Event Report: The Third Annual International Conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network: Explaining Nonreligion and Secularity in the U.S. and Beyond

Joseph Blankholm participated in the annual conference of the NSRN, held at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, on November 19th and 20th, 2014. In the following, he summarizes some of the findings that scholars presented and takes stock of the international and interdisciplinary research emerging in the study of nonreligion and secularity.Blankholm Head_ Shot_ cropped

Hosted at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s third annual conference was its first in the United States. Two panel sessions ran simultaneously over the course of two days, producing more interesting conversations than any one participant could join. Though scholars from around the world presented on a range of national contexts—including Australia, Egypt, Sweden, and Turkey—the conference was especially strong in highlighting social scientific work focused on North America and the groups that nonbelievers join. If this conference, its organizers (Phil Zuckerman, Christel Manning, and Ryan Cragun), and NSRN’s directors are an indication, sociologists appear to be driving the research agenda in the growing field we might call ‘Secular Studies’. Overall, the conference was deeply interdisciplinary and placed social scientists, historians, and philosophers in conversation with one another.

Lori G. Beaman gave the first of two keynotes on the morning of November 19th. Beaman is Canada Research Chair in the Contextualization of Religion in a Diverse Canada and Full Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. In her address, she analyzed a lawsuit recently argued before the Supreme Court of Canada in order to explore what she calls the ‘will to religion’ in Canadian and American democracies. The suit stems from a complaint filed by activists Christian Joncas and Alain Simoneau in 2006, in opposition to the Saguenay City Council’s recitation of a prayer at the start of its meetings and the prominent placement of a crucifix in its boardroom. Those defending the prayer and crucifix have argued that the latter are part of Quebec’s Catholic heritage and should be exempt from laws that restrict religious symbols from civic life. Beaman contextualizes this argument within an increasingly prevalent legal rhetoric that argues ‘we are all religious, we all have spiritual needs’, and we are all inheritors of a shared Christian cultural tradition. She self-consciously builds on the work of Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, who has analyzed similar decisions by the courts and other branches of American government in recent years (see also 2005). In Beaman’s words, these rhetorical strategies are a way to shift the majoritarian religion to the domain of ‘culture’, thus protecting it from the state restrictions imposed on minority religious groups.

Darren E. Sherkat, Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, gave the conference’s second keynote on the evening of November 19th, based in part on his recent book, Changing Faith: The Dynamics and Consequences of Americans’ Shifting Religious Identities (NYU Press 2014). Relying on quantitative analysis of responses to GSS questions on religious belonging, affiliation, and belief, Sherkat argues for evidence of growing secularization in the United States and urges scholars to move beyond a narrow focus on those ‘nones’ who ‘believe without belonging’. Through the framework of Bourdieu’s field theory, he demonstrates that the Abrahamic religious field depends on belief in agentive gods. By extension, growing belief in a non-agentive ‘higher power, but not a God’ is evidence that more and more Americans are on the periphery of the Abrahamic religious field. ‘Secularization’, in this sense, is measured by weakening ties to Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions, both in terms of religious affiliation and belief. Though some of those who are nonbelievers or who believe in a non-agentive higher power still attend religious services, Sherkat suggests that decreasing social pressure to affiliate and attend could soon spur an autocatalytic decline in American religiosity as belonging, affiliation, and belief reinforce each other less and less.

Lori Fazzino, Jacqueline L. Frost, Jesse M. Smith, Björn Mastiaux, J. Gordon Melton, Michael Rechtenwald, and Ryan Cragun all presented papers that investigate various forms of organized nonbelief, a popular theme throughout the panel sessions. Fazzino’s research studies “lived irreligion” through the local nonbeliever group Las Vegas Atheists. She described anti-atheist discrimination as ‘expected and experienced’ in the Las Vegas area and considers the bodily irreligious messages of t-shirts and tattoos to be ‘everyday forms of resistance to religious hegemony’. Those enacting this everyday resistance are ‘doing activism’ without considering themselves activists. ‘Godless gatherings’ are common in Las Vegas, and Fazzino observed that a local chapter of the London-based Sunday Assembly formed roughly a month prior to her presentation. The Sunday Assembly featured in several presentations, both as a central object of research and as an example of evolving forms of organized nonbelief.

