Event Report: The American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting 2014

In this post  Dusty Hoesly outlines papers presented at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, 2014. The focus is on the growing awareness of the study of the secular, religious dusty.hoeslyand nonreligion, in particular the shifting boundaries between these categories. 

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting—held November 22-25, 2014, in San Diego, California—marked the second year of the Secularism and Secularity Discussion Group, which represents a growing awareness of the importance of studying the secular alongside the religious and the continuing proliferation of scholarly work analyzing non-religion and secularism. The program unit featured panels on the shifting boundaries of the secular, spiritual, and religious; yoga’s religious or secular identities; secular religiosity; and European formations of the secular. This event report covers the two panels I was able to attend: shifting boundaries and secular religiosity.

The four papers in the ‘Shifting Boundaries of the Secular, Spiritual, and Religious’ panel shared a sociological approach, although they addressed a variety of theoretical and terminological issues. Elaine Ecklund discussed ‘How Scientists in India and the UK Negotiate Boundaries between Religion and Science’, part of a larger world survey still underway. Her research aims to test empirically and with cultural particularity the idea that scientists are carriers of secularization. Differences between scientists in the UK and India are apparent: in the UK, scientists view religion as a private matter and several are prominent critics of religion, while in India scientists claim consistently high levels of religious belief and practice. According to Ecklund’s survey 79% of Indian scientists are Hindu, while 65% of UK scientists are not religious. UK scientists find religion in developing research ethics; Indian scientists say religion provides an orienting ethos, such as trying to alleviate poverty and human suffering.

Emily Sigalow’s presentation, ‘Towards a Sociological Perspective on Religious Synthesis: A New Approach to Syncretism’, attempted to make the term ‘syncretism’ normative for scholarly discussions of multiple religious belonging, blending, hybridity, bricolage, etc. Claiming that these latter terms are inadequate conceptually since they proceed from a faulty epistemology wherein religious identification is uni-modal (people should fit into just one religious box), Sigalow suggests that ‘syncretism’ best captures the phenomenon under study. It also pushes scholars toward three essential tasks: asking sociological questions (e.g., how syncretism shapes the boundaries of social groups); focusing first on individual-level analysis and then charting how institutions develop from or respond to individuals’ religious mixing; and paying attention to specified processes and patterns of religious ordering and meaning-making (i.e., moving away from religious conversion models and towards religious synthesis). For each task, Sigalow discussed Jewish Buddhists as her case study.

Linda Mercadante gave an overview of her recent book, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (Oxford, 2014). Based on qualitative research among four generations gleaned from snowball sampling, Mercadante developed a five-fold typology of SBNR ‘Nones’: Dissenters (who have a bone to pick with religion); Casuals (spiritual on an as-needed, pragmatic basis); Spiritual Explorers (who try on different practices with no intention of sticking with any single tradition); Seekers (looking for a spiritual home); and Immigrants (who have chosen a new tradition very different from their native one). Despite this heterogeneity, she observed convergences on theological positions they accepted or rejected. For example, SBNRs reject organized religion, especially Christianity, as well as hell; they accept divine immanence, human goodness and free will, perennialism, and reincarnation.

Lastly, Kristen Tobey’s ‘“Not Non-Mormons”: Belonging without Believing in the LDS Church’ discussed religious and non-religious self-identifications based on her online ethnography and survey of the StayLDS.com website and its members. The people who use this site still identify as Mormon even while they no longer accept church doctrine or authority or attend institutional services; thus, they blur the lines between religion and irreligion, ‘belonging and not belonging’. In their feelings of extreme tension with the church, some respondents identify as both religious and non-religious simultaneously, revealing the paradoxical nature of self-representation and lived experience. The StayLDS website offers members practical suggestions for living in this space of tension and claims that a shift in perspective will relieve the crisis: namely, that to struggle and to have questions is to be an exemplary Mormon just like Joseph Smith.

These papers demonstrated the range and complexity of research into secularity and non-religion in global, national, and local contexts. A uniting theme was a push for scholars to theorize from the ground up, to situate broader categories and analyses in the experiences and identifications of particular individuals and social groups.

