On 4th September 2014 Lorna Mumford was part of the ‘Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of Atheism and Non-religion’ panel at the British Association for the Study of Religions’ annual conference hosted by The Open University in Milton Keynes. Here she reflects on the presentations and key themes that emerged.
The aim of the ‘Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of Atheism and Non-religion’ panel was to move away from focusing on purely propositional understandings of atheism and nonreligion, toward exploring the manifestations of nonreligion through material objects and within discursive contexts. Katie Aston had brought along a pair of ‘atheist shoes’ (www.atheistberlin.com) to pass around the audience – they hadn’t been worn yet, she assured us! Embossed on the sole of the shoes is the phrase ‘Ich Bin Atheist’ (‘I am atheist’ – the designers thought the German phrasing was ‘cooler’). This was one example of the material manifestations of nonreligion that Katie has been exploring in her research. One of her participants had explained that what distinguishes the nonreligious from the religious is their lack of ‘rituals, books and elaborate clothes’. However, Aston’s work demonstrates that there are specifically nonreligious rituals, books and clothes: the shoes, the Humanist weddings which she has been studying, and the final item she had brought along for her ‘show and tell’ presentation, A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book (2011). The book comprises a compilation of philosophical and ethical tracts, designed to offer an inspirational guide to nonreligious living.
Grayling’s book is not only an example of nonreligious materialism, but also evidence of the complex relationship between religion and nonreligion, the latter being characterised by not just an absence of the former but rather, what I’d call ‘differentialised imitation’. As Aston discussed, the book deliberately mimics the Biblical format: subtitled ‘a Humanist Bible’, or ‘Secular Bible’ in the US edition; divided into chapters with titles such as ‘Genesis’, ‘Proverbs’ and ‘Epistles’; pages containing numerical ‘verse’ designations and even its own ‘Ten Commandments’.
Both the book and the shoes highlight an intertwining of nonreligion, religion and science. In ‘Genesis’ Grayling alludes to the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve by recounting the tale of Isaac Newton discovering the laws of gravity after an apple fell upon his head. On the atheist shoes, a black circular logo adorns the heel and the packaging of the shoebox, representing both a black hole and the ‘God shaped hole’ the shoes’ creator was once accused of having in his life. The black hole is incorporated as a positive metaphor; it does not allude to an absence of something, but to the possibility of what might fill the hole.
Lydia Reid’s research explores religious people’s attitudes towards the (so-called) ‘New Atheist’ (NA) arguments. She interviewed university students who identify as Jewish, Christian or Muslim, and as part of the interview the students were asked to read extracts from the works of major NA authors: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett. Interestingly, only a small number of interviewees had heard of the term ‘New Atheism’, but almost a third admitted they had read, at least partially, Dawkins’ God Delusion (2006).
One Jewish interviewee had stated that it was ‘bad’ that she agreed with everything the New Atheists were saying. Reid noted that this shows she buys into the idea of religion and atheism as oppositional stances – a stance the New Atheists (NA) generally take – and that her agreement with the NA arguments, even on the subject of God, indicates that the form of religion presented in the text was not one she personally self-identified with.
Whether interviewees felt that the texts were targeting their own faith position, or not, impacted upon how they responded. Sometimes they agreed with the NA statements, not because they felt they were relevant to their own beliefs, but because they felt they applied to ‘other’ faiths and religious people. A quote from Hitchens about ‘moderate believers’ received particularly mixed reactions from interviewees. Muslim students tended to distinguish ‘moderate’ from ‘fundamental’ or ‘extremist’, and were more likely to identify as ‘moderate’, while Orthodox Jewish interviewees associated ‘moderate’ with reformed Judaism and were keen to portray themselves as more devout.
Reid’s work highlights how ‘othering’ can occur both across and within faith groups, while similarities can be found across the religious-nonreligious ‘divide’. Her work indicates the diversity of both religious and nonreligious worldviews, and the impossibility of placing people in neat defining categories.
My own presentation explored the importance of nonreligious community relations to my nonreligious participants. Particularly, I highlighted the existence of an international ‘imagined’ (Anderson 2006) nonreligious community, connected via the internet. The internet hosts a plethora of websites, videos and blogs devoted to issues of atheism and nonreligion, making it a material manifestation of discursive practices.
