The Critical Study of Nonreligion: An Invitation

In this post, NSRN Co-Director Chris Cotter places contemporary non-religion studies into conversation with the critical study of religion, assessing two dominant approaches in the field before extolling the virtues of a discursive approach as one way in which rigorous empirical work can be conducted ostensibly under the religion/non-religion binary and contribute to the critical project.Cotter

‘Religion’ is a problematic and contested category which is implicated in a particular history and bound up in the discourses and power dynamics of modernity. Tendencies to conflate ‘religion’ with (Protestant) Christianity have been utilized to justify imperialism and colonialism, just as recent constructions of ‘religion’ as ‘irrational’ are ‘a convenient way to justify killing enemies we can successfully label as irrationally “religious”.’ These arguments form the backbone of the ‘critical’ study of religion, which is concerned with ‘the critical historical deconstruction of “religion” and related categories’ and holds that ‘there is no such thing that answers to the name “religion”’, but only phenomena that ‘we habitually label religious’ for historically contingent reasons tied to the colonial encounter, the use of Christianity as the ‘ideal type’, claims to in-group superiority, cultural chauvinism, and so on.

Recent decades have seen an apparent numerical rise in individuals choosing to not identify as religious. The same decades have seen a related rise in studies asking what it might mean to be other than religious, and mapping and theorizing the beliefs, practices, identifications, values and social contexts of ‘non-religious’ populations. ‘Critical religion’ scholars are broadly dismissive of substantive studies of ‘non-religion’, viewing them as perpetuating the problems of the category ‘religion’ and uncritically giving substance to a category created for multiple-choice surveys. On the other hand, many scholars engaged in such substantive study seem quite uninterested in questions surrounding category formation, and merely pepper their work with some mandatory Talal Asad references, before getting on with gathering, typologizing and theorizing data for this new field of study.

In this post, I briefly present a critical assessment of two dominant approaches to ‘non-religion’ before setting an agenda for a more critically engaged study. I extol the virtues of a discursive approach which ‘considers the relationship between language and the contexts in which it is used’ as one way in which rigorous empirical work can be conducted ostensibly under the religion/non-religion binary and also contribute to the critical project.

Subtractionist approaches

Despite changes in recent years, much of the early research that mentions the ‘non-religious’ included them ‘as a comparison group, a statistical outlier’, an afterthought or a problem to be dealt with. Indeed, much work within the sociology of religion tends to pay them little attention or treat them as a monolithic minority religious position alongside other minority groups; as a residual category, or abnormality. This is problematic for several reasons. First, as Lois Lee argues, this approach occurs in a framework dominated by secularization theory and focused upon ‘religion’ as something substantial and interesting, as opposed to the insubstantial, empty, baseline norm that remains when ‘religion’ is removed from the equation. This amounts to a reification of ‘religion’ as if it has existence independent of other phenomena. Further, it constructs scholars as rational outsiders studying this bounded phenomenon known as ‘religion’ and contributes to the construction a maintenance of the ‘liberal secular principles’ to which ‘good religion’ apparently conforms. In short, subtractionist approaches serve to entrench powerful and problematic secularist and religionist agendas.

Substantial approaches

There now exist numerous large-scale social surveys which can be taken to show that ‘the non-religious’ are a numerically significant ‘religious’ group. If smaller groups are deemed worthy of attention, so the argument goes, then shouldn’t the same attention be directed towards the ‘non-religious’? We thus find a growing body of work focusing on the ‘nones’ and/or aiming to substantiate what it ‘means’ to be other than religious. Such studies are a logical progression of a broader move away from secularization theory, and the attendant radical particularism of the ‘lived religion’ approach. Given that the supposed ‘evidence’ that religion has ‘returned’—or that it ‘never left’—seems to be largely based upon a combination of in-depth studies of what people are ‘really’ doing ‘on the ground’ and then redefining ‘religion’ to fit this data, it makes sense that some would similarly turn their attention to those who appear not to have this ‘religion’. Much of this work has a great deal to offer to our understanding of identity formation, ritual, parenting, politics, gender, material culture, and more. However, three key criticisms can be raised:

  1. Far from objectively studying the social world, ‘in accommodating and attending to non-affiliation, academics are implicated in the creation not only of a population but of a social group.’
  2. By arguing that this constituency is effectively a ‘world religion’, or more subtly that ‘being “secular” might not only be a matter of being without religion but also a matter of being with something else,’ there is a danger that this simply repeats and reinforces the attendant problems of the World Religions model.
  3. The concept ‘non-religion’ is explicitly relativized to definitions of ‘religion.’ Tim Fitzgerald argues that to ‘imagine that either side of this binary—“religion” or “non-religion”—can be addressed as a topic of research is an act of reification succumbing to, and reproducing, a central ideological illusion of Liberalism.’ Through not being able to shed its alter-ego ‘religion’, empirical studies of ‘non-religion’ seem doomed to be tarred with the same brush.

Less (critically) problematic approaches

To avoid these criticisms, one possible solution is for scholars to be ‘vigilantly specific about the aspect of “nonreligion” that they are interested in,’ restricting themselves to very particular contexts—historical, textual, ethnographic, etc. One might study, for example, ‘Atheism’ in Antiquity, restricted bodies of texts, or particular ‘non-religious’ groups/contexts. Such studies have many merits, and while many do contain conceptual theorization which goes beyond the context at focus, their very restricted nature makes it very difficult for scholars to engage in comparison, or for these studies to contribute directly to critical rehabilitating contemporary research on ‘non-religion’. Tim Fitzgerald throws down the gauntlet: ‘Surely the only topic here that makes sense as an object of study is the discourse itself?’

The recognition of the socially constructed nature of ‘religion’, and its implication in power structures such as law courts, the media, parliamentary forums etc., has understandably led some critical scholars ‘to move away from attempts at defining the term “religion”’ and instead focus on discourse, on ‘the processes that make certain things […] recognizably religious’. This can be done through using linguistic techniques to analyse discourse on three levels – the thematic, the grammatical, and the argumentative (see Garling 2013 for a worked example of this). But how to apply the discursive approach to ‘non-religion’ without reifying it as a substantive phenomenon?

One solution is to conceptualize non-religion as part of a religion-related field comprising ‘all phenomena that are generally (or according to a certain definition of “religion”) considered to be not religious, but stand in a determinable and relevant relationship to the religious field.’ This relationship can take the form of criticism, competition, collaboration, mirroring, functional equivalence, interest, etc. Such an understanding sees non-religion as part of a wider field of discourse where ‘descriptions, claims, reports, allegations, and assertions’ about non-/religion are the topic of the analysis, rather than ‘religion’ or ‘non-religion’ themselves. Thus, we arrive at a critically-engaged, relational concept of ‘non-religion’ which can be operationalized empirically in a non-stipulative manner and which emphasizes that religion need not be a dominant, normative, or positive term in the contexts studied.

There is much more that could be said here, and I am not claiming that discursive study is the only way to study ‘non-religion’ critically. However, as I argue in my forthcoming The Critical Study of Non-Religion: Discourse, Identification, and Locality (Bloomsbury, 2019), both ‘camps’ in which I have pitched my scholarly tent have a lot to learn from each other. Rigorous empirical work on the supposedly ‘non-religious’ can contribute to the critical deconstruction of ‘religion’ as a category–a task perhaps more important now than ever–just as we could all stand to be more aware of the power dynamics implicated in the study of ‘non-religion’, and the ‘ideological fictions’ of secular liberalism that are reinforced and perpetuated by our curiosity.


Christopher R. Cotter is Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He completed his doctorate in Religious Studies at Lancaster University in 2016, working with Kim Knott, focusing upon the discourses on ‘religion’ in the Southside of Edinburgh, the concepts of ‘non-religion’ and ‘the secular’, and the ensuing critical and theoretical implications for Religious Studies. He is Co-Director of the NSRN, Co-Founder of the Religious Studies Project, Co-Editor of New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates (Springer, 2017), and Co-Editor of the journal Secularism & Nonreligion.

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