Amanda Schutz sat in on a session covering issues of nonreligion at the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting, which took place in San Francisco, California, 13th-15th of August. Here, she shares her interpretations of these presentations and her thoughts on how they represent a step in the right direction for this growing field.
The Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting demonstrated that the subfield is slowly acknowledging the significance of nonreligion and recognizing where the gaps in our current understanding lay. While discussions of secularism and secularization littered the sessions, only one was dedicated to issues of nonreligion. Although the session title was changed from ‘Religious Nones’ to ‘Religious Identities, Narratives, and Strategies’, three of the four presentations still dealt with topics related to nonreligion, with all three tackling questions that have remained unexplored.
Tara Fletcher of the University of Texas-San Antonio presented ‘Who Are the Latino Religious “Nones”?’ and brought attention to the fact that little research has interrogated the relationship between race, ethnicity, and religious non-affiliation, beyond general descriptive statistics. Several special factors must be considered when explaining rates of Latino religious affiliation that make it difficult to generalize our current understanding of disaffiliation trends to Latinos, like the centrality of the family in Latino cultures, the expectation that women will remain religious (even greater than for the general female population), Latino groups’ high fertility rates, above average economic insecurity, and the diversity in countries of origin. Fletcher stated that results from Pew data show that in many ways, Latino nones aren’t much different from nones in general: women are less likely to disaffiliate, married people are more religious, and more education and greater economic security makes one less religious. However, the most promising point from the presentation is the link between national and religious identity: those embedded in Latino culture are less likely to disaffiliate. In other words, Latinos who embrace an American identity may be more likely to disaffiliate, so that identifying as American moves one away from Latino, as well as Catholic.
Fletcher takes an important stride forward to provide a more inclusive portrait of religious nones in the US. Most research implicitly speaks of nones in general, who are overwhelmingly white, with the proportion of white seculars being slightly larger than the proportion of whites in the general population. Little research has inquired as to why such a disparity exists. According to Pew data, 16% of Hispanics in the US describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, compared to nearly 20% of all US adults (Lugo, 2012). Interestingly, while the rate of disaffiliation from 2007 to 2012 has risen for most groups, rates of unaffiliated Hispanics have remained consistent. In light of Fletcher’s conclusions, this trend may not be a big surprise: if the influx of Hispanic immigrants to the US continues, the second- and third-generation Latinos who disaffiliate are quickly replaced by immigrants whose Latino identity and religious commitment are still intact. Fletcher’s work (with UTSA professors Christopher G. Ellison and Aida I. Ramos-Wada) offers insights to the mechanisms responsible for such shifts in religious identification, from which new hypotheses can be tested.
Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme of the University of Oxford presented ‘Greater Differences in Social Values between Religious and Secular Individuals in Contexts of Advanced Secularization: An International Comparison’. With religious disaffiliation occurring cross-nationally, Wilkins-Laflamme explores the extent to which this has affected social and political views and choices. With lower levels of religiosity we should also expect lower levels of conservatism, but just how big is this divide? According to the religious polarization framework, in nations that have become more secular, the conservative groups may become more visible, vocal, or defensive, and Wilkins-Laflamme’s hypothesis is that such differences in social and political views and choices will be greatest in the most secular nations. Using 2008 International Social Survey Programme data, the results suggest that there is a greater divide in secular nations, with people who are religious being more committed to their faith if the number of unaffiliated in the region is greater—but this gap is explained by the unaffiliated becoming more liberal, not by the committed becoming more reactive.
Finally, Björn Mastiaux of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf presented ‘The Members of Atheist Organizations in Germany and the United States’. He states that atheist organizations have existed for decades but until recently have gone unnoticed. In his dissertation, which he will be presenting at the NSRN Conference in November, he considers what these organizations are like and who their members are. Drawing on data collected from 62 interviews from six groups in US and Germany, he creates a typology of atheist group members, consisting of eight types based around four central motives for joining an organization, involving political conflict, belonging, philosophical or religious knowledge, and identification with the organization. Due to time constraints, Mastiaux only elaborated on the two types associated with the latter motivation, organizational identification. He labels these types of atheist group members the disassociate and the euphoric, or, respectively, those who refuse to identify as atheists but sympathize with atheist goals, and those who identify strongly as atheists and see religion as problematic. Such a typology will further our understanding of the diversity in the atheist community and individuals’ motivations for joining.