Frost and Smith presented research focused exclusively on the Sunday Assembly. Frost’s presentation relies on several months of fieldwork with the Minneapolis chapter, the leaders of which have given her access to their social media sites, including Meetup.com, as well as full recordings of all Assemblies. She aims to identify why nonbelievers are forming this community, and why they are using church models to do so. She has found that most of the group’s organizers are former churchgoers, while overall, its members come from a range of backgrounds. Those who started the group seek neither to reject religion nor promote nonbelief, and they see themselves as moving past being anti-religion or pro-atheist. Smith has found a similar sensibility among those whom he has met and interviewed at Sunday Assemblies in San Diego and Chicago. He describes those involved as being radically inclusive and promoting no doctrine and no deity. He approaches the Assemblies through the frame of moral and emotional community, asking what kind of ‘emotion work’ organizers employ in order to build a sense of communal belonging, or in the seminal language he borrows from Durkheim, ‘collective effervescence’ (Durkheim 1995).

Mastiaux conducted his research from 2007 to 2009, making his a relatively early social scientific study of nonbeliever organizations, at least since Colin Campbell’s Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971). Mastiaux interviewed 62 members of 6 different groups in Germany and the United States, including local organizations in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Viewed collectively, he argued, these groups and their members comprise a social movement as understood by sociologists (see also Kettell 2014). Melton’s presentation contextualized the contemporary ‘secular movement’, as some have called it, in a centuries-long history of irreligion and organized nonbelief (see also Blankholm 2014). He also presented findings from a dataset he created, which identifies more than 1,300 local nonbeliever groups in the United States. Melton’s data is consistent with the roughly 1,400 groups that Alfredo García and I have identified in a similar dataset, though we differ in how we account for student groups and Unitarian Universalist Churches. (An article based on our findings is currently under review.)

Rechtenwald’s presentation focused on the history of ‘secularism’, and in particular, the role of George Jacob Holyoake in coining the term and founding a ‘Secularist’ movement in nineteenth-century Britain. Holyoake’s capital-S Secularism blurred the boundary between religion and secular ideology, and in Rechtenwald’s language, it was already ‘post-secular’ from its inception. Holyoake wanted his new creation to be ‘independent of theology’ and to be able to stand as ‘a creed of its own’. Cragun’s presentation analyzed the reasons for sectarianism among organized nonbelievers and suggested that a diversity of organizations is beneficial for the overall health of the movement. He focused closely on Paul Kurtz’s acrimonious departure from the American Humanist Association (AHA) in the late 1970s and Kurtz’s subsequent founding of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism. Cragun finds ‘power, personalities, and money’ at the root of this and other schisms, such as Anne Nicole Gaylor’s departure from American Atheists.

As a network of scholars, the NSRN provides a unique nexus for research that remains largely at the margins of disciplines like religious studies, sociology, anthropology, political science, and history. The task remains for those working in these fields to position ‘secular studies’ as either an independent field or a subfield in a constitutive relationship with the study of religion. For instance, social scientists appear increasingly comfortable applying the language and tools of social movement research to describe the landscape of organized nonbelief in the United States. This approach allows sociologists and political scientists, in particular, to potentially forego the ‘religion’ question. By contrast, in religious studies, the subfield organized around the secular remains highly theoretical and largely isolated from the study of nonbelievers, making ‘new religious movements’ a potentially more viable path for inclusion. For all those studying nonbelievers and nonreligion, a question also remains as to which adjectives are most appropriate for describing these individuals and groups given the diversity of self-appellation, including labels like atheist, agnostic, freethinker, and humanist. Though the growing popularity of the term ‘secular studies’ has perhaps begun to foreclose this question, scholars conducting research on organized nonbelievers should continue attending to the tensions between etic and emic descriptions. This question of labels and the challenge of dividing secular from religious were the central concerns of the paper I presented.

The conference included a number of other panels I was unable to attend because two panels ran simultaneously over the course of two days. The conference program provides more information on those panels and papers not summarized above. Many presentations were based on research in various states of completion, so those following the field can expect a forthcoming cache of articles and books on nonbelievers, secularity, and nonreligion.

If you enjoyed Joseph’s report on the 2014 NSRN Conference you might be interested in the previous NSRN event reports, which can be found here


Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 53(4): 775-790.

Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan.

Durkheim, Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press.

Sherkat, Daren E. 2014. Changing Faith: The Dynamics and Consequences of Americans’ Shifting Religious Identities. New York: NYU Press.

Kettell, Steven. 2014. “Divided We Stand: The Politics of the Atheist Movement in the United States.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 29(3): 377-391.

Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. 2005. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Joseph Blankholm is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. His dissertation, which he expects to file in the spring of 2015, is an ethnographic study of organized nonbelievers and secular activists in the United States. Joseph is one of the founding editors of Possible Futures, is co-founder and co-chair of the Secularism and Secularity program unit of the American Academy of Religion, and is co-founder of the Religions of Harlem Project. In the past, he has been a contributing editor at the Immanent Frame and a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme.

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