Launch Series: Are Religion and Nonreligion All in the Mind?

NSRN director Lois Lee explains why researchers of nonreligion must look beyond purely intellectual and cognitive expressions of lois-small1nonreligious rationalism.

‘Most people would rather die than think’, said the eminently quotable Bertrand Russell; and ‘most do so’. It is a phrase I have heard the London philosopher A. C. Grayling rehearse, more than once, over the course of my fieldwork investigating nonreligious culture and secularity in southeast England. Associated with the New Atheist movement whose chief protagonists are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, Grayling’s target is the ‘unthinking religious’.

It is an idea of religion that is a mainstay in particular forms of nonreligious culture. LSE anthropologist Matthew Engelke has observed the same thing in his ethnographic work with British Humanists, commenting that ‘stupidity’ is a common and significant motif in some of the forums he has participated in. I have likewise argued in the past that understanding the religious as ‘stupid’, ‘insane’ or as having some kind of brain malfunction is often visible in the discourses of one type of nonreligious culture, which I would characterise as the ‘rationalist’.

Not all nonreligious rationalists take this tone however; nor are these apparently derogatory sentiments always unkindly meant: for nonreligious rationalists, why people are religious ‘in the face of all the evidence’ can be truly baffling and an attempt to explain religiosity in these ways can express a desire to reach out and to understand. The view also takes more overtly sympathetic forms. Many nonreligious rationalists emphasise the comfort that religion can provide to people, the issue being less that people’s rationality is dulled in such situations, but that this faculty is something of a luxury good. Though nonreligious rationalists might differ, therefore, in their views as to whether religious people are disempowered by others or by themselves, they share the Enlightenment view that rationality, where it can be accessed, will see religion off.

But are rationalists – nonreligious or religious – right to think about religion as all, or mainly, in the mind? Social scientists would give a mixed response to this question. On the one hand, rationalisation has an established role in secularisation theories and even more complex accounts like Steve Bruce’s make a role for the advance of science and the relativisation of thought. Taking an alternative but still cognitive-focused view, rational choice theorists see being religious as rational and, indeed, many religions consider themselves in precisely these terms (though not necessarily on the same grounds). On the other hand, belief-centric understandings of religion have been roundly critiqued in various disciplines, as has the very notion of human action as primarily or importantly rational. This work highlights the emotional, the embodied and the social, through which all aspects of life, including rationality itself, become manifest. Most scholars would agree that the study of religion has therefore to look not only at but beyond the cognitive and attend to these other dimensions of religiosity.

Yet, when it comes to nonreligion, the rationalist approach seems to have trumped all others. For one, nonreligious rationalists, the New Atheists amongst them, are often approached by social scientists not as participants in a significant cultural phenomenon worthy of scholarly interest and explanation but as intellectual interlocutors. We pass judgment on nonreligious rationalism instead of investigating it as socio-cultural phenomenon; even those taking a critical approach are liable to focus much more on the texts themselves rather than the contexts that give rise to them. Irritation with some arguments made by nonreligious rationalists blind many scholars to its ambivalent nature – to its more as well as less sympathetic faces, to the more as well as less appealing impulses it acts on.

Of course, some New Atheists – Dawkins, Grayling, Dennett – are academics themselves and this encourages us to treat their arguments in this way. With the exception of Daniel Dennett, however, none of these authors work within the social sciences and this should affect the way in which their arguments are handled in these disciplines. Social scientists can test and rebuke the claims and implications of these writings on social scientific grounds, but this critical engagement should be seen as supplementary or external to New Atheist thought. What is more, in cases where claims are made that can be easily overturned by social scientists, we are bound to consider why it is that such naïve arguments have proved so salient with popular audiences – and the extent to which we ourselves are complicit in this by, for example, not communicating our work effectively enough to these audiences. Again, engaging only with the arguments nonreligious rationalists make is insufficient.

Secondly, academics have not been sufficiently critical of the representation of nonreligious cultures in purely cognitive terms – as ‘atheist’, ‘agnostic’ or ‘secularist’. I have frequently pointed out that the pairing of ‘religion and atheism’ is as problematic as it is commonplace; even by those who reject belief-centric understandings of religion, would never reduce religion to its cognitive aspects and rarely represent religion in equivalent terms, as ‘theist’ or ‘theocratic’. When these same academics focus on atheism and unbelief to the exclusion of other aspects of nonreligious culture or secular life, they reveal the hold that rationalist understandings of religion still have over them.

This underlying rationalism has shaped the study of secularity and nonreligion hugely, encouraging investigation of abstract philosophical and political propositions. But emerging work shows how fruitful it is to think outside of this framework – to attend more equally to other dimensions and types of nonreligious culture, like the romantic forms of materialism which are quite distinct from rationalist ones; like the alternative spiritualities that sometimes understand themselves as meaningfully different to religion and which are nonreligious in that sense; or like the more expressly secular people, who are unengaged with philosophical orientations towards the world of any sort and instead derive meaning from this-worldly concerns and pleasures. A non-rationalist approach to nonreligious culture leads to investigations of how nonreligion threads through informal relationships, familiar symbolic environments and everyday practices; it extends ‘lived religion’ approaches to the study of nonreligious and secular life; and it considers how nonreligious identities of all kinds, whether rationalist or otherwise, are performed and received in private and public life.

Alongside the intellectual and moral, then, we need to engage more deeply with the cultural and structural aspects of nonreligion. As all social scientists understand and feel deeply, thinking is really only one part of the picture.

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, editor of Secularism and Nonreligion and recently co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Religion on ‘Non-religion and Secularity’, now published in book form (Routledge, 2013). 

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