religion just because it addresses religion and occasionally offers alternatives to concepts or practices that have long been considered the domain of religion.  It is also important to keep in mind that methods and theories utilized by Religious Studies scholars may not always apply to nonreligion (an umbrella term which includes many types or expressions of atheism but also those who identify as agnostic, humanist, apathetic, etc.).  On this latter point, the study of atheism and nonreligion could potentially provide some insight into why some methods and theories work or do not work – is a theory universally applicable to any grouping or community, for example, or is it specific to explicitly religious factors?

As for the phrase ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’, I assume that is commonly heard by anyone studying anything in Religious Studies, although it may be that in the context of hearing that I study atheism some people feel more comfortable sharing their lack of religiosity with me than they would have been had I said I study Christianity, for example. What is clear, however, is that interest in atheism transcends religious and nonreligious perspectives.  Responses to my disclosure that I study atheism often hint at genuine interest, whether the inquirer identifies as religious, spiritual, or neither.  From the lay-atheist I am often asked why other atheists would want to organize and join groups, when atheism seems, to them, to be an individual belief (or lack thereof).  While from those who identify as religious I am often asked why atheists are ‘so angry’ when they perceive themselves to be the ‘real’ ones who are being persecuted in ‘secular’ Canada.  All of these questions and comments relate to perception and can certainly be unpacked, but for this particular purpose suffice to say that an interest in atheism from all sides bodes well for the relatively new field’s future as it matures within Religious Studies, and perhaps one day steps out into a field all of its own.

Steven Tomlins is a PhD Candidate at the University of Ottawa in Religious Studies and a Student Team Member of The Religion and Diversity Project, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI).  His current area of study deals with atheist communities in a religiously diverse Canada, and how the frameworks of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘reasonable accommodation’ relate to atheism.  Along with his supervisor, Lori G. Beaman, PhD, he is presently editing a book based on a workshop they organized titled “Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts” which brought together a multidisciplinary group of international scholars to critically assess and understand atheism – and the growing segment of ‘religious nones’ – in Western societies from a non-theological and non-polemic foundation.

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4 Responses to Oh, the Irony!?: Studying Atheism in Religious Studies

  1. Christine says:

    I’m interested in studying aspects of those who are “spiritual but not religious” and I’ve actually met several people who referred to themselves as religious but not spiritual. Often, these are people who enjoy participating in formal religious services without necessarily adhering to the belief based creeds of a particular faith. I’ve met several people who attend Anglican services who either implied or outright said that they were religious but not spiritual, although one of them was a Master’s student in religious studies, so I’m not sure if that counts.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. I would like to study the effects apostasy has on public engagement (in the US), and I’ve had a couple of divinity schools say they would welcome my area of research, which was quite surprising to me at first.

  3. Pingback: Atheism in a Religious Studies Department?? | Life + Times in Albuquerque, New Mexico

  4. James says:

    The study of atheism seems to have become normalized within Religious Studies, but that does not mean studying atheism in Religious Studies is not without its concerns.

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