Alex Uzdavines reflects on the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) 2015 annual meeting. He reflects on what the field of nonreligious studies has achieved so far, and where it may go in the future.
Having attended the University of California, Irvine for both an undergraduate and a master’s program, I learned how to enjoy Orange County. This was one of the reasons I was looking forward to this year’s Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) Annual Meeting in Newport Beach, California, which was held October 23-25, 2015. Before the opportunity to take in some excellent research presentations, meet up with conference buddies, and make new ones, I got to show these buddies quite a few of the things that make Orange County a damned nice place to be. (The fact that the ocean was unseasonably warm was icing.) To put it academically: body surfing was accomplished, great Mexican food occurred, and a great deal of fun was partaken in.
By Friday morning we were plenty relaxed and ready to soak in some scholarship in addition to the rays. For me, the conference was bookended by book sessions. The first was an Author(s) Meet Critics session featuring Joseph Baker and Buster Smith’s book, American Secularism: The Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (2015), organized by Andrew Whitehead. The session began with an overview of the book, which outlines what it means to be secular in America through both quantitative and qualitative work. The authors break secularity into groups and show why this is important given the heterogeneous nature of their population; they make a case for both expanding the “Sociology of Religion” to include secularity, and arguing that it should encompass diverse “secularities” in much the way it encompasses sub-groups of religious categories. The biggest take-away from the panel was simple: it’s a very good book and is probably the new default citation when discussing the basics of American secularity.
Penny Edgell began the critical part of the session by providing a good grounding for the rest of the panel. She suggested that privilege and power (i.e. whiteness and maleness) matter when looking at “stronger” secularities like those found among the New Atheist movement, and discussed how research into secular people’s meaning-making processes is likely to be the next step for the field. David Voas framed the book in terms of secularization theory and how it calls the idea of American Exceptionalism to Secularization into doubt. He also commented on the co-option of the term “secularism” away from its original usage, which has been restricted to the “separation of church and state”. The latter half of the panel was held down by Phil Zuckerman and Ryan Cragun. Phil further shifted the framing of the book as a bridge between secularization theory and secular studies, which focuses more on the interdisciplinary investigation of “lived experience”. He also argued that the book undervalues the roles of the Internet and individualism as possible reasons for increasing secularity in America. Ryan brought up a number of critiques, while also keeping the “love fest” going. He mentioned that the authors should have included more theory; specifically, the book would have been even stronger had it included testable predictions rather than just descriptive theory.
The most personally striking moment of the session came when Phil made a call for more interdisciplinary work by outright saying, “We need more Psychology of Secularity.” As a psychology trainee, my reaction was to both agree wholeheartedly and think back to what Penny had mentioned about looking into the meaning-making processes of secular Americans. While I also agree with Phil’s general commentary that Psychology is still catching up to Sociology in terms of working with secularity, when it comes to meaning-making my field has quite a bit to contribute. While my own interest in meaning-making is strongly pulled toward clinical and health psychology and is grounded in work by Crystal Park (e.g. Park, 2010, 2005), meaning-making is researched in many areas of psychology (e.g. Heine et al., 2006; Singer, 2004). Hopefully, those of us interested in studying secularism can continue to work interdisciplinarily, allowing for a cross-pollination of ideas.
At the end of the conference, the book session for Heinz Streib and Ralph Hood’s Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (2016) was prefaced by a session in which several members of the book’s research team spoke about its different aspects. Of particular interest to NRSN readers was Thomas Coleman’s talk (2015). Thomas highlighted the narrative of a man who described himself as religious, spiritual, and atheist. While my initial reaction was to be somewhat perplexed, as the talk went on this man’s worldview began to make more sense, especially in light of the idea of “secularities” discussed a few days before. He religiously oriented himself around the meditative practice of Zen Buhddism and spoke of spiritually extending to something beyond his physical self through meditation, yet also strongly rejected both the idea of a god and even the existence of the supernatural, placing him squarely in the realm of atheism. Hearkening back to Phil’s discussion of “lived experience,” it will be important to allow the data we collect from the secular people we study to define our terms. Fortunately, that’s precisely what both American Secularism and Semantics did (Baker and Smith, 2015; Streib and Hood, 2016). In the case of Semantics, their focus on “spirituality” went beyond secular populations; to define the term, they collected data using a combination of survey scales and qualitative interviews with both believers and nonbelievers. The authors used these data to generate a conceptual space that attempts to cover the broad meanings of “spirituality” in a way that is validly inclusive of believers and nonbelievers. While their conceptual map of “spirituality” is still a work in progress, by allowing nonbelievers to describe their own meaning of the term, Streib and Hood’s work is an excellent step beyond simply applying a construct of “spirituality” to nonbelievers that was generated solely through believers’ definitions.
Obviously, there were many excellent talks of interest to secularity researchers at this year’s SSSR annual meeting. Almost every timeslot in the program had a session with at least one talk directly related to secularity. Two sessions which stood out in particular were Atheism: Varieties, Well-Being, Moral Decision Making, and Distress and Non-Religious, Nones, and “Dones”: Origins, Identity,
Community, and Participation. I’ve learned to anticipate a high level of scholarship within our field at religion conferences, and this one set the bar even higher.
Baker, J.O., Smith, B.G., 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. NYU Press.
Coleman, T.J.I., 2015. Identity is Complex: On Becoming a “Spiritual” and “Religious” “Atheist,” in: Changes in Religion and Worldview: Longitudinal Perspectives. Presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Annual Meeting.
Heine, S.J., Proulx, T., Vohs, K.D., 2006. The Meaning Maintenance Model – On the coherence of social motivations. Personality and Social Psychological Review. 10(2), 88–110.
Park, C.L., 2010. Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological. Bulletin. 136(2), 257–301.
Park, C.L., 2005. Religion as a Meaning-Making Framework in Coping with Life Stress. Journal of Social Issues. 61(4), 707–729.
Singer, J.A., 2004. Narrative Identity and Meaning Making Across the Adult Lifespan: An Introduction. Journal of Personality. 72(3), 437–460.
Streib, H., Hood, R.W.J. (Eds.), 2016. Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality. New York: Springer International Publishing.
Alex Uzdavines was born in San Diego, CA and existed for a number of years before deciding to pursue Psychology after taking most of the coursework in it offered by the San Diego Community College District. He transferred to and earned his BA in Psychology and Social Behavior and MA in Demographic and Social Analysis from the University of California, Irvine. He is a Clinical Psychology graduate student in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, working under Professor Julie Exline. His primary research interests are in the psychology of (non)religion and (non)spirituality, with an emphasis on studying how (non)beliefs contribute to spiritual struggles and well-being.