During my fieldwork I noted much concern about the possibility of creationist beliefs being taught in UK schools alongside scientific explanations of origins. However, the UK government has specifically designed measures to prevent this occurring, and instances of it happening are rare, and promptly addressed (BHA 2013). Catto and Eccles’ (2013) study of young atheists also found the ‘use of American sites and videos appeared to be feeding concern about the situation in the US…and what was perceived by interviewees to be widespread belief in Creationism. Some of these fears were then transposed to the British situation’. Yet, most of my participants take an active interest in matters of religious influence in the public sphere, making it unlikely they are unaware of the government safeguards against this. Assuming their concern is just error due to engaging with US-based websites seems simplistic. I suggested concern about creationism may be an expression of solidarity with fellow members of the international ‘imagined’ nonreligious community – part of a process of creating a sense of shared identity based on common opinions and concerns.
The one exception came from my ex-Muslim participants who were more concerned about the treatment of women, minorities and non-believers in Islamic states. These participants were, however, more likely to be engaging with websites catering for the nonreligious in countries such as Pakistan, or for nonreligious members of the Muslim diaspora. While this serves as a reminder that multiple forms of nonreligious identity exist even within one local context, my research also suggests that many nonreligious individuals do consider themselves part of a much wider ‘imagined’ nonreligious community – a community they are purposely engaging with via the internet, and actively constructing through that engagement.
Ethan Quillen’s presentation ‘Atheist Aesthetics’ promoted the use of creative and artistic representations of atheism as ethnographic sources. In the first half of the presentation he discussed the multitudinous definitions of atheism that exist, displaying nine slides with at least six definitions on each, not including alternative terms such as irreligion, nonreligion and unbelief! Like religion, atheism has proved elusive to concrete definition.
Quillen advocates a ‘discursive interpretation’ of atheism, drawing on von Stuckrad’s (2003) discursive approach to religion, focusing on the way it is ‘organized, discussed and discursively materialised in cultural and social contexts’. In this view ‘religion’ is an empty signifier that can be filled with many meanings depending on the social context. From this perspective, instead of worrying about what the term ‘atheism’ means, we can focus on the way it is used within a particular context, and the way atheists might define themselves within that context.
In the second half of the presentation Quillen discussed how he had applied this approach to ‘atheist’ works of fiction, particularly the novels Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Saturday by Ian McEwan . He argued that the novels present us with an ‘evolution’ of different atheist positions: from a ‘pragmatic agnostic’ stance in which characters reflect on why god may not exist in the first, to arguments negating another’s faith position in the next, and lastly a scientific refutation of religion in the third. Such novels, Quillen argues, present us with an ethnographic source for understanding concepts of atheism within the social context in which they are written and read, offering insight into the ways cultural identities are shaped and represented.
To summarise, some key themes emerged from all the panel’s presentations: the repeated interconnections between nonreligion, religion and science in both discursive and material forms of expression; the complexity of religious and nonreligious identity positions; and the benefits of examining material representations of nonreligion, both as ‘objects’ in their own right and as physical contributions to discursive practices. Material and discursive manifestations of atheism and nonreligion are proving to be useful avenues of enquiry, providing both new understandings of nonreligion and complimenting existing knowledge.
Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition. London, New York: Verso.
BHA. 2013. “Science, Evolution and Creationism.” British Humanist Association https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/science-evolution-and-creationism.
Catto, Rebecca, and Janet Eccles. 2013. “(Dis)Believing and Belonging: Investigating the Narratives of Young British Atheists.” Temenos 49 (1): 37–63.
Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.
Grayling, Professor A. C. 2011. The Good Book: A Secular Bible. First Edition edition. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Stuckrad, Kocku von. 2003. “Discursive Study of Religion: From States of the Mind to Communication and Action.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15 (3): 255–71.
Lorna is is responsible for the general overseeing and maintenance of website, and is the editor-in-chief with responsibility for the day-to-day management of Nonreligion and Secularity, the NSRN Blog. A PhD student in the department of anthropology, University College London, Lorna’s research comprises an ethnographic exploration of nonreligious value systems and notions of morality. Her aim is to develop a deeper understanding of what nonreligious people mean when they talk of ‘living a good life without God’.