Another panel, ‘Secular Religiosity? Negotiating Competing Claims of Secular and Religious’, featured four papers which investigated what counts as ‘religious’ or ‘secular’, who gets to decide, and what’s at stake in making such decisions. My paper, ‘“I Did It to Perform Ceremonies”: The Universal Life Church and Secular Religiosity’, presented the Universal Life Church (ULC) as a case study for how secular self-identifications and lifecycle ritualizations can be contradictory, revealing what might be called a ‘secular religiosity’. Most ULC members claim to be non-religious even as they become ordained by a legally-recognized church. Couples wedded by ULC ministers plan non-religious wedding ceremonies which are categorized as religious by county clerks in order for the weddings to count as legally valid. In the ULC, and particularly in the diverse and personalized wedding ceremonies conducted under its auspices, constructs such as secular and religious interpenetrate and reveal their mutual constitution. These sites reveal how the boundary between secular and religious is porous and situational, and how the ULC refashions the secular as religious and the religious as secular.

Laura Levitt’s presentation revisited two of her earlier essays (2007, 2008) in which she had argued that secular forms of Jewish feminism were suppressed in favor of religious ones, since American liberalism accepted Jews into modern American society only if they were religious. For example, Irena Klepfisz’s secular feminism was marginalized while liberal Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow was heralded. These earlier essays relied on a secular/religious binary which Levitt challenged in her presentation. Secular and religious Jewish feminist discourses are already intertwined, she stated: secular Jewish values originated in liberal religious Jewish values, a fact which is neglected or ignored by secularists. Levitt charged scholars to see how religion can be modern as well as how unmarked secular values derive from religious liberals.

In ‘Being and Noneness: Post-atheism, Religion, and the Intransigence of Data’, Donovan Schaefer critiqued scholars who claim that the category of religious ‘nones’—those who do not identify with any religion—lacks empirical reality or conceptual coherence. Although the category of ‘nones’ is a social construction, it represents a relationship with actual tensions, issues, and facts on the ground. Using Chris Stedman’s book Faitheist  (2013) as an exemplar of the nones, Schaefer showed how Stedman redefines atheism as about particular values, rather than beliefs. Affective congruities matter more than shared specific beliefs; in this instance, empathy and compassion define the nones more coherently than the rejection of religious identity. Nones reject hateful or rage-filled stances taken by the Religious Right as well as by the ‘New Atheism’, Schaefer claimed; a politics of shared values and shared affect unites them.

Josef Sorett examined the religious and secular politics of Phylon, a quarterly journal founded by W. E. B. DuBois in 1940, to explore African American culture and history. In scholarship on African Americans, blackness typically implies religiousness, and in scholarship on African American religion, ‘the Black Church’ is praised for creating and sustaining the aspirational norms of racial politics. Sorett’s work on Phylon rethinks DuBois as less secular or atheistic than he’s often described as being, and demonstrates the journal’s role in establishing liberal Black Protestantism as normative for ‘the Black Church’. DuBois’ privileged model of Afro-Protestantism was one which fought for secular civil rights; his secular journal used supposedly secular criteria for judging religious activities, thus complicating religious and secular divides.

Lastly, Janet Jakobsen’s response synthesized the panel’s presentations, noting that they build upon yet move beyond her earlier contention in that secularisms are constituted in relation to religion at specific sites for particular ends (2008). Religion is not only created out of secularism but secularism also constructs more than one sort of religion: ‘good religion’ fits secularization theory or promotes liberalism, while ‘bad religion’ threatens secularization or promotes conservativism. Networks of affective relations reveal sites of affinity amongst the religious and non-religious, as conceptions of secularism and identity shift toward shared values rather than beliefs. Governmentality materializes the co-constitution of religion and secularism through church/state delineations: online ordination gives everyone access to the rights of religion regardless of whether they are religious. The papers also encourage us to look beyond traditional sites of secularity and towards affect, practice, race, and ethnicity.

Overall, the Secularism and Secularity Discussion Group panels invited scholars to consider the entanglements of the purportedly ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ rather than assume their distinction. By prioritizing sites of ambiguity and paradox in specific, local contexts, we can see better the stakes involved in attaching such labels to particular individuals, groups, actions, or beliefs, as well as how contested, pragmatic, and situational such labels can be.


Jakobsen, Janet R. and Ann Pellegrini, eds. 2008. Secularisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Levitt, Laura. 2007. “Impossible Assimilations, American Liberalism, and Jewish Difference: Revisiting Jewish Secularism.” American Quarterly 59.3: 807-832.

Levitt, Laura. 2008. “Other Moderns, Other Jews: Revisiting Jewish Secularism in America.” In Secularisms, edited by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, 107-138. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mercadante, Linda. 2014. Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stedman, Chris. 2013. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on the history, sociology, and anthropology of religion and secularism in the United States. 


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