The Blind Spot in the Study of Religion

view3Religion’s Impact on the Nonbelievers

In this post [i],  Petra Klug, discusses what questions may be raised regarding the definition of religion, in light of a recent focus on, and understandings of, nonreligious and irreligious populations.

 In recent years, we’ve gained a great deal of new information about non- or irreligion. But I wish to argue in this article that through the study of the nonreligious and their relationship towards religion, we can also gain a new understanding of religion itself. If we look at common definitions of religion, they typically frame our understanding of religion through its meaning for the religious alone. What religion might mean for the nonreligious – or for the “rest” of society – is not included, and remains a blind spot in the understanding of religion.

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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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Reflections from the Field: Deconversion, Irreligion and Practical Nonreligion The Case of Leaving Ultra Orthodox Judaism

In this post, Louis Frankenthaler draws on his research with Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities to explore narratives of leaving religion, which he describes as rich in moral and social dilemmas. He also discusses the extent to which deconversion may be understood as an expression of ‘irreligion’.Louis_NSRN


This blog post is a reflection of part of my ongoing research on deconversion, or the loss of faith (Barbour 1994), in the Ultra Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish community. I point to parallels between examples of deconversion explored in my work and Colin Campbell’s (1971/2013) concept of ‘irreligion’. That is to say, Haredi deconversion is an expression of irreligion, the active rejection of an available religion or ‘beliefs and actions which are expressive of attitudes of hostility or indifference toward the prevailing religion, together with… the rejection of its demands’ (Campbell 2013/1971). Furthermore, religious rejection is an element of the deconversion typology which certainly reflects the way people position themselves in opposition (or difference) to their abandoned religion:

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Discourse Analysis and the Study of Atheism: Definitions, Discourse, and Ethnographic Criticism

In this post Ethan Quillen explores a discursive approach to atheism (and nonreligion) following the theoretical work of von Stuckrad (2003). Quillen suggests that researchers in this area move away from definitions and wrangling over the the meaning of words, and concentrate instead on the way in which these words are used; how these words are made meaningful and allowing research participants to ‘speak for themselves’. Here, Quillen proposes that this discursive approach has methodological implications for research in this field. 



While admittedly my initial intentions for this post were a bit more malicious—repeating my old standard of arguing against the use of ‘nonreligion’ [1] —I soon felt that to be a bit tedious and wasteful. That is, where in the past I have spent a good amount of time offering a critical perspective on the use of the term, such as was the content of my presentation at the NSRN conference in 2012, for this post I have chosen instead to focus on my own experiences in trying to make sense of the ambiguity, equivocality, and general polyvocal definitions, stipulations, conceptions, and re-conceptions of the term ‘Atheism.’ In this way, I hope to move my usual argument away from that sort of benign criticism—‘I just don’t like it’—toward a more empathetic, yet perhaps still critical, discussion about how I have tried to resolve this issue within the wider context of the study of Atheism and nonreligion.

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Celebrating Christmas without religion: Katherine Sissons looks back at the festive season

Before the new year dust settles and we leave January, Katherine Sissons takes a look back at Christmas. In this article, she considers the question: ‘What do atheists do at Christmas?’ Drawing on interviews with her London based atheist participants, Katherine argues that their Christmases are far from meaningless without the ‘Christ’, showing instead that they are linked with family relationships and a sense of personal identity.   

KSissons photo

Many readers will sympathise: it’s Christmas, you’re trying to relax, but well-meaning friends and relatives keep asking about your work. This year, the 25th December fuelled questions about my own work – researching experiences of nonreligion in London. One question in particular kept cropping up: ‘What do atheists do at Christmas?’.In a recent poll, 93% of the British adults who were surveyed reported that they celebrate Christmas. Other contributors to this blog have written about the difficulty of measuring the religiosity of the population. Continue reading

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Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” Spotlights the Possibility of Secular Spirituality

In this post Kyle Thompson reviews Sam Harris’ new book. In it Thompson explores Harris’ argument that spirituality and nonreligion are compatible signalling an interesting departure from his scientific atheist perspective. Thompson argues that this shift in atheist discourse is one researchers of nonreligion should take note of. 

For readers who casually follow the work of Sam Harris, known first and foremost for his consistent lambasting of all things religion, his new book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,” might come as an unexpected addition to the author’s bibliography given the common association of spirituality with religion. This means that Harris had to be careful not to scare away an audience of book-buyers who would be reluctant to take seriously the spiritual musings of a New Atheist while ensuring his loyal fans wouldn’t think he went off the deep end and became a New Ageist. It is perhaps this balancing act that caused “Waking Up,” a work of spirituality meets self-help meets science, to lack both philosophical rigour and a clear prescription for newcomers to spirituality. But no one should be unduly worried, Harris’ guide, flaws and all, offers an interesting turn within the secular, and New Atheist, discourse that deserves genuine attention from researchers and laypeople alike.

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Religious ‘Nones’ Generally Have More Liberal Family Values in Areas of Greater Disaffiliation

Using quantitative studies Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme discusses how religious nones demonstrate greater photocommitment to liberal family values in areas of high religious disaffiliation, impacting upon the value divide between the unaffiliated and their more religiously committed neighbours.

It has been shown time and time again that the religiously unaffiliated (those who declare they have no religion when asked) tend to be more liberal in their views towards gender roles, sexuality and abortion compared with the religious in Western nations (Finke and Adamczyk 2008; Norris and Inglehart 2004; Putnam and Campbell 2010). One of the principal mechanisms behind this relationship between religious affiliation and conservative moral values is institutional religiosity’s role in shaping such attitudes. Individuals raised and actively participating in a religious group are more likely to adopt and adhere to this group’s beliefs about what is right or wrong (Hayes 1995; Layman 2001; Nicolet and Tresch 2009; Raymond 2011). Religious ‘nones’ on the other hand are removed from such institutions which often promote more conservative value orientations. Continue reading

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The BASR Atheism and Nonreligion Panel

On 4th September 2014 Lorna Mumford was part of the ‘Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of AtheismPicture0028 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. Continue reading

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God-blasters vs Philosophical Atheists: Real and Perceived Divisions Among Unbelievers

Elliot Hanowski draws on the history of Canadian unbelief to argue that ideological labels should not Elliot Hanowski pictureovershadow the pragmatic way unbelievers of all stripes actually behaved when dealing with the broader society.

Ideas never stay pure and unadulterated when they spread through human societies. Likewise, ideological labels rarely reflect the pragmatic ways human beings appropriate, revise, and apply those ideologies based on the needs of the moment. Historians of nonreligion, who often trace the social history of ideas, need to be keenly aware of this fact. For example, the twentieth century saw a wide variety of labels applied to unbelievers: from rationalists, humanists and freethinkers, to secular socialists, anarchists and communists. Their diversity has been one reason that a unified social history of unbelief has been slow to develop. A broader approach is possible, but it will require historians to look at unbelievers not just as repositories of a particular intellectual formulation, but as people who took practical steps to navigate and contest a culture that was hostile to their views. Continue reading

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