EASR: Non-Religiosity, Identity, and Ritual

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By Christopher R. Cotter (NSRN), Rebecca Aechtner (University of Edinburgh) & Johannes Quack (McGill University)


“Non-Religiosity, Identity, and Ritual” Panel Session at the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “New Movements in Religion” (September 18-22, 2011)

19 September 2011
Hungarian Culture Foundation, Budapest, Hungary

Hosted by the EASR and the Hungarian Assocation for the Study of Religions (HASR) at the Hungarian Culture Foundation, Budapest


Dr Rebecca Aechtner University of Edinburgh | Dr Rebecca Catto Lancaster University | Christopher R. Cotter University of Edinburgh[1] | Dr Janet Eccles Lancaster University | Dr Ábrahám Kovács (EASR Chair) Reformed Theological Seminary, Debrecen, Hungary | Björn Mastiaux Heinrich-Heine Universität, Düsseldorf, Germany| Patrick McKearney University of Cambridge | Dr Johannes Quack (Chair) University of Heidelberg | Grit Wesser University of Edinburgh


Held at the Hungarian Culture Foundation in Budapest, Hungary, the Non-Religiosity, Identity and Ritual Panel Session was convened by Rebecca Aechtner and Johannes Quack.

Each presentation lasted around 10 minutes, followed immediately by 10 minutes of questions and discussion. Individual paper abstracts are presented at the end of this report. Most of these papers resulted from projects in progress at the time of the NSRN’s Qualitative Methods Workshop in December 2010 (see Cotter 2011).


The idea for this panel arose from an email circulated by Johannes Quack on the “Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network” (NSRN) mailing list asking whether other scholars wanted to organize a panel for the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) 2011 conference on “New Movements in Religion” in Budapest. At the time, Rebecca Aechtner had recently finished her PhD (2010) at the University of Edinburgh on the Jugendfeier youth ritual of the German Humanist Association. Having examined issues surrounding secular ritual and identity in contemporary Berlin, she suggested a panel along these lines.  Along similar lines, Quack had conducted an ethnographic study of the organization “Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti” (Organization for the Eradication of Superstition), based in the Indian State of Maharashtra (2007), which resulted in a monograph on the topic (2012). Both Quack’s and Aechtner’s work emphasized the role of rationalism in the day-to-day lives of their subjects as well as the importance of perspectives on and practices of life-cycle rituals. On the basis of their studies and in preparation of the panel, a set of shared questions arose which led to the following call for papers:

“Research on the diverse ways in which people establish and affirm non-religious identities in their everyday lives is a desideratum in contemporary academia. In what ways do non-religious people formulate a positive description of their non-religiosity or derive their identity primarily via a negation of religion(s)? Which metaphors, symbols, images, narratives and discursive practices are used for constructing and presenting non-religious identities? How are “New Movements in Religion” linked to development in the larger discursive field concerning religion(s) that includes secularity, non-religion and unbelief? In what way does research on non-religiosity help us to question, refine or reformulate the very opposition between religion and non-religion?

One entry point into this realm of questioning is to address various criticisms of religious rituals as well as attempts to establish non-religious alternatives. Of particular importance in this respect are life-cycle rituals since they are often seen as shaping and developing individual and social identity. Traditionally, religion has determined the marking of key phases in an individual’s life, a role that is increasingly being challenged by non-religious groups. This panel invites contributions to the topic of non-religion and identity in general or the respective roles of rituals in particular that are either based on empirical observation or that engage with theoretical aspects addressing the topic.”


Following Quack’s general introduction to the session, Christopher Cotter began by introducing the concept of “nonreligion”, adopting Lois Lee’s deceptively simple definition of the term as “something which is defined primarily by the way it differs from religion” (2011, 2), and demonstrating the limitations of the prevalent terminology populating the study of the nonreligious. He then provided an overview of his MSc by Research project based upon narrative evidence gathered from questionnaires and semi-structured interviews amongst notionally nonreligious undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh.

Cotter found high levels of fluidity and dynamism at play within the students’ pragmatic negotiation of their (non)religious identities. Many identified with multiple seemingly incompatible terms (such as atheist and agnostic), which were shown to make sense within the individuals’ narrative frameworks, suggesting that it is entirely possible to maintain more than one religious or nonreligious identity simultaneously (Swatos, Jr. 2003, 50). Other students attested to frequently changing their (non)religious self-representations, presenting different “identities” within different contexts, and/or maintaining some sort of “nominal” Christianity (cf. Day 2009; 2011; Voas 2009). Such students served as a caution against conceiving of religious and nonreligious identities as constants, problematizing scholars’ tendency to privilege religiosity over nonreligiosity (see Pasquale 2007; 2012).

Turning finally to his typology, Cotter proposed a five-fold typology of nonreligious individuals: the naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical .With the intent of cutting across religious ‘dimensions’ (Quack 2011, 2), this typology reflected the different and important thematic ways in which students expressed themselves in relation to ontological questions. Significantly, across all five types, “being nonreligious” did not seem to play a major part in these students’ lives. However, they were all shown to be keenly aware of their own (non)religious identity when religion or nonreligion interacted with what really mattered to them.  Cotter concluded by saying that since these types are rooted in themes that transcend the religion-nonreligion dichotomy “they suggest a movement away from this dichotomy, focusing instead on what people have to say in their own terms.”

Björn Mastiaux continued this theme of categorisation in his qualitative study of a number of atheist/secularist groups in the United States and Germany. Setting the scene, Mastiaux portrayed the growth of a new atheist or secularist social movement in parts of the Western world, and traced this upsurge to two sources: the so-called “New Atheism”, and new, easily accessible online technologies and social networks. He then turned to his own research on more established organizations which he sees as interesting case studies of identity and identity management (Polletta and Jasper 2001), and which have become important protagonists within the new social movement of atheists and secularists.

Through the accounts of two prototypical female leaders, and an analysis of their respective styles of activism, Mastiaux presented two distinct types of nonreligious collective identity: the “exclusive/radical” and the “inclusive/moderate”. These distinct identities were shown to depend upon collective feelings of being a minority – the former an underrepresented and disenfranchised minority, the latter a misunderstood and stigmatised one. After providing intriguing insights into the development of the term ”Bright” as a positive umbrella term for naturalists and as an expression of the “inclusive/moderate” approach, Mastiaux demonstrated a range of positions of members of those same atheist or secularist groups who rejected their groups’ collective identities for a variety of reasons. Although in many cases the groups were considered to be a central part of members’ personal identities, and functioned as a means of expression for their “prime philosophical stance”, the accounts of members clearly illustrate how “one can join a movement because one shares its goals without identifying much with fellow members (one can even, in some cases, despise them)” (Polletta and Jasper 2001, 298).

Sustaining the theme of studying those who are “actively engaged” with nonreligion, Rebecca Catto presented preliminary results from the on-going “Young Atheists Research Project” (see also Mumford 2011), based on research conducted by herself and Janet Eccles and funded by the Jacobs Foundation. Although focusing on those “actively atheistic” individuals, Catto and Eccles were surprised by the sheer variety of experiences and activities found within their sample, and could see a number of intriguing themes and emphases emerging. One of these, in Catto’s words, was “the valorising of science, evidence, rationality and truth, in contrast to faith”, with Creationism receiving particular criticism. Catto and Eccles suggested that this concern with Creationism, which seems to have little resonance in the British context, may be influenced by high levels of engagement with American websites, perhaps also fuelling a similar concern with biblical literalism and Christian right-wing political lobbying. Another unifying theme was an emphasis on the propositional – “belief” – rather than on practice, which Catto says “runs counter to the turn towards practice and embodiment in the study of religion” (Ammerman 2007; Orsi 2005), and which highlights the problematic nature of scholars’ attempts to typologies nonreligion in an analogous fashion to how they typologise religion. For these young people, “consistency between belief and behaviour is expected and respected, with little respect for the blurred middle”.

There was little evidence of emergent nonreligious forms of ritual, with a heterogeneous array of activities ranging from society meetings and conferences to pub nights and comedy events, and some young people finding freedom from ritual to be one of the most appealing facets of their nonreligious identity. Catto concluded by questioning the validity of taking established models from within the study of religion and applying them (directly, or by inversion) to the study of the nonreligious.

Patrick McKearney began the second hour of discussion with a presentation on the interplay between identity and ritual in contemporary British stand-up comedy. Building particularly on the work of Victor Turner, Charles Taylor, and Mary Douglas, McKearney contended that stand-up comedy is a lot like ritual, comparing contemporary stand-up performances to examples of three distinct categories of rituals in pre-industrial Europe in which religion was ridiculed. The first of these, “affirmative rituals”, included the dechristianised state rituals in the French Republic of 1793, which directed “destructive mockery…against the old religion and the ancient regime in general” (Taylor 2007, 51). The second category, “inverted rituals”, included the “Lady Skimmington” rebellion of 1631 in which, according to McKearney, “the dominant social order was juxtaposed with a new inverted social order” and “the new inverted order triumphed over the old” (cf. Turner 1979, 477–9). In each of these types of ritual, a tension or “anti-structure” emerged and was quickly resolved in favour of the party doing the mocking. In the third type, such as the mediaeval “Feast of Misrule”, “the juxtaposition of two social orders results in the mockery of both of them” leading to “a prolonged period of anti-structure”; hence McKearney’s term “rites of subversion”.

McKearney then brought this key distinction between affirmative/inverting rituals and rites of subversion into his analysis of two ideal-typical examples of contemporary British stand-up. One illustrative example was a sketch by Marcus Brigstocke involving the set up of a conflict between religious and secular people, with the secular ultimately emerging victorious. By enacting “unacceptable traits”, which are “ridiculed, laughed at, repudiated, and finally symbolically ‘punished’”(Bryce and Katayama 2008, 75), this type of routine defines the comedian and the audience by what they are not, i.e. they are explicitly non-(or anti-)religious. In the other example, Dylan Moran relates the “religious” desire to believe in something to the “secular” replacement of God with technology and ridicules both forms of antagonistic authority. This is an example of a rite of subversion where anti-structure leads to anti-structure because neither “side” wins but where, in McKearney’s words, “all identities are shown to be trivial in comparison to the egalitarian leveller of communitas”.

McKearney closed his presentation by asking what effects these two types of ritualistic mockery might have on the wider public. At its most profound, issues of religious mockery go right to the heart of contemporary debates on human rights and freedom of speech, and as McKearney concluded, “after all, what you are laughing at says a lot about who you think you are.”

Rebecca Aechtner and Grit Wesser’s interdisciplinary[2] analysis of two independent contemporary case studies of ritual in Germany, the Jugendweihe (“youth consecration”) of the German Jugendweihe Association, and Jugendfeier (“youth celebration”) of the German Humanist Association, sustained this focus upon ritual. The ritual, which began as a rebranding of Catholic and Protestant Confirmation, is now best known as a secular ritual associated with the former East Germany and its political ritual system. Aechtner and Wesser compared and contrasted their independent research projects in order to engage with the concept of contemporary secular and politicised rites of passage.

In their paper, Aechtner and Wesser presented an interesting historical overview of Jugendweihe, focusing on its appropriation by the East German government and its current practice in post-socialist Germany.

In both the socialist Jugendweihe ceremony and its present day performances, participants typically wear adult clothing for the first time, and although historically they would have placed a great emphasis on the vow to the socialist state, participants and their families today have generally abandoned this act, focusing instead on the private celebration of “coming of age” (Saunders 2002). Turning to Jugendfeier, according to Aechtner and Wesser, “the form differs only slightly from that of [Jugendweihe...], predominantly in areas of scale and theatricality”. These contemporary ceremonies focus on the participants’ coming of age rather than on humanist or political ideology, with the majority of participants self-described as konfessionslos (“confessionless, usually “non-Christian”).  Aechtner and Wesser presented a complex and ambiguous situation, whereby these rituals allow for overt unison and covert diversity of meaning, “and that meaning is – like culture itself – in a constant flux”. Young participants are treated both as adults (wearing adult clothes, drinking a first glass of alcohol) and, in the eyes of the state, as minors, and thus the rituals acknowledge “the liminality of youth, a stage betwixt and between childhood and adulthood” (cf. Van Gennep 1960; Turner 1979).

Johannes Quack, who presented some of the results from his extensive ethnographic fieldwork with an Indian rationalist organisation, called Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti [ANiS] (for a detailed exposition, see Quack’s forthcoming monograph, 2012), delivered the final presentation. This case study provided an example of nonreligion in a non-Euro-American context, where ANiS’s main aims of opposing all superstitions, spreading scientific attitudes, criticising religion, spreading secularism and enacting social reforms were presented, in the main, against the dominance of Hinduism.

According to Quack, these rationalists “reject religious rituals in general, and life-cycle rituals in particular, as unjust and immoral.” Of particular prominence is their critique of death rituals, including cremation, which not only rejects these ritual practices, but “argues that a dead body is mere “material” that has to be used as efficiently as possible” through organ donation and the allocation of what remains to medical research. As with all other presentations in this panel, the “official” stance of the organisation is a somewhat idealised account of what happens when these existential and emotive issues are raised in individuals’ lives. Some rationalists lamented the prevalent philosophy of life in the West, which does not prepare adequately for birth and death; others signalled that they would not push their own agendas against the religious feelings of others, and still others told stories of deceased friends, relatives or mentors that, according to Quack, went “so far as to give the death of a rationalist a status close to that of a martyr”. However, Quack concluded his paper with the observation that the rationalist “disenchantment of death” in India, in the words of Charles Taylor, “incorporates an activist, interventionist stance, both towards nature and to human society. Both are re-ordered, in the light of instrumental reason, to suit human purposes” (2007, 246).


Apart from the obvious focus on non-religiosity, identity and ritual, two themes resonated throughout these unique presentations. First, there was the enormous variation within the category of “nonreligion”. At an institutional level, some organisations such as the German Jugenweihe Association provide alternatives to religious institutions, yet are not explicitly concerned with being “non-religious”. Other organisations are specifically non-religious in character; some, like Quack’s Indian Rationalists, are explicitly anti-religious, whilst others such as the German Humanist Association or the Brights Movement attempt to create a more positive identity and, in the words of one of Mastiaux’s interviewees, “give people more freedom to be more… themselves, without being defined by all the baggage that” surrounds “religion”. How individuals engage with these organisations can vary greatly, with some investing huge personal significance in their membership, and others seeing it as but one facet of their identity.

Independent of “nonreligious” organisations, each presentation demonstrated that the situation is even more complex at an individual level. Whether we focus on Cotter’s five-fold typology, Mastiaux’s two distinct types of collective identity, McKearney’s two types of ritualistic mockery, or the nuanced accounts of Quack’s rationalist organisation, Aechtner and Wesser’s Jugendweihe/feier candidates, or Catto and Eccles’ “active atheists”, these presentations provide a damning critique of studies that treat the “nonreligious” as a monolithic minority religious category. They also challenge the usefulness of prevalent terms such as “atheist”, “agnostic” or “spiritual-but-not-religious”, which divide the nonreligious category along belief-based lines. Each study showed that not only do these terms mean very different things to the individuals who identify with them, but that usage of these terms is highly dependent upon context, with many presenting different identities to family members and friends and/or simultaneously maintaining multiple religious and nonreligious identity positions. Similar variation was encountered in levels of (non)religious practice, (non)religious affiliation, (non)religious attitudes, and the salience of particular (non)religious identities in individuals’ lives. This empirical acknowledgement of variation is only the first step towards a fully-fledged study of the nonreligious, but clearly demonstrates that such studies have a lot to offer the study of religion in general.

This brings us to the second key theme, which concerned the suitability of using models developed for the study of religion when studying the nonreligious. To a certain extent, scholars with disciplinary backgrounds in the study of religion who examine non-religions as “New Movements in Religion” could be marked as re-theologising the nonreligious. As James Beckford writes, “the social construction of religion also involves the social construction of false religion and non-religion” (2003, 197), and indeed vice-versa, because the two categories of “religion” and “nonreligion” are “semantically parasitic categories” i.e. “we cannot understand what we mean by [one] unless we put it into relation with [the other]” (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This is particularly evident in approaches that privilege “belief” in their categorisation of the nonreligious, which results in a distinctly Protestant understanding of “nonreligion”.

In order to combat this tendency, many of the presentations in this session attempted to classify the “nonreligious” into categories that are independent of religion, adopting an approach similar to that of Timothy Fitzgerald (2000; 2007), which sees the categories of “religion” and “nonreligion” as academic constructions (cf. Smith 1982, xi). However, as Catto and Eccles acknowledged in the conclusion of their paper, “the very opposition between religion and non-religion has social force in contemporary Britain”, as demonstrated by McKearney’s analysis of contemporary British stand-up comedy. Studies that build themselves upon this real-world distinction are not in a position to take this dichotomy to pieces (Fitzgerald 2007, 8). However, by providing evidence from the neglected “nonreligious” side of this dichotomy, continued research in this area can provide a solid basis for its continued and strengthened questioning. Theorising this relationship is not only of academic importance, but lies at the heart of many contemporary issues, particularly concerning legal issues such as religious and nonreligious freedoms, charitable statuses, or separation of church and state  (see, for example Beckford 1999; Demerath 2010; Griel and Bromley 2003, 3–4). Perhaps the best we can do is to keep these issues in mind, and consistently subject our diverse methodologies and theoretical frameworks to the same rigorous examination we have come to expect in the academic study of religion.

It goes without saying that this panel session raised many unanswered questions. Several strategies were utilised to recruit informants – from the tried and tested qualitative interviews and questionnaires, to ethnographic fieldwork and innovative uses of online technologies. However, how should researchers gain access to, for example, the (non)religiously indifferent (cf. Cotter 2011)?  And given the evidence presented in this session, how should scholars make sense of the fluidity and dynamism evident in levels of individual and institutional religious and nonreligious practice, affiliation, identity, belief and salience? Clearly there is a need for longitudinal studies in this relatively new field, and given the clear potential for future research in the areas of kinship, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and ritual to name but a few, there is still a long way to go in terms of fully-developed “theories of nonreligion”. However, in light of the clear enthusiasm for this field of study – demonstrated by the fact that this session was “standing-room only”[3] – these confident first steps suggest a bright and lasting future for nonreligion research in the years to come.


On behalf of those involved in this panel, thanks are due to everyone who attended and made the session worthwhile. We are very grateful to the EASR, HASR and Ábrahám Kovács for facilitating this groundbreaking panel. Thanks also to those who presented papers, particularly for circulating them to the rest of the panel in advance.  Special thanks go to Rebecca Aechtner and Johannes Quack for putting the panel together, and especially to Johannes for his chairing and timekeeping, and for reducing his own presentation for the benefit of concluding general discussion.


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_____. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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_____. 2012. ‘The Social Science of Secularity’. Free Inquiry 33 (2): 17–23.

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_____. 2012. Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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[1] Cotter and Quack’s institutional affiliations have changed since the time of presentation.

[2] Aechtner and Wesser worked on two distinct research projects – Aechtner within Religious Studies, and Wesser within Anthropology – at the University of Edinburgh.

[3]A similar situation occurred in Milwaukee in October 2011 at a panel on religious “nones” at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s Annual Meeting

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