Reflections on Socrel 2015 – Foundations and Futures

In this post Katie Aston summarises just some of the presentations delivered at the katie2015 Socrel conference, which may be of interest to researchers in the field the Nonreligion and Secularity.

Established in 1975, the Sociology of Religion Study Goup (Socrel) celebrated its 40th year with a conference held from 7th-9th July, hosted by Kingston University.  The theme – “Foundations and Futures” provided opportunities to reflect on the achievements of the study group and to look forward to the future of the group and the discipline.  2015 conference (7th-9th July, hosted by Kingston University).

Secularization with Added Agency

Linda Woodhead’s plenary presentation considered the complicated and nuanced spectrum of religiosity and secularism in the UK.Woodhead drew on survey data collectedfrom her recent research (administered by YouGov and analysed with the help of Prof. Bernard Silverman).

Woodhead designed the surveys to measure the multiple dimensions of religion:  participation, identification, membership, and belief.Responses to these questions are as relevant to researchers of  nonreligion as they are to those researchers of religion. Woodhead noted, for example, that belief in God or a higher power has not declined quite so much as religious affiliation.  Moreover, atheists are in the minority; less than half who say “no religion” are atheists and this number does not appear to be  increasing. Of those, the “hostile nones” are disproportionately male, and evenly distributed across the age categories.

“Nones” appear to be  united in their rejection of religious authority – 0% claimed that they took guidance from religious leaders (30% will take guidance from science) [Table 1]. However, some “nones” are “spiritual” – 25% reported that they undertake spiritual activities in private.  This certainly concurs with my own research with explicitly nonreligious people who outright rejected religious authority and struggled with binding around a single group identity.

Socrel 1

Woodhead found, however, that religious as well as nonreligious respondents seemed unwilling to submit to religious authority or to adopt clear ‘religious’ labels [Table 2].  Woodhead argued that most people l  resist labelling because they want to have their complex identities recognised.

Socrel 2

Woodhead’s surveys also included questions about respondents’ socio-political and personal values (their life priorities) and elicited their opinions on subjects such as abortion, assisted dying and same sex-marriage. The responses suggest that the UK is predominantly liberal:  in response to various items on the survey, 91% of the sample indicated that they valued the freedom of individuals to choose how to live their lives, with minimal restriction by authorities (such as the church).  Only 9% of those surveyed demonstrated strongly conservative attitudes, forming what Woodhead called a ‘Paternalist moral minority’.  So, whether religious or not, there is a moral consensus in the UK.

Assessing the UK’s religious landscape, Woodhead suggests that a “values gap” has opened between religious institutions (and the Church of England in particular) and the general population. As Woodhead noted, recent research by Pew predicts that, by 2050, only 27.8% of the UK population will affiliate with a religion. In contrast, the US is predicted to retain a majority religious population in 2050.  Even in Denmark and Norway, which are similar to the UK in that they have established churches, the predicted decline in religious affiliation is not so drastic as that predicted for the UK. Woodhead offered an explanation:  “where religion connects with everyday values of people then it thrives. When it doesn’t – it withers”.  She suggested that the Church of England, with its resistance to same-sex marriage and (until recently) women’s ordination, has failed to modernise. It reflects the values of its leaders not the population at large and is becoming a sect.  This was evident in the opinions that respondents expressed about the Church of England:   many felt indifferent and others felt it was a negative force [Table 3].

Socrel 3

Woodhead suggested that the Church of Denmark exemplifies a church continuing to articulate with its population:  it has ordained women since 1948 and has accepted same-sex marriage relatively unproblematically.  Consequently, the population accepts the Church of Denmark as a representation of national Danish identity – the same cannot be said of the Church of England. Woodhead’s surveys found that older generations in the UK thought of the Church of England as ‘stuffy’, whilst younger people were concerned that it was sexist and homophobic.

The key point here is that secularisation is not inevitable, nor structural. Woodhead argued instead that human agency is key to this process – people (such as church leaders) can make good or bad decisions with knock on effects for failure or otherwise. The onus is therefore on the social researcher to take agency into account and to consider the potential of collaborative and future facing research – not simply finding explanations for existing phenomena.

Sunday Assembly

Josh Bullock’s presentation neatly followed Woodhead’s in demonstrating some of the grassroots activities which are occurring in the absence of affiliation to the Church of England. His presentation focused on the Sunday Assembly [SA], a London based organisation. Bullock’s doctoral research is based on attendance at and observation of Sunday Assembly events alongside semi-structured interviews with attendees.

Bullock shared one of the SAs tactics of community making. Emulating Sanderson Jones, leader of the SA in London, Bullock called out to the Socrel audience “put your hand’s up if it’s your first time at Socrel”. Both in the SA and at Socrel, this allows the group to recognise new members and welcome them (by giving them a “high five”).  He then called out “put your hand up if it’s your second time at Socrel” this group were awarded with the statement that “what we really like is people who come back for a second time”. This mechanism allows Sunday Assembly to welcome new members whilst also publicly acknowledging the value of re-attendance.  Conveniently, for Bullock, this ritual has allowed him to estimate a 75% re-attendance rate for the London branch.

However, Bullock argued that it has been difficult for the SA to create a community solely via their services.  Drawing on his own experiences, he noted that it is a difficult space in which to make connections, since attendees are likely to interact with a limited number of others – those sitting on either side. Bullock described some of the strategies that the SA has implemented in attempts to foster community beyond the services.  They have created   their own online platform and also made use of existing online social spaces such as facebook.  They have also formed smaller interest groups (such as choirs) and support groups which bring together micro communities that constitute a greater whole.

It would be interesting to hear more about the SA’s hopes to foster a radically inclusive “congregation”. As Bullock points out, the reality of this is often that SA congregations of homogeneity rather than diversity.

What’s ‘new’ about New Atheism?

As his title suggests, Steven Kettell’s paper addressed what is really ‘new’ about New Atheism. Discussion about the New Atheists seems to have died down somewhat, but to my knowledge I have not to date read a thorough discussion of what really made it ‘new’ – so I was pleased to see this on the programme.

Kettell argued that there are seven characteristics that distinguish ‘new’ Atheism from the unmarked atheism that came before.  The New Atheism, according to Kettell, is argued from a scientific (as opposed to philosophical) position.  Religion is seen as a set of propositions, and these propositions are found to be false.  Moreover, religion is not just seen as erroneous but dangerous. Nevertheless, New Atheism has to contend with the reality that society has failed to secularise in the way that many of their number might have expected.  Kettell suggested that this creates a sense of “crisis” for New Atheists which was not shared with their forebears.

New Atheism (mainly in the U.S), Kettell argued, has also adopted a political strategy based on a discourse of minority rights and identity issues reminiscent of the civil rights and gay rights movements (see also Cimino and Smith, 2007, 2010).  He also cites the Internet as a ‘new’ medium for atheism, which has facilitated a spread of ideas but also a sense of identity shared across geographical distances.  I would add here that this is transnational and often generates shared themes and discourses which are not rooted in local realities.

Historically, Kettell suggested that atheists (or secularists/freethinkers as they were commonly known) targeted institutional and public religious expression. In contrast, New Atheism challenges personal and private religiosity as well.   Another difference, for Kettell, is the internal fragmentation within New Atheism – factions disagree about how confrontational or accommodations they should be with respect to religion, what sort of terminology they should use, and the diversity within the movement (the numbers of non-white, non-male members of such groups are usually quite low).  However, I would argue that schisms did occur in the 19th century – perhaps a point that can be discussed in a future post.

Summarising these differences between “New Atheism” and unmarked historical atheisms, Kettell argues that: “while the movement aims to reclaim and reassert the aims and values of the Enlightenment, it does so from within a cultural setting framed and conditioned by shifting post-modern and socio-cultural tides”.

Space dictates that I can only summarise three presentations here, but numerous other papers at Socrel 2015 touched on issues relating to nonreligion and secularity.  Although I feel it is unfortunate that I have had to overlook some papers, the fact that issues of nonreligion and secularity could be glimpsed in so many presentations suggests that researchers in this field can look forward to a prosperous future within the sociology of religion.


[i] I have also written on Linda’s surveys for the Religious Studies Project:
Katie Aston is Associate Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion and Ethnographies of South Asia at Goldsmiths University. She recently submitted her PhD on the topic of nonreligious and secular material cultures and ritual in the UK. Aston is also Postgraduate and Early Careers Liaison Officer for the Sociology of Religion (Socrel) research group, as part of the British Sociological Association in the UK (BSA). She is also Editor for the Nonreligion and Secularities Research Network (NSRN) blog. Her research interests span material culture, art, cartoons, secularism, atheism, humanism and ritual practices, within the disciplines of sociology, cultural studies and anthropology.


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