Both Wilkins-Laflamme and Mastiaux focus on international trends, which are important to understand as disaffiliation occurs on a global scale. Demographic trends among the non-affiliated are consistent across Western industrialized nations (Hayes, 2000), but rates of disaffiliation, motivations for doing so, and large-scale consequences may vary. Cross-national comparisons, then, are vital for developing a comprehensive picture of nonreligion and understanding the extent to which religious commitment can affect social and political outcomes. Mastiaux mentioned during the Q&A that clear differences in the US and Germany exist, particularly in motives for joining an atheist organization (for example, American members were more likely to join to satisfy a desire to belong). Differences in motivation imply differences in experience, and vice versa.
Mastiaux also suggested that the trend to identify as atheist and join organizations should be analyzed as a social movement. Though he did not have time to offer a justification, I offer some of my own ideas as to why this framework would be a useful perspective for scholars while moving forward. Seeing as scholars have neglected to acknowledge that some religious movements do fit into the parameters of a definition of social movements (see Smith, 1996), it is no surprise that nonreligious movements have been overlooked as well. Snow, Soule, and Kriesi (2004) offer a comprehensive definition of social movements as ‘collectivities acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional or organizational channels for the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority, whether it is institutionally or culturally based, in the group, organization, society, culture, or world order of which they are a part’ (11). While not all atheist organizations will fall under the umbrella of this definition, it’s reasonable to believe that at least some do.
Like religious organizations, nonreligious organizations have embodied many of the same characteristics associated with ‘traditional’ social movements, like aiming to alleviate grievances, mobilizing resources, taking advantage of political opportunities, and developing a shared identity. For instance, numerous researchers (Edgell et al., 2006; Gervais et al., 2011; Cragun et al., 2012) as well as several NSRN blog writers have shed light on the prejudice and discrimination that atheists can face, demonstrating that they have the motivation to form groups based on a common grievance. Also, established venues like Unitarian Universalist and humanist communities have previously provided material resources to aid in the mobilization of secular activists (Manning, 2010). More recently, the popularity of New Atheism—in conjunction with new media and technology—has armed atheists with invaluable (though intangible) new resources, like visibility and legitimacy, while carving out opportunities for (especially American) atheists and other secularists to locate one another, assemble, and openly challenge the cultural and political power held by religious institutions (Cimino and Smith, 2011). And finally, several researchers (Smith, 2013; LeDrew, 2013) have begun commenting on the role organizations play in fostering a sense of collective identity among atheists.
These disparate works, taken together, could easily form the beginnings of a theory of nonreligious social movements, which it seems Mastiaux has begun to pursue. That religion has remained a significant enough force to prompt the reactionary emergence of nonreligious organizations is reason enough to seriously consider the advancements social movement theories could bring to nonreligious studies.
If you enjoyed Amanda’s report of the ASR annual meeting you might be interested in the previous NSRN event reports, which can be found here.
Cimino R and Smith C (2011) The New Atheism and the Imagined Secularist Community. Journal of Media and Religion 10(1): 24-38.
Cragun R, Kosmin B, Keysar A et al. (2012) On the Receiving End: Discrimination toward the Non-Religious in the United States. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1): 105-127.
Edgell P, Gerteis J and Hartmann D (2006) Atheist as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society. American Sociological Review 71(2): 211-234.
Gervais W, Shariff A and Norenzayan A (2011) Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101(6): 1189-1206.
Hayes B (2000) Religious Independents Within Western Industrialized Nations: A Socio-Demographic Profile. Sociology of Religion 61(2): 191-207.
LeDrew S (2013) Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity and Activism. Sociology of Religion 74(4): 431-453.
Lugo L (2012) Nones on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated.nones-on-the-rise.aspx
Manning C (2010) Atheism, Secularity, the Family, and Children. In: Zuckerman P (ed) Atheism and Secularity Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, and Definitions. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 19-41.
Smith C (1996) Correcting a Curious Neglect, or Bringing Religion Back In. In: Smith C (ed) Disruptive Religion: The Force of Faith in Social Movement Activism. New York: Routledge, 1-25.
Smith J (2013) Creating a Godles Community: The Collective Identity Work of Contemporary American Atheists. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52(1): 80-99.
Snow D, Soule S and Kriesi H (2004) Mapping the Terrain. In: Snow D, Soule S and Kriesi H (eds) The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Oxford: Blackwell, 3-16.
Amanda is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona. Her research is motivated by interests in identity, deviance, social movements, and organizations. She is currently developing an ethnographic study that will explore the place of godless congregations within the irreligious organizational field in the United States, and the benefits that this specific organizational structure provides its members that aren’t filled by other irreligious groups. Amanda is an assistant editor of the NSRN, responsible for the publication of upcoming events to NSRN online, and the commissioning of event reports for the NSRN blog. To learn more about Amanda, visit her webpage at the UA School of Sociology.