Launch Series: Why the Sudden Interest?

After a long history of neglect, what explains the sudden and sizeable growth of interest in nonreligion and secularity? NSRN director Stephen Bullivant offers his insights. 


Back in the good old days, scholars working on atheism, secularity, nonreligion or related topics didn’t have to worry about how to start their articles or books. We were spared the struggle of thinking up zingy opening lines, because – more or less – we all used the same one. ‘No tradition for the sociological study of irreligion as yet exists…’, began Colin Campbell’s 1971 book Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. And so, with only minor variations, did just about every other publication on the subject for the next forty years. (‘We know surprisingly little about Atheism from a social-scientific perspective…’; ‘The general dearth of sociological research into atheism is well documented…’; ‘Historically, atheism has been neglected by the social sciences…’) And no wonder, for it is a lovely opening gambit. Not only was it basically true, but it alerted the reader – without ever quite saying so – to the startlingly originality of the present work. I’ve used it myself several times, as have a large number of colleagues.

But that’s the trouble. The ‘Campbell opener’ has now appeared so many times – kicking off so many new studies of atheism/nonreligion – that it can no longer possibly be true. For, as Colin Campbell has himself commented on this very blog, such a tradition – though still young – is now pretty firmly established, and incorporating many more disciplines than sociology alone.

Curiously, all this has happened astonishingly fast. The occasional ‘lone voice crying in the wilderness’ aside, there really was very little social-scientific engagement with nonreligion-y topics. (Campbell’s work aside, one of the few significant exceptions was a huge conference on ‘The Culture of Unbelief’ held by the Vatican in 1969.) And then, from the mid-2000s onwards, more and more researchers began to show an interest. By 2008 there were enough to make ‘an international and interdisciplinary research network’ seem like a worthwhile idea (at least to visionary minds like Lois Lee’s). And by 2013, there was a large enough body of existing scholarship to synthesize and expand in the – even though I do say so myself… – fairly heavyweight Oxford Handbook of Atheism.

The amateur sociologist in me likes to think this strange reversal ought itself to be amenable to a sociological explanation. So now that, at long last, ‘the sociology of irreligion’ (in Campbell’s hallowed phrase) is firmly established, permit me briefly to indulge in its sequel.

Toward a Sociology of the Sociology of Nonreligion

Tentatively now, I think two main things are going on. Firstly, I think atheism and nonreligiosity-in-general, as features of the social and cultural landscape, have simply become so large, obvious, significant and interesting, especially in Europe and North America, that they could not continue to be ignored. Secondly, I think that the growing self-awareness of atheists and ‘nones’ themselves, as a (loose) community or movement, has spurred the social scientists among them to take a closer ‘look in the mirror’.

As to the first point, perhaps five or so years ago, a fair few social scientists (and others who, like myself, are ‘soc-sci curious’) thought they’d hit upon this really important but almost wholly unexplored topic, that no one else was working on… only to discover that, actually, quite a lot of other people had already had the same idea. This was around the same time, or perhaps slight after, the emergence of the so-called New Atheism. This was and is a remarkable and in many ways unexpected social, cultural, and intellectual phenomenon in its own right. Unsurprisingly, the New Atheism was undeniably one of the catalysts to the emerging social-scientific interest in the area: here was something that was clearly too obvious, and too ‘loud’, not to be written about. But New Atheism, in itself, isn’t a sufficient explanation, since much of the work that started to emerge at that time wasn’t on New Atheism specifically, and in many cases had begun well before it.

In fact, New Atheism did not arise ex nihilo. It cannot really be understood apart from a much broader and more diffuse ‘flourishing’ of atheism and nonreligiosity, probably beginning in the nineties and rapidly accelerating in the noughties (not least after 9/11). Recent scholarship points to a growing, looseknit movement – much of it centred online – of which New Atheism is but a single, and not necessarily representative, expression. Add to this the growing prominence of religious ‘nones’ in social surveys: nones grew from roughly 8% of the US adult population in 1990 to around 20% today; in Britain around half of the population identify as having ‘no religion’; and so on. In short, atheism, secularity, nonreligion and related topics were becoming harder and harder for social scientists to ignore (especially for PhD candidates or recent postdocs searching for something ‘new’). They were also, of course, becoming much easier to study. Quite apart from the other factors suggested above, would-be researchers have long been hampered by the difficulties of ‘finding’ atheists – unlike, say, Christians or Jews or Muslims they do not tend to congregate at a given place, same time each week; and the few who do join specifically atheist or secularist societies are, by that very fact, atypical. The more atheists there are (and though – unlike ‘nones’ – the numbers of actual atheists are still pretty small, they are growing), the easier they are to find and interview, and the more likely they are to turn up in largescale surveys in usable numbers. The internet too – long a vibrant space for atheist discourse and community-building – has opened up all kinds of possibilities for social research, only some of which have yet been exploited.

My second point rests, I think, on far less firm ground. I am not an atheist, and I am not a (real) social scientist, so I hesitate to say too much about the inner motivations of social scientists who are also atheists. But that said, a significant amount of recent scholarship (focusing especially on the USA) has pointed to an increasing emphasis on what one might call ‘identity politics’ among unbelievers: the importance of ‘coming out’ of the atheist closet; the need for atheists and fellow travellers to stand together, and to be seen to be doing so, at a national level – as, for example, at the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington DC – and so on. Perfectly reasonably, much is made in this connection of the extent of anti-atheist prejudice and discrimination, in various ways, in the United States. Against that backdrop, it seems not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of the current crop of researchers have themselves been influenced by this, developing a professional interest in part out of a personal interest. After all, if atheists are a misunderstood and misrepresented minority in American society – as they seem to be – who better to help set the record straight than social-scientifically trained atheists themselves? At the very least, it’s certainly a fact that most of the very finest sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists of atheism I know are themselves nonbelievers. (Of course, being social scientists, and hence fearing even the hint of an appearance of ‘normativity’ like the plague, they don’t tend to advertise the fact…. but you can learn a lot on Facebook).

The seemingly sudden emergence and growth of sociological interest in nonreligion-related research, where there was almost none just a decade ago, may be partially due to the topic becoming too large and interesting to ignore  (the elephant in the room became, if you like, a steppe mammoth). But also, the fact that unbelieving social scientists (of which there are many) have started to take an interest in the subject is perhaps, and this is the most speculative bit of what is already a very speculative article, influenced by the recent, well-documented growth in atheist self-awareness as well.

Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary’s University, UK, a director of the NSRN since 2008 and co-editor – with Michael Ruse – of The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (OUP, 2013).

This is an edited extract of a talk ‘Why Study Atheism?’ delivered at Florida State University, Tallahassee, in December 2013, at a launch symposium for The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (available via Amazon).

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1 Response to Launch Series: Why the Sudden Interest?

  1. Pingback: The 2014 SSSR Annual Meeting: A Testament to the Growing Popularity and Importance of Secularism and Nonreligion Research. | Nonreligion and Secularity

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