The 2016 Sociology of Religion Study Group (SocRel) conference was hosted by Lancaster University, 12th-14th of July. The conference theme of ‘Construction and Disruption: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere’ offered a wide range of entry points for considering the visibility and role of religion in contemporary society. Papers explored religion in relation to such public realms as education, culture, state and gender and conflict. Of particular interest to me is how different constructions of the concept of religion impact on the concomitant question of what then constitutes non-religion, and how the concepts interact. The papers outlined below offered opportunities to reflect on this.
Religion, the Public Sphere and Law: Construction, Disruption and Reconstitution
Lori Beaman’s keynote set the tone by considering interactions between the law and the concept of religion. Her examination of legal cases explored how the concept of religion is constructed by different people in different contexts, and how distance between state and religion is legally constructed. Beaman’s interest is less in answering the vexed question of what is and what is not religious than in the complexities that are revealed when the question is debated within particular contexts.
She considered three cases in detail: The first, from the USA, involved a school district sued for allowing students to be taught yoga in what was argued to be a breach of the US Constitutional requirement forbidding the establishment of religion. The second, brought by a French citizen to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), involved a niqab-wearing woman challenging the 2010 ban on wearing, in public places, garments that cover the face. She argued that the ban breached several articles of the European Declaration on Human Rights including article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), and article 10 (protecting freedom of expression). The third case was Canadian, and centred on the question of whether opening municipal council meeting with public prayer is an inappropriate interference with the freedom of practice and conscience of attendees.
Each case demonstrates how a given phenomenon can be constructed as religious in nature by some, and as non-religious, cultural or secular by others without any material change in the circumstances under consideration. Although each occurred in different social, cultural and legal contexts, Beaman argued convincingly for a shared relevance located in an examination of the ways in which the different courts involved constructed and transformed the concepts of religion and culture. These processes resulted in yoga being legally determined as non-religious in nature, because its practice is mainstream in contemporary America. Quebec’s court of appeal accepted the same type of reasoning, judging that the use of public prayer reflected a shared cultural heritage rather than an explicitly religious practice (the Supreme Court later over-turned this ruling). While the ECHR concluded that the need to live together in a social/cultural context which understands facial visibility as an aid to social interaction outweighs the individual’s right to express themselves by covering their face. Each decision thus demonstrates the complexity and contested nature of concepts of religious and non-religious, and problematizes the idea of an absolute division between the two concepts.
Existential Cultures in Steiner Schools
Katie Aston and Dan Whisker reported on the initial stages of their research into interactions of non-religious parents and faith schools. The work to date had all taken place in Steiner schools, which base their ethos on Anthroposophy (a spiritual philosophy with roots in theosophy) . Steiner schools engage in ritual as a school community but actively avoid teaching doctrine. Education is individually focussed, with the intention of nurturing the spirit of the child. The schools are non-competitive and emphasise play as a means of learning.
The research involves surveys and interviews with parents, children and teachers. From this data Aston and Whisker identified that none of the parents with whom they spoke were either anthroposophists, or affiliated to any other religious tradition. All identified as either non-religious or spiritual. Most had also been dissatisfied with their own mainstream schooling, and this contributed to their approval of Steiner educational values and their choice of schools for their children.
Aston and Whisker have identified several preliminary avenues of analysis regarding the value of faith schools to non-religious parents. These include the development of existential cultures, processes of sacralising childhood, and distinctions between verbalised meaning and shared experience. For me this offer a chance to explore the practical distinctions between concepts of religion, non-religion and spirituality for self-described non-religious parents, actively seeking education with a spiritual component for their children and choosing a religious school to provide this. The conceptual constructions at play here suggest the complexity and ambiguity of these terms and the ways they interact in a real-world context.
Pluralist Publics and the Scientific Study of Non-Religion
This panel began with an outline of the multi-disciplinary ‘Understanding Unbelief’ project and the sociological shifts underlying academic interest in non-religion before considering some current approaches in the field.
One area being developed by Lois Lee is the emergence of ‘unbelief’ as an analytic term. She represented this as a deliberate shift away from a sole focus on the issue of deity. The term thus has several aspects – relative, indicating unbelief in specific theological claims; positive, relating to alternative existential/metaphysical beliefs; and negative, describing a general absence of metaphysical beliefs. Areas of interest include the distinct cognitive and social phenomena captured by the term, and ways in which ‘unbeliefs’ manifest in/from people’s lives. For me this shift challenges the idea of religion and non-religion as binary, suggesting perhaps either term can be applicable to a given example via the same constructive processes that Beaman’s legal cases employed.
These examples are drawn from rich and diverse range of papers, many of which touched upon non-religion and secularity in similar ways. There are many opportunities to develop the field further in relation to the academic, cultural and personal conceptual constructions of its critical terms , as well as the multivalent complexity of the religious/non-religious spectrum.
Alison Robertson is in the final stages of her PhD with the Open University. Her thesis is
on BDSM as a lived practice of religioning and her research interests include religion and spirituality in relation to self-inflicted pain, trauma and well-being, personalised religious practices, paganisms any other area where the boundaries between what is and is not deemed ‘religion’ become fuzzy. Alison has recently taken over as the Post-Graduate and Early-Careers Liaison Office for the Sociology of Religion (SocRel) research group.