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.
Research on these topics, as NSRN director Dr. Stephen Bullivant recently wrote in a previous NSRN blog post, is ‘becoming too large and interesting to ignore.’ At this year’s conference, research on secularism and atheism will most certainly be too large and interesting to ignore. According to the SSSR’s website, the theme for the conference focuses on ‘building bridges’ between all those interested in the study of religion, including scholars from various disciplines and geographical locations. The SSSR’s intent is to ‘build bridges’ between disciplines and cultures that have become too isolated, communicating among themselves but not to others who come from different perspectives but nonetheless have similar interests. There will be a First-Time Attendee and Award Lunch, and even special receptions for international guests and students.
The journal Secularism and Nonreligion will sponsor a session at the 2014 SSSR Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, which will feature journal editors Dr. Barry Kosmin and Dr. Ryan T. Cragun. Individual papers by Cragun, Dr. John R. Shook, Dr. Christopher F. Silver, and myself will be presented on topics ranging from cognitive development to social movement outcomes. Kosmin, as the convener, will provide opening remarks and a closing reflection on the session as a whole.
Cragun’s presentation, with co-author Lori Fazzino, titled ‘“Splitters!”: Lessons from Monty Python on Secular Group Fracturing in the US’, examines the origins of major nontheist/freethought organisations in the US. Using interviews with current and past leaders, the authors focus on the interrelations between the major organisations, charting splits and shifts in relationships over time. The presentation will conclude with a discussion of whether the fractures in the movement and the varied organisations have been a net positive for the movement, or acted more as an impediment to the overall goal of the movement in the US.
Shook’s presentation, titled ‘Polysecularity and Rival Secularisms’, explores the concept of ‘being secular’ in its entirety. He argues that ‘there is no uniform way that secularity manifests itself as a secularism agenda.’ Many times, one feature of secularity is taken to describe all of secularism, or define the essence of nonbelief. It is important that the study of secularity say more about the identity formations of the atheist and the secularist. According to Shook, ‘secularity isn’t just distance from religion – paths avoiding religion take different moral, social and political directions.’ In his presentation, Shook provides an innovative way to categorize types of secular people that take into account their lived experiences.
Silver’s presentation, titled ‘The Six Types of Nonbelief’, rejects the popular assumption that there is little variation in the psychological makeup of nonbelievers. His data demonstrates significant quantitative and qualitative differences in the psychological profile(s) of people who share only a single attribute – not believing in God. Through over 60 structured interviews and a questionnaire over 300 items long six types of nonbelief emerged from the data. These types include what Silver terms as the Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, Activist Atheist/Agnostic, Seeker Agnostic, Anti-Theist, Nontheist, and the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. Moreover, according to Silver, this research is a ‘conversation starter’ and may indicate greater diversity in the types of nonbelief beyond those uncovered in this initial study.
My own presentation, with co-authors Derek Giamundo and Evan Smith, titled ‘Nailed with No Cross: Exploring Atheism in the Cognitive Science of Religion’, challenges the popular claim in the discipline that atheism is relatively unnatural (i.e., requiring much effort) compared to religious belief. Alternatively, we argue that some types of nonbelief arise ‘naturally’ – effortlessly, with little to no reflection, and at an early age in some psychologically normal individuals. During this presentation, I will present a case study of 26-year-old ‘Isabella’, focusing on her empirical psychological correlates as they exemplify ‘natural nonbelief’, paired with Isabella’s narrative of how nonbelief in God felt effortlessly normal at age 8.
If you are interested in attending the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Annual Meeting you may register here http://www.sssrweb.org/meeting.cfm. A completed conference program will be posted on the SSSR website in the coming months. You won’t want to miss the Secularism and Nonreligion Journal – Panel on Atheism and Secularism along with the many other great presentations at the conference. See you in Indianapolis!
If you are unable to make the conference in person be sure to look out for the event report which will be published on the blog later this year.
Thomas J. Coleman III is the Director of the Ralph W. Hood Jr. Psychology of Religion Research Laboratory at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where he is a student in the Research Psychology Masters Program. He is an Assistant Editor for the journal Secularism & Nonreligion, Assistant Editor for The Religious Studies Project, and holds the Assistant Project Manager Position on the Bielefeld International Spirituality Research Study. His email address is Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu.