Nathan Alexander attended the recent postgraduate conference, Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics held at the University of Aberdeen. Here he outlines his experiences and gives some commentary on the papers pertinent to the research network.
The ‘Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics’ postgraduate conference, held at the University of Aberdeen on the 11th and 12th of September, sought to interrogate the various categories that scholars of religion work with. The conference was interdisciplinary and spanned a range of topics (from Christian Scientists to the Muslim Brotherhood), but there was plenty that would have specifically interested scholars of atheism or other forms of irreligion. There was a panel devoted to atheism, a paper about the Sunday Assembly in London, and a keynote address by Abby Day, a sociologist of belief and non-belief.
The panel, ‘Approaching Atheism and New Atheism’, featured three papers. Liam Jerrold Fraser, from the University of Edinburgh, presented on ‘The mind’s revolt: toward a theological-political approach for the study of New Atheism.’ Fraser’s paper noted that recent works on New Atheism have conceptualised the movement as either political or intellectual. A more fruitful approach, Fraser proposed, would examine the dialectical relationship between political protest and religious dissent. As Fraser explained, atheism is a political phenomenon expressed intellectually, often through the use of theological categories. It must, therefore, be studied from a political, intellectual, and theological perspective. To demonstrate this, Fraser focused on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, a time of political and religious upheaval in which religious arguments had profound political significance. In particular, Fraser looked at two eighteenth-century freethinkers, John Toland and Anthony Collins. These two relied upon older Protestant arguments about the supremacy of Scripture to criticise the authority of the Church of England leadership, and in doing so also struck at the basis of the power structure of their society. Such an example shows how politics and religion were closely bound up and how religious criticism relied upon older theological categories. Though Fraser’s focus was historical, he argued his multidisciplinary approach could help us to understand contemporary forms of atheism as well.
Sumaya Kassim, from the Open University, examined, ‘Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005): New Atheism, redemption and narrative freedom.’ Her paper looked at McEwan’s novel, Saturday, in connection with one of the key texts of the New Atheist movement, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (2004). Despite the different genres of the texts, Kassim noted that both works emphasised scientific discourse; indeed, the main character in Saturday was a neurosurgeon while Harris himself was trained as a neuroscientist. The plot of Saturday centred upon a large anti-war protest in London just prior to the invasion of Iraq. This served as a backdrop for the main character to think about his personal relationship to world events. Kassim argues that the novel, more of a polemic in her reading, ultimately legitimises the invasion by using many similar arguments found in new atheist works. In both Saturday and The End of Faith, she noted that there was a cognitive dissonance present: the authors constructed what she calls an “Islamic menace” yet at the same time sought to maintain their empathy. Kassim believes that the emphasis on dispassionate rationality in both works tended to absolve readers of their complicity in global events.
My own paper in the session took an intellectual historical approach toward nineteenth-century debates surrounding the definition of atheism. Such an approach focused on understanding the context of figures in the past and paying close attention to the language they used. While dictionaries and encyclopedias of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries explained that atheism was an irrational denial of God, Charles Bradlaugh, a leading atheist in the nineteenth century, contested this definition and proposed his own. Atheists did not deny God, Bradlaugh insisted, but simply said ‘God’ was a meaningless and incoherent term. Others proposed terms like secularism or agnosticism, which differed slightly in meaning from atheism but also served to avoid the negative taint surrounding the term. While proponents of these new terms claimed the terms differed substantively from ‘atheism,’ atheist critics charged them with disingenuous window-dressing. Such an examination, I argued, revealed that historians and scholars of religion should not assume that contemporary understandings of ‘atheism’ could be projected back into the past. By doing so, we miss out on the complexity of debates in the past and overlook what was meaningful to people then. More broadly, I cautioned against the dangers of anachronism in historical works dealing with religion. We must be careful not to uncritically apply our own categories of thought on past actors for whom such categories might not have been comprehensible.
In a panel on religious congregations, Katie Scholarios, from the University of Aberdeen, presented, ‘“A Theologian walks into an Atheist church”: A practical theological argument for crossing boundaries in dialogue,’ which focused on an ‘atheist church,’ the Sunday Assembly in London. Drawing on her ethnographic work at the Sunday Assembly and her background in theology, Scholarios brings a novel perspective to the study of the Sunday Assembly, a place rife with theological significance but that is essentially godless. Premised on the notion of a widening gulf between those with faith and those without, and an intellectual standstill between atheists and Christians, Scholarios argued that the Sunday Assembly might prove to be a site for constructive dialogue. Members of the Sunday Assembly, she notes, seem more willing to engage with Christians and other believers, who are welcome in the congregation. Scholarios referenced Christian sociologist Phil Ryan and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, both of whom have noted the need for productive conversations between atheists and believers. Atheist writers, like Alain de Botton and Julian Baggini, have likewise encouraged such an engagement. Conversations might be centred upon the basis of a shared ethical framework between the two groups, while a greater understanding of atheistic worldviews among Christians and vice versa would shed light on their own beliefs.
Ending the conference was a keynote address by Dr Abby Day, a sociologist from Goldsmiths University and the University of Kent. Day’s talk, entitled ‘Believing in the future: Religious and nonreligious stories young adults tell,’ examined belief and non-belief across the generations. Day discussed her interviews with those born in the 1920s and 30s, ‘Generation A,’ for whom belief was an important part of identity. The church played an important role in their lives, and they were essential to the functioning of the church life, yet, as Day noted, their places in the churches are simply not being filled by proceeding generations. What then do the younger generation believe in? From her interviews with a number of teens and young adults, Day avoided leading questions about belief in God, and instead simply asked what they did believe in. Aside from cases where the interviewees specifically mentioned that a belief in God gave them meaning, she found that many young people believed in the importance of social relationships. Day interviewed her initial group again after five years and found that as they grew older, they did not face a crisis of meaning, but continued to rely upon strong social relationships, perhaps even more strongly than when they were younger. For Day then, belief is a multidimensional category, in which religion is a subset.
The conference gave participants much fodder for thought about their own work. One of the biggest virtues of the conference was the interdisciplinary perspective offered. Speaker ranged across a variety of disciplines and the talks and discussion afterward no doubt raised new perspectives that participants might bring to their research. The one critique I would have of the some of the presentations is that the category of ‘New Atheism’ loomed large, yet in my view went largely uninterrogated. As Thomas Zenk argues in his entry in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (2013), ‘New Atheism’ is a category that deserves greater scrutiny among scholars.
Nathan Alexander is currently a PhD student in the School of History at the University of St Andrews. He completed his BA (Honours History) at the University of Waterloo and his MA (History) at Wilfrid Laurier University, both of which are in Canada, where he is also from. His research project examines the views of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers on the idea of race in the nineteenth-century Atlantic World, with special focus on the United States and Britain. Nathan is also an Assistant Editor of NSRN online and a member of the Nonreligion and Secularity team.