Events Report: Non-Religion and the Secular: New Horizons for Multidisciplinary Research

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By Simeon Wallis (University of Warwick) [1]


4-6 July 2012
Goldsmiths, University of London
In collaboration with: De Gruyter; Goldsmiths, University of London; and St. Mary’s University College

Please see Conference Program


In Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, a recently edited collection of essays inspired by the work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, several scholars criticised Taylor’s lack of historical specificity and failure to take into account interactions between western and non-western cultures [2]. These criticisms reflect the need for more detailed historical analyses of the secular, as well as deeper understandings of this concept’s differing cultural contexts. Awareness of these concerns was clearly indicated by the aims of this year’s Non-religion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) annual conference, “Non-Religion and the Secular: New Horizons for Multidisciplinary Research”, held at Goldsmiths, University of London, which attracted scholars from the fields of anthropology, education, history, literary studies, politics, psychology, religious studies, sociology and theology.

Callum Brown’s keynote paper demonstrated the significance of an historical perspective on what he called ‘the rise of the people of no religion’ over the last six decades. Questioning the ‘European exceptionalism’ thesis, he illustrated how large numbers of people in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have self-identified in recent years as following ‘no religion’. Also observable in recent years is the increased visibility of ‘New Atheist’ literature and several papers addressed issues raised by this. Stuart McAnulla’s paper on ‘First Wave’ New Atheism detailed some of the significant adaptations and transformations that have occurred since its emergence in 2006, offering insight on the future of a movement popular with western audiences. Grace Davie’s keynote paper addressed the diversity of relationships between religion and non-religion in Britain and Europe. She suggested that the close association between the dominant religious traditions of the different European countries and their divergent understandings of the secular signify both that the secular is a culturally-patterned concept that changes over time and that belief and unbelief are what she called ‘two sides of a coin’. For Davie, understanding the nature of unbelief and the secular requires knowledge of the influence of both Greek rationalism and Judaeo-Christian culture on the history of western thought. However, as Nathan Johnstone highlighted, New Atheists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, both of whom are neither historians nor theologians, lack understanding of the history of religion and contribute to a ‘mythologizing’ of religious history.

While the New Atheists’ idiosyncratic understandings of religion are unlikely to be shared by many scholars in the field, they are also unlikely to be understood in many non-western contexts. As Paul-François Tremlett and Fang-Long Shih argued, the assumptions about the importance of propositional belief and of ontological claims that characterise much New Atheist literature are not found in many East Asian societies or religions. More detailed analysis, therefore, of how the concept of religion is understood in varying contexts will aid our understanding of those who have no religion. As Matthew Engelke commented in response to Brown’s paper, ‘religion’ is not a static concept and research participants’ understandings of this are likely to change with time and context. There were a number of calls throughout the conference for increased awareness of how terms like ‘religion’ are used by researchers, the historical and cultural contexts in which they use them, and the perspectives from which such terms are defined. For example, Davie’s emphasis on belief and unbelief in Europe was an interesting contrast to papers on non-religion and the secular in contexts where propositional belief, whether religious or secular, is not necessarily of primary importance.

A number of contributions addressed non-western contexts, including Humeira Iqtidar’s keynote paper. Understanding religion, non-religion and the secular in the cultures of South Asia requires analysis of how colonialism has shaped this part of the world. Early assumptions about the nature of religion affected British colonialists’ understandings of the cultures they encountered, and contemporary western assumptions about secularism are as likely to be challenged by how it is differently manifest in non-western cultures. For example, the model of secularism in India – where religion is managed by the state, with the state equidistant from each religion – differs from models in countries such as France and the USA. This suggests that there are what Monica Wohlrab-Sahr called in her keynote paper ‘multiple secularities’. Her research on the USA, India, South Africa and the Netherlands offers a comparative study of the secular. Emphasising the need for clarity in the use of terminology Wohlrab-Sahr teased out local differences between the terms ‘secularism’, ‘secularisation’ and ‘secularity’.

The contrasts between studies of non-religion and the secular in western and non-western contexts help to answer the question of what non-religion might look like beyond non-religious beliefs. Lois Lee’s provisional definition of non-religion as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’ is likely to be modified further in light of continuing research and continued discussion of terminology [3]. Johannes Quack’s paper illustrated how the term as defined by Lee served a valuable purpose. But for Quack, a key function of this concept is that it is relational, embedded in what he called a ‘religion-related’ field comprised of phenomena which are not religious, but which stand in a determinable and relevant relationship to the religious field. Such an understanding can help negotiate tensions between conceptualisations of nonreligion as in/dependent of a religious field. He suggested further that ‘bottom-up approaches’ to its study will help establish categories that would enrich understandings of this complex term. Christopher Cotter and Rebecca Catto illustrated this method in their respective studies of the non-religious lives of British students, and it will also inform my own research with non-religious fourteen and fifteen year-olds. Both Cotter and Catto suggested that adopting Gordon Lynch’s approach to notions of the ‘sacred’, the ‘profane’ and the ‘mundane’ [4] and Kim Knott’s work on the boundary between religion and non-religion might help to illuminate that which is significant in the lives of non-religious young adults, thereby providing insight into what forms their non-religion might take. These studies were complemented by those of Lee and of Katie Aston, both of whom focused on the materiality and practice of non-religious living, and showed some of its possible diversity.

As the roundtable discussion on teaching non-religion and the secular indicated, these are topics that many young people can now engage with during their undergraduate studies at a number of British universities (including Aberdeen, Warwick, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, and the Open University) and debates about the purpose of religious education in secondary schools continue to raise questions about the inclusion of secular philosophies such as humanism. These discussions signal interesting developments for the study of education at secondary and tertiary levels, as well as of religion and non-religion in relation to the lives of young people. Delegate requests for workshops on the use of quantitative methods also indicated further future avenues of exploration for the NSRN. At the conclusion both of Omid Tofighian’s paper on Ismaël Ferroukhi’s film, Le Grande Voyage, and the panel on materiality, a number of researchers were also keen to examine the impact of media, technology and other material culture on non-religion and the secular. All of this suggests that there are indeed a number of ‘new horizons’ for this burgeoning field of multidisciplinary study.

[1] Simeon Wallis is an ESRC-funded doctoral candidate in the Institute of Education, University of Warwick, researching the concept of faith in the religious and non-religious lives of young people and its implications for the future of religious education.

[2] See especially John Butler, ‘Disquieted History in A Secular Age’ and Saba Mahmood, ‘Can Secularism be Other-wise?’ in Michael Warner, Jonathan Vanantwerpen and Craig Calhoun, eds., Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2010), pp.193-216 and 282-299.

[3] Lois Lee, ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27/1 (2012), p. 131.

[4] Gordon Lynch, The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach (Oxford University Press, 